Bears

Drama missing from Bears receiver corps...for a change

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Drama missing from Bears receiver corps...for a change

For so many recent Bears training camps, there was some drama to play out at the receiver positions, some position competition, something to resolve, usually something significant and pressing.

Not this year.

The training camp “issues,” such as they are, are not really issues at all. There is no "Devin Hester as No. 1 receiver." No "How will they use Brandon Manumaleuna?" Not even "Who will win the No. 3 slot?"

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Drama around the tight end position dissipated when Martellus Bennett attended the mandatory minicamp and said he intended to be there for training camp. What the Bears are able to get from oft-injured Zach Miller or Dante Rosario are not front-burner concerns.

Brandon Marshall is gone, which by definition reduces the “drama” quotient by somewhere between half and two-thirds. The only drama now is performance-related, whether or how quickly rookie Kevin White reaches the level of excellence set by Marshall and expected of a No. 7-overall draft choice. White missed a number of offseason sessions, some for an unknown reason, but no indication of worrisome drama there.

“It'll happen, slowly but surely,” White said. “It'll all come together.”

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His bosses agree: “It’s always tough [for] rookie receivers,” said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “It’s completely different than anything you’ve done, and just getting used to the tempo and the speed of practice and being able to maintain it. Coach Fox said it best: ‘You’re getting ready for a 20-plus game season, where the most you’ve ever gone is 13.’ And so for [White] to get ready, it’s going to be a mental challenge, but I think he’s up for it.”

Alshon Jeffery is a known NFL quantity. The only “drama” there is whether the Bears go to him before season’s end with a new contract to pre-empt his reaching free agency. The assumption is that the early stages of talks have begun and that the Bears will not stint on keeping an impact receiver of Jeffery’s stature in place.

Replacing Marshall with White has obvious payroll effects, even with the money spent to add Eddie Royal this offseason.

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Royal effectively removes any of the drama around the No. 3 receiver spot. Marquess Wilson displayed promise in the early days of camp 2014 before suffering a broken clavicle. But the anticipation of Wilson’s return from injury seemed inflated; Wilson caught 17 passes over the final six games but averaged a very modest 8.2 yards per catch and scored just once, doing nothing to lead the new coaching regime to do anything but upgrade the No. 3 position with Royal, who is on a mild mission of his own.

“I’m trying to show that I’m more than a slot, that I can play outside and I can play everywhere,” Royal said. “As a receiver, you don’t want to be defined in just one role. You want to try to expand that, and that’s what I’m trying to do now.”

Wilson projects as depth at, ideally, more than one position. Josh Morgan caught 10 passes in spot duty last season (seven starts) but signed with the New Orleans Saints in May. Josh Bellamy returns but is in roster competition with rookie free agents Ify Umodu and Cameron Meredith, Rashad Lawrence and possibly Marc Mariani, whose chief value lies in return abilities.

After loss to Patriots, Bears' defense searching for answers — but not confidence

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USA Today

After loss to Patriots, Bears' defense searching for answers — but not confidence

A year ago, had the Bears come within one yard of tying the New England Patriots in a game in which they allowed two special teams touchdowns, the vibe in the Solider Field locker room might’ve been different. Sort of like, hey, that was pretty good that we were able to hang with one of the league's best teams and nearly tie and/or beat them despite our own mistakes. 

The operative term, then, after Sunday’s 38-31 loss to the Patriots may be confident frustration. The Bears know they’re a good team, better than they’ve had in recent memory. And that makes losing a game this team felt it was close to winning that much more frustrating. 

“We still had confidence last year that we could go in and win games (last year), but I would say this year we know what type of team we have,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “We know we got a quarterback that’s developing and throwing the ball down the field really well. We know we have a great wide receiver corps. We know we have rushers that can get to the quarterback. We have a really good team and we’re going to have to figure out how to capitalize on that big play momentum and finish games out.”

Perhaps this is a picture of a talented team still trying to figure out how to win. The Bears’ defense entered Sunday allowing an average of 8.8 yards per play in the fourth quarter and allowed 6.5 yards per play in the final 15 minutes Sunday, including a critical 96-yard touchdown drive. 

And while Mitch Trubisky’s Hail Mary to Kevin White came up one yard short, that the Bears were even in that situation to begin with was the problem. New England was able to chew up 3:49 off the clock before punting the ball back to the Bears' offense with 24 seconds remaining. Get a stop earlier and the Bears might not have to rely on a nearly-converted heave with time expiring to tie the game. 

“In games like this, your room for error is slim in all phases,” cornerback Kyle Fuller said. “No matter what we did (well), there are still a couple things that we have to clean up against a team like that."

The Bears’ defense is remaining confident despite scant pressure on Brady — he was sacked once (by Roquan Smith) and hit only three times (by Smith, Bilal Nichols and Roy Robertson-Harris). Khalil Mack barely showed up on the stat sheet, registering only one tackle while being dropped into coverage far more frequently than he made an impact as a pass rusher. How much he was affected by his injured ankle, or how much defensive coordinator Vic Fangio felt he had to gameplan around it, is unclear (Mack did not speak to the media following the game). 

