Bears' Week 2 in-foe: Bruce and the Birds


Bears' Week 2 in-foe: Bruce and the Birds

What could've been?

At least until things kick off Sunday, Bruce Arians' return to Chicago - perhaps for the first time since being told to go home in the coaching interview process in January 2013 - will spur thoughts of where the Bears would be now had they chosen Arians over Marc Trestman.

As detailed by our own John Mullin following Phil Emery's firing last December, a reported "mock press conference" in the interview process, a desire to retain Rod Marinelli (instead of Arians' preference, current Jets head coach Todd Bowles), and then ignoring Marinelli's opinion after asking for it has gotten the Bears to where they are now. The Optimism Button has since been re-set with the Emery/Trestman tear-down coinciding with the franchise's next "swing" with Ryan Pace and John Fox. Arians has since won a second Coach of the Year Award and guided the Cardinals to a 22-11 record.

That includes a 1-0 mark this season after Carson Palmer became the first Cardinals quarterback to win seven straight games since Jim Hart, and 14 of his last 16 starts. In between, there was a second left ACL surgery within a decade. Arizona was 9-1 at the time Palmer crumbled last November, before finishing 11-5 when the signal-calling injuries became contagious.  But the 35-year-old eclipsed 300 yards in his return Sunday against the Saints while working without two of his projected starting offensive linemen; right tackle Robert Massie will serve the second of a two-game substance abuse suspension Sunday, and big ticket, nasty free agent Mike Iupati continues recovering from a preseason knee injury. April's first-round pick, D.J. Humphries, couldn't beat out Earl Watford to slide in for Massie. Arians looked to the Bay Area two off-seasons ago to sign Jared Veldheer away from Oakland to protect Carson's blind side.

[RELATED: Bruce Arians has no hard feelings at being passed over for Bears job]

The 31st-ranked rushing offense came back with Andre Ellington as its starter, but the third-year pro was again bit by the injury bug Sunday, suffering a knee sprain that's projected to keep him out the next two or three games. So Arians must choose between ex-2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson and almost-as-fast third-round rookie David Johnson to pick up the slack. The latter returned a kick 43 yards Sunday before turning a short pass from Palmer into a "next-gear" 55-yard touchdown to seal the 31-19 victory.

Speaking of speed, 2014 third-rounder John Brown turned four of his five touchdowns as a rookie into game-winners a year ago. Then there's the youngest receiver to reach 700, 800, and 900 career catches, the now-32-year-old Larry Fitzgerald. After being virtually ignored following Palmer's injury, he led the Redbirds with six receptions for 87 yards Sunday. And as Michael Floyd works his way back from preseason finger surgery, Palmer worked tight end Darren Fells into the mix with a touchdown catch among his four grabs for 82 yards.

For as much praise as Bowles' defense got before he moved on, it's at least a statistical lie. The Cards finished 24th overall a year ago, 29th against the pass despite the great Patrick Peterson, the continued rise of Tyrann Mathieu and the presence of Antonio Cromartie, who went with Bowles to the Jets. Jermon Bushrod and Kyle Long will have to contend with arguably the top 5-technique in the league, 6-foot-8 Calais Campbell. Whether they can find a suitable replacement for Dan Williams (Oakland) remains to be seen.

[MORE: Grading John Fox's debut as Bears head coach]

Alex Okafor, after his stock slipped to the fourth round of the 2013 draft, is now the consistent presence in the 3-4 linebacking corps. Larry Foote retired and now coaches that group, which brought his former Steelers teammate Lamarr Woodley over after an underachieving, injury-shortened year in Oakland. That option was chosen over retaining current Bear Sam Acho by ex-linebackers coach James Bettcher, who took over as defensive coordinator. Arizona also rolled the dice with the talented Sean Witherspoon, who missed all of 2014 in Atlanta with a torn ACL, and drafted fellow-Mizzou alum Markus Golden in the second round, which is where they selected their other inside starter, Kevin Minter, in 2013.

Besides the threat of David Johnson returning kicks, special teams includes kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who hit his first 17 field goal attempts as a rookie last season. Then there's punter Drew Butler (Kevin's son), who was brought in as Pat O'Donnell's training camp relief in last year's Bears camp, and may have outperformed the sixth-round pick at the time. Butler wound up second in the league last year with 42 punts downed inside the 20.

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

USA Today

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

The Bears returned to Halas Hall with a flurry of injury updates, most notably involving Kyle Long and Mitch Trubisky

And while the starting quarterback for Sunday's game against New Orleans is still TBD, wide reciever Taylor Gabriel will be back out there. Gabriel technically announced his return via Instagram on Sunday night, but confirmed to reporters on Monday that he's been cleared to play. 

"It’s just good to be back, to be around the guys," he said. "To be on the sideline just watching what’s been going on, I’ve been hungry to get back on the field... I probably practiced the hardest I’ve ever practiced in my life. I just had fun, and am glad I’m back." 

