Bears In-Foe: Blake Bortles, 'Allen Brothers' trying to help Jaguars gain traction

Bears In-Foe: Blake Bortles, 'Allen Brothers' trying to help Jaguars gain traction

Patience has been at a premium for head coach Gus Bradley with Jaguars owner Shad Khan, and the former Seahawks defensive coordinator should count himself a lucky man, considering a 12-36 record in his first three seasons. But that pressure for better results figures to be ramped up this season with a bumper crop of talent on both sides of the ball for the University of Illinois-schooled owner who made his fortune supplying auto manufacturers with...yes, bumpers.

Last year, Jacksonville was hanging in there at 4-6 before dropping five of its last six contests. They proceeded to drop their first three this season before beating the Colts, which the Bears just lost to, two Sundays ago in London. But despite Bradley's expertise, it was the offense that showed significant growth a year ago, jumping from 31st overall in 2014 to 18th under the direction of former Bears quarterbacks coach (2003) Greg Olson.

After a carousel of nine starting quarterbacks in ten years, 2014 third overall pick Blake Bortles settled in in his sophomore season to throw for over 4,400 yards, and 35 touchdowns opposite 18 interceptions. That sparked the scoring offense to spike by eight points per game, and the aerial attack to leap from 31st to 10th. Through the first four games this season, though, Bortles has plateaued. While his completion percentage has risen slightly to 61.4, his quarterback rating has slipped by nine points, with seven TDs and six picks. While the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder out of Central Florida had a league-leading 72 completions of 20-plus yards a year ago, there have been just seven games in his career he hasn't turned the ball over (most recently against the Colts).

A huge reason for his success? The "Allen Brothers" (duh...not related) - Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Both are 6-foot-3. Both arrived, like Bortles, in 2014; Robinson a second-round pick out of Penn State, Hurns an undrafted free agent out of Miami (Fla). Last season, the two combined for 144 receptions for 2,431 yards and 24 touchdowns. Wow. Of Robinson's 80 catches, 31 went for 20 or more yards. So far, a quarter of the way through this season, each is at roughly the same pace as a year ago (Robinson: 21-238, 3 TDs; Hurns: 15-226, 1 TD), meaning the Bears' cornerbacks had better be ready Sunday on the lakefront. Overshadowed is the other wideout the Jags invested a 2014 second-round pick in, injury-probe Marquise Lee. Former Broncos tight end Julius Thomas got a rich deal two offseasons ago, but settled for 46 receptions last year, with 11 this so far this year, but he's never played a full season. He thinks he'll be ready for the Bears after sitting out the game in London with an elbow injury. The first-round pick from ten years ago, Marcedes Lewis, starts as well in two-tight end sets.

[RELATED: Bears In-Foe: Jags 'D' making small steps after big paydays]

2015 second-rounder T.J. Yeldon had groin and foot injuries his rookie year (740 yards rushing, 36 receptions) and is averaging only 3.2 yards a carry in a rushing offense averaging just 55 yards a game until he gained 97 yards on 18 carries against Indianapolis. Amidst all the Jags' defensive free agent investments, they also signed Pro Bowler and last year's sixth-leading rusher, Chris Ivory, away from a Jets team that had its eyes on Matt Forte. But Ivory was hospitalized suddenly the morning of the season opener, and the reason has been kept under wraps. That sidelined him the first two games, and as he's tried to get back to full strength, he's carried just 20 times for only 43 yards.

That's behind a rather ordinary offensive line that invested 2014 and 2015 third-round picks on the interior (center Brandon Lindner and guard A.J. Cann). But 2013 second overall pick Luke Joeckel had been a disappointment, being moved from tackle to guard. And after not being offered a fifth-year tender, sustained a season-ending left knee injury in London involving two ligaments and a meniscus. Former Bear Patrick Omameh could slide into that position. The tackles are offseason free agent signees the last two years: Kelvin Beachum (Steelers) and Jeremy Parnell (Cowboys). As a unit, the line has allowed 61 and 51 sacks the last two years, respectively, with a dozen so far this season.

So far on third down, the Jaguars rank last in the league (28.3 percent).

Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame


Why coming to the Bears was the right opportunity for Harry Hiestand to leave Notre Dame

There wasn’t a single game Harry Hiestand coached while at Notre Dame — 77 in total — in which he didn’t have a future top-20 pick starting at left tackle. 

