Shuffled Bears secondary doing far more than just surviving


Shuffled Bears secondary doing far more than just surviving

Sometimes very significant things go unnoticed because of what didn't happen rather than what did. Such was the case with the Bears’ secondary in Sunday’s 22-20 win over the Oakland Raiders.

What did happen was losing veteran safety and leader Antrel Rolle to an ankle injury, sending him to the sidelines. What didn’t happen was the Oakland offense, which was held to 243 yards, matching the low (Minnesota, last Nov. 16) since the Lance Briggs/Julius Peppers/Charles Tillman/Brian Urlacher defense held the Houston Texans to 215 back in Nov. 2012.

Much is made of how the important and difficult it is to achieve the necessary synchronization within the offensive line. A close second in that regard is the defensive backfield, where signals are exchanged, players need to know each other’s ranges, tendencies and capabilities, and the Bears achieved something unusual under pressure Sunday.

With the Bears facing the abyss of an 0-4 start, and with Rolle out, they were dealing with wide receivers who were No. 4 (Amari Cooper) and No. 10 (Michael Crabtree) picks in their drafts and the AFC’s leading rusher (Latavius Murray) using two rookie safeties (Adrian Amos, Harold Jones-Quartey) and a cornerback (Tracy Porter) who was inactive and injured for the first two games with a hamstring problem.

[MORE BEARS: Seventh-ranked Bears defense done with 'new' label]

Putting this in another, deeper perspective: In the win over Oakland, three of the Bears’ four starting defensive backs, including cornerback Kyle Fuller, were rookies or one-year players.

Except that Amos has begun to play like anything but a rookie. Rolle himself singled out Amos in the locker room after the Oakland game for the latter’s taking charge and leadership role in a first-time collection of defensive backs and coaches echoed the sentiments.

“Adrian Amos I think just gets better every week,” coach John Fox said. “He did a great job communicating to the corners. We had a lot of different things we were doing from a coverage standpoint, that you need that communication.  I think it just stepped him up a little bit. I think he’s more experienced as a rookie than Harold is, but I think he had to pick his game up some, especially from a communication standpoint, making sure Harold knew what he was doing and the corners involved on the field at that time.”

Porter, a 2008 second-round draft choice by New Orleans when general manager Ryan Pace was in player personnel there and who played for the Denver Broncos and Fox in 2012, drew the assignment of locking down Cooper, already a force after just a handful of games.

“I obviously have a lot of faith in his abilities, having coached him before,” Fox said. “I think the issue there was he had a hamstring injury. For ‘skill’ people those aren’t easy things to get over. They’re hard to put time limits on. So I think once he was healthy we were excited to get him back for sure.”

[MORE BEARS: Expect Bears to start Matt Slauson at center vs. Chiefs]

Perhaps the performances and overall level of play in the defensive back end shouldn’t be a complete surprise, owing in some measure to the level of coaching that has been in evidence even back in the early stages of the offseason. Besides defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, one of the major hires on the Fox staff was longtime secondary coach Ed Donatell, who was Fangio’s defensive backs coach in San Francisco and is himself a former defensive coordinator.

Add to that assistant defensive backs coach Sam Garnes, who played for Fox from 1997-2001 while the latter was defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. Garnes started 105 games as a player and also was with Fox in Carolina and Denver, meaning he knows extremely well Fox’s concepts and approach. You have the sense that Fox could start a sentence and Garnes could walk in the room cold and finish it.

“I think Harold just got here, I think, two weeks ago,” Fox said. “Primarily we put him on ‘fourth down’ or special teams. Sam Garnes and Ed Donatell, our secondary coaches, felt good about the guy. He’s smart, he works at it. So that was pretty admirable, too.”

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

USA Today

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

Jordan Howard has accomplished some pretty amazing things to start his career. Most notably, he's the only running back in Chicago Bears franchise history to finish his first two seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards, including 1,313 yards as a rookie, good for a team rookie record.

Still, Howard has been the target of criticism this offseason because of his questionable set of hands. He was plagued by a case of the drops last season and he's been labeled as a guy who can't catch the ball heading into 2018. Combine that with the player nipping at his heels -- Tarik Cohen -- and the overwhelming theory advanced by analysts is that he'll give way to Cohen on passing downs.

This presumption has made its way into the world of fantasy football, too. Howard is rarely if ever mentioned as one of the first running backs that should be drafted this summer and in a recent player vs. player showdown on Pro Football Focus, 49ers starter Jerick McKinnon was selected as a more appealing fantasy starter in 2018.

It’s close, but I give the nod to Jerick McKinnon. Howard’s troubles in the passing game are very real and it’s clear the Bears want to focus on that more this year. Meanwhile, McKinnon was handed a fat contract and has little competition when it comes to carries.

McKinnon, a career backup, was signed by San Franciso to be Kyle Shanahan's feature running back. He has a real chance to be a stud in fantasy circles, but should he be valued over a guy like Howard who's proven to be a contender for the NFL's rushing crown?

All of this offseason chatter will serve as great motivation for Howard who has to prove, first and foremost, that he can be a three-down back for coach Matt Nagy in the Bears' new offense. If he has a consistent training camp as a receiver and carries that momentum into the preseason and regular season, those fantasy players who draft McKinnon or another less-proven player over Howard will long for a redo.

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

Eddie Goldman is entering the final year of his contract this season and in order to cash in on a big payday, he'll need to stay healthy and make good on his top-tier potential. 

If he does, he'll become a very wealthy man and the Bears defense will have an even better year than its top-10 finish a season ago.

Goldman, 24, came to Chicago via the second round of the 2015 NFL draft and quickly became a household name among Bears fans. He started 12 games that season and finished with a surprising 4 1/2 sacks, a total that was more productive than his college scouting report predicted. He was pegged as a breakout star for 2016, but injuries ultimately derailed his second season. He played only six games that year (started five) but still flashed a surprisingly productive set of pass-rush traits; he finished 2016 with 2 1/2 sacks.

This past season represented something of a mixed bag for Goldman. He started 15 games and quieted some of the injury concerns that started bubbling around him, but his production dipped. He managed only 1 1/2 sacks. That said, he set a career-high with 27 tackles, nearly doubling his output as a rookie.

Still, Goldman wasn't a dominant force in 2017. He finished the year ranked 69th among interior defenders with a 76.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. Despite being healthy and available, it was the lowest season grade of his career from PFF.

Nose tackle is arguably the most critical position for any defense running a 3-4 scheme. It's no exception in Chicago. Goldman will set the table for linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith and the more bodies he can consume or attention he can draw from offensive lines, the more room second-level defenders will have to work. It's not just about filling up the stat sheet for Goldman. If he clogs running lanes and collapses the pocket consistently, he'll be worth every penny of a big contract extension despite lacking numbers.

The Bears need Goldman to bring his A-game in 2018, especially as a pass rusher. Chicago resides in arguably the most talented quarterback division in the NFL and for the defense to make those quarterbacks uncomfortable, Goldman has to apply pressure up the middle. He's proven he can do it, as evidenced by his rookie year production. But he's been on a steady decline in this area of his game since then and there's no room for more regression in 2018.

Players entering contract years tend to bring extra motivation to the field and there's no reason to expect anything less from Goldman. If he can combine his rookie year production with last season's availability, he could end up with the most well-rounded year of his career en route to leading the Bears' defensive line on a late-season playoff push.