Bears

Bears Issue No. 3: How quickly can the defense improve?

johnfoxdefense072215.png

Bears Issue No. 3: How quickly can the defense improve?

A significant portion of the Bears’ offseason consisted of a makeover of the defensive coaching staff; a complete change of defensive scheme, and a virtual makeover of the depth chart staffing that defense.

In the flag-football portion of offseason practices – minicamps, OTA’s – the speed was slightly above “install” and was without the pressure of speed, pads and an offense itself looking to establish itself with a new coordinator of its own.

All of those will be part of dialing up the level of both performance and expectations that comes with the first training camp for a staff, scheme and players needing to come together with urgency in the form of games against the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks in the first three weeks of the season.

Schemes are like diets; if you follow/execute them precisely, they pretty much all work, more or less, some better than others. But the change from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 is less important than how well a vast array of new players come together with a new coaching staff and philosophy.

That is one of the guiding directives of Bears Training Camp 2015.

How fast is realistic?

During his first NFL owners meeting as Bears head coach, John Fox departed ever so slightly from his conservative “under-state and over-produce” mantra to venture an opinion that the Bears would turn around their defensive disasters of the past two seasons “sooner [rather] than later.”

After an offseason of orientation under coordinator Vic Fangio into the first 3-4 scheme run by the Bears, and involving as many as eight potential new starters on defense, the new pass-rush alignments, run fits, pass drops and all the rest now begin in pads and with hitting.

[MORE: Cutler not the 'monster he's been made out to be']

What Fangio has installed, beyond scheme specifics, is a quality decidedly absent the past two years:

“Creative,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee. “He is very creative. It might not look like it sometimes from some of the schemes, but he’s very aggressive. Every time when I watch practice film, I see things and think, ‘Dang, this guy is really creative.’ Sometimes I’ll wonder why he had me doing something, and then I watch the practice film, and it all plays out.”

“Creative” is more easily said than achieved. Mel Tucker talked about being it last year and it never materialized. Now it’s being attempted with a mix of new players brought in and existing ones who’ve never played Fangio’s scheme.

Nothing is assured

Conclusions are difficult and little more than speculation at this point. It would actually be more difficult NOT to improve than to get better, given the historic low points hit in 2013-14 that saw the Bears reach franchise-worsts in multiple areas despite then-coordinator Mel Tucker opting to remain with a scheme familiar to veteran players schooled in the Lovie Smith system.

Staying with a 4-3 scheme, including GM Phil Emery drafting linemen, linebackers and defensive backs ostensibly for their fits into that scheme, the Bears finished 2014 ranked 31st in points allowed and 30th in yards given up per game. Amazingly perhaps, despite multiple free-agent signings to bolster the unit, those results were even worse than the numbers posted the year before by a defense riddled with injuries to key members (Lance Briggs, Henry Melton, Charles Tillman, D.J. Williams).

[BEARS ISSUE NO. 1: Re-shaping a losing culture]

Notably, Fangio does not foresee problems even with veteran players like Allen or Willie Young making changes, for example.

They’ll be doing things they’re used to doing as an end, except they’re going to be doing it standing up and at the end of the line,” Fangio said. “It’s called a 3-4 defense, but in some ways you can call it a 5-2. We like bigger guys out there. I don’t foresee it being a major problem, although there’s a lot of learning and growing that has to take place.”

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

gabriel-927.jpg
USA Today

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

The Bears returned to Halas Hall with a flurry of injury updates, most notably involving Kyle Long and Mitch Trubisky

And while the starting quarterback for Sunday's game against New Orleans is still TBD, wide reciever Taylor Gabriel will be back out there. Gabriel technically announced his return via Instagram on Sunday night, but confirmed to reporters on Monday that he's been cleared to play. 

"It’s just good to be back, to be around the guys," he said. "To be on the sideline just watching what’s been going on, I’ve been hungry to get back on the field... I probably practiced the hardest I’ve ever practiced in my life. I just had fun, and am glad I’m back." 

Gabriel suffered a concussion in the second half of the Bears' win in D.C., and dealt with the lingering effects of it up until last week. 

"I just woke up and I felt like myself," he said. "It was just a blessing. You always hear about concussions and all the crazy things. The athletic trainer, they did a great job with the whole process. I’m glad that I’m back."

Gabriel was coming off the best game of his Bears tenure: a six-catch, 75 yard performance that included three first-half touchdowns. The third touchdown – a 36-yarder featuring a highlight-reel catch – showcased the type of wrinkle that the Trubisky-Gabriel connection can bring to the offense. 

