Bears

Penn State's program is far from dead

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Penn State's program is far from dead

From Comcast SportsNet
The mere suggestion that NCAA sanctions against Penn State were worse than receiving the so-called death penalty were enough to make first-year coach Bill O'Brien raise his voice a notch. "No. We are playing football," O'Brien said forcefully during a conference call Tuesday with reporters. "We open our season on Sept. 1 in front of 108,000 strong against Ohio University. We're playing football and we're on TV. We get to practice. We get to get better as football players, and get to do it for Penn State." The NCAA crushed Penn State with scholarship reductions that could be felt for much of this decade and a bowl ban over the next four seasons. But it stopped short of handing down the death penalty, forcing the school to shut down the program the way it did to SMU in 1987. It is fair to wonder if Penn State football will ever be what it once was: a perennial Top 20 program that routinely contended for Big Ten championships and occasionally national titles. But to suggest that Penn State's punishment is comparable to or worse than SMU's is to forget just how difficult it has been for the Mustangs to recover. And make no mistake, 25 years later, SMU football is still recovering. "Until you've completely killed a program, it's hard to understand all that it takes for a program to operate on a day-to-day basis," said Andy Bergfeld, a receiver on SMU's 1989 team, its first after the death penalty. "The fact that SMU had to start completely from scratch -- they went from playing in Texas Stadium to converting their 1920 home stadium into a place we could play our home games -- it was very, very difficult. I think Penn State, when all the dust settles, will have a lot better chance to recover more quickly." As difficult as it will be for Penn State to deal with having no more than 65 scholarship players for four years (their opponents will have 85) it's a whole lot better than having no scholarship players at all. SMU's program was shuttered by the NCAA for one year because it was a repeat offender found to be systematically paying players and that high-ranking university officials knew about the payments. The NCAA allowed SMU players to transfer without restrictions after the punishment was handed down, just as it is doing with Penn State players. With no chance of playing until at least 1988, just about all of the Mustangs left. "It was pretty much a no-brainer for anybody on that football team," said Mitchell Glieber, who was a redshirt freshman on SMU's 1986 team, the last one before the sanctions. "If you had aspirations of playing football beyond college there was no choice." As of Tuesday, Penn State has not lost a current player. No doubt defections will come, and O'Brien has said that right now keeping his team together is his top priority. Glieber felt that professional football was probably not in his future back in the late 80s, so he stuck it out at SMU, along with a handful of other players, mostly former walk-ons. SMU canceled the 1988 season as well, though it was allowed to hire a coach -- former Green Bay Packers great and Cincinnati Bengals coach Forrest Gregg, an SMU alum, was brought in -- and the team began practicing. "The caliber of talent between the pre-death penalty and the post-death penalty were absolutely night and day," said Glieber, who is now the vice president of marketing for the Texas State Fair. "In the first few weeks of practice I was just in disbelief about the level of players we had out there." SMU also had scholarship limits placed on the program by the NCAA and the school had responded to the scandal by drastically raising the academic standards for athletes, Glieber said. Glieber looked at the team SMU was hoping to compete with Southwest Conference rivals such as Texas and Texas A&M and thought: "Can this group of guys stay healthy and continue to field a team week to week?" "It was pretty bleak looking to be honest with you." SMU, remarkably, won two games its first season back. But the program was a wreck. When the Southwest Conference broke up, many of the top programs from that league ended up in the Big 12. SMU was cast aside. It is not unreasonable to think that the Big Ten, with multimillion dollar television contracts to fulfill that require 12 teams, would not have held a spot for Penn State if it had been given the death penalty. Instead, the Big Ten will withhold Penn State's portion of the conference's shared bowl revenue while the Nittany Lions are ineligible for the postseason. That will cost Penn State about 13 million. But the Nittany Lions will still get to have their games shown on the Big Ten Network. And probably on ESPN and ABC. The spotlight will still be on Penn State football, and that could be a good thing. The day after the NCAA's hammer dropped on Penn State, O'Brien made the media rounds, answering questions about how he will go about trying to lead the Nittany Lions through the difficult times that lie ahead. Mostly, though, O'Brien was delivering the message that there are still plenty of reasons to play football at Penn State. The former New England offensive coordinator and Joe Paterno's replacement ticked off the reasons several times. -- A chance to get a great education; -- The ability to "play football on TV in front of 108,000 fans" at Beaver Stadium; -- To be able to play "six or seven bowl games a year right here in State College in front of great fans"; -- His staff's ability to develop players for the NFL. And he left off a couple of others. Most likely, fans will still come to Beaver Stadium. College football weekends are about more than the game. They are about reunions of friends and family, a chance to cook out on crisp autumn days. Those things won't change in Happy Valley. Also, while a four-year bowl ban sounds tough, think about it like this. An incoming freshman who redshirts for a year -- retaining four years of eligibility -- will be able to play for the blue and white in a bowl his senior season. O'Brien has already shown signs of being a stellar recruiter. He was putting together a class that recruiting analysts were high on before the sanctions. Analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports said that he thinks the first two years under the sanctions will be lean, but O'Brien can start selling recruits a future with bowl games and Big Ten titles by Year 3 and Penn State could be back on track in five years. "It's all about the optimism and the ability to sell the future to these kids," Lemming said. O'Brien said he found out exactly what the sanctions were at the same time as everyone else, when NCAA President Mark Emmert announced them at a news conference Monday morning. Before they came down, O'Brien said he told his bosses what he wanted: "Let us play football and let us be on TV." "At the end of the day that's what you want to do: play football in a fantastic, beautiful stadium and you want your fans that can't go to the game to watch you on TV." It sure beats not playing at all.

