Bears

Bears Camping Out 2016: OL fits are critical after offseason makeover

Bears Camping Out 2016: OL fits are critical after offseason makeover

The operative Bears word was “competition” throughout the offseason within every position group. With that mantra came turnover, and of the 14 offensive linemen presently on the Bears roster, exactly four were under Bears contract this time last year, and only one of those finished the 2015 season at the position he currently occupies. Of the 14, only one is older than 27, and that one (guard Ted Larsen) just turned 29.

The Bears ran the football more than 46 percent of the time last season, noteworthy if only because 6-10 teams are typically throwing the ball predominantly because they’re behind. New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and others within the organization, topped by coach John Fox, have been blunt about their intention to run the football even more, all of which demands an offensive line with command of the line of scrimmage, which the Bears did not have often enough last year.

One case was that the Bears started seven different offensive line combinations in 2015, only one of them for more than three straight games and with only one player – Kyle Long – starting all 16 games at the same position – right tackle. Lest there be too much continuity for a group that requires it more than most, Long is back at right guard, and the other four starters from game one last season are no longer on the roster.

On the plus side, Charles Leno Jr. established himself to the organization’s satisfaction as the starting left tackle, and Hroniss Grasu will start training camp as the No. 1 center after starting eight of the last 12 games in the spot for which he was drafted.

“We got a lot to look forward to, Chicago has a lot to look forward to with,” Long said. “Got a lot of youth and the guys who are ‘older guys’ are not that old, so we're fired up about it and we know that there's a lot ahead for this group.”

Establishing that has been in process all offseason and increases exponentially in training camp, when pads come on for the first time since game 16 last season, in a stretch approaching seven months.

Offseason adjustments

As they did on defense, the Bears were aggressive in free agency and followed that with targeted moves in the draft. GM Ryan Pace signed Larsen and right tackle Bobby Massie, both from Arizona and both from a now-perennial playoff team under coach Bruce Arians.

Both Larsen and Massie were installed as starters, although Larsen, who took a starting job from No. 1 pick Jonathan Cooper late last season, was absent for unspecified reasons late in OTA’s. In his place, Cody Whitehair spent extensive practice team at left guard and acquitted himself as the Bears hoped a No. 2 draft pick would. Whitehair emerging as a starter sooner rather than later might be a mild surprise, although Long and Grasu both started as rookies, albeit because of injury in Grasu’s case.

“The curiosity really is the type of kid he is,” said coordinator Dowell Loggains during spring practices. “We drafted a very high character guy that has played a lot of football. He’s tough. He’s the type of player that coach Fox wants. When you talk about a throwback, old school guy, that’s Cody.”

Depth-charting

RT    Bobby Massie

RG   Kyle Long

C      Hroniss Grasu

LG    Ted Larsen/Cody Whitehair

LT    Charles Leno

The mix

Nick Becton

Adrian Bellard

Nate Chandler

Cornelius Edison

John Kling

Martin Wallace

Jason Weaver

Donovan Williams

3 questions camp will begin to answer…

…how dominant the Bears’ right side can become. Long and Massie are twin-towers: 6-6, 325’ish pounds, and physical, mauling blockers. “We are going to look good on the right side,” said line coach Dave Magazu.

Looking good breaking the huddle will be one thing; the run-based Bears moved Long back to guard and signed Massie to look good standing over opponents, and live sessions in training camp will be about forging these two into the Bruise Brothers.

…whether Hroniss Grasu is physically up to the demands in the middle. He was not as a rookie and was set back by a couple of injuries, and the organization thought the situation dictated signing a veteran, the since-retired Manny Ramirez. The Bears drafted Whitehair in the second round but Grasu is a key to the line.

“I think he got a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger,” Magazu said. “He’s over 300 [pounds]; there were times [last season] when he was under 300. He is a competitor. He’s smart, he’s tough, he loves playing football. He knows what he needs to work on and he takes it very personally.”

…is Cody Whitehair the sleeper of the ’16 draft class? Most No. 2’s hardly qualify as “sleepers” but offensive linemen do not often win jobs outright before the starts of their rookie seasons. Whitehair has had opportunities with Ted Larsen missing time in OTA’s and has impressed. Now that the pads are coming on… ?

