Bears

Getting defensive: Cubs trying to shift the odds in their favor

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Getting defensive: Cubs trying to shift the odds in their favor

CINCINNATI These plays wont make the highlight reel, and will never draw as much attention as Starlin Castro making an error.

You may not have noticed if youve been tuning into the Bulls, or listen to the noise about Castro changing positions. But watch enough of the Cubs and youll see balls that look like base hits, except a defender is already there.

This isnt a reason to print playoff tickets, and no one is saying this is a great defensive team. Front offices not to mention media types and casual fans have struggled to measure defense.

But these defensive shifts and calculated positioning offer insight into the type of organization team president Theo Epstein and manager Dale Sveum are trying to build.

Its a 90 percent rule, Sveum said Wednesday. If a guys going to hit a ball here 90 percent of the time, then why dont you play there?

Its like playing blackjack. You dont hit on 16. If you have a 10, you better hit on 10. Its the same factors sometimes. Youre just playing the odds. And if the odds are in your favor to do something, then you need to take advantage.

Scan the field during the second inning on Wednesday night at Great American Ball Park. Jay Bruce, a powerful left-handed hitter in the middle of the Cincinnati Reds lineup, steps to the plate.

Castro shifted to the other side of second base. First baseman Bryan LaHair moved close to the line. Second baseman Blake DeWitt played in between them. Third baseman Ian Stewart almost moved to short.

Everyones on the same page, second baseman Darwin Barney said. It gives us all something to work on together and develop a game plan. (Its) just feeling prepared. There were sometimes in the past where I felt like we were out-prepared. This year I dont feel like thats the case at all.

Sveum really got into the B.A.T.S. video system as the third-base coach with the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and 2005. As a high school quarterback, he was good enough to turn down a scholarship offer to Arizona State University.

Sveum became a film rat at Fenway Park. As much as the Cubs wanted the Red Sox model, they also seem to be getting a version of Bill Belichicks New England Patriots.

Sveums detailed spray charts resonated with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer during the interview process. They looked at the game through similar lenses and made a significant investment in the teams video capabilities.

Even with better technology, the players still have to buy in. Carlos Zambranos ideas of where the infielders should be didnt always match up with the coaching staff, and Marlon Byrd could be a bit of a freelancer at times in center field.

The Cubs know that hitters want to drive the ball from left-center to right-center, a kind of V-formation, so they will pinch up the middle to try to take that away.

Before each series, third-base coach Pat Listach will watch the last 100 groundballs from each position player on the opposing team, because swings can change over the course of a season. That right there is a database of 1,300 at-bats.

Were trying to play the percentages, Listach said. The charts dont lie.

There are other variables, like breaking it down with two strikes and charting which balls were hit hard and which ones were not. Utility man Jeff Baker credited Listach and first-base coach Dave McKay, who works with the outfielders.

Theyre busting their tail and no one really sees that, Baker said. They kind of just stay down at the end of the dugout and position guys.

Its frustrating as a hitter when you square a ball up and you hit it into a shift, or someones playing you where they normally dont play you, and youre out. It can start to wear on you a little bit.

The second part is our pitchers have been executing their game plan to where were playing a shift on a guy and theyre still throwing it where they need to throw it. You can put a shift on somebody, a dead pull hitter, the pitcher pounds him away and it makes you kind of look like youre not on the same page.

I dont think people realize how much time our coaching staff puts into it. From the top to the bottom, (theyre) prepared.

That culture is what Sveum will be judged on during his first year on the job. The Cubs will keep trying to beat the casino.

Were doing a lot of homework, Barney said. Were trying to come out with a game plan (and) as many cards in our back pocket as we can.

With linchpin DL Akiem Hicks to IR, Bears D faces real challenge to stay at elite level

With linchpin DL Akiem Hicks to IR, Bears D faces real challenge to stay at elite level

With apologies to Khalil Mack, the Bears defense on Tuesday officially lost the player it could arguably least afford to lose when defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was placed on injured reserve with the elbow injury suffered early in the loss to the Oakland Raiders in London.

Perhaps “lost” isn’t entirely accurate, since “he’s going to be with us in meetings and for game-planning and on the sidelines on game days,” said defensive line coach Jay Rodgers. “You’re going to feel his presence. But we’ve got a good group with guys who can step into that role and play well.

“He’ll be a voice on the sideline, the classroom, everything we do. His personality will still be here… . He’s part of us, the Bears family, this organization.”

But great units are a combination of personalities as well as talents, and Hicks has been a defining presence both on and off the football field since he was signed as a free agent in 2016.