Bears film breakdown: Matt Nagy's playcalling shines in critical second-half scoring drive against Seattle

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Bears film breakdown: Matt Nagy's playcalling shines in critical second-half scoring drive against Seattle

One of the more important questions the Bears had to answer Monday night was how Matt Nagy would call plays if given another second-half lead. Nagy answered that question well against the Seattle Seahawks, specifically with how he dialed up a well-executed 11-play, 66-yard scoring drive midway through the second half of the Bears' 24-17 win on Monday Night Football. 

The Bears never gained more than nine yards on a single play until the final one of the drive, which went for 10. But the Mitch Trubisky-led offense also never faced a third down, with this group staying on schedule while out-scheming and out-executing the Seahawks. There's an argument to be made it was the Bears' best offensive drive of the young season: The other two touchdown drives of 2018 came on the first drive of each game when plays were scripted.

Nagy had to make an adjustment with the Seahawks frequently dropping eight men into the box and selling out to stop Jordan Howard. He did so on this drive, and it got the Bears into the end zone. Here's the blow-by-blow of how:

First play: First and 10, ball on Bears' 34

Tight ends Dion Sims and Trey Burton are lined up to the near sideline, and Trubisky quickly fires a screen to Taylor Gabriel. It’s the first time the Bears give this look in Monday’s game after Nagy admitted he over-used some screens against the Packers. Gabriel does a nice job after the catch to gain six yards, starting the drive on schedule. 

Second play: Second and four, ball on Bears' 40

In 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back), Howard runs a stretch to the right, away from the middle of the field the Seahawks had so successfully clogged all night. Kyle Long delivers a punishing pancake block, and Gabriel holds his own as a run blocker, too, to net Howard a gain of five and a first down. 

Third play: First and 10, ball on Bears' 45

This is the only ineffective play of the drive, and it underscores how the Seahawks' defense had been playing the Bears' offense. On the far sideline, safety Earl Thomas picks up tight end Trey Burton (red arrow), which would've left Allen Robinson (blue arrow) in one-on-one coverage with no safety help over the top because Bradley McDougald (yellow circle/arrow) is in the box. Trubisky sells the pass fake, but McDougald stays committed to the run. The Bears' offensive line does its job but can't block the extra defender, and McDougald makes a tackle for a one-yard gain. 

Fourth play: Second and nine, ball on Bears' 46

McDougald (green circle) blitzes from the edge on a play fake to Howard. Burton (blue arrow) is open for an easy completion at the line of scrimmage, while linebacker Austin Calitro (yellow arrow) backs up as the ball is being thrown, possibly to carry wide receiver Anthony Miller over the middle. He doesn't make the tackle on the play, which goes for nine yards and a first down. 

