Bears

Bears-Dolphins preseason preview: Who’s 'special?'

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Bears-Dolphins preseason preview: Who’s 'special?'

CSNChicago.com takes a look at three preview points going into the Bears first preseason game.

The Bears, once a perennial special-teams power, slid down to No. 26 last year (from ninth in 2013) based on the ranking system developed by Dallas Morning News football guru Rick Gosselin. They were solid defending kickoff returns but were the league’s worst at returning punts as the unit under coordinator Joe DeCamillis struggled with patchwork personnel on almost a weekly basis.

[PRESEASON PREVIEW: Is Adam Gase as good as his word?]

This year, starters have been turning up on coverage units in particular as a change in staff is being reflected in what appears to be a commitment to the too-often-overlooked phase of the game.

“I was at a place where we went through three specials teams coaches in five years,” said Bears head coach John Fox. “And when we picked our squad, I don’t know that that was an emphasis.

“Sometimes you don’t pick the fourth best wideout or the fourth best back. It might be the best guy on fourth down [special teams]. Because the special teams coach needs players just like offense and defense does. We keep it fairly simple, very technique oriented. And then make sure we keep guys who are capable of performing the skill set it takes in each phase.”

[PRESEASON PREVIEW: How stout will defensive front be?]

Play on special teams is a tipping point on roster decisions. But it is more than that. New England, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Indianapolis all finished in the Top 7 of the Gosselin rankings.

And in the playoffs.

The switch to a 3-4 means that the final roster will have more linebackers beyond the typical six that the 4-3 Bears kept. That theoretically gives the Bears as many as four backup linebackers available for special teams, for instance.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears were the league’s worst returning punts last season and have had as many as six players fielding punts and kickoffs during training camp. In-season addition Marc Mariani gave the Bears some burst in kickoff returns (25.5 yd. avg.) but the two return jobs are available for the winning.

“We’re going to scheme our return stuff based on whatever the player does well,” said special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers. “That’s still yet to be determined.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.

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Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.