"The one thing that Taylor brings is he has that one element of downfield speed that helps out," Matt Nagy said. "So you’re able to take the top off of some defenses with him. And then he’s one of those wide receivers for us, like Allen Robinson, he’s got experience. So there’s a calming in the huddle that you understand that he knows what to do versus certain coverages. He’s coming off a pretty good game in Washington, and unfortunately got hurt, but there’s a calming element to him and then being able to take the top off.”

The Bears also had good news regarding second-year defensive tackle Bilal Nichols. Nichols returned to practice for the first time since breaking his hand during the Week 2 win in Denver. It's especially good news considering the team expects to be without Akiem Hicks sidelined for the foreseeable future. 

"[I] felt good today," Nichols said. "Just trying to continue to keep moving in the right direction and we'll see where it goes." 

Nichols wouldn't commit to playing on Sunday, and plans to see how he feels after a full week of practice. Nagy indicated that, at this point in his recovery, it's more about getting back into playing shape. 

"He’s been out a couple weeks, so now it’s just the ability for him to show probably more conditioning than anything," he said. "He has that cast on him, but he has the fingers that he’s able to use. Again, if you’re able to be out there and you’re able to suit up and go out there, then to me, let’s go.”

If Nichols is able to play against New Orleans, he'll do so wearing a club for extra protection. This was the first hand injury he's ever suffered, and Nichols admitted that playing with the cast takes some getting used to. Leonard Floyd wore the same type of club during the first half of last season, and has talked with Nichols about how to deal with it. 

"He's giving me a lot of insight and what to expect," Nichols said. "And things that he did that helped him out a lot. You know, we'll see. I'm going to try some things out."

Putting Kyle Long on IR was necessary for the Bears, but that doesn't make it sting any less

kyle-long-1225.jpg
USA Today

Putting Kyle Long on IR was necessary for the Bears, but that doesn't make it sting any less

For the fourth season in a row, Kyle Long’s season ends on injured reserve. 

Matt Nagy opened Monday's daily press conference –– his first since the morning after losing to Oakland –– officially announcing that the right guard’s season is over. 

“Obviously everyone has seen the news [about] Kyle, with putting him on the IR,” he said. “I think it's a tough situation just because of what he's been going through and where he's at … He's always been really good to us and what he's done. We just felt like that was where he's at right now and it's what we wanted to do.” 

Long’s nagging hip injury was clearly affecting his play, and the team felt – given all the run game struggles – that trying to fight through it on a week-by-week basis was no longer a realistic option. And while it’s true that Long came into 2019 camp as healthy as he’d been in years, the wear and tear of three injury-shortened seasons on the 30-year old guard were evident. 

The news was especially tough to swallow for those around Halas Hall given Long’s reputation among teammates and coaches. A first-round pick in 2013 with multiple Pro-Bowls, he was one of the team’s vocal leaders and well-liked throughout all corners of the locker room. 

“Kyle [is] a great dude,” Bilal Nichols said. “My whole rookie year, Kyle helped me out a lot because I lined up against him every day. Guys like him is why I had a pretty good season as a rookie last year.”

“You get a guy like Kyle, who’s poured his heart and soul into this organization and has worked really hard to be dominant in a lot of areas,” Nagy added. “We appreciate that. I’ve only been with him for a year and a half but I appreciate the way that he’s gone about things.”

Now the Bears turn to Rashaad Coward and Ted Larsen – the latter of which returned to practice after missing the Raiders game with a knee injury. Despite his relative inexperience playing on the interior (and frankly, on the offense in general), the team’s eager to see how Coward’s athleticism can help a running game that’s only averaging 3.4 yards per carry. 

He hasn’t been named the starter yet, but was taking first-team reps on Monday afternoon. 

“I just want to play with a dog mentality,” Coward said. “It’s the NFL. Guys come out here and try to kill you every week. So you can’t go out there playing soft. You’re going to get pushed around. And I don’t like that.” 

He also conceded that he was pleasantly surprised by how well he adjusted to having to be an emergency guard in the Bears’ win over Minnesota. Coward hadn’t gotten interior reps during that week of practice, and had to sub in when Larsen hurt his knee. 

“Going into the game, I was like F it,” he said. “It is what it is. It’s either you do it or you don’t.”

“Coaches were like, ‘Hey, this is what you’re supposed to do.’ At the end of the day, just keep it going.” 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.