Bears

Cam Newton’s success traces to Ron Rivera letting him be himself

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Cam Newton’s success traces to Ron Rivera letting him be himself

A young player lucking into just the right coach is always fortuitous, rarely simple or automatic, even with the best of draft choices. Buddy Ryan was the perfect coach for Richard Dent, Dan Hampton and rest of the sometimes-miscreant spirits that were the ’85 Bears. Apart from the matching of skillset to scheme is the matter of personalities, which don’t always necessarily sync up. Mike Ditka and Jim McMahon, not so much.

But the pairing of Cam Newton and Ron Rivera may be on course to be one of the best ever, right along with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady or Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. And this has nothing to do with specifics of coaching, which Rivera has left largely in the hands of former Bears assistant Mike Shula, now Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator and previously Newton’s quarterbacks coach.

It’s about Rivera being comfortable with Newton the Entertainer. Let that pony run, and Rivera has. Rivera was part of the greatest cult of personality in NFL history — the '85 Bears — and he knows very, very well what happens when epic talent blends with personality and that personality gets loose on the NFL.

[RELATED: Count Brian Urlacher among those annoyed with Cam Newton's celebrations]

Newton has won nothing remotely on the scale of Brady or Montana, or even McMahon, for that matter. But rare elements of the foundation are there and are far more interesting than any racial or other discussions swirling around Newton. From his defense base, Rivera has demanded a balanced offense overall and made ball security an absolute. Newton has progressively gotten that, culminating this year with a career lows in interception rate and sacks taken. Newton is sub-60-percent in career completion percentage but he doesn’t give the football away (five fumbles).

But more to the bigger point: Rivera is very clearly comfortable with personality, which Newton is and has. Rivera was there to see what can happen when Ryan imposes minimal absolutes and lets his players do their jobs with the personalities that made them who they were in the first place. Rivera specifically mentioned this week what he’d seen McMahon do that Thursday night in Minnesota so he knows what a free spirit can really do when you let it be.

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Newton really didn’t have a lot of choice when Rivera and the Panthers tabbed him as the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft. What Newton got was the right coach for who he is as a personality, even with Rivera, like Belichick, coming from the other side of the football. Rivera was there through the ‘80s Bears and was eminently familiar with what was important and what wasn’t — much like John Madden and his sometimes-miscreant Oakland Raiders teams, who had just two Madden absolutes: Be on time, and pay attention.

Rivera said it all on Wednesday, recalling the Panthers’ one loss (to Atlanta) and some of why they lost: “I told our guys let’s keep our personalities and be who we are. If people don’t like us, then that’s theirs.

Newton got the right guy. And vice versa.

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.