“I think we’ve got a really good group,” said quarterback Jay Cutler during OTA sessions last month.  “We don’t have to say much to them. Hroniss in the middle kind of controlling them. You know Kyle, he has let everyone know in Chicago that he is happy to be back at guard and he works out with Bobby so he’s known Bobby forever and Chuck is on the left side and he is kind of consistent every day.

“It’s a really good group. I think we’ve got some depth on the inside. It is just going to be experience with those guys. Like the backfield, there is going to be some growing pains and there is going to be some stuff in preseason that we have to fix. Overall, really happy with how they have progressed through the offseason.”

Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

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USA Today Sports Images

Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

Every team will try to scheme against what its opponent does best. Not every team does it as well as Bill Belichick consistently has in his Hall of Fame tenure as the coach of the New England Patriots. 
 
This is what Belichick is famous for, beyond the five Super Bowl trophies and historic partnership with Tom Brady. That thing your team’s offense does best? He’s going to take it away. 
 
That can create a mental challenge for an opposing coach during the week. Do you focus on doing something other than what your offense does best because Belichick is going to identify and scheme against it, or do you try to accentuate what you do best so it can’t be taken away? 
 
“That’s that whole chasing the cat’s tail thing,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “All of the sudden you start out-thinking to yourself, ‘What the heck?’ That’s the mystique, and that’s what they do. They’ve earned that over time because of the success they’ve had. 
 
“When you don’t go too crazy with that and balance it and control what you can control. Then in the end, win, lose or draw, no matter what, you at least feel good you approached it the right way, and you weren’t, ‘Oh shoot, I should have done this. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.’”
 
When Taylor Gabriel and the Atlanta Falcons faced the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, everybody on that team knew Belichick would do what he could to take Julio Jones out of the game. But that didn’t make preparations any easier. 
 
“We knew he was going to take away Julio, but we didn’t know how he was going to do it,” Gabriel said. “So it’s just just something you kind of have to adjust to when you get in the game.”
 
Jones only had four catches in that game, and the Falcons were able to quickly adjust to how he was taken away — though it wasn’t enough to keep them from a historic collapse and ultimate overtime loss. 
 
Tight end Dion Sims played New England eight times during his four years with the Miami Dolphins, and came away with a healthy respect for the scheme and the players on that defense. 
 
“They’re fundamentally sound, they got good coaching over there, a good staff,” Sims said. “You gotta be prepared because they come out and they play their ass off.” 
 
But what should give the Bears confidence they can mentally and physically beat New England’s defense?
 
1. The Patriots’ defense isn’t what it once was
 
The way Bears coaches and players have talked about New England’s defense this week has been with reverence and respect. But lately, the Patriots’ defense production hasn’t quite equalled its reputation. 
 
Maybe it started with Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs launching 42 points and over 500 yards of offense against New England in 2017’s nationally-televised season opener. Maybe Super Bowl LII, in which the Philadelphia Eagles ripped off 41 points with a backup quarterback, was another turning point. Or maybe the Patriots’ 43-40 win over the Chiefs on Sunday night, which looked more like a Big 12 game than an NFL game, further chipped away at that mystique. 
 
New England’s defense heads to Chicago ranked 18th in points allowed (24.7) and has allowed 400 or more yards of offense in four of six games this year. They’re 19th in defensive DVOA, though Pro Football Focus’ grades do peg this group fourth, behind only the Bears, Rams and Eagles. 
 
What this defense does well is take the ball away, with eight interceptions and four fumble recoveries critical in propping up a defense that isn’t good on third down (44 percent conversion rate, 25th) or in the red zone (68 percent, 26th). But as long as the Bears' ball security is better than its two-turnovers-inside-the-five-yard-line showing in Miami on Sunday, an offense that scored 48 and 28 points in its last two games should be in good shape. 
 
2. Multiple weapons
 
How Belichick schemes against a Bears offense that’s been explosive and productive in its last two weeks will be fascinating to see on Sunday. Maybe it’ll be Tarik Cohen, who Belichick said is “a special player that you gotta know where he is at all times.” Maybe it’ll be making sure Taylor Gabriel doesn’t beat them deep (“The execution on that was like 99 out of 100,” Belichick said of Mitch Trubisky’s 54-yard deep ball to Gabriel against Miami). Or maybe it’ll be dropping seven or eight guys into coverage, spying Trubisky and forcing the second-year Bears quarterback to make good decisions and fit passes into tight windows. Or maybe it’ll be something else entirely. 
 
