Bears

Job squeezes will intensify as Bears move into preseason games

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Job squeezes will intensify as Bears move into preseason games

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – With an actual preseason game (vs. a 36-play full scrimmage) looming this Thursday vs. the Miami Dolphins in Soldier Field, a depth chart is expected to be coming out. But it obviously won’t be binding and also will be subject to significant change over the next couple weeks going into game three at Cincinnati.

Understand that every practice does count, and scrimmages like Saturday’s in Soldier Field count a little more. But those are all quizzes, vs. games, which are “tests” and count considerably more.

But observations are possible on both sides of the football, with particular focus on a couple of spots:

Wide receiver

Kevin White has been a story line this training camp by virtue of being the No. 7 pick of the draft and not on the field yet. That will move to a different phase this week, and no one expects White to have health problems as the regular season unfolds.

Eddie Royal projects to be the best No. 3 receiver since Bobby Engram was the depth behind Curtis Conway and Jeff Graham back in the Dave Wannstedt era. And a triad of White, Royal and Alshon Jeffery, on top of Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte, should be the equal of any five “skill” players in the NFC, possibly the league as a whole.

[WATCH: Bears Life with Ryan Mundy]

But the falloff after Jeffery, Royal and White is concerning, because Marquess Wilson does not appear to have the confidence of quarterback Jay Cutler or the hoped-for upside the Bears saw in him. Wilson has had route-running issues and too many drops for a top-three receiver, and he is of no value on special teams.

It would surprise no one if the Bears secured an upgrade at No. 4 once cuts start coming later this month.

Defensive line/linebacker

The chances of Willie Young securing a roster spot have become increasingly problematic as camp has gone on and he is still unable to participate fully in practice work.

The issue, apart from the obvious Achilles rehab and comeback, is that he’s a true ‘tweener on a team that clearly values position flexibility but right now has too many players who do that better than Young. He has been a 4-3 rush end, as was Jared Allen before this year.

But Allen has flashed impressive playmaking as an edge rusher/linebacker in a two-point stance. And while Lamarr Houston is himself coming off a season ending knee injury, he has done that exact hybrid job as an Oakland Raider.

[MORE: Bears defense reaching much-needed comfort points]

Add to that a simple numbers squeeze: Ego Ferguson, Eddie Goldman and Jeremiah Ratliff have had strong camps auditioning for the starting “3” in 3-4. Jarvis Jenkins can play either five-technique spot (Young cannot), and Cornelius Washington bulked up to 285 pounds has been a camp factor and is a proven force on special teams. Allen can be counted among the linemen as well, and undrafted nose tackle Terry Williams has had moments.

Linebacker has the four current starters (Acho, Jones, McClellin, McPhee) plus Jonathan Bostic and Mason Foster capable of playing inside. That’s six, and DeDe Lattimore has contributed on special teams (Young does not).

And special teams are very much a tipping point.

“Typically most rosters are 25 [offense, 25 [defense], and three [special teams],” coach John Fox said. “It can always vary. We’re way too early to try and pick the best. A lot of it will come down to fourth-down [special-teams] guys. But we’ll keep more linebackers now because the outside guys are like defensive linemen.”

Offensive line

Kyle Long has taken some drill reps at tackle but coaches have given no indication of plans to move the two-time Pro Bowl guard. Jordan Mills has remained the right tackle, with occasional struggles.

Coaches were pleased with what they saw from Charles Leno, but Leno has not been consistently proficient working primarily at left tackle, and unless the decision is that Vladimir Ducasse is a better guard than Mills or Leno is a tackle, which could move Long to tackle in a five-best-will-start scenario, a shakeup on the offensive line would be a mild surprise.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

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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.