Bears

Bears looking beyond individual players in third preseason game

Bears looking beyond individual players in third preseason game

“The all-important third preseason game… .”

Or is it?

The short answer is yes, because “it'll be the most extended play of the starters we have available will play,” said coach John Fox.

In fact, it has been said that before training camps ever begin, upwards of 45 roster spots are pretty well decided. And the combination of camp time and first two preseason games have taken care of perhaps all but the finest of tunings of roster decisions.

“You know we've got some guys that we've evaluated on a lot of football plays before the third preseason game,” Fox said, “so albeit it is important, we have a pretty good idea about some of our players.”

[MORE: Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game]

So while individual players are tasked with taking steps up in their development – wide receiver Kevin White with just two catches so far, for instance – the focus now shifts from predominantly player evaluation to broader questions of how well whole units are performing together. Each unit has its own challenges in a preseason that is still waiting for the Bears’ first win:

Next step for offense

The shutout at the hands of the Denver Broncos in Game 1 was jolting, preseason or not. The 11 points by the offense in New England was promising.

Now what?

The offensive production last season was disappointing but yet respectable because of the unmatched parts Cutler needed to work with because of injuries at receiver besides losing No. 1 tailback Matt Forte for three full games and most of a fourth. Scoring: 23rd. Rushing yards: 11th. Plus Cutler’s career-best passer composite: 92.3.

That won’t be good enough in 2016. Regardless of the myriad changes ranging from coordinator on through running back, tight end and the offensive line, Cutler himself set the bar by pre-emptively ruling out possible excuses.

“Solely just Year 1 to Year 2,” Cutler said. “I think there’s going to be less thinking. I think we have a better idea of what we like in the offense; what we don’t like in the offense; where we need to improve; what we need to add. I think personnel-wise we’re getting better and better.”

The offense won’t put its entire playbook on display against the Chiefs. But “need to improve” is the mantra, and that extends through the running-back “committee,” the offensive line regardless of who’s on the field, and the receivers from White in his biggest dose of playing time to tight ends tasked with replacing Martellus Bennett as well as contributing to a run game that forms the foundation of the offense.

Defensive dominance, if you please

Upgrading the defense was the foremost priority of the 2016 offseason, beginning with inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan and lineman Akiem Hicks, and on into the draft when the Bears invested seven of their nine draft picks, including two of the first three, on that side of the football.

“I think we have a chance to be a better defense than we were last year, but the proof will be in the pudding,” coordinator Vic Fangio is on record saying. “Practice is the quiz; the games are the final exam. So until we start playing and see exactly what we’ve got, that will determine the true answer to that question. But I think we have a chance to be better.”

The first two preseason games involved the No. 1 defense but not to the degree that Game 3 will. And as of now, no starting quarterback has been sacked by a Bear, and no defensive starter has a sack through two games, although rotation’ers Sam Acho, Jonathan Bullard, Leonard Floyd and Cornelius Washington have at least a partial sack.

The Kansas City offense was No. 3 in rushing average, sixth in rushing yards per game and ninth in points per game last season. The Bears have yet to make a definitive statement that they are close to an elite defense, which is a prerequisite to moving significantly past the 6-10 record in 2015.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

How “special” are ‘teams?

The Bears were a respectable 12th in the special-teams ranking of Dallas Morning News legend Rick Gosselin, a mix of 22 categories that produces a meaningful evaluation of special teams. But the Broncos’ average starting position was their 32, vs. the Bears’ at the Chicago 21. Based on 12 possessions, that loosely translates into 132 field-position yards the Broncos had on the Bears.

The Patriots’ average start was the New England 32; the Bears’ was their own 24, meaning eight yards average on 10 possessions. However, one New England possession started at the Chicago 15 because of a Brian Hoyer interception, skewing the overall.

Meaning: The Bears improved from Week 1 to Week 2 in gaining field position. That needs to develop into a trend that benefits both the offensive and defensive units.

The overall goal is clear: “Improve from Week 2 to Week 3,” Fox said. “We’re here. It’s not a season; they call it preseason for reasons; it’s to evaluate, put your players in positions, take a look at players.”