Zack Martin (16th overall, 2014) was followed by Ronnie Stanley (6th overall, 2016), who gave way to Mike McGlinchey (9th overall, 2018). Hiestand also developed Quenton Nelson, who went on to be the highest interior offensive lineman drafted (6th overall, 2018) since 1986. Nelson and McGlinchey became the first pair of college offensive line teammates to be drafted in the first 10 picks since 1991, when Tennessee had tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis go seventh and eighth. 

“It wasn’t surprising because the kind of guys they are, they absolutely did everything the right way, the way they took care of themselves, the way they trained, the teammates that they are and were,” Hiestand said. “They just did it all the way you wanted them to do it. So it was. It was a good moment.”

Hiestand said he had a sense of pride after seeing his two former players be drafted so high, even if he wasn't able to re-unite with either of them. The Bears, of course, didn’t have a chance to draft Nelson, and had conviction on using the eighth overall pick on linebacker Roquan Smith (as well as having tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie in place for the 2018 season). 

Anecdotally, one former Notre Dame player said (maybe half-jokingly) that Nelson and McGlinchey were fighting each other to see who could get drafted by the Bears to play with Hiestand again.

“There’s nobody that I’ve been around in this game that’s more passionate about what he does,” McGlinchey, now with the San Francisco 49ers, said of Hiestand at Notre Dame’s pro day in March. “There’s really only two things that are important to him, and that’s his family and then his offensive linemen. There’s a lot to be said for that. 

“In this game, everybody’s always trying to work an angle to up their own career — he doesn’t want to do anything but coach O-line, and that’s what really sticks out to us as players. He cares for us like we’re his own. Obviously he coaches extremely hard and is very demanding of his players, which I loved — he pushed me to be the player that I am.

“I’m standing in front of all you guys because of Harry Hiestand. But the amount of passion and care that he has not only for his job but his teaching abilities and his players is what sets him apart.”

Hiestand could’ve stayed as long as he wanted at Notre Dame, presumably, given how much success he had recruiting and developing players there. But six years at one spot is a long time for a position coach, especially at the college level, where the grind of recruiting is so vital to the success of a program. It’s also not like every one of the blue-chip prospects Hiestand recruited to South Bend panned out, either. 

So Hiestand knew he wanted to get back to the NFL after coaching with the Bears under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. It’s a new challenge for him now, not only to develop second-round pick James Daniels but to continue the growth of Cody Whitehair and Leno while getting the most out of Kyle Long, Massie and the rest of the group (back during his first stint with the Bears, Hiestand had the luxury of coaching experienced, more ready-made offensive lines). 

As one of the more highly-regarded offensive line coaches in the country, though, Hiestand could’ve jumped back into the NFL whenever, and nearly wherever, he wanted. And for him, coming back to the Bears was the perfect fit. 

“That’s an awesome, awesome place, a great franchise,” Hiestand said. “It was something, I always wanted to go back, I didn’t know where I would get the opportunity. So I’m just very fortunate it just happened to be back at the same place that I was before. There are a lot of things that are different but there’s also a lot that’s the same. 

“But it’s one of the — it is the greatest organization. Historically, this is where it all began, and being part of it — and the other thing, and I told those guys when I got here, when we get it done here, you guys are going to see this city like you’ve never seen it. And I remember that. That’s what we’re after.” 

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

USA Today

On a scale of 1-10, Tarik Cohen says his dangerous level is 12

Don't be fooled by Tarik Cohen's height. He has towering confidence and he's setting up to have a big role in coach Matt Nagy's offense in 2018.

“On a scale of 1-10, the dangerous level is probably 12,” Cohen said Wednesday at Halas Hall about the impact he can have in the Bears' new system. “Because in backyard football, it’s really anything goes, and it’s really whoever gets tired first, that’s who’s going to lose. I’m running around pretty good out here, so I feel like I’m doing a good job.”

Cohen proved last season he can thrive in space. He made an impact as a runner, receiver and return man and will have a chance at an even bigger workload this fall, assuming he can handle it.

With Jordan Howard established as the starting running back, Cohen knows his touches will come in a variety of ways.

“It might not necessarily be rushes,” he said. “But it’s going to be all over the field, and that’s what I like to do. Any way I can get the ball or make a play for my team, that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”

Cohen averaged 4.3 yards-per-carry as a rookie and led all NFL running backs in the percentage of carries that went for at least 15 yards. He's a big play waiting to happen.