Bears’ Defense Shouldering High Expectations and Fielding Plenty of Questions
- Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears' quarterbacks, will likely draw most of the preseason attention. But let's be real... the Chicago defense figures to have a larger hand in the Bears' fortunes than their passers—assuming the players can stay healthy.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Naturally, the fans here wanted to see Mitchell Trubisky. The crowd erupted Monday when the Bears’ high-profile (and, for the moment, third-string) quarterback dropped in a dime over the shoulder of tight and Adam Shaheen. Earlier, after Trubisky ricocheted a pass into the hands of Reuben Randle, one diehard in attendance starting chanting “Magic Mitch! Magic Mitch”, before covering his bases in case the nickname caught on: “Put a copyright patent on that!”
The QBs almost always are the stars of training camp, even more so when a shiny, new one is in the mix.
However, if the Bears are to bounce back from last season’s 3–13 record, Trubisky—locked in well behind starter Mike Glennon—will be among the least likely contributors. At one point on Monday, Trubisky watched the second-team offense in action, standing directly across the field from Leonard Floyd, Sam Acho and Akiem Hicks—three members of a defensive front that figures to have far more say in the Bears’ fortunes than Trubisky.
The D-line looks like it will be a strength for Chicago, if everyone can stay healthy. But therein lies the rub—for every glimmer of hope ’round these parts this August, there is an element tempering the expectations. Can the Bears be more competitive in 2017? Absolutely. Will they be good enough to jump into the playoff mix? That all depends on a variety of factors, including the quarterbacks. A primer:
The front seven could be darned good ...
Floyd is a burgeoning star in this league. He delivered 7.0 sacks as a rookie, in just 12 games, and was a noticeable presence just about every time he stepped foot on the field at practice.
“He’s got really good potential,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said during a press conference last week (he was unable to speak to the media on Monday). “I think he’ll be a very good player for us and looked upon as a very good player in the league. If you’re looking for statistical numbers, I can’t put a finger on that. But he’ll be a damn good player.”
Floyd can’t do the job alone, but he could receive help from a couple of lesser-known sources: veteran OLB Sam Acho and inside linebacker Christian Jones. Just about every member of the Bears’ coaching staff has talked up Jones recently, both for his work on defense and special teams. Meanwhile, Acho ignited the Bears’ defensive sideline during 11-on-11 drills Monday when he tracked down a wide run play and buried it for a loss. He joined Floyd, Acho and Akiem Hicks along the line on that particular snap, with the defense employing an athletic nickel front.
Second-year DE Jonathan Bullard and free-agent pickup Jaye Howard are pushing for time, too, while Eddie Goldman will start and Mitch Unrein could join him. Fangio has a lot to work with on the first and second levels.
... but when will the Bears have their full complement of options?
Missing from Monday’s practice were LBs Danny Trevathan and Lamarr Houston, as well as Pernell McPhee, a projected starter who recently landed on the PUP list due to a knee injury. Goldman finished last season on I.R., after breaking his ankle.
With all of those players in the lineup, Fangio can rotate through a slew of looks to keep everyone fresh. Without them, the Bears are thin on viable depth. Jones has showed well throughout camp, and as mentioned Acho turned in a few gems Monday, but in a perfect world neither would play heavy minutes.
The secondary should be improved over its 2016 version ...
The Bears ranked seventh in passing yards allowed last season, but teams rarely had to take to the air against them. Because the Bears struggled vs. the run and often found themselves behind, the opposition attempted just 530 passes, the fourth-lowest total in the NFL.
If—and again, it’s definitely an “if” proposition—the front seven is as stout as the Bears hope, the secondary will be tested more often in 2017. GM Ryan Pace spent ample resources in the offseason to prepare for that possibility, adding CBs Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper and safety Quintin Demps via free agency. Chicago also drafted safety Eddie Jackson in Round 4. He was Demps’s partner on the first-team defense throughout the afternoon Monday, flanked by Amukamara and Cooper on the outside; Crevon LeBlanc handled slot duties.
