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.

Roquan Smith helps shear a sheep at Bears community event

Roquan Smith helps shear a sheep at Bears community event

Roquan Smith has more sheared sheep than tackles on his stat sheet as a pro football player.

Smith and several other Bears rookies participated in a hands-on community event at Lambs Farm in Libertyville, Illinois on Monday where he assisted farm staff with the sheep's grooming. Smith said it was a first for him despite growing up around animals. 

"It's like on the norm for me though, playing linebacker you're in the trenches," Smith said of the experience.

"Shaving a sheep, I never really envisioned myself doing something like that," Smith said via "I was around animals [growing up], but it was more so cows and goats here and there and dogs and cats. I've petted a sheep before, but never actually flipped one and shaved one."

Bears rookies got up close and personal with more than just sheep.

Smith was selected with the eighth overall pick in April's draft and will assume a starting role opposite Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker this season. Here's to hoping he can wrangle opposing ball-carriers like a sheep waiting to be sheared.

The Bears' defense is ahead of its offense, but Matt Nagy doesn't see that as a problem

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The Bears' defense is ahead of its offense, but Matt Nagy doesn't see that as a problem

Asking players about how the defense is “ahead” of the offense is a yearly right of passage during OTAs, sort of like how every baseball team has about half its players saying they’re in the best shape of their life during spring training. So that Vic Fangio’s defense is ahead of Matt Nagy’s offense right now isn’t surprising, and it's certainly not concerning. 

But Nagy is also working to install his offense right now during OTAs to build a foundation for training camp. So does the defense — the core of which is returning with plenty of experience in Fangio’s system — being ahead of the offense hurt those efforts?

“It’s actually good for us because we’re getting an experienced defense,” Nagy said. “My message to the team on the offensive side is just be patient and don’t get frustrated. They understand that they’re going to play a little bit faster than us right now. We’ll have some growing pains, but we’ll get back to square one in training camp.”

We’ll have a chance to hear from the Bears’ offensive players following Wednesday’s practice, but for now, the guys on Fangio’s defense have come away impressed with that Nagy’s offense can be. 

“The offense is a lot … just very tough,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “They’re moving well. They’re faster. They’re throwing a lot of different looks at us and that’s just Nagy’s offense. If I was a receiver I would love to play in this offense, just because you get to do so many different things and you get so many different plays. It just looks fun over there.”

“They’re moving together, and I like to see that,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “We’re not a bad defense. They’re practicing against us, so they’re getting better every day, and vice versa. It’s a daily grind. It’s going to be tough, but those guys, they got the right pieces. I like what I see out there. When somebody makes a play, they’re gone. Everybody can run over there. It’s the right fit for Mitch, it’s the right fit for the receivers, the running backs.”

Still, for all the praise above, the defense is “winning” more, at least as much as it can without the pads on. But the offense is still having some flashes, even as it collectively learns the terminology, concepts and formations used by Nagy. 

And that leads to a competitive atmosphere at Halas Hall, led by the Bears’ new head coach. 

“He’s an offensive coach and last year coach (John) Fox, I couldn’t really talk stuff to (him) because he’s a defensive coach and it’s like Nagy’s offense so if I get a pick or something, I mean, I like to talk stuff to him,” Amukamara said. “He’ll say something like ‘we’re coming at you 2-0.’ Stuff like that. That just brings out the competition and you always want that in your head coach.”