Bears

High risk lurks in rush-LB draft class for Bears, others

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High risk lurks in rush-LB draft class for Bears, others

The expectation at the outset of the 2015 offseason that new Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox would eventually target one of a strong class of edge pass rushers early in this year’s draft, presumably with the No. 7 pick of the first round.

And the 2015 draft’s first round that will play out this Thursday is rated as “strong” in this particular position group.

With the work already done in free agency to stock the linebacker spot in the planned-on 3-4 scheme — adding Pernell McPhee, Mason Foster and Sam Acho — the urgency is dialed back, if only slightly. The growing expectation is that the Bears will grab one of the top wide receivers if the chance presents itself.

“We’re going to target anybody that makes us better in the draft,” Fox said. “I think Ryan has the approach, which I am on board with, which is taking the best available player.”

[MORE: Bears QB Draft Preview: Beyond Jay Cutler...?]

If that player is judged to be one of the edge rushers, it will be a target with some considerable risk.

Someone, or two, from among Vic Beasley, Alvin Dupree, Dante Fowler, Eric Kendricks, Randy Gregory, Shane Ray and a couple others can be expected to emerge as an impact NFL player.

But not every team is convinced.

“It's interesting, because I've had a bunch of teams asking me about what I call the ‘edge’ class,” NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock said in a recent conference call. “I think a month ago our perception was that there were going to be at least four guys going in the first eight picks. And now the perception is couple of those guys are probably sliding down a little bit.”

Indeed, while pass-rushing linebackers may appear less risky than quarterbacks, for instance, first-round picks in general have a roughly 50-percent success rate. Indeed, part of the Bears’ defensive difficulties of the past couple years trace in a small measure to one of those misses.

Examples: 2011 vs. 2012

The 2011 draft proved rich in the kind of rush-linebacker/end that the Bears and other 3-4 teams covet: Von Miller (to Fox and the Denver Broncos), Aldon Smith (to Vic Fangio and the San Francisco 49ers), J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn, Cameron Jordan (to Pace and the New Orleans Saints).

All went within the first 24 picks of the draft and all but Clayborn already have been selected for at least one Pro Bowl.

[MORE: Bears CB Draft Preview: Competition coming for Tim Jennings]

But in 2012, another year with a supposed cluster of elite edge rushers, the results were distinctly less glittering. The run on them started at No. 15 with the Seattle Seahawks:

Bruce Irvin. Quinton Coples. Melvin Ingram. Shea McClellin. Chandler Jones. Whitney Mercilus. Dont’a Hightower. Nick Perry. All in the first round. Within the first six picks of the second round: Courtney Upshaw. Andre Branch.

Not one has been to a Pro Bowl.

Jones has been the class of the class, with seasons of 6-11.5-6 sacks. Irvin and Coples each has 16.5 sacks over their three seasons. Irvin and Jones have Super Bowl rings.

But McClellin, Perry, Branch and Upshaw have been major disappointments for teams that made them priority picks expressly to upgrade pass rushes. The Bears are not expected to pick up the fifth-year option on McClellin’s rookie contract, nor are the Packers with Perry’s.

Make no mistake…

The best linebackers in the 2012 draft class were inside linebackers: Luke Kuechly to Carolina, Bobby Wagner to Seattle, both Pro Bowl honorees.

But most edge linebackers chosen with No. 1 picks have a hierarchy of skill sets, and the 2015 group will be measured by it as well:

“Pass rush is the first thing that comes to mind,” Pace said. “Edge speed. The ability to hit the quarterback. And then also the ability to set the edge and get off a block. But pass rush is the number one priority.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the draft, Bears fans!]

The Denver Broncos chose a front-seven defensive player in with their first pick in the first three drafts while Fox was their head coach and a cornerback last year. As to whether he sees that pattern continuing in Chicago, Fox deadpanned at last month’s NFL owner’s meetings:

 “I think we’ll let you know in late April.” 

Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

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USA Today Sports Images

Three reasons why the Bears' offense should have success against the Patriots' defense

Every team will try to scheme against what its opponent does best. Not every team does it as well as Bill Belichick consistently has in his Hall of Fame tenure as the coach of the New England Patriots. 
 
This is what Belichick is famous for, beyond the five Super Bowl trophies and historic partnership with Tom Brady. That thing your team’s offense does best? He’s going to take it away. 
 
That can create a mental challenge for an opposing coach during the week. Do you focus on doing something other than what your offense does best because Belichick is going to identify and scheme against it, or do you try to accentuate what you do best so it can’t be taken away? 
 
“That’s that whole chasing the cat’s tail thing,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “All of the sudden you start out-thinking to yourself, ‘What the heck?’ That’s the mystique, and that’s what they do. They’ve earned that over time because of the success they’ve had. 
 
“When you don’t go too crazy with that and balance it and control what you can control. Then in the end, win, lose or draw, no matter what, you at least feel good you approached it the right way, and you weren’t, ‘Oh shoot, I should have done this. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.’”
 
When Taylor Gabriel and the Atlanta Falcons faced the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, everybody on that team knew Belichick would do what he could to take Julio Jones out of the game. But that didn’t make preparations any easier. 
 
“We knew he was going to take away Julio, but we didn’t know how he was going to do it,” Gabriel said. “So it’s just just something you kind of have to adjust to when you get in the game.”
 
Jones only had four catches in that game, and the Falcons were able to quickly adjust to how he was taken away — though it wasn’t enough to keep them from a historic collapse and ultimate overtime loss. 
 
Tight end Dion Sims played New England eight times during his four years with the Miami Dolphins, and came away with a healthy respect for the scheme and the players on that defense. 
 
“They’re fundamentally sound, they got good coaching over there, a good staff,” Sims said. “You gotta be prepared because they come out and they play their ass off.” 
 
But what should give the Bears confidence they can mentally and physically beat New England’s defense?
 
1. The Patriots’ defense isn’t what it once was
 
The way Bears coaches and players have talked about New England’s defense this week has been with reverence and respect. But lately, the Patriots’ defense production hasn’t quite equalled its reputation. 
 
Maybe it started with Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs launching 42 points and over 500 yards of offense against New England in 2017’s nationally-televised season opener. Maybe Super Bowl LII, in which the Philadelphia Eagles ripped off 41 points with a backup quarterback, was another turning point. Or maybe the Patriots’ 43-40 win over the Chiefs on Sunday night, which looked more like a Big 12 game than an NFL game, further chipped away at that mystique. 
 
New England’s defense heads to Chicago ranked 18th in points allowed (24.7) and has allowed 400 or more yards of offense in four of six games this year. They’re 19th in defensive DVOA, though Pro Football Focus’ grades do peg this group fourth, behind only the Bears, Rams and Eagles. 
 
What this defense does well is take the ball away, with eight interceptions and four fumble recoveries critical in propping up a defense that isn’t good on third down (44 percent conversion rate, 25th) or in the red zone (68 percent, 26th). But as long as the Bears' ball security is better than its two-turnovers-inside-the-five-yard-line showing in Miami on Sunday, an offense that scored 48 and 28 points in its last two games should be in good shape. 
 
2. Multiple weapons
 
How Belichick schemes against a Bears offense that’s been explosive and productive in its last two weeks will be fascinating to see on Sunday. Maybe it’ll be Tarik Cohen, who Belichick said is “a special player that you gotta know where he is at all times.” Maybe it’ll be making sure Taylor Gabriel doesn’t beat them deep (“The execution on that was like 99 out of 100,” Belichick said of Mitch Trubisky’s 54-yard deep ball to Gabriel against Miami). Or maybe it’ll be dropping seven or eight guys into coverage, spying Trubisky and forcing the second-year Bears quarterback to make good decisions and fit passes into tight windows. Or maybe it’ll be something else entirely. 
 
