Bears

Sizing up the NFL Conference Championship games

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Sizing up the NFL Conference Championship games

Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011
Posted: 2:45 PM

By Andy SchwartzSpecial to CSNChicago.com

Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Chicago Bears (12-5)

Ever since Aaron Rodgers returned from the concussion he suffered against Detroit (Dec. 12th), he has been untouchable and the Packers have been unbeatable. They won four in a row over the Giants, Bears, Eagles and Falcons to advance to the conference final. They are playing with tremendous confidence and for good reason--they have the hottest quarterback in the Final Four.

Rodgers had a 134.5 quarterback rating in the playoff wins over Philadelphia and Atlanta with six touchdown passes and no interceptions. He was 31-for-36 passing against the No. 1 seed Falcons and was in complete command, avoiding the rush and coolly picking apart the Atlanta defense. The Packers won the game 48-21 and it really wasnt that close.

The Chicago defense is very good (fourth in points allowed), but it is also very vanilla. The Bears play almost exclusively a Cover 2 zone scheme with the safeties deep. They allow few big plays, they tackle well and they are stout against the run (90.1 yards per game), but Rodgers knows them so well at this point he will know exactly where to go with the ball.

If the field is as sloppy as it usually is -- it was an absolute mess for the Eagles game in November it may work to the advantage of the visiting Packers. The Bears must get a rush on Rodgers if they hope to slow him down, but if the footing is bad, it will make it harder for Julius Peppers and the other D-linemen to push off. Also, Greg Jennings, the Packers' best receiver, loves to double move and that could leave a defensive back on the seat of his pants.

On the other side, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler had a big game last week against Seattle (two rushing touchdowns, two touchdown passes), but the Green Bay defense is a different animal. When these teams played in the final week of the regular season, the Bears managed just three points and Cutler was 1-for-13 on passes to wide receivers Devin Hester and Johnny Knox.

The suffocating coverage of cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams combined with the pass rush of linebackers Clay Matthews and Erik Walden will be more than the Bears can overcome.

Prediction: Packers 21, Bears 16

New York Jets (13-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4)

In Week 15, the Jets beat the Steelers at Heinz Field, 22-17, in a game that probably saved their season. They had lost back-to-back games to New England (45-3) and Miami (10-6) and fallen to 9-4 and appeared in danger of missing the playoffs.

However, the Jets regrouped to win in Pittsburgh for the first time in franchise history. Quarterback Mark Sanchez came up with a clutch performance and the Jets slipped into the AFC playoffs as the No. 6 seed. Following upset wins in Indianapolis and New England, coach Rex Ryans team now is just one win away from the Super Bowl.

All the Jets need to do is win another game in Pittsburgh. Shouldnt be that hard, right? They did it just a few weeks ago.

Well, this will be different. For one thing, it is a conference championship game which raises the stakes considerably. Also, the Steelers will have All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu for this game. They did not have him when the teams played last month.

How much of a difference does that make? In the past two seasons, the Steelers are 15-4 when Polamalu plays and 6-7 when he does not. He is that important to coordinator Dick LeBeaus defense. His versatility, his ability to blitz as well as cover and line up all over the field can unnerve and distract a young quarterback, even one as cool as Sanchez.

Sanchez is 4-1 in post-season starts, all of them on the road, which is quite a record, but he has not faced a defense as good as this one. The Indianapolis defense ranked 20th, the Patriots defense ranked 25th. The Steelers were second overall in defense and led the NFL with 48 sacks. They mauled Baltimores Joe Flacco in the divisional playoff (one fumble, one interception, five sacks).

Ryan has devised schemes to defeat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks, but Ben Roethlisberger is a different kind of quarterback: bigger, stronger and better than either Manning or Brady at extending plays and creating outside the pocket. He usually finds ways to win (9-2 in the post-season) and he will do it again Sunday.

Prediction: Steelers 17, Jets 13

Bears shut out (again) in NFL Network players’ poll naming Top 100 players of 2018

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USA TODAY

Bears shut out (again) in NFL Network players’ poll naming Top 100 players of 2018

No NFL season is without its snubs – Pro Bowl omissions, (insert job)-of-the-year head-scratchers, endless “rankings” of units and individuals based on some sort of logic or arcane analyses that challenge credulity.

But the Bears have received a group snub for the second straight year, something that, even discounting personality factors, can be considered a cause for concern, and escalating concern at that.

No Bear is among the Top 100 NFL players as voted on by those NFL players, in the results of the annual poll by NFL Network/NFL.com. The final 10-1 selections air Monday night on NFL Network, but any suspense involves only whether Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is the players’ choice for the No. 1 player in their game, or how the Bears can possibly match up with the L.A. Rams this season and beyond with three in the top 38 and all young (Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Jared Goff).

This year’s blanking follows a shutout in last year’s poll, which represented returns from more than 900 players. This year the number was more than 1,100, making the rankings more than simply the opinion of an individual or even small group.

Making them more disquieting from a Bears perspective is the fact that this marks a de facto third consecutive year that the Bears approach a season without a player whose peers rate him among the top 5 percent in the game. Because the 2016 survey (coming out of the 2015 season) listed running back Matt Forte (No. 90) as the lone Bear, and he was on his way to the New York Jets by the time his number was called.