Save for Jackson, that’s a group with experience. And Jackson may be the most exciting of them all—had he not broken his leg last October at Alabama, he had Round 1 or 2 potential. He chalked up one of Monday’s biggest blows, driving down on a crossing route to Cameron Meredith and unloading on Chicago’s wide receiver. (Meredith, it should be noted, somehow held onto the ball.)
“He has good ball skills, that was a check in his corner there from the get-go,” said Fangio of Jackson. “He’s got good range. He’s athletic. ... He played some corner in college, so we’ve seen some of that athletic ability We’ll just have to see him tackle.”
Adrian Amos, Harold Jones-Quartey and Deon Bush rank among the other options, should Jackson falter. Again, depth ...
... but turning over the entire starting group in one offseason is difficult
GMs time and again have found out what a lofty challenge it is to (almost) start from scratch in the secondary. Rebuilding a depth chart via free agency and the draft, in just the February-May window, probably fails more often than it works.
Amukamara has started 57 games in the NFL, but the Bears are asking a lot of him to be their No. 1 cornerback—by his practice assignments, that is his clear role for now. Cooper also has to prove he’s worth the $16 million contract he signed back in March. A starting gig in Arizona gave him enough momentum to land that deal, but he was far from a lockdown option as a Cardinal.
Then there’s Jackson, who will make his pro debut Thursday night as the Bears open the preseason against Denver. Can he hang with the first team? Can Cooper?
Chicago might feel better, overall, if Kyle Fuller could rediscover his mojo. He was working with the second-team defense Monday, and at one point allowed UDFA (and camp sensation) Tanner Gentry to blow past him for a bomb up the sideline. Maybe Fuller earns a primary job back; he has not yet.
The passing attack offers several explosive weapons ...
Running back Jordan Howard rushed for 1,300 yards as a rookie, and the offense will roll through him again this season. But the Matt Barkley-Brian Hoyer-Jay Cutler trifecta at quarterback last year never provided Howard with enough balance. Glennon & Co., will be asked to do so in 2017.
Working in their favor is an intriguing crop of talent at the skill positions. The Bears continue to believe Kevin White will a) stay healthy, and b) emerge as the player they thought he’d be when they drafted him. As of Monday, he’s still on track to give it his best effort. He didn’t necessarily dazzle during the first workout of the week, but he did make a grab on a long drag route over the middle on which he outran the corner covering him and plucked a Glennon pass on the run.
Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton, Victor Cruz and Randle all joined the fray this offseason, behind White and Cameron Meredith.
“We’re getting more and more on the same page,” said Glennon of his receivers. “I know where they’re going to be, they know where I’m going to throw it and we have improved on that from OTAs until now. ... You kind of find out what everyone’s niche is.”
There’s Shaheen and Zach Miller at tight end. Rookie Tarik Cohen is a ball of lightning at running back. The Bears have enough talent to make defenses nervous.
... but will the offensive line hold up? Will Glennon shine as a true No. 1?
So yeah, those are two rather glaring questions, without even getting into White’s troublesome health. The interior of Chicago’s line can be brilliant, with center Cody Whitehair between guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton. The tackles, less so: Charles Leno, Bobby Massie, Bradley Sowell and others will try to piece together two serviceable starting OTs.
The questions at quarterback are going to linger for months, maybe even years, despite the fact that there will be an immediate QB-to-QB comparison tracking how Glennon and new Miami/ex-Chicago starter Jay Cutler fare this season.
As is the case at every camp in the league, the dream is that it all clicks. In truth, the Bears were not quite as bad as their record a season ago indicated. By the law of averages alone, a couple of those close losses in ’16 should flip into the win column in ’17. Maybe even more than a couple, if all the roster tweaks pay off.
’Tis a large chasm to go from 3–13 to seven or eight wins or even playoff contention, however. The Bears have parts that stand out in August. They still need too many things to go exactly right to bank on a miracle turnaround overnight.