Bears

Ed Donatell has got the Bears' backs

Ed Donatell has got the Bears' backs

Youth is running rampant in the Bears' backfields. Both offensive and defensive. While Stan Drayton's group of runners consists primarily of backs with no more than two years of NFL experience in hopes of replacing Matt Forte by committee, Ed Donatell's group on the last line of defense at least has a couple of graybeards by comparison.

Antrel Rolle was supposed to come in and lead a year ago, but it was more vocal than on the field. Tracy Porter was the guy brought in just 14 months ago, and after one of the best seasons of his eight-year NFL career, he is back to play mentor, stay healthy, and drape the opposition's top wideout. But besides Sherrick McManis (seventh year) and Chris Prosinski (sixth season) — neither are locks to make the final 53-man roster despite their special teams capabilities — every other defensive back in camp right now has no more two years' experience at this level. And while there are expected improvements from offseason additions in the defense's front seven, many eyes now turn on the defensive back corps — shy on experience, and creating turnovers a year ago.

"It's a big challenge, but it's a lot of fun," said Donatell after Thursday's two hours of practice in 90-degree temperatures in Bourbonnais. "These guys are so willing. They're wide open to learning and they work together, and I think we're gonna be able to grab an energy from us all working together. That's going to make us a pretty solid group."

Despite the turnover deficiency (a franchise record-low eight interceptions, only four by defensive backs), the unit also ranked just 22nd in sacks last season, which doesn't help. The good? The defense still somehow rose from 30th in 2014 to fourth in pass defense (a bend-don't-break 224.6 yards per game). So now it's up to Donatell, who molded a quartet of young defensive backs in San Francisco to six Pro Bowl appearances in his four years there with Vic Fangio, to get this group to walk the fine line between aggressiveness and discipline.

[MORE: Bears go 'unscripted' in practice, giving offense game-like test vs. Fangio defenses]

"We want to come out with disciplined play. We don't believe it's an either/or — that you have to be unsound and leave your technique to produce takeaways," Donatell explained. "There's times when you have a non-aggressive angle we want you to go for the ball. When you don't, we want you to go for the tackle. When you have a deep zone, stay deep, when it's short, stay short. So stay within the defense. That's a non-compromising principle for us, and good things will happen."

But Donatell still expresses an urgency to make that leap intelligently, young or not.

"It's a mindset you create, it's a culture. There's no question about it here, and you've got a great measuring stick. You know, it was so great here (in defenses under Lovie Smith) a few years back, and we're looking to create that different places. It's not a switch you just turn on. It takes a little bit of time. We're not comfortable with waiting for it to happen. We want to speed it up and get going, where people have fun."

When all was said and done in 2015, a look at the starting lineups showed Donatell wound up relying on Porter, Kyle Fuller and Adrian Amos in three of those spots, with undrafted free agent Bryce Callahan developing trust in the nickel package. The latter will be given an opportunity to compete for one of the outside spots this preseason, while the 25-year NFL coaching veteran praises the way Amos wasn't intimidated, took on greater responsibilities as his rookie season went on, and kept getting himself ready every week despite a shoulder injury that required surgery right after the season.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Here were some of Donatell's other thoughts Thursday.

On Fuller entering his third season:

"The biggest difference right now is he's more familiar with what we're doing, more sure of himself, which means he's going to react faster. We're always looking for them to `spike' the second year we have them, improve. He's getting used to the group of coaches we have, a new system, and right now he's on a path to keep improving."

On waiver pickup Harold Jones-Quartey rebounding from a mid-season benching to having excellent games in returning to starting safety the last two games:

"He was learning on the run. We gave him some game action, let him marinate a bit, then brought him back. But part of your talent, and we make no exception, is if you get the ball for us, there's a place for you in our defense."

On fourth-round draft picks Deon Bush and Deiondre' Hall, and sixth-round selection DeAndre Houston-Carson:

"We like them all. We've got a great room, but time will tell on that one. Time will definitely tell. We're excited for the preseason because that really tells us a lot."

Those games begin next Thursday, in the preseason opener at Soldier Field against the Denver Broncos.

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.