Hicks has been a vital influence with young players. Hicks and veteran defensive end Willie Young began a weekly dinner out with then-rookie Leonard Floyd. When the Bears landed a late-round gem in defensive lineman Bilal Nichols in the 2018 draft, Hicks was again a presence.

“He pretty much molded me into the young player I am,” Nichols said. “It just hurt to see him go through that and catch those types of breaks because I know how hard he worked.”

But the absence of Hicks projects to have its obviously most serious impact on the field, at a time when the Bears are struggling to stay within hailing distance of leaders in both the NFC North as well as the NFC in general.

The absence of any consistent offensive play underscores the importance of the defense remaining among the NFL’s best.

Linchpin figure

In a league where the margin between division leader and missing the playoffs is sometimes alarmingly thin, the Bears will be wary of players feeling some need to break their assignment integrity and take out-of-scheme risks to make a play because of missing Hicks.

“I remember last year when we lost Khalil Mack for the Buffalo game and Jets game, and we had some guys who came in and filled in those shoes and did pretty well,” Rodgers said. “We expect the thing. The ‘next guy up’ mentality is real. There’s a reason why we build the roster the way we build it.

“We didn’t have Akiem for the Minnesota game and I thought we played pretty well in that game. It’s all about understanding what your job is and what your role is, how to execute and execute under pressure, and do what we do. We’re not asking anybody to go outside the framework of the defense or do anything extra special. We’re asking you to do your job because you’re one of 11 in the defense.”

It is Rodgers’ task to help players modulate and avoid trying to do too much. The proverbial “take your game to another level,” which is hugely insulting because it presumes a player wasn’t giving the max previously.

And Rodgers is correct, that the Bears without Hicks allowed their season-low points (6) and second-lowest yardage total (222) of the season in the win over Minnesota. That game was one of only two in which the Vikings (4-2) failed to score 28 or more points, and whether the Bears could throttle Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and that offense again so thoroughly without Hicks would be questionable.

But the fact remains that Hicks rates as the central figure on a very good defense. Without Hicks for most of the Oakland game, the Bears allowed their highest point (24) and yardage (398) totals of the season and allowed more rushing yards (169) than in any other two 2019 games combined.

The Bears were a top-10 defense before Mack arrived at the start of last season. With Hicks missing all of one game (Minnesota), most of another (Oakland) and playing less than half the snaps in a third with a knee injury (Washington), they rank sixth in yards and third in points allowed.

The Bears ranked a dismal 20th in both points and yards allowed in 2015, the year before the Hicks signing. They immediately improved to 15th in scoring defense in 2016, then into the top 10 in both points and yards allowed in 2017.

The NFL then took notice last season, with Hicks selected to his first Pro Bowl and being given the fourth-highest rating among defensive linemen by Pro Football Focus.

One player CAN make that much difference

That the Bears performed well without all or part of Hicks vs. Washington and Minnesota does suggest encouragement, particularly if Nichols can play well with a hand injury that cost him the last three games.

The Oakland game points in an entirely opposite direction. It falls to the Bears collectively to keep the Hicks loss from having the kind of devastating effect that a handful of season-ending injuries had on past Bears defenses:

DT Henry Melton, 2013

The 2013 Bears broke fast (3-0) under new coach Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. The defense and a portion of the season collapsed when Melton, voted to the Pro Bowl in 2012 and franchise-tagged by the Bears in 2013, was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in game three against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A defense that included Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman allowed 24.7 ppg and 330 ypg for the three games Melton played. Over the final 13 games those indicators ballooned to 31.1 ppg. and 409 yards.

MLB Brian Urlacher, 2009

The Bears lost their Hall of Fame middle linebacker and linchpin at the end of the first half of the first game, in Green Bay. The defense still had Lance Briggs, Alex Brown, Tommie Harris and Charles Tillman, but Brown said after the season that the unit never made up for the loss of both the performance and leadership levels 54 represented.

From 2005-2012, Urlacher’s missed season was one of only two in which the Bears finished sub-.500.

DL Dan Hampton, 1989

The Bears opened 4-0. Hampton suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the team that had reached the 1988 NFC Championship game and still had Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, William Perry, Mike Singletary and Donnell Woolford proceeded to go 2-10 the rest of the way.

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Illinois AP football rankings: Week 7

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NBC Sports Chicago

Illinois AP football rankings: Week 7

The Illlinois high school football AP polls are out. Here are the latest rankings of Illinois high school football teams in each class, according to an Associated Press panel of sportswriters:

Class 8A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. Lincoln-Way East (10) 7-0 100 1
2. Loyola 5-2 75 3
3. Warren 7-0 73 2
4. Notre Dame (Niles) 7-0 70 4
5.  Homewood-Flossmoor 6-1 51 6
T-6. Hinsdale Central 7-0 47 5
T-6. Neuqua Valley 6-1 47 7
8. Minooka 7-0 33 8
9. Oswego 7-0 19 9
10. Bolingbrook 6-1 15 10

Others receiving votes: St. Charles East 10, South Elgin 5, Huntley 3, Maine South 2.

Class 7A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. (Chicago) Mt. Carmel (9) 7-0 99 1
2. Nazareth (1) 6-1 85 2
3. Glenbard West 7-0 79 3
4.  Hersey 7-0 65 5
5.  Phillips 6-1 56 6
6. Rolling Meadows 7-0 48 T-7
7.  Batavia 5-2 41 4
8. Benet 6-1 22 T-7
9. Willowbrook 6-1 21 NR
10. Normal Community 6-1 15 NR

Others receiving votes: Andrew 5, DeKalb 4, Glenbard East 4, Grant 3, Conant 2, Brother Rice 1.

Class 6A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. Chatham Glenwood (9) 7-0 108 1
2.  Crete-Monee (1) 7-0 95 2
3.  Simeon (1) 5-1 81 3
4. Cary-Grove 6-1 68 4
5. Richards 6-1 62 5
6. Prairie Ridge 6-1 57 6
7. Antioch 6-1 41 8
8. Providence 5-2 34 9
9. Yorkville 6-1 22 7
10.  Lemont 6-1 15 NR


Others receiving votes: Normal West 10, Kaneland 9, Peoria Central 3.

Class 5A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. East St. Louis (12) 7-0 120 1
2. Sterling 7-0 102 2
T-3. Hillcrest 6-1 81 4
T-3.  Boylan Catholic 7-0 81 3
5.  Montini 5-2 65 5
6.  Sycamore 6-1 62 2
7. Marion 7-0 46 7
8. St. Rita 4-3 34 8
9.  Kankakee 6-1 29 9
10.  Carbondale 6-1 17 10

Others receiving votes: Dunlap 8, Cahokia 6, Joliet Catholic 6, St. Laurence 3.

Class 4A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. IC Catholic (11) 7-0 119 1
2. Rochester 7-0 106 2
3. Coal City (1) 7-0 99 3
4. Richmond-Burton 7-0 80 4
5. Stillman Valley 7-0 64 5
6.  Mt. Zion 7-0 52 6
7.  Effingham 7-0 39 8
8. Columbia 7-0 35 7
9. Genoa-Kingston 7-0 23 10
10.  St. Francis 6-1 19 9

Others receiving votes: Illinois Valley Central 16, Bishop McNamara 5, Benton 2, Fairbury Prairie Central 1.

Class 3A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. Wilmington (9) 7-0 124 1
2. Williamsville (4) 7-0 121 2
3. Byron 6-1 93 3
4. Beardstown 7-0 85 4
5. Vandalia 7-0 72 5
6. Nashville 7-0 62 6
7. Fairfield 7-0 50 7
8. Pana 7-0 43 8
9. Princeton 6-1 33 9
10. Eureka 6-1 18 10

Others receiving votes: DuQuoin 9, Breese Mater Dei, 3, Mt. Carmel 2.

Class 2A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. Fieldcrest (7) 7-0 122 1
2. Clifton Central (5) 7-0 116 2
3. Maroa-Forsyth (1) 6-1 100 3
4. Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley 6-1 90 4
5.  St. Teresa 6-1 73 5
6.  Knoxville 7-0 67 6
7. Newman Central Catholic 6-1 58 7
8. Bismarck-Henning 6-1 46 8
9. Auburn 5-2 24 9
10. West Carroll 5-2 15 10

Others receiving votes: Flora 2, Orr 2.

Class 1A

No. Team W-L Pts Prv
1. Lena-Winslow (11) 7-0 119 1
2.  Moweaqua Central A&M 7-0 103 3
3. Annawan-Wethersfield 7-0 88 4
4.  Morrison 7-0 78 5
5.  Ottawa Marquette 7-0 64 6
6. Forreston 6-1 55 2
7. Aquin 7-0 53 7
8. Hope Academy (1) 6-1 44 10
9. Camp Point Central 6-1 31 8
10. Athens 5-2 7 9

Others receiving votes: Tuscola 6, Carrollton 5, Fulton 2, Arcola 2, Kirkland Hiawatha 2, Princeville 1.