This goes back to the guessing game, though, and it’s one the Bears can’t allow themselves to play. 
 
“I think you can spend too much time on that,” Nagy said. “I look at that and I think I've said it before, it can be kind of like chasing the cat's tail. You've got to be careful of that and when you just start worrying about what you do — and of course here or there you might so something a little bit different — but if you just start doing things different because of one coach, now you've stopped worrying about just controlling what you can control and I haven't found too much success with that.”
 
The good news for the Bears, though, is they seem to have the multitude of weapons necessary to have success against a Belichick defense. Kansas City showed it on Sunday — when the Patriots took away Kelce, Kareem Hunt racked up 185 yards from scrimmage, while Tyreek Hill gouged New England for 142 yards on seven catches with three touchdowns.
 
So if the plan is to take away Cohen, that could lead to opportunities for Gabriel, or vice versa. Or if the plan is to drop seven or eight into coverage, that would give Jordan Howard an opportunity to carve out yards on the ground.  
 
“They utilize all their players, the backs, the tight ends, the receivers, the quarterback, they all have production, so if you take one away, they just go to the next guy, and that’s hard to defend,” Belichick said. “There are a lot of options on some of those plays, which guy is going to end up with the ball based on a quarterback’s decision, if it’s a check-with me type of play, bubbles and look passes and RPOs and things like that, it’s up to the quarterback to make the right decision and Trubisky’s done a good job of that. I think all those things, they keep getting better and they’re hard to defend.”
 
3. History repeating itself
 
In Nagy’s only meeting with New England as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, his offense scored 42 points — and that’s a number that has resonated in the Bears’ locker room and practice fields this week.  
 
“You have to go into this game with confidence and know that we’re playing against a great group of guys who’ve been there, been to the Super Bowl and then they also have Tom Brady on the other side,” Sims said. “It’s important that we capitalize on everything and try to be mistake-free.” 
 
“What the defense is giving you is what the offense will take — what good offenses will do,” Gabriel said. “I feel like we have those type of minds up there in the booth and on the field with us to figure out what those guys are doing and how we want to attack it.”
 
The Bears’ offense is young, from the coach to offensive coordinator to most of the players that populate it. Beating New England, even if its defense isn’t what it used to be, would send a message around the league that the Bears are for real. Until the Patriots are dethroned in consecutive years, or even finish a season with fewer than, say, 12 wins, they’re still the Patriots.  
 
But while this team is young, it does have a handful of guys who’ve competed against New England on some of the NFL’s biggest stages. So expect guys like Gabriel, Burton and even Nagy to not allow this team to let facing the Patriots become daunting on Sunday. 
 
“It’s not difficult at all,” Gabriel said of avoiding thinking about that mystique. “Just like this team, we have the weapons to take advantage of those one-on-one matchups. I don’t care what defense you are, you’re going to have a one-on-one matchup somewhere unless you’re dropping everybody. So as long as you’re staying the pace and being confident in what you’re doing, I feel like we’ll be okay.” 

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

The Bears were getting used to life in the big chair. Chicago was favored in each of their last four games, but it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Osweiler in overtime last week.

The Miami Dolphins pulled off the upset, and now the Bears return home to take on one of the best teams in the league.

Even if they had won in Miami, Chicago likely still would have been underdogs to the New England Patriots on Sunday, but as it stands, Bill Belichick and company are favored by three on most major sportsbooks, according to Vegas Insider.

The line initially opened at Patriots by 2.5, but it would seem that money placed on New England pushed the spread a little more in the Bears’ favor.

Vegas is expecting another higher-scoring game for both teams, with the over/under sitting at 49. Given that the Patriots have scored at least 38 points in each of their last three games, the Bears’ defense may have some trouble keeping this game low on the scoreboard.

In Week 6, home underdogs went 4-1 against the spread and 3-2 straight up. According to Bet America, home underdogs have covered in 20 of their 30 games this season, which bodes well for a Bears team facing a tough task at Soldier Field.