Bears

Bears new wideout coach hopes to bring best out of Kevin White

Bears new wideout coach hopes to bring best out of Kevin White

Zach Azzanni's been on the Bears coaching staff less than three months, the same length of time he's been an NFL coach. 

What's that name again?

The one-time wide receiver from Central Michigan had been in the collegiate coaching ranks in the 18 years since graduating, covering seven stops (most recently the past four years at Tennessee). But as John Fox's third wide receivers coach in as many years here, the hope is the third year, and position coach, is the charm for the man who becomes Azzanni's pet project, 2015 first rounder Kevin White.

"His past two position coaches (Mike Groh and Curtis Johnson) probably haven't been able to develop him as they would've liked because of the injury setbacks (four games in his first two seasons)," Azzanni said Friday afternoon in Lake Forest. "So I get to almost start from Square One. Nothing against those guys, they just weren't able to get him out there a lot. So some of the bad habits he may still have from college I get to come in and try to break those habits."

"It's a fresh start for him in a lot of ways. My man's got a new number (switching from an apparently unlucky 13 to 11), he's got a new coach, he's healthy. So, knock on wood, good things for him right now." 

But with health must come a rebuilding of White's confidence and growing what was a limited route tree at West Virginia, which hasn't been able to grow much in two injury-plagued years.

"We met the other day and I asked him, 'Look what do you think you are?' He said, `I'm a big physical guy. I'm aggressive with the ball in the air...' So I said, `OK that's what we have to be. When I press play I wanna see a big physical guy that's strong with the ball in the air.' And some of those things you saw last year, saw some flashes.

"The other thing I liked about him (in reviewing last year's limited tape): He made a catch on the sideline (in what would his last game, versus Detroit) and he got up, and I finally saw some emotion, some of that `Dawg' came out in him - and I don't know if he's had that the last two years.  If he can play like that, he'll be pretty hard to stop, but he has to play like that all the time." 

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The rest of the receiver room

Yet looking around the group he inherits, there's not a lot of NFL game-level wideout experience he inherits, and the two with the most are free agent signees Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright.

"Deonte Thompsin actually played for me at Florida so it's kinda nice to have that guy in the room who can co-sign for me," Azzanni said. "Y'know like `Hey, I know this guy may seem a little crazy and do things differently, but I'm tellin ya it works.' He can lead by example because he knows what I'm looking for. Same thing with Josh (Bellamy, the other longest-tenured, vocal Bear in that position group)." 

The speedy Wheaton started 19 games for Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2015 (averaging 49 receptions) before a shoulder injury limited him to three games a year ago.

"I coached Antonio (Steelers Pro-Bowl seventh-round wideout Brown) in college so I called him up and asked him, `Tell me what Markus does well, his practice habits.' I called him and got the skinny. He's brought a professionalism to the group. He's a pro, very diligent. He's in that trainers room every morning at 6:30 making sure that shoulder's good from last year. He beats me in here. He brings a level of calmness. Not a `rah-rah' guy. Steady Eddie. That's good. We need that." 

With Eddie Royal waived this week and 2016 seventh rounder Daniel Braverman not ready for much game action a year ago, Wheaton, Bellamy and Wright figure to compete, even though Azzanni may hope for the group to be interchangeable so he can put the best three out there. That may be a tough task, given all the moving parts in the Bears' offense, outside of the line and running back Jordan Howard.

"You know what Kendall was in college and what he was when Dowell (offensive coordinator Loggains) had him, so we're trying to get him back to that, see if he can do that," Azzanni said, referring to the former first-rounder's single-season Titans/Oilers franchise mark of 94 catches in 2013, when Loggains ran Tennessee's offense.

"He's getting back in shape (from rib and knee injuries last season) and hopefully we can get him back in that same mold he was two, three years ago." Azzanni said.

Azzanni also says last season's leading receiver, Cam Meredith, can go "as far as he wants it to go. He's a talented young man, and C.J. (Johnson) and I actually talked about him in the offseason when we were at a Pro Day, and his development thru the year. He's big, he's tall, he's loose. He can make all the catches. Now he has to go to the next level. He's gotta be tougher, can't put the ball on the ground, must make contested catches and get himself in better condition so he can run all day. He's willing, but I'm not really letting him breathe so I don't know if he likes me now." 

