Bears

Notre Dame notes: Miami D-coordinator disputes Wood's comments

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Notre Dame notes: Miami D-coordinator disputes Wood's comments

Cierre Wood rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday at Soldier Field, leading a second-half offensive surge that led Notre Dame to a 41-3 win over Miami. After the game, Wood said he felt the Irish running backs bludgeoned Miami to the point where the 'Canes defense didn't want to play.

"They were all upbeat and jumping and stuff in the beginning, but you smack a team so many times in the mouth, eventually they're going to want to stop playing," Wood offered. "And that's what happened today."

But Miami defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio had a different explanation.

"I wouldn't say that's accurate," D'Onofrio said Monday (via the South Florida Sun-Sentinel). "Again, some of those guys who were on the field at the end of that game, it was the first game they were playing."

Wood rarely holds back with his comments, and explained to the media after Saturday's game how he feels he's at his best when he gets consistent carries -- something that hadn't happened much in 2012 until the second half against Miami. But coach Brian Kelly brushed those comments off as "just Cierre being Cierre."

"We love him, and he did some really good things for us," Kelly said. "But, again, he's a guy that loves to compete and he's passionate, and he wears his emotions on his sleeves."

Irish defense gets even more stingy

Notre Dame's defense has not allowed a touchdown since the fourth quarter of its game against Purdue Sept. 8, a streak of 12 quarters that's been accomplished against some fairly well-regarded offenses.

After allowing just three points against Miami on Saturday, Notre Dame ranks second among FBS schools by scoring defense, allowing opponents to average just 7.8 points per game. Only Alabama (7.0 points allowed per game) has been better, and no team has allowed fewer touchdowns than Notre Dame's three.

"Think of what Coach Diaco has had to defend in the five weeks," Kelly said, also explaining the challenge Michigan presented. "Option offense (Navy), a run-first with the quarterback in Purdue. Michigan State, a grinditout, great running back. It's been an outstanding performance to date, and we've seen it all. Now we just need to build on it."

But it could've been different...

Notre Dame's touchdown-less streak wasn't extended to a dozen quarters without a bit of luck, though. Miami's Phillip Dorsett dropped two sure-fire touchdown passes on the first drive of Saturday's game, burning the Irish secondary deep on both plays.

But after those two drops, Notre Dame's secondary made a few adjustments, and wound up limiting Miami quarterback Stephen Morris to 201 yards.

We were in great coverage. -- here was a burst at the top of the route that we did not match with the same kind of urgency," Kelly explained of the early deep balls. "We corrected that. After they came to the sideline, (safeties coach Bob Elliott) and (cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks) got on the phone right away, made the corrections with how they need to burst to stay on top of the route, and it wasn't an issue with the rest of the game.

"Believe me, they saw what we saw. They went back to the same routes and we were on top of them. So I was really pleased with our guys picking up their game when they knew they needed to."

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

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USA TODAY

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — The Bears desperately need more from Jordan Howard, which may sound greedy given that he has been one of the only offensive sparks of the last two seasons. And they may be getting it.

Through the early practices in Bears Camp ’18, the nascent offense of coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich has been ... interesting. The intensity and conditions can be posited as factors, but the fact remains that the defense has intercepted a half-dozen passes and the pass rush has had Mitch Trubisky and the other quarterbacks frequently scrambling after coverage locked down their intended receivers.

Amid all that, something decidedly positive and mildly surprising was unfolding.

Rush-and-cover combos force check-downs to shorter routes, in particular running backs. If this were the Kansas City Chiefs offense under Nagy last year, that would have been Kareem Hunt, who caught 84 percent of the 63 passes on which he was targeted. If this were the Bears from 2008 through 2015, that would have been Matt Forte, who never caught fewer than 44 passes in any of his eight Chicago seasons.

But those were thens, this is now, and the featured back in the Chicago offense is Howard. That qualifies as a question for the developing Bears offense, an iteration of the West Coast system that is predicated on positive plays and ball control using the pass.

The reason is that Howard has developed two competing personas through his first two NFL seasons. One was that of a workhorse running back, the first in Bears franchise history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. A model of consistency at 4.6 yards per carry.

The “other” Jordan Howard was the model of inconsistency — a running back among the worst pass-catchers at his position, low-lighted by the drop of a potential game-winning touchdown pass against the Atlanta Falcons last opening day. Howard dropped six of his 29 targets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The year before he was determined to have dropped seven of his 50 targets.

An emerging 'new' Howard

But maybe that latter was then and this training camp is now.

The defensive pressure has, by chance or by choice, sent Trubisky passes toward Howard. The third-year tailback has responded with both efficient pass-catching and occasionally light acrobatic work, turning off-target throws into positive plays.

The results qualify as a significant positive from early camp. Howard is getting a clean-slate start from Nagy and running backs coach Charles London, and the hope is for a three-down back in the Hunt/Forte mold, which Howard can only be if he is an effective third-down option. His head coach thinks he is.

“Obviously, there’s this façade out there, there’s this notion that (Howard) is just a first- and second-down back, and I don’t believe that,” Nagy said. “Jordan can play all three downs. We’re going to do that. We’re going to use him. And we’re going to use other guys on first and second down when we need to.

“For us, it’s important for Jordan to know and for everybody on our offense to know that he’s a big part of this. This kid’s had a very successful career so far. We’re crazy as coaches and as offensive coaches if we don’t understand it and if we don’t use that to our advantage.”

Wanting Howard to be a three-down force and achieving that are two different things. For his part, Howard has worked to effect what can become a tidal shift for the offense.

“Definitely it’s important to me, just building my confidence more and more with catching the ball and working my body,” Howard said. “It’s definitely important to me. ... I definitely have improved my hand placement. I used to have my hands all over the place, but now coach London is working with me on my hand placement and looking the ball in.”

Possible impact on Howard

The impact of a multi-dimensional Howard cannot be overstated, and it could be overlooked in the buzz of all the other “weapons” the Bears brought in this offseason. It shouldn’t be.

Neither should the effect his enhanced skillset can have for Howard himself.

When the Bears’ offense broke out under Marc Trestman in 2013, finishing second in scoring, Forte caught 74 passes while posting his career-high 1,335 rushing yards on an average of 4.6 yards per carry.

Hunt as a rookie last season led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry while being the Chiefs’ third-leading receiver in both catches and targets. Howard was the only of the top eight leading rushers in 2017 with fewer than Leonard Fournette’s 36.

Tarik Cohen delivered 53 receptions. But Cohen is not a three-down back with the capability of the 200-plus carries that 17 of the top 19 running backs logged last year.

A critical element projects to be Howard’s conditioning and ability to take on a larger and more diverse workload. That limited him in his rookie season, when his usage in fourth quarters dropped at times because he simply wasn’t in requisite shape. The Bears hope that issue and the drops are behind Howard.

“He’s a patient running back,” Nagy said. “I think he as good vision so he’s patient, has good vision, and when you combine that with the power that he has, he finds ways to get yards. The nice thing for us is that we can move him around and do different things.”

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here: