Bears

Bears In-foe: Bay window to .500?

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Bears In-foe: Bay window to .500?

Five starters. Less than three years. 

Through injury, free agency, disciplinary issues and retirements, that's all that's left from the opening lineup the 49ers trotted out to begin Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens (who are encountering issues of their own).

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That doesn't even account for the coaching staff. Jim Harbaugh's shelf life ran out with management and many players. Rather than bring in a fresh face like Adam Gase or elevate their impactful defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (whom Harbaugh brought with him from Stanford), they went with the solid, dutiful, yet non-charismatic eight-year defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula, who seemed in over his head from the opening press conference. As the Bears take their second swing in three weeks at getting back to .500 at Soldier Field, they get a squad that's gone 0-5 on the road, but has a win versus Atlanta and two gritty losses to Seattle and Arizona the past two weeks. 

Offense

San Francisco was one of the pit stops on the Gase Head Coach Interview Tour, but as ex-play-caller Greg Roman departed for Buffalo, Tomsula was promoted from within.

Geep Chryst, the former director of research and quality control with the Bears under Mike Ditka and Dave Wannstedt (via UW-Platteville) got his first NFL O.C. gig since 2000 (for the 1-15 San Diego Chargers) with the Niners this year. Previously the quarterbacks coach that couldn't raise Colin Kaepernick's game, Chryst's unit ranks last in points per game and total offense and 30th in passing. But since Kaepernick's season-ending torn labrum a couple of weeks ago, Blaine Gabbert's been better than the former franchise QB. The ex-10th overall pick who washed out in Jacksonville has completed 65 percent of his passes with a 91 rating. He tossed for over 300 yards in Sunday's 19-13 loss to the Cardinals.

Both of Gabbert's touchdown passes in the two losses he's started have gone to tight end Vance McDonald, who has 10 receptions for 136 yards in those games after escaping the shadow of the traded Vernon Davis. Garrett Celek was also being utilized until his ankle injury Sunday, but their third tight end, former Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell, slid in to grab three passes for 67 yards.

Outside of that group, Gabbert's been targeting brief 2014 Bear Shaun Draughn and Canton contender Anquan Boldin. Draughn's caught 17 passes and run for 146 yards (3.4 ypc) after Carlos Hyde (stress foot fracture), Reggie Bush (knee, IR) and Mike Davis (hand) hit the trainer's room. The 35-year-old Boldin (44-558, two TD's) continues carrying the wide receiver load. Gabbert found him eight times for 93 yards against the Cards, moving him into 13th on the all-time receptions list (past Randy Moss) and within 125 yards of Steve Largent for 17th on the NFL's  career receiving yards list.

Letting road-grater guard Mike Iupati depart in free agency (to division-rival Arizona) and the apparently temporary retirement of tackle Anthony Davis has weakened the offense's front. Four-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley and guard Alex Boone (two of the five Super Bowl starters referenced above) remain, but center-to-right tackle has experienced either growing pains or mediocrity. The Niners have allowed 32 sacks (seventh-most in the league).

Defense

Justin Smith. Aldon Smith. Patrick Willis. Chris Borland. Chris Culliver. Perish Cox. Oh, and Ray McDonald. Those were seven key pieces Fangio had to play with that are now gone, part of a unit that had Top 5 finishes during his four years there with Harbaugh. They come to town ranked 29th in total defense, but had to be doing something good to hold Arizona to just two touchdowns Sunday.

This past offseason marked the second straight year the Niners lost both starting cornerbacks in free agency. Tramaine Brock dropped an easy end zone interception Sunday that would've been his fourth. Opposite corner Kenneth Acker also has three, but was benched for a while versus Arizona. Veteran safety Antoine Bethea is done for the season due to injury, but former Northern Illinois star Jimmie Ward remains the nickel back with the solid Eric Reid remaining a fixture at strong safety while second-round rookie Jaquiski Tartt has moved in for Bethea.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

NoVorro Bowman is as good as ever and a Comeback Player of the Year candidate following his gruesome knee injury two Januarys ago in the NFC title game. His 105 tackles ranks second in the league, while Ahmad Brooks has four sacks and 92 tackles while stepping outside the shadows of his role in the McDonald sexual assault fiasco. And while Willis and Borland retired, the linebacking corps has rebounded courtesy of 2014 fifth rounder Aaron Lynch (6'6, 270) who has 6.5 sacks in following up his six as a rookie. And Michael Wilhoite, an undrafted free agent five years ago from the Division II Washburn Ichabods, is just outside the NFL's Top 10 in tackles.

There's opportunity for the Bears' ground game to get untracked because new coordinator Eric Mangini's front no longer has Justin Smith, or McDonald and now Glenn Dorsey, who tore his ACL on the openings series two weeks ago. That leaves nose tackle Ian Williams working with third-year man Quinton Dial. But highly-touted 17th overall pick Arik Armstead had only seen spot duty before Dorsey's injury.

Special teams

Bruce Ellington is the kickoff and punt returner on units that rank 20th and 17th, respectively. 40-year-old Phil Dawson is still kicking younger than his age, hitting all 18 field goal attempts since his first of the season was blocked. The Niners invested a fifth-round pick in punter Bradley Pinion, but he and his coverage unit rank just 25th in gross average, 20th in net after trading three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee.

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

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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.