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Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game

Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game

Third preseason games come with added significance simply because it is the one practice game in which the starters play the closest to a full game prior to the start of the regular season. But for the Bears, Saturday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs is potentially far more important for another reason.

The Kansas City game looms as something of a new tipping point in the one relationship that must function above all others for immediate success of the franchise:

The working relationship/bond between offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and quarterback Jay Cutler.

The two-plus quarters that Cutler is expected to play will be the longest yet trial by fire for his trust in Loggains. The latter has been a coordinator previously in his career, but with less time and success in the position that most of Cutler’s previous list of coordinators.

And few of those relationships survived, let alone flourished once Cutler lost faith or belief in their messages, whether under an avalanche of sacks, poor play selection or design, or whatever.

Cutler put up the best season of his eight-year career in 2015 with Loggains as his position coach. Adam Gase was the coordinator, Gase came in with credibility from having worked with Peyton Manning in Denver. The credibility traced to not necessarily what Gase might have taught Manning, but rather because of what Gase undoubtedly LEARNED from Manning.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Saturday’s test will be far short of the ones the regular season holds, when Loggains’ offense has been scouted and schemed for. But after a stretch of “quizzes” for Cutler-Loggains, this is a “test.”

Buy-in with Loggains?

Loggains has traction with Cutler – for now. Cutler was consistent in his compliments of Loggains last year, but it was Gase ultimately in his ear on game days. Indeed, the entire offense believed in Gase: “When I’m in the huddle…and we get a play call,” offensive lineman Kyle Long said at the time, “there’s never a time where we look at each other and think, ‘Oh [darn].’”

The NFL reality is that Loggains, who has stressed an even stronger commitment to running the football (Long and associates love that), has to earn, or re-earn that gut-level trust.

Most of all, from Cutler.

The lurching start to the preseason – the Bears’ 22-0 home loss to Denver, in which the offense with Cutler netted 13 yards in 10 plays, two of them ending in sacks of Cutler – was test No. 1. The Cutler-Loggains relationship appeared to emerge intact.

“We talked,” Cutler said. “We talked a lot about that game. I think the major point for us was, ‘Let’s not panic. Let’s not hit the fire alarm and put guys in a panic.’

“Because it was the first preseason game and we watched the film and a lot of the stuff that went wrong was because of mistakes… . So it was a matter of just kind of cleaning that stuff up and just going back to work. Which I thought we did a really good job of offensively [at New England]. Hopefully we can do that this week, too.”

Tough warm-ups

NFL schedule-makers did Loggains and the Bears no favors. Their first three preseason opponents – Denver, New England, Kansas City – were all top-10 run defenses. Meaning: The Bears are working to establish Loggains’ run-based offense right into the teeth of three of the NFL’s best at stopping that.

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The Bears want to run. But just consider: What if they can’t run against a monster Chiefs front that includes Jaye Howard and Dontari Poe and which held the Bears to 3.3 yards per carry, tied for their second-lowest of 2015, in their meeting last season?

Which then tasks Loggains with getting the offense to the right solutions, and those traditionally have not been – and should not be – solely found in Cutler’s right arm. The Bears streamlined and simplified Cutler’s decision-making last year, by design, and it was the right strategy, minimizing a Cutler weakness.

But now Loggains is front-and-center in those decisions. And Cutler has never appeared to suffer from an excess of patience through his career, even the new, more mature Cutler.

And not only WHAT Loggains tells Cutler, but also HOW he tells him, will matter. Gase was generally quiet; that worked. Loggains is very expressive, which Cutler said he now appreciates.

“He sets the tone every day,” Cutler said. “There’s never a gray area. He sets the tone, sets the standard, and if you don’t live up to that, meet those expectations, he’s going to be vocal, he’s going to let you know.

“As a player, that’s all you can ask for: A coach telling you how to do it, and when you don’t do it, you expect him to push you and help you achieve those goals.”

Preseason game No. 3 will be the biggest test yet for the synchronicity that is there now but needs to stand up to inevitable failures.

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

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USA Today

The Bears are getting key contributors Bilal Nichols and Taylor Gabriel back sooner than later

The Bears returned to Halas Hall with a flurry of injury updates, most notably involving Kyle Long and Mitch Trubisky

And while the starting quarterback for Sunday's game against New Orleans is still TBD, wide reciever Taylor Gabriel will be back out there. Gabriel technically announced his return via Instagram on Sunday night, but confirmed to reporters on Monday that he's been cleared to play. 

"It’s just good to be back, to be around the guys," he said. "To be on the sideline just watching what’s been going on, I’ve been hungry to get back on the field... I probably practiced the hardest I’ve ever practiced in my life. I just had fun, and am glad I’m back." 

Gabriel suffered a concussion in the second half of the Bears' win in D.C., and dealt with the lingering effects of it up until last week. 