Leonard Floyd, too, was picked on by Brady, who frequently got the ball out quick in a successful effort to mitigate a pass rush that’s struggled to make an impact after recording 18 sacks in four games to begin the year. But the confidence is still there, despite seemingly few reasons for optimism since the second half in Miami kicked off last weekend. 

“We definitely don’t feel like (we’ve hit a wall),” safety Eddie Jackson said. “That’s probably the greatest quarterback in the NFL right now. We just gotta come in, we left some things on the field, we left some plays on the field. Like I said, it’s tough trying to put this one behind you but, you know, it’s a long season. We’re not getting down on ourselves, we’re still going to play with confidence. That confidence is still there.” 

Games against two of the league’s worst offenses in the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, then, should help the Bears’ defensive production match its confidence, if that line of thinking is to be believed. But as the first four games of the season get farther and farther in the rearview mirror, this is a defense that has to prove itself again in the coming weeks. 

“(The Patriots) came to play all together, and not saying we didn’t but we didn’t make the plays when we needed to make the plays,” outside linebacker Aaron Lynch said. “It’s on us. Defense, we got it though. We’re not worried about it. It’s another game we lost. We got how many other games, we got 10 games left? Yeah. I’m not worried about it. I don’t think anybody is.”

Bears set “a new standard here” even in 38-31 loss to Patriots

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USA TODAY

Bears set “a new standard here” even in 38-31 loss to Patriots

One yard. Less than one, really. That’s all that separated the Bears and the New England Patriots on Sunday, after Kevin White’s efforts to tug a Hail Mary into the Patriots end zone came up just that short in a 38-31 loss to the NFL’s greatest team over the better part of the past two decades.

And normally, a team under a first-time head coach (the Bears’ fifth coach since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady started their run in 2001) would feel good about nearly overcoming giving up two special-teams scores and two turnovers of their own, all against one of the NFL’s elites.

But feel-good was hard to find after a second straight loss of a winnable game to a good team.

“’Close’ doesn’t cut it,” said quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who set career highs in pass attempts (50) and rushing yards (81) on his way to two passing touchdowns and one rushing. However, Trubisky had his lowest passer rating (69.8) of the season after throwing two interceptions.

“There’s a new standard here, and coming up one yard short and not tying the game and going to overtime, that’s not good enough anymore.”

Perspective isn’t particularly easy with a young team that dropped to 3-3, still its best scorecard after six games since 2014. The Bears are now back behind Minnesota and idle Green Bay (both at 3-2-1) in the NFC North and are tied with Detroit (3-3). 

Still, with their best individual player (Khalil Mack) hobbled with an injured ankle and a pass rush that got virtually no pressure on Brady, the Bears did find themselves at the Chicago 45 with a chance to tie with two seconds to play.

Maybe the marvel was that they were even that close to the Patriots, after special teams allowed a punt-block return for a touchdown and a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

“We were right there. I think our offense is growing and I like where we are right now, I really do,” Nagy said.

More than that, as he told the players in the locker room afterwards, “With everything that happened to us and we were a yard away from tying the game. Take that and think about that a little bit.”

The ebbs and flows of the game notwithstanding – the Bears led 17-7 early in the second quarter, and were down 38-24 midway through the fourth – the game was arguably another small indicator that the Bears are the cliché’d “for real.”

Whatever that actually means.

The defense, which failed to protect leads in the fourth quarter in two of the Bears’ first four games, was unable to deliver a stop in the final minutes Sunday, allowing New England to drive 96 yards for score to go up 38-24 midway through the fourth quarter.

They “held” Brady and the New England offense to 24 points without Mack, the linchpin of their defense. But the Patriots were without Rob Gronkowski, the perennial Pro Bowl tight end and favorite target of Brady.

"I think it just comes down to knowing that if you are going against a good team, your room for error is slim, so you have to be on point the whole game," said cornerback Kyle Fuller, who intercepted his third pass in the past two games, “

And after some shaky handlings of in-game situations this season, Nagy was not out-coached by Belichick, who routinely takes an opponent’s strength away and who effectively took leading receiver Taylor Gabriel out of the offense. Nagy and Trubisky turned to tight end Trey Burton for nine catches for 126 yards and a touchdown.

Trubisky hurt himself and the offense with a handful of bad misses of open receivers, including Anthony Miller in the end zone in the first half. New England forced him into quick-react decisions with an array of blitzes alternating with eight-man zones, and Trubisky was able to make the Patriots pay with short and mid-range targets of Burton.

Accuracy cost Trubisky when he underthrew wideout Josh Bellamy, who was two steps behind cornerback Stephon Gilmore, in the third quarter for another missed touchdown opportunity. A subsequent sloppy throw on the run to Bellamy was intercepted when the ball was thrown to the defender’s side of Bellamy instead of toward the sideline, costing the Bears a chance at at least a field goal. A misplaced fourth-quarter pass toward Miller later in the fourth quarter was intercepted at the New England four-yard line.

But Trubisky’s 333 yards marked the third straight time he has passed for 300 or more yards, and Nagy cited a number of throws that Trubisky didn’t make as evidence of improved decision-making.

“I came away pleased with how he played,” Nagy said.

Added Gabriel: "He's a playmaker, man. A guy that wanted to win. You can see that out of him. He's the leader of this team and I would go to battle with Mitch any day."