Rankings based on opinions can skew strangely. Akiem Hicks’ absence from the top 100 is more puzzling than his finishing out of the Pro Bowl money. Same with Eddie Goldman, maybe even Leonard Floyd, to name a few.

But they aren’t there yet. And whether the Bears are bottom-third in pass protection, Nick Kwiatkoski is top-five inside linebacker, or who has a high rating in Madden ’19 can all be classed as cred-lite.

Not so easily dismissed when the evaluation is the aggregate take of nearly two-thirds of the league.

More to the concerning side, some correlation may be drawn between that index of star power and team performance, either cause or effect, or both. The last time the Bears had more than Forte representing them in the Top 100 was 2014, meaning coming off the 2013 season. That Top-100 included Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Tim Jennings and Forte – from the last Bears team (8-8) to win more than six games in a season.

Enough fingers were pointed at Marc Trestman and then John Fox for what happened on the field. But the New York Giants (2) and Houston Texans (4) had fewer wins than the Bears last season but still were represented on the players’ honor roll.

“I need to point the finger at myself as well,” GM Ryan Pace said in the wake of firing Fox. “Our record is a reflection on me as well. But I feel good about where we’re at right now. I feel much better about where we’re at right now than at this time last year and that starts with the quarterback position. We have a 23-year-old quarterback that we feel very good about that we need to build around. We need to build upon that core and fortunately we have the resources to do that.”

One of Pace’s mandates has been to bring Bears talent to a level competitive with at least the NFC North. The more than 1,100 players canvassed don’t think it’s happening: The Bears are one of only four teams (plus Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and the Jets) not represented in the top 100, while Detroit (2), Green Bay (7) and Minnesota (5) have multiple selections. Even the 0-16 Cleveland Browns boast a pair – wide receiver Jarvis Landry, running back Carlos Hyde) by virtue of their offseason moves.

Getting down to Bears cases

The Bears may be convinced that Mitch Trubisky is a franchise quarterback, but his 12 starts apparently didn’t show enough for his peers to vote him into elite status. Deshaun Watson (No. 50, six starts) and Jimmy Garoppolo (No. 90, five starts) fared better in the balloting.

Trubisky goes into 2018 as the fourth-best quarterback in a four-quarterback NFC North. Player voting pretty much confirms that, leaving him off a list that includes Kirk Cousins in Minnesota (No. 94), Matthew Stafford in Detroit (No. 31) and Rodgers (top 10). And Trubisky knows he’s got some catching up to do.

“I just feel like I know what to expect more on a day-to-day basis,” he said during minicamp. “What I need to do, how I can make my teammates' job easier — and just continue to set goals. Weekly goals, short-term goals, continue to meet those goals, keep raising the bar and get better each and every single day.”

Jeffery and Marshall are Bears no longer, but Allen Robinson is, which Pace has wagered heavily will be a very good thing. Robinson’s peers in the past have agreed: Robinson was pegged at No. 31 in 2016, coming in off his 80-1,400-14 season of 2015. He came back to produce 73-883-6 in 2016 but finished off the list, perhaps not entirely surprising after his Jaguars went 3-13 in 2016. The Bears are gambling that Robinson will return to his elite form from last year’s torn ACL; the rest of the NFL has effectively said “prove it.”

Jordan Howard’s fit in the offense of Matt Nagy/Mark Helfrich has been and will be debated until he proves himself conclusively as a receiver. And Howard and Tarik Cohen may be popular among rankers of backfields.

But not yet with their peers. Neither made the players’ list, while New Orleans placed Alvin Kamara No. 20 and Mark Ingram 43rd among the top six running backs, which include Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt.

Floyd, Goldman and Hicks? Too many Pro Bowl selections ahead of them, at least at this point.

Chicago Bears Training Camp: Veteran and rookie report dates

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USA Today

Chicago Bears Training Camp: Veteran and rookie report dates

Chicago Bears training camp is right around the corner with the first practice (non-padded) scheduled for July 21. 

Bears veterans and rookies will report a few days ahead of that first session to acclimate themselves to their new (for some) surroundings. Rookies report on July 16, with veterans coming three days later on July 19.

All eyes will be on QB Mitch Trubisky and the potentially high-flying offense under coach Matt Nagy. Training camp will take on extra importance because of the plethora of new faces on the roster and coaching staff as well as the installation of a completely new offensive scheme. It's critical that Trubisky builds chemistry with wide receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Kevin White, all of whom he's never thrown a regular-season pass to. Add Trey Burton to that mix and a lot of miscues should be expected in the preseason.

The rookie class is led by linebacker Roquan Smith, who remains unsigned. With less than 30 days until rookies are required to report, a greater sense of urgency -- even if it's not quite a panic -- is certainly creeping in. Assuming he's signed in time, Smith should earn a starting role early in training camp and ascend to one of the defense's top all-around players. 

The Bears have higher-than-usual expectations heading into the 2018 season making fans eager for summer practices to get underway.