"I just woke up and I felt like myself," he said. "It was just a blessing. You always hear about concussions and all the crazy things. The athletic trainer, they did a great job with the whole process. I’m glad that I’m back."

Gabriel was coming off the best game of his Bears tenure: a six-catch, 75 yard performance that included three first-half touchdowns. The third touchdown – a 36-yarder featuring a highlight-reel catch – showcased the type of wrinkle that the Trubisky-Gabriel connection can bring to the offense. 

"The one thing that Taylor brings is he has that one element of downfield speed that helps out," Matt Nagy said. "So you’re able to take the top off of some defenses with him. And then he’s one of those wide receivers for us, like Allen Robinson, he’s got experience. So there’s a calming in the huddle that you understand that he knows what to do versus certain coverages. He’s coming off a pretty good game in Washington, and unfortunately got hurt, but there’s a calming element to him and then being able to take the top off.”

The Bears also had good news regarding second-year defensive tackle Bilal Nichols. Nichols returned to practice for the first time since breaking his hand during the Week 2 win in Denver. It's especially good news considering the team expects to be without Akiem Hicks sidelined for the foreseeable future. 

"[I] felt good today," Nichols said. "Just trying to continue to keep moving in the right direction and we'll see where it goes." 

Nichols wouldn't commit to playing on Sunday, and plans to see how he feels after a full week of practice. Nagy indicated that, at this point in his recovery, it's more about getting back into playing shape. 

"He’s been out a couple weeks, so now it’s just the ability for him to show probably more conditioning than anything," he said. "He has that cast on him, but he has the fingers that he’s able to use. Again, if you’re able to be out there and you’re able to suit up and go out there, then to me, let’s go.”

If Nichols is able to play against New Orleans, he'll do so wearing a club for extra protection. This was the first hand injury he's ever suffered, and Nichols admitted that playing with the cast takes some getting used to. Leonard Floyd wore the same type of club during the first half of last season, and has talked with Nichols about how to deal with it. 

"He's giving me a lot of insight and what to expect," Nichols said. "And things that he did that helped him out a lot. You know, we'll see. I'm going to try some things out."

Putting Kyle Long on IR was necessary for the Bears, but that doesn't make it sting any less

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USA Today

Putting Kyle Long on IR was necessary for the Bears, but that doesn't make it sting any less

For the fourth season in a row, Kyle Long’s season ends on injured reserve. 

Matt Nagy opened Monday's daily press conference –– his first since the morning after losing to Oakland –– officially announcing that the right guard’s season is over. 

“Obviously everyone has seen the news [about] Kyle, with putting him on the IR,” he said. “I think it's a tough situation just because of what he's been going through and where he's at … He's always been really good to us and what he's done. We just felt like that was where he's at right now and it's what we wanted to do.” 

Long’s nagging hip injury was clearly affecting his play, and the team felt – given all the run game struggles – that trying to fight through it on a week-by-week basis was no longer a realistic option. And while it’s true that Long came into 2019 camp as healthy as he’d been in years, the wear and tear of three injury-shortened seasons on the 30-year old guard were evident. 

The news was especially tough to swallow for those around Halas Hall given Long’s reputation among teammates and coaches. A first-round pick in 2013 with multiple Pro-Bowls, he was one of the team’s vocal leaders and well-liked throughout all corners of the locker room. 

“Kyle [is] a great dude,” Bilal Nichols said. “My whole rookie year, Kyle helped me out a lot because I lined up against him every day. Guys like him is why I had a pretty good season as a rookie last year.”

“You get a guy like Kyle, who’s poured his heart and soul into this organization and has worked really hard to be dominant in a lot of areas,” Nagy added. “We appreciate that. I’ve only been with him for a year and a half but I appreciate the way that he’s gone about things.”

Now the Bears turn to Rashaad Coward and Ted Larsen – the latter of which returned to practice after missing the Raiders game with a knee injury. Despite his relative inexperience playing on the interior (and frankly, on the offense in general), the team’s eager to see how Coward’s athleticism can help a running game that’s only averaging 3.4 yards per carry. 

He hasn’t been named the starter yet, but was taking first-team reps on Monday afternoon. 

“I just want to play with a dog mentality,” Coward said. “It’s the NFL. Guys come out here and try to kill you every week. So you can’t go out there playing soft. You’re going to get pushed around. And I don’t like that.” 

He also conceded that he was pleasantly surprised by how well he adjusted to having to be an emergency guard in the Bears’ win over Minnesota. Coward hadn’t gotten interior reps during that week of practice, and had to sub in when Larsen hurt his knee. 

“Going into the game, I was like F it,” he said. “It is what it is. It’s either you do it or you don’t.”

“Coaches were like, ‘Hey, this is what you’re supposed to do.’ At the end of the day, just keep it going.” 

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