Gabriel suffered a concussion in the second half of the Bears' win in D.C., and dealt with the lingering effects of it up until last week. 

"I just woke up and I felt like myself," he said. "It was just a blessing. You always hear about concussions and all the crazy things. The athletic trainer, they did a great job with the whole process. I’m glad that I’m back."

Gabriel was coming off the best game of his Bears tenure: a six-catch, 75 yard performance that included three first-half touchdowns. The third touchdown – a 36-yarder featuring a highlight-reel catch – showcased the type of wrinkle that the Trubisky-Gabriel connection can bring to the offense. 

"The one thing that Taylor brings is he has that one element of downfield speed that helps out," Matt Nagy said. "So you’re able to take the top off of some defenses with him. And then he’s one of those wide receivers for us, like Allen Robinson, he’s got experience. So there’s a calming in the huddle that you understand that he knows what to do versus certain coverages. He’s coming off a pretty good game in Washington, and unfortunately got hurt, but there’s a calming element to him and then being able to take the top off.”

The Bears also had good news regarding second-year defensive tackle Bilal Nichols. Nichols returned to practice for the first time since breaking his hand during the Week 2 win in Denver. It's especially good news considering the team expects to be without Akiem Hicks sidelined for the foreseeable future. 

"[I] felt good today," Nichols said. "Just trying to continue to keep moving in the right direction and we'll see where it goes." 

Nichols wouldn't commit to playing on Sunday, and plans to see how he feels after a full week of practice. Nagy indicated that, at this point in his recovery, it's more about getting back into playing shape. 

"He’s been out a couple weeks, so now it’s just the ability for him to show probably more conditioning than anything," he said. "He has that cast on him, but he has the fingers that he’s able to use. Again, if you’re able to be out there and you’re able to suit up and go out there, then to me, let’s go.”

If Nichols is able to play against New Orleans, he'll do so wearing a club for extra protection. This was the first hand injury he's ever suffered, and Nichols admitted that playing with the cast takes some getting used to. Leonard Floyd wore the same type of club during the first half of last season, and has talked with Nichols about how to deal with it. 

"He's giving me a lot of insight and what to expect," Nichols said. "And things that he did that helped him out a lot. You know, we'll see. I'm going to try some things out."

Putting Kyle Long on IR was necessary for the Bears, but that doesn't make it sting any less

USA Today

Putting Kyle Long on IR was necessary for the Bears, but that doesn't make it sting any less

For the fourth season in a row, Kyle Long’s season ends on injured reserve. 

Matt Nagy opened Monday's daily press conference –– his first since the morning after losing to Oakland –– officially announcing that the right guard’s season is over. 

“Obviously everyone has seen the news [about] Kyle, with putting him on the IR,” he said. “I think it's a tough situation just because of what he's been going through and where he's at … He's always been really good to us and what he's done. We just felt like that was where he's at right now and it's what we wanted to do.” 

Long’s nagging hip injury was clearly affecting his play, and the team felt – given all the run game struggles – that trying to fight through it on a week-by-week basis was no longer a realistic option. And while it’s true that Long came into 2019 camp as healthy as he’d been in years, the wear and tear of three injury-shortened seasons on the 30-year old guard were evident. 

The news was especially tough to swallow for those around Halas Hall given Long’s reputation among teammates and coaches. A first-round pick in 2013 with multiple Pro-Bowls, he was one of the team’s vocal leaders and well-liked throughout all corners of the locker room. 

“Kyle [is] a great dude,” Bilal Nichols said. “My whole rookie year, Kyle helped me out a lot because I lined up against him every day. Guys like him is why I had a pretty good season as a rookie last year.”

“You get a guy like Kyle, who’s poured his heart and soul into this organization and has worked really hard to be dominant in a lot of areas,” Nagy added. “We appreciate that. I’ve only been with him for a year and a half but I appreciate the way that he’s gone about things.”

Now the Bears turn to Rashaad Coward and Ted Larsen – the latter of which returned to practice after missing the Raiders game with a knee injury. Despite his relative inexperience playing on the interior (and frankly, on the offense in general), the team’s eager to see how Coward’s athleticism can help a running game that’s only averaging 3.4 yards per carry. 

He hasn’t been named the starter yet, but was taking first-team reps on Monday afternoon. 

“I just want to play with a dog mentality,” Coward said. “It’s the NFL. Guys come out here and try to kill you every week. So you can’t go out there playing soft. You’re going to get pushed around. And I don’t like that.” 

He also conceded that he was pleasantly surprised by how well he adjusted to having to be an emergency guard in the Bears’ win over Minnesota. Coward hadn’t gotten interior reps during that week of practice, and had to sub in when Larsen hurt his knee. 

“Going into the game, I was like F it,” he said. “It is what it is. It’s either you do it or you don’t.”

“Coaches were like, ‘Hey, this is what you’re supposed to do.’ At the end of the day, just keep it going.” 

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