Bears

Bears special teams facing early roster tests vs. Cardinals

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Bears special teams facing early roster tests vs. Cardinals

Losing impact players is devastating to any unit of a football team and finding a source for replacing them is critical. For Bears special teams, that will be especially difficult.

Defensive lineman Cornelius Washington suffered a quad injury in last Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, serious enough to land him on season-ending injured reserve. The injury cost the defense one of its only five linemen, which the organization moved to replace with the pickup of defensive end Lavar Edwards, a reserve with small amounts of playing time in Tennessee and Dallas over the past two seasons.

Edwards’ exact role will become more apparent on Sunday vs. the Arizona Cardinals. The Bears need pass rush but they may need Edwards, 275 pounds, on special teams even more.

Washington contributed seven special-teams tackles in 2014, primarily on kickoff coverage, an uncommon total for a defensive lineman. But Washington, who’d added bulk this season to fit the Bears’ 3-4 scheme, is himself uncommon.

“Cornelius is a little bit unique in that regard,” said special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers. “The guys that we have, the true defensive linemen, the guys who are going to be in the 290-plus range – it’s rare around the league that that guy’s going to fill a heavy role in the kicking game… 

“He’s unique in that regard. I don’t know that too many of those guys are walking around the planet, though.”

[MORE: New Bears injury issues cloud meeting with Cardinals]

The Bears have had the good fortune to have the likes of Israel Idonije, another defensive end with the speed to be a force for the perennially elite coverage units of former coordinator Dave Toub.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Bears’ kickoff coverage struggled against Green Bay with Washington hurting. The Packers returned three kickoffs a total of 105 yards (35.3 average).

The issues were more than just losing Washington, however. “The first kick wasn’t Robbie’s best kick; we didn’t do a good job of beating enough blocks or playing with leverage,” Rodgers said. “The second one was a better kick and we didn’t squeeze as far as we needed to.

“Some of those things have come up in the preseason and were addressed. Some of those things were new; there were a couple new guys out there who maybe got a different look than what they’d seen before.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

Veteran linebacker Sam Acho was re-signed and is expected to return to his roles on all four special-teams units.

The Bears got special-teams solo tackles from linebacker Lamin Barrow and rookie safety Harold Jones-Quartey. Barrow played for Rodgers in Denver last season and Jones-Quartey, an undrafted rookie free agent waived by the Cardinals.

Why those were significant is that Barrow was not signed until Sept. 7, the day after Jones-Quartey was claimed off waivers. A goal of Rodgers’ scheme is to integrate new personnel quickly, which will be required to fill in the loss of Washington.

“You’ve got to be flexible enough with your system to try and minimize the things that’ll show up with newer people,” Rodgers said. “You try not to ask the new guy that week to do 700 things and it’s something you’ve got to be mindful of early season, mid season, late season as we put together game plans and try to get those matchups we’re trying to get.”

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

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USA TODAY

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.

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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.