Bears

Bears’ Markus Wheaton says wide receiver group is 'definitely underrated'

Bears’ Markus Wheaton says wide receiver group is 'definitely underrated'

No doubt, there are doubts about the makeup of this 2017 Bears wide receiver corps. But as the departed Alshon Jeffery created doubts, health-wise, the past two years about whether he could stay on the field to prove himself worthy of a big payday (which he didn’t even get from the Eagles), Ryan Pace brought in a handful of replacements who’ve flashed in this league before. But recent history’s shown each of them has something to prove as well.

From Rueben Randle to fellow former Giant Victor Cruz. From former first rounders Kendall Wright to Kevin White, taking a third swing at making it though an entire NFL season.

Then there’s Markus Wheaton, the only free agent signee at the position this season to receive a two-year deal ($11 million total, with $6 million guaranteed). Like the rest of the group, though, he’s at a career crossroads. Following seasons with 53 and 44 catches in Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2015 (with a 17-yard average in the latter), the quick-twitch former Steeler was limited to three games a year ago before eventually undergoing surgery for a torn labrum in January.

“Everyone’s new, so we don’t know what it’s gonna be,” he said of the group at the team’s recent minicamp in Lake Forest. “In Pittsburgh you kind of have a clue `cause they’ve done it for so long. Everybody’s new, everybody’s trying to find their niche, so we’ll see how it goes. Anything’s possible. We’ve got a lot of guys who are looking for opportunity. A lot of guys that are hungry and have something to prove. Anything’s possible. Anyone can come out on top. The ultimate goal is to win games and I’m sure the coaches will put us in position to do that.”

The former third-round pick out of Oregon State (where he’s the Beavers’ all-time career leader in receptions, one ahead of Brandin Cooks) played all three receiver positions in Pittsburgh at various times, and while he seems most natural in the slot, is working to make himself as versatile as possible here. But that comes with some risk as a quarterback room that’s also gone through its share of turnover tries to get on the same page with all the targets. But Wheaton is more than confident the results will come from within this group.

“I think we definitely are underrated," Wheaton said. "We’ve come in and worked to get to where we wanna be. We will get there, and it’ll show up on the field.”

The incumbents in the room include Joshua Bellamy, Deonte Thompson, Daniel Braverman, Cam Meredith, and, of course, White. Wheaton can see the potential in the ex-seventh overall draft pick.

“I couldn’t imagine all the stuff he’s been through, all the pressure that’s been put on him," Wheaton said. "But he’s a down-to-earth guy who works extremely hard, so I think he’s gonna get his. He’s a big-time playmaker, so I’m excited to see him play.

“They welcomed me with open arms. Everybody’s down to earth, been easy to talk to so when I have questions, I’ve been getting answers, so it’s been real easy for me.”

That surgically-repaired shoulder was cleared for full participation just in time for minicamp two weeks ago. And Wheaton won’t allow himself to become hesitant physically as he aims to conquer what hesitation he could have within the offense, working with quarterbacks not named Ben Roethlisberger.

“I really don’t think there’s time for that. When you’re ready to go, you just go,” Wheaton told us. “You come in, you work, you rehab. And for me personally I had to rehab a lot to get back to where I wanted to be. There’s a level I want to be at. I’ve been just working to get there, so there’s no time for that.”

That last statement comes even if some observers hesitate to call Wheaton and these wideouts “underrated.” They’ll start attempting to prove that when the Bears report to Bourbonnais exactly one month from Monday.

Better for it? The Bears’ Week 1 loss to Green Bay proved two critical things about 2018

Better for it? The Bears’ Week 1 loss to Green Bay proved two critical things about 2018

Going back and reading some of the quotes said by Bears players and Matt Nagy in the immediate aftermath of their gutting season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers is enlightening, now that we’re three months and 12 games removed from it. 

Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd said “we have a bunch of guys that want to win.” Offensive lineman Kyle Long said “I thought the coaches did a great job.” Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said “We played together, we played as a team.” 

And coach Matt Nagy said his team did not, and would not, point any fingers in the aftermath of blowing a 20-point lead in front of a national audience. 

The point here being: This was a team that had an idea of how good it could be, even if it didn’t collectively show it over the final 15 minutes of a 24-23 loss at Lambeau Field. The Bears aren’t out for revenge with the Packers coming to Soldier Field on Sunday — yes, that Week 1 loss has stuck with them, but moreso as part of this team’s push to finish out games. Perhaps the best payback is where the two teams are in the standings: The Bears cannot be passed by the Packers in the NFC North, and with a win on Sunday would not only clinch the division but effectively eliminate Green Bay from the playoffs. 

“We’ve been watching the cut-ups, and it’s like 20-0 in the third and I’m just thinking, like, man, how did we lose this game?” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “But yeah, … I don’t think we see most of this game as a redemption game, but we definitely do remember it and we know what’s at stake and are just trying to get to win No. 10.”

Still, that Week 1 loss proved two things to the Bears that have been critical factors in their success in 2018:

1. An eye-opening experience

Khalil Mack had been with the Bears for all of one week before he debuted for his new team at Lambeau Field. Players knew how good he was from the highlights he made with the Oakland Raiders, and he made an immediate impression from the first practice rep he took. 

But there was something different about actually going out and playing with him in Green Bay. Mack was a terror, coming up with a sack-strip-fumble recovery all in one play and getting a pick-six while consistently pressuring Aaron Rodgers and DeShone Kizer in the first half. 

“The man came in, he absolutely changed the whole face of that game and our defense, we carried that momentum,” inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “Like, we got some dogs now, let’s go. 

