Bears

Bears competitive practices taking toll but Fox hardly beating up his players

john-fox-bears-insider-1123.png

Bears competitive practices taking toll but Fox hardly beating up his players

The NFL rules on hitting, padded practices and the rest have changed over the years by virtue of collective-bargaining agreements. But even with fewer contact opportunities, in-season practices are costing the Bears some players, particularly starters.

The most recent was safety Antrel Rolle, already on the injury report as probable with an ankle injury but coming out of Saturday’s practice with a knee injury that took him out of the Denver game.

Rookie center Hroniss Grasu missed the three games before Sunday’s loss to the Denver Broncos with a neck injury suffered in practice after the Detroit game. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has seemed to end as many weeks as not with some new injury, most recently adding a shoulder problem last week to a groin injury suffered in practice the week before.

But the notion of Fox running overly physical practices doesn’t resonate with veterans with experiences elsewhere.

“Nothing really jumps out at me there,” said guard Matt Slauson. “I mean, playing for Rex [Ryan, N.Y. Jets] – everything with him is physicality. [Marc] Trestman’s practices, too, were very physical days. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Nothing’s really different now.”

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Fox is hardly using brutal practices as a means of culling his roster; he and GM Ryan Pace did that in the offseason and continue to whenever a poor fit is recognized. Players have alluded to the competitiveness within the Bears as an accelerant to improving, not as added physical risk or fatigue.

“If anything, I think they're real competitive because [Fox] doesn't back off of the competitive nature of the game because that's what brings out the best of us week in and week out,” said cornerback Tracy Porter, now on his fifth NFL team. “So he continues to push that competitive nature, whether he slows down the physical contact or whatever he decides to do, that competitive nature is still going to be on 100.”

Coaches typically do put significant stock into practice, both for its sharpening of execution as well as keeping an edge for players even during the season.

“I don’t know how many golfers go out and work on their half-swings or in tennis they work half-speed to practice tennis,” Fox said. “I just think it’s a professional sport, and you have to practice it to get better at it or stay finely tuned.”

Fox is hardly the first nor the most physical coach to run the Bears.

When Mike Ditka took over as Bears coach in 1982, his practices were legendarily brutal, installing new systems on offense in particular (Buddy Ryan stayed on as defensive coordinator) but also weeding out players he didn’t want or couldn’t meet the physical bar he wanted to set. Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent has always said that after practicing all week against left tackle Jimbo Covert, games were easy.

[MORE: Bears waive Clausen, promote Fales]

Dave Wannstedt applied some of the same methodology in 1993, beginning with the allowable extra minicamp taken to Arizona as a way of starting everything in the heat. One offensive tackle was flattened by a teammate wielding a padded shield in practice (the tackle was cut).

As late as five years into the Wannstedt years, wide receiver Curtis Conway blasted coaches after a Bears preseason game in Ireland for wearing players’ legs down during training camp. Coincidentally, Conway was lost with a broken shoulder suffered subsequently in a preseason game diving for a pass.

The chuckle here is that Dick Jauron was gigged for his supposedly soft practices, probably because the Bears were losers in all but one of his five seasons. Now Fox is being questioned about his rough practices in a time where NFL/NFLPA negotiations have effectively put a governor on practice speed.

Bears counting on a healthy Leonard Floyd in 2018

Bears counting on a healthy Leonard Floyd in 2018

There's a lot of pressure on the Chicago Bears' pass rush this season.

The NFC North has suddenly become one of the league's most talented quarterback divisions with Kirk Cousins (Vikings) joining Aaron Rodgers (Packers) and Matthew Stafford (Lions). Chicago is the only team in the North without a proven veteran under center.

Leonard Floyd is the most gifted pass-rusher on the roster and the onus is on him to become the superstar sack artist Ryan Pace envisioned when he traded up in the first round in 2016 to select him. Floyd, combined with free-agent addition Aaron Lynch and veteran Sam Acho, have to deliver.

“Leonard Floyd has to stay healthy and have a good year,” Pace told The Athletic's Dan Pompei. “Aaron Lynch has to come on. Vic [Fangio] had background with Aaron Lynch, so that gave us a comfort level in signing him. There is upside there. He’s still a young player. He fits the defense and knows Vic. Sam Acho has been a consistent player for us."

Floyd has just 11 1/2 sacks through two seasons, both of which have been marred by injury. He's played in just 22 of a possible 32 games as a pro.

Pace didn't address the team's pass rush until the sixth round of April's draft when he nabbed Utah's Kylie Fitts. It seemed odd at the time that he waited so long to address one of the team's most glaring needs and there haven't been any veteran signings to sure up the group since the draft concluded. The Bears are one injury away from a serious problem at outside linebacker and are relying on a bunch of guys who haven't proven capable of playing a full season in their careers.

"We felt fortunate to get Kylie Fitts in the sixth round, and he has to stay healthy," Pace said. "You are never going to come out of the offseason and say we addressed everything, we’re perfect.”

The Bears invested most of their offseason resources into surrounding Trubisky with playmakers who can help him compete with his NFC North counterparts. The offense will be better.

But if Floyd doesn't have a breakthrough season, more pressure will be on Trubisky to score points -- and a lot of them -- to keep games close in the division. And that's not the kind of pressure the Bears are hoping Floyd creates in 2018.

Charles Leno, Jr. on Harry Hiestand: 'He's getting us better'

charleslenojr.jpg
USA Today

Charles Leno, Jr. on Harry Hiestand: 'He's getting us better'

Chicago Bears left tackle Charle Leno, Jr. has outplayed expectations after joining the team as a seventh-round pick in 2014. General manager Ryan Pace rewarded Leno for his play with a four-year, $38 million extension last offseason, committing to the former Boise State product as the Bears' blindside protector for the immediate future.

Leno joined his teammates at the team's annual Bears Care Gala on Saturday and said new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand is going to make him and his linemates better.

"We love Harry, let's just get that out of the way," Leno told 670 the Score's Mark Grote. "Harry is a great coach. I saw what he did for guys that he coached in college and the guys that were before us here in Chicago. He's getting us better."

Hiestand's efforts at Notre Dame produced four first-round picks: Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. He brings a no-nonsense coaching style back to Chicago, where he last served under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. 

STANKEVITZ: In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears' coaching staff

Leno enjoyed the best season of his career in 2017. His 80.4 grade from Pro Football Focus was the best of all Bears linemen and his highest overall mark over the last four years. He finished 15th among all tackles graded by PFF last season.

Regardless, Leno still has to impress his new coach just like every other offensive lineman on the roster. The Bears haven't added any competition for Leno, but his fate as the team's long-term answer at left tackle could be decided by Hiestand.