Offensive Line Issues Lead to Other Problems

The issues the Bears face after a week so far have largely stemmed from injuries and the offensive line situation is threatening to hold back all progress.
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Putting on pads tends to change the landscape in an NFL camp.

The immediate thought is how linemen hit each other but there was much more to it when the Bears wore pads for the first time at Tuesday's Soldier Field practice, one which signified the end of the first full week of training camp.

The play overall has been fairly sharp. At least it hasn't been a daily collection of players on offense not knowing the count or the defense jumping offsides. Mental mistakes are what eat at coaches at this time of camp.

"Minimize mistakes," coach Matt Nagy said when asked what he needed to see in general a week into camp. "The more you screw up, the more you mess up, the more you jump offsides, the more you grab, whatever, the worse team we're going to be so we've got to gauge that as coaches."

It's not easy to maintain offensive or defensive presnap integrity when players are being moved in and out of the first team or second team daily because of injuries or now COVID-19.

Here is where it stands after pads went on and after a week of practices as the Bears got their second day off in the past four days in preparation for a run of four straight days of work at Halas Hall, prior to next week's arrival of the Miami Dolphins for practice and a game.

1. Justin Fields needs to face more pass rushes

Fields comfortably dropped passes in against man or zone coverage throughout non-padded 7-on-7s, 11-on-7 or full team, although at times a heavy pass rush crowded passing lanes. When they put on pads everything became more heated and faster, the windows became much tighter in coverage and they were tougher to locate. It wasn't just Fields who suffered in this respect, although it was very apparent for him. All three quarterbacks looked much less efficient. Fields completed one nice downfield pass at Soldier Field that Rodney Adams went out of bounds on inside the 5-yard line, but by and large bigger plays were tough to come by against more intense, physical competition.

2. The pass defense is alive and well

It could begin to look different now with Tashaun Gipson also out due to a quad injury, and Eddie Jackson yet to practice with a hamstring injury. Still, both Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson look polished in practice and have held up the back end of the defense. The cornerbacks have performed particularly well in zone coverage, although Allen Robinson beat them a few times deep in one on one, including once at Soldier Field when he got a few steps behind Desmond Trufant. Jaylon Johnson has continued making strides and had an interception of Andy Dalton at Soldier Field in 7-on-7. Overall, this area was a question mark going into camp but whether it's the coaching of defensive coordinator Sean Desai or the players themselves, there is yet to be a great drop off even with reserves on the field.

3. Pass blocking has gone from concern to worry

This was already a tough situation with Teven Jenkins at left tackle and Germain Ifedi at right tackle. At least Ifedi has played there in the past. Jenkins hasn't played there in the NFL and he isn't now. The back injury he has is now a "days to week" type of thing, according to Matt Nagy, who appropriately added, "whatever that means." It is too soon to panic about the left tackle situation but GM Ryan Pace should have covered them better with experience here. Even if Jenkins returned soon at full health, it's better to have a backup left tackle who has at least played the position some in the NFL. The Bears don't have one.

"Coach (David) Culley in Houston, when he was a wide receiver coach (in Philadelphia) and I was coming up in the ranks, he used to always tell me in training camp, a rule I live by," Nagy said. "He would say, Matt, it will all play itself out. It's real simple."

The problem is the way this looks like it will play itself out right now is with quarterbacks running for their lives. The breakdowns haven't just been on the outside. Akiem Hicks came barreling in almost untouched once at Soldier Field. The edge rushers seem able to get home when they want and have to pull off to avoid contact with quarterbacks.

The inexperience doesn't always manifest itself in a blocker being beaten one on one by the defender