“… Just to be out there, you got a different sense of it. Like, it’s really real when you’re out there. Bullets flying, you get to see what type of player you really have and I know we had a great player.”

The addition of Mack has been the biggest single factor in the Bears’ jump from being a top-10 defense in 2017 to being the NFL’s best defense in 2018 (anyone who wants to challenge that statement — go watch the tape from the Rams game). This was a defense bursting with confidence before the acquisition of Mack, but his pass-rushing presence has had a massive impact on the rest of this team. 

Opposing quarterbacks frequently are out of rhythm because of the threat of Mack getting to them, allowing guys like Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson to feel emboldened to be more aggressive. The Bears don’t have the best ballhawking secondary in the league solely because of Mack, but he’s been a significant help in this team having 25 interceptions after three consecutive years with only eight. 

“I don’t want to say he put us on the map because our defense was already there, but he just brought a whole new dynamic to our team,” Amukamara said. “Another (guy with) playmaking ability, and bringing that momentum and that adrenaline was something we could build off of.”

The Bears believed they could have a great defense in 2018, but the addition of Mack has taken it a step further: Vic Fangio’s group is building toward one of the best defensive seasons ever. And Mack proved that lofty of a goal would be possible with what he showed in Green Bay. 

2. Belief in their coach

Players grew to believe in and trust Nagy from their first team meeting in early April until their last practice before the regular season, so there was already a foundation in place when that 20-point advantage dissipated in the face of a sluggish offense and a classic Rodgers comeback. 

But how Nagy approached such a brutal defeat in the visiting locker room at Lambeau Field only furthered his players’ belief and trust in him. 

“Coach Nagy was very optimistic and he was saying, like, hey this one’s going to hurt but he was proud that we fought and he liked how we started and that we just needed to finish,” Amukamara said. “That’s huge. As a player after you let one slip by you, you don’t want to get beat down even more, so the fact that he was encouraged, I think that really lifted our spirits up and we got to see how he reacted after a game like that.”

That his message resonated so positively with players on both sides of the ball is remarkable given the circumstances: A first-time head coach with an offensive background blowing a 20-point lead to a historic rival, on the road, in primetime, when this franchise hasn’t had any success against said historic rival in a long time. 

But Nagy emerged from those circumstances with an even stronger reputation in the Bears’ locker room. Three months, nine “Club Dubs” and several postgame “booms” later, the Bears’ respect of Nagy is abundantly clear. 

“He’s our identity,” Trevathan said. “Whatever he says is our identity — we feel that way, but he says it. When he says it, it’s like dang, he really feels the same way we feel, he’s really on our side, that’s our coach, man. 

“… That’s just the type of coach Nagy is. He’s a different type of coach. It’s his first year, but it doesn’t look like it. It feels like he’s been with the team for a (while). He’s out there with his identity, he’s taking care of us and the team is just playing toward his attitude.”

Beating Aaron Rodgers this weekend could well be the Bears' biggest hurdle of the season

Beating Aaron Rodgers this weekend could well be the Bears' biggest hurdle of the season

Talk to anyone at Halas Hall and you can tell that the Bears' Week 1 heartbreaker is still fresh in their mind. 

Fast forward 14 weeks and the Bears are firmly in the drivers seat, looking to clinch a NFC North title for the first time since 2010, and to do so at home for the first time since 2006. 

Standing between the Chicago and a division title just happens to be Aaron Rodgers, who, to put it gently, has had the Bears' number over his career. It's been three years since Rodgers lost to the Bears. In the 20 games he's played against them, the QB is 16-4 with a 108.3 QB rating. He's thrown 45 touchdowns against them, the most of any team he's played. So what makes him so consistently able to send Bears fans home unhappy?

"Well, his talent level is extremely high," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "His experience level is extremely high, and all of his experiences have come in the same scheme, so when you combine talent, NFL experience, scheme experience, that’s what you get."

"He just refuses to lose, he refuses to go down," linebacker Danny Trevanthan added. "He refuses to let a play just be a play.  He wants to extend it and make it a great play each time he gets the ball. He does a good job with his legs of getting guys open. He does a great job of creating situations where they work at and practice it some. We just have got to be on our Ps and Qs. We know what he likes to do. We know that if we let him get started he can really tear you up."

This Sunday's matchup, however, brings a new and interesting wrinkle into recent Bears-Packers history: it'll be the first time that Bears see Rodgers without the scheming of head coach Mike McCarthy, who was fired two weeks ago after an unflattering home loss to the 2-9 Arizona Cardinals. Despite the unusually tumultuous season in Green Bay, the QB's play has remained consistent - no one has less interceptions than Rodgers, who threw his first of the year last week against Buffalo. 

New starting nickle corner Sherrick McManis, when asked how Rodgers has kept his interception numbers so low, had the best response:

"I have no idea." 

"He’s a great quarterback," cornerback Prince Amukamara said. "You don’t even want to call him conservative, he just takes calculated chances and he’s very precise and the receivers help him out in not throwing picks, also. So we’re going to have to do a good job and continue to do a good job of getting the ball, somehow." 

Between a Bears team that leads the NFL in turnover differential and a Green Bay QB who now owns now owns the NFL record for most consecutive pass attempts (368) without an interception, something's got to give, right?

"That doesn’t excite me, 368 passes, I’ll tell you that," head coach Matt Nagy said. "He protects the football. And he has extreme confidence in how he does it. And he’s been doing it for a long time. So the No. 1 thing we have to do is try to break that. But there’s a reason why it’s so hard and why he does that. He has seen a lot of different defenses come at him. He has obviously seen our defensive scheme.

"... it’ll be a big-time challenge for us. But I think our guys will be up for it coming off of the way they just played against the Rams. Their confidence will be high."