Bears losing free yards, looking at changes in kick return mindsets

Bears losing free yards, looking at changes in kick return mindsets

Suppose the NFL gave the Bears’ offense an extra nine plays and guaranteed them more than 5 yards for those plays. The Bears in fact have had the opportunities for those “free” yards and haven’t taken them.

The yards are some of the “hidden” yards, in this case 46 yards that the Bears deprived themselves just by failing to return kickoffs as far as the 25-yard line – which the NFL gives teams as part of the touchback rule – through their first two games.

Bears special teams have opted to return nine kickoffs in the two games this season. Of those, only one has been brought out as far as the Chicago 25, the spot that the NFL gives free just for taking a knee in the end zone. The result was the offense starting twice at the 17, once at the 22 and once at the 10 in the Houston game, for example, the last of those made worse by an illegal-block penalty. Against Philadelphia, none of the four kickoffs were returned as far as the 25.

Had those returns simply been taken as touchbacks, the offense would have been set up a rough total of 46 yards farther out. The upshot is that the Bears are admittedly taking a long look at which kicks they return and which they just take a knee and the 25.

“I feel like we can score every time we bring it out,” returner Deonte Thompson said. “But sometimes it depends on a lot of factors. Do we want to take a risk of being hit at the 15 and put the offense in bad position? Definitely not.

“The extra five yards means a lot. It changes how we think.”

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Through two game weekends, only six returners are average as much as 25 yards on kickoff runbacks. Adding a spot of insult to injury, the current No. 2 and No. 3 returners are Bears castoffs: Devin Hester (29.3 yards), now with Baltimore; and Eric Weems (28.3), back with Atlanta.

Thompson stands 12th at 20.7 yards per return.

Notably perhaps, no NFL kickoffs have been returned for touchdowns yet this season, making the risk-reward situation favor taking the yards rather than gambling for the big runback.

“I think that if they’re going to give you the ball at the 25 instead of the 20, there’s more times that you’re going to take a knee now than you would have done before,” acknowledged Jeff Rodgers, Bears special teams coordinator. “That return in the past, let’s say the ball is 3 [yards] deep and you return to the 22. Well, up until this year you’re getting 2 yards where you would’ve on a touchback, now you’re 3 yards less than you would’ve on a touchback. So it certainly factors in the equation.”

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


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.


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.