This goes back to the guessing game, though, and it’s one the Bears can’t allow themselves to play. 
 
“I think you can spend too much time on that,” Nagy said. “I look at that and I think I've said it before, it can be kind of like chasing the cat's tail. You've got to be careful of that and when you just start worrying about what you do — and of course here or there you might so something a little bit different — but if you just start doing things different because of one coach, now you've stopped worrying about just controlling what you can control and I haven't found too much success with that.”
 
The good news for the Bears, though, is they seem to have the multitude of weapons necessary to have success against a Belichick defense. Kansas City showed it on Sunday — when the Patriots took away Kelce, Kareem Hunt racked up 185 yards from scrimmage, while Tyreek Hill gouged New England for 142 yards on seven catches with three touchdowns.
 
So if the plan is to take away Cohen, that could lead to opportunities for Gabriel, or vice versa. Or if the plan is to drop seven or eight into coverage, that would give Jordan Howard an opportunity to carve out yards on the ground.  
 
“They utilize all their players, the backs, the tight ends, the receivers, the quarterback, they all have production, so if you take one away, they just go to the next guy, and that’s hard to defend,” Belichick said. “There are a lot of options on some of those plays, which guy is going to end up with the ball based on a quarterback’s decision, if it’s a check-with me type of play, bubbles and look passes and RPOs and things like that, it’s up to the quarterback to make the right decision and Trubisky’s done a good job of that. I think all those things, they keep getting better and they’re hard to defend.”
 
3. History repeating itself
 
In Nagy’s only meeting with New England as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, his offense scored 42 points — and that’s a number that has resonated in the Bears’ locker room and practice fields this week.  
 
“You have to go into this game with confidence and know that we’re playing against a great group of guys who’ve been there, been to the Super Bowl and then they also have Tom Brady on the other side,” Sims said. “It’s important that we capitalize on everything and try to be mistake-free.” 
 
“What the defense is giving you is what the offense will take — what good offenses will do,” Gabriel said. “I feel like we have those type of minds up there in the booth and on the field with us to figure out what those guys are doing and how we want to attack it.”
 
The Bears’ offense is young, from the coach to offensive coordinator to most of the players that populate it. Beating New England, even if its defense isn’t what it used to be, would send a message around the league that the Bears are for real. Until the Patriots are dethroned in consecutive years, or even finish a season with fewer than, say, 12 wins, they’re still the Patriots.  
 
But while this team is young, it does have a handful of guys who’ve competed against New England on some of the NFL’s biggest stages. So expect guys like Gabriel, Burton and even Nagy to not allow this team to let facing the Patriots become daunting on Sunday. 
 
“It’s not difficult at all,” Gabriel said of avoiding thinking about that mystique. “Just like this team, we have the weapons to take advantage of those one-on-one matchups. I don’t care what defense you are, you’re going to have a one-on-one matchup somewhere unless you’re dropping everybody. So as long as you’re staying the pace and being confident in what you’re doing, I feel like we’ll be okay.” 

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

The Bears were getting used to life in the big chair. Chicago was favored in each of their last four games, but it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Osweiler in overtime last week.

The Miami Dolphins pulled off the upset, and now the Bears return home to take on one of the best teams in the league.

Even if they had won in Miami, Chicago likely still would have been underdogs to the New England Patriots on Sunday, but as it stands, Bill Belichick and company are favored by three on most major sportsbooks, according to Vegas Insider.

The line initially opened at Patriots by 2.5, but it would seem that money placed on New England pushed the spread a little more in the Bears’ favor.

Vegas is expecting another higher-scoring game for both teams, with the over/under sitting at 49. Given that the Patriots have scored at least 38 points in each of their last three games, the Bears’ defense may have some trouble keeping this game low on the scoreboard.

In Week 6, home underdogs went 4-1 against the spread and 3-2 straight up. According to Bet America, home underdogs have covered in 20 of their 30 games this season, which bodes well for a Bears team facing a tough task at Soldier Field.