Rob Gronkowski 'highly unlikely' to play Sunday against the Bears

Rob Gronkowski 'highly unlikely' to play Sunday against the Bears

Sunday's game against Tom Brady and the Patriots will be a tough test for the Bears, but it looks like they're going to receive a big break.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski didn't travel with the Patriots to Chicago and is "highly unlikely" to play Sunday.

Avoiding Gronkowski, who is one of Brady's favorite targets, would be a huge break for the Bears' defense. In six games this season, the tight end has 26 receptions for 405 yards and a touchdown; in 14 games last season, Gronkowski had 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.

Gronkowski has not officially been ruled out yet, though time is running out for the Patriots to make a decision.

Meanwhile, Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday despite dealing with an ankle injury. Between having Mack on the field and Gronkowski off of it, good news keeps coming for the Bears' defense.

Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

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USA Today Sports Images

Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

There’s, probably, only one position in sports that can match the you-had-one-job scrutiny of a placekicker attempting a critical field goal late in a football game. As in: If you make the kick, it was expected; if you miss it, well, you didn’t do the one thing you were brought on to do. 

The comparison here is a closer in baseball. The expectation is whoever is called upon with a one-to-three-run lead in the ninth inning will convert the save and win his team the game. 

But when a closer blows a save and is in the spotlight during baseball’s regular season, there’s always a game the next day or, at worst, in two days. The immediacy and pace of a Major League Baseball team’s schedule lends itself to closers having to “flush” a bad outing and move on to the next one, since it might be tomorrow. 

For Bears kicker Cody Parkey, though, he’s had to wait a week until he gets his next “meaningful” chance at making a field goal after missing a game-winning 53-yard attempt last weekend against the Miami Dolphins. But moving on from a critical missed kick has never, and is not, a problem for the fifth-year veteran. 

“(It takes) five minutes,” Parkey said. “You kick the ball, and if it doesn’t go in you’re not going to sit there and cry on the field, you’re going to continue to move on with your life. I don’t think there’s really much to it other than knowing you’re going to have to kick another one sometime throughout the season, next game, in the next week, you never know. You stay ready so you’ll be ready for the next week.”

Not allowing those missed kicks to fester is an important trait for a placekicker to possess. What helps Parkey quickly work through his misses is focusing on having a good week of kicking in practice, and also an even-keel mindset that’s been instilled in him since a young age. 

“I think I’ve always been pretty mellow,” Parkey said. “At a young age, my coaches told me never let the highs get to high, never let the lows get too low. And I’ve kind of taken that to heart. If I miss a game winner, make a game winner, I’m going to have the same demeanor. I’m just going to be super chill and knowing it’s a game, it’s supposed to be fun, we’re supposed to go out there and try our best. I put in a lot of work and I try my best on the field.”

That’s something, too, that special teams coach Chris Tabor sees in Parkey. 

“He's always been like that,” Tabor said. “He hit a good ball, his line was just off. In his career going in he was 7-of-8 over 50 yards. I'll be honest with you, I thought he was going to make it. And next time we have that situation, I know he will make it.” 

Age is just a number

Sunday will mark the 6th time in Tom Brady’s career that the 41-year-old has faced a head coach younger than him, but the first time it’ll be a coach other than Miami’s Adam Gase (who’s 40). Brady is 3-2 against Gase’s Dophins. 

Matt Nagy, meanwhile, is also 40. Brady just missed playing Kyle Shanahan (38) and Sean McVay (32), facing the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams in 2016, a year before both those youthful coaches were hired. 

Meanwhile, the youngest player on the Bears — 21-year-old Roquan Smith — was three years old when Brady made his unassuming NFL debut on Nov. 23, 2000. 

They said it

A couple of amusing one-liners out of Halas Hall this week…

Nagy, when it was brought to his attention that Mitch Trubisky (105.6) has a better passer rating than Brady (98.2), chuckled: “You want to say that one more time?” 

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, when asked if he’d ever heard of “Baby Gronk” Adam Shaheen: “(long pause)… Sometimes.”