As for his new gig at the highest level after coaching since 1999 (Valparaiso) in the college game?

"The rules are different that's all," Azzanni said. "Football's football. Everyone asks how I'm gonna coach pros. Listen, a lot of these guys are now grown men. If the meeting ends at noon, it ends at noon. You can sneak time in college, things like that. You have to be efficient with their time but they want to get better. I have a good room, willing to buy in to the culture. I wanna push these guys a little bit. I wouldn't want it any other way." 

"I don't have a high-priced nine-time Pro Bowler in that room. I don't have the superstar. I have a bunch of guys that have a lot to prove. Hey sshhh... don't tell anybody, but nobody thinks we can do anything in this room. Perfect." 

Azzanni really has no choice, and can make a bigger name for himself if his students find a way to do the same. It looks like at least the name tags have been removed.

Under Center Podcast: Bears trounced by Saints, and questions abound

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USA Today Sports

Under Center Podcast: Bears trounced by Saints, and questions abound

Laurence Holmes is joined by Olin Kreutz, Matt Forte, Lance Briggs, and Alex Brown to break down the Bears' highly dispiriting 36-25 loss to the Saints at Soldier Field. The guys discuss why the loss was so disappointing and frustrating (2:00), the lack of progress for many players since last year (5:00), the possibility of somebody other than Nagy calling plays (10:00), whether the Bears can save their season and still make the playoffs (14:00), and the massive problems in the run game this season (22:00).

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Another lackluster return from Mitch Trubisky leaves the Bears offense in a state of panic

Another lackluster return from Mitch Trubisky leaves the Bears offense in a state of panic

Given Sunday’s parallels to the Bears’ 2018 clunker against the Rams, the spotlight on QB Mitch Trubisky may have been even brighter against the Saints than it usually is – which is saying something. 

Four quarters, 250 yards and one blowout loss later, the only thing that’s changed is that the Bears no longer have the luxury of hiding another subpar performance from their franchise quarterback behind a monstrous, game-changing defense. Trubisky’s numbers against New Orleans look better on paper, but the eye test told a much different – or similar, technically – story. 

“It's hard to pinpoint it,” he said after the 36-25 loss. “Just frustrating, ugly. Couldn't swing momentum in our way – couldn't really get going. Just sputtered out. We've just got to find ways to stay on the field, especially after 3rd down and move the chains and get going."

“I want to go back, watch and see like progression-wise [how he did],” Matt Nagy added. “I know there's one there early in the game where we missed a corner route on 3rd down, and Mitch knows -- he knows that he can connect on that. We've connected on it a lot in practice.” 

That specific miss sums up much of what’s plagued Trubisky through his time in Chicago. On 3rd-and-6, with Taylor Gabriel finding separation on a 20-yard corner route, the QB rushes through his throwing motion and misses an easy first down. 

“I'm going to go back and watch it because that's one of my favorite throws,” Trubisky said. “And I hit that every single time this week in practice, so why it didn't translate to the game is really frustrating for me. I felt like that's an easy throw that I make easily, and I just wasn't on the same page and didn't put it in the spot to give my guy a chance.” 

Another miss – this time overthrowing Anthony Miller on a seam route – provided a great example of the communication issues that have plagued the passing game. Miller had a step on two defenders, but according to Nagy and Trubisky, cut in on the route when the play directed that he cut out. 

“That's one of Anthony's really good routes that he runs,” Trubisky said. “And he separates and gets open, and I just felt like I had to get the ball out within that time because they created pressure up front. Someone slipped through, and from what I can remember, he just went inside, so I tried to throw a tight seam and give him a chance. But I was on the ground after that, so I'm going to have to go back on the film and watch it and correct it.” 

“Those are plays that you look at and you just -- you'd like to convert on those and connect.,” added Nagy.

The coach also conceded that Trubisky looked rusty on some throws, but was quick to credit the quarterback for making others (he didn’t specify which). Still, silver linings were little consolation to the Bears on Sunday night, and will continue to mean less and less as the season goes on. For being a team that supposedly has great weeks of practice, plenty of questions remain about where all that goes on Sundays. 

“Why it's not translating, I don't have a theory,” Trubisky added. “All I know is, go back to work and make sure that you put in all that work during the week to make sure it translates.”

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