Bears

Noah's career day leads Bulls to 16th straight win over Pistons

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Noah's career day leads Bulls to 16th straight win over Pistons

AUBURN HILLS, MICH. Now, after a signature performance Friday evening, the All-Star talk surrounding Joakim Noah is truly legitimate, if it wasnt before. The center had a career night in both points (30) and rebounds (23) in leading the Bulls (10-8) to a 108-104 victory over the Pistons (6-15) at The Palace at Auburn Hills.

Surprisingly, in a battle of two teams not exactly known for their offensive prowess, the matchup was a shootout early on, as each squad got off to a high-scoring start. Marco Belinellis (16 points) big night Wednesday in Cleveland apparently carried over, as the shooting guard, again filling in for the injured Rip Hamilton in the former Pistons stars former stomping grounds knocked down two triples to start his outing.

Additional Bulls point production came from Noah, who dominated the boards early, but they were countered by the young Pistons tandem of big man Greg Monroe (13 points) and point guard Brandon Knight (21 points), whose combined efforts made it a close-knit affair. After a quarter of play, the Bulls trailed their hosts, 30-26, in a bit of a step back defensively from recent performances.

It turned out that the opening period simply foreshadowed what was to come, as the Pistons absolutely blitzed their guests to begin the second quarter. Propelled by the scoring of Rodney Stuckey (24 points, seven assists), recently demoted to a reserve role, Detroit went on a tear, as even backup big men Charlie Villanueva (15 points) and rookie Andre Drummond made major impacts against the visitors vaunted defense.

Suddenly, the Bulls found themselves in a double-digit hole and after grasping the reality of their situation, fought back behind the play of their big-man duo starting with Carlos Boozers (24 points, six rebounds) quiet effectiveness and after his re-entry into the contest, Noahs relentless play, which yielded a double-double in the first half and significantly cut into the deficit. After being down by as much as 17 points, the Bulls still trailed, but by a much more manageable 55-50.

After the break, which included a performance by rapper Fat Joe, the Bulls continued to whittle away at the Pistons lead, and while Knights scoring exploits persisted, the Bulls eventually tying the contest at 68 apiece midway through the third quarter. The aforementioned post tandem of Boozer and Noah continued their solid output, aided by Luol Deng (16 points, six assists, five rebounds, two blocked shots), who slowly started to come alive offensively.

It remained a back-and-forth affair as the period waned on, as Detroit veteran forwards Tayshaun Prince (13 points) and Jason Maxiell made timely buckets, but the Bulls dominant frontcourt trio of Noah, Boozer and Deng made their respective presences felt to give the visitors a slight edge. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls held a 78-74 advantage.

Noahs dominance on the interior highlighted the beginning of the fourth quarter, as the charismatic center was a one-man wrecking crew literally owning the glass, finishing extremely proficiently and even knocking down his ever-improving outside jumper, prompting his trademark finger guns celebration helping the Bulls seize control of the contest. Boozer, functioning as Noahs sidekick, filled in the gaps offensively, throwing down powerful dunks and hitting mid-range jumpers to give the visitors some breathing room.

While the Pistons valiantly attempted a last-gasp comeback, the Bulls clamped down on the defensive end and continued to execute on offense, ensuring that they sealed the deal. But the night belonged to Noah, who had the best night of his career, cementing, at the very least, his All-Star candidacy.

Three questions for Bears pass rush: What is Leonard Floyd's ceiling?

Three questions for Bears pass rush: What is Leonard Floyd's ceiling?

 

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Leonard Floyd
2. Isaiah Irving
3. Kylie Fitts
4. Elijah Norris
5. Josh Woods

1. Sam Acho
2. Aaron Lynch
3. Kasim Edebali
4. Andrew Trumbetti

1. What is Leonard Floyd’s ceiling?

Floyd’s career to this point has been limited by injuries, but in the 22 games in which he’s played he’s only averaged one sack every 97 snaps. That’s essentially what Pernell McPhee provided last year (one sack ever 96 snaps), for comparison’s sake. The point being: Not only do we not know if Floyd can stay healthy for a full year, we might not know if he can live up to the expectations for a top-10-picked pass rusher.

Coaches and Floyd felt like they fixed the reason for Floyd’s concussion issues from his rookie year, which they believed was the product of poor tackling form. Floyd’s season-ending knee injury last year was a freak, unavoidable one, to be fair — but he’s still missed a total of 10 games in his two-year career.