Fifth play: First and 10, ball on Seahawks' 45

This is the only time the Bears ran the ball into the interior of the Seahawks' defense on this drive. After attacking the edges and getting in rhythm with some quick passing plays, the Bears' offensive line (as well as Sims and Burton) get their best interior run blocking push of the night, with most of Howard's blockers one or two yards upfield before he crosses the line of scrimmage. Howard gains six on the gorund here. 

Sixth play: Second and four, ball on Seahawks' 39

Gabriel lines up in the backfield to Trubisky's right, and the pair run a zone read. Trubisky makes the correct read on the play, and but Robinson couldn't hold his block as the play stretched toward the sideline. Gabriel does well to get four yards on it. 

Seventh play: First and 10, ball on Seahawks' 35

Credit Sims with a good job in pass protection, as he routes Frank Clark upfield just enough for Trubisky to escape the Seahawks' edge rusher and get into open field. Trubisky is keeping his eyes downfield (blue arrow) while moving to his right, and he doesn't see a throw he likes so he takes off and runs for four yards. That Trubisky kept his eyes downfield was generally a good thing, though had he put his head down and took off sooner he probably could've got more than the four yards he did. That's a lot easier to say from the comfort of a couch, though. 

Eighth play: Second and six, ball on Seahawks' 31

Another play fake to Howard draws linebacker Barkevious Mingo (green arrow) toward the backfield, and Trubisky has no problem throwing a quick swing pass to Josh Bellamy (blue circle) for a gain of six and a first down. 

Ninth play: First and 10, ball on Seahawks' 25

A well-designed and well-executed jet sweep with some misdirection to Gabriel (red arrow) draws linebacker Mychal Kendricks (green arrow) the wrong way. Left tackle Charles Leno gets to block Calitro in space (blue circle), to highlight a good matchup for the Bears. This play is well-blocked, but it's again safety Earl Thomas who's the only reason why it didn't go for more, as he diagnoses the play and makes a tackle on Gabriel for a gain of eight to end the third quarter. 

Tenth play: Second and two, ball on Seahawks' 17

The Bears go back to Howard, who goes off the left end for a gain of seven. While only three of Howard's 14 runs came on this drive, over half his yards (18/35) were gained on it. 

11th play: First and goal, ball on Seahawks' 10

Miller runs an excellent route, beating cornerback Akeem King with a perfectly-set-up move. Trubisky, rolling to his left, fires a perfect pass to Miller. Touchdown. 

Final takeaways

A number of players deserve credit for making this drive work, from the obvious (Trubisky, for taking what was there) and Gabriel (for slipping through or past tackles for a few extra yards) to the less obvious (Sims, in particular, had a strong series as both a pass and run blocker). But Nagy stood out, too, for calling the right plays to kick-start an offense that punted on its previous two second-half possessions. 

Prince Amukamara, Allen Robinson earn highest Pro Football Focus grades for Bears in Week 2

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USA TODAY

Prince Amukamara, Allen Robinson earn highest Pro Football Focus grades for Bears in Week 2

The Bears had a player on each side of the ball step up big in their Week 2 win over the Seattle Seahawks. Wide receiver Allen Robinson quickly became Mitchell Trubisky’s favorite target, and cornerback Prince Amukamara sealed the game with his pick six in the fourth quarter.

So it’s no surprise that they were the Bears’ highest-graded players on each side of the ball by Pro Football Focus.

Overall, Robinson was the team’s sixth highest-graded player, with the Top 5 all coming on defense. He was targeted a team-high 14 times, but only two of those targets traveled further than 10 yards in the air. Both were intercepted.

Amukamara was targeted seven times in coverage and allowed three catches for 36 yards with his game-sealing interception. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had just a 19.6 passer rating when targeting the Bears cornerback.

Both Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith graded lower than they did last week, with the rookie linebacker ranking as the team’s lowest-graded defensive starter. Mitchell Trubisky also didn’t fare well, finishing as the quarterback with the third-lowest grade in the NFL for Week 2.

As a whole, the Bears’ defense is the top-graded unit in the league through two weeks, while their offense ranks 24th.  Next week, they face the Arizona Cardinals, who have PFF’s second lowest-graded offense and defense so far this season.