The Bears haven’t lost confidence in Floyd’s potential, though — if that were the case, Ryan Pace likely would’ve added more to his team’s outside linebacking corps. In the short term, Floyd is a key player to watch in Bourbonnais — impactful practices are important for building up his mental confidence in his knee. In the long term, the Bears’ bet on Floyd needs to pay off, otherwise this pass rush may not be good enough in a quarterback-centric division.

2. Can Aaron Lynch be a diamond in the rough?

Lynch had a productive rookie year under Vic Fangio in 2014, recording six sacks and looking like a nice fifth-round find for the San Francisco 49ers. After Fangio was passed over for the 49ers’ head coaching job and left for the Bears, Lynch still notched 6 1/2 sacks in 2015.

But he only appeared in 14 games in 2016 and 2017 due to conditioning and injury issues, as well as a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substances of abuse. When Lynch did play, he wasn’t effective, with only 2 1/2 sacks in those 14 games covering 379 snaps.

So that’s why Lynch signed for only one year and $4 million, with only $1.25 million of his salary guaranteed, according to Spotrac. The Bears hope a fresh start and reunion with Fangio will benefit Lynch, but the prove-it nature of his contract doesn’t guarantee him anything more than a chance.

“It’s exciting getting back with Vic, you know, he drafted me,” Lynch said. “I know his defense. So being it's something I'm used to and the fresh start like I mean, I've had my ups and downs in this league and it's just nice to come here to people with open arms that believe in me so now I've just got to come here and play football so it feels amazing.”

Getting six or so sacks out of Lynch would be huge for the Bears’ defense, but those efforts begin with the 25-year-old staying healthy. That Lynch suffered hamstring and ankle injuries during the offseason program was a little concerning, even if they weren’t characterized as anything but minor knocks.

3. What are fair expectations for Kylie Fitts?

The 6-foot-4, 265 pound Fitts is an intriguing prospect in that he tested well at the NFL Combine and, before injuries limited his junior and senior years, posted an eye-popping 2015 (seven TFLs, seven sacks, 10 pass break-ups, four forced fumbles). Fitts doesn’t believe the injuries he suffered at Utah (Lisfranc/foot, ankle sprain, shoulder sprain) will linger or pop back up in his pro career, though.

“I think I got all my injuries over with,” Fitts said. “I think it’s just a run of bad luck and it’s over now. I’m healthy, feeling good now, and I’m banking on remaining healthy and playing good.”

Still, every team in the NFL passed on Fitts until the Bears used the 181st pick to draft him in April. That doesn’t mean he won’t have success — Jordan Howard was the 150th pick in the 2016 draft, after all — but he’ll head to Bourbonnais with plenty of work to do to earn a role in Fangio’s defense. The Bears’ outside linebacking depth chart may not look strong, but that doesn’t mean Fitts will waltz into a prominent role. What he does in practices and preseason games will go a long way toward determining his outlook for 2018.

Bears' pass rush is one of NFL's worst, says PFF

Bears' pass rush is one of NFL's worst, says PFF

The Chicago Bears play in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford, so it's pretty obvious that a key to this season will be the defense's pass rush.

Unfortunately, getting after the quarterback doesn't appear to be a strength of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's unit. According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears have one of the worst group of pass rushers in the NFL.

Right now, expectations for what the Bears can expect off the edge pass-rush wise should be very low. Injuries have slowed Floyd’s development after he was drafted with the ninth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, leading to just 72 total pressures through three seasons. Starting opposite him will likely be Acho, with Lynch in on nickel pass-rushing packages. Lynch has averaged four sacks, and just over six hits and 21 hurries per season in his four-year career. The Bears top pass-rusher right now is Hicks on the defensive interior, and after producing 49 total pressures in 2017, he will likely need to be their top pass-rusher again in 2018.

If Sam Acho ends up starting opposite Leonard Floyd, then Aaron Lynch will go down as a free-agent bust. He was signed to start, not to be a rotational pass rusher. In fact, it's Acho who's better equipped to rotate into the lineup and provide a burst of energy when needed. 

Sixth-round pick Kylie Fitts is another candidate to bring pressure off the edge for the Bears, but he too is a great unknown. His college resume is littered with injuries and more potential than production. Chicago is high on him, however, and he could be another day-three steal to add to Ryan Pace's draft catalog.

Ultimately, the Bears' pass rush will come down to Floyd and whether he can become the elite sack artist he was drafted to be. In fact, he's entering something of a make-or-break year. If he doesn't prove he can stay healthy enough to register 10 or more sacks this season, Chicago may have to re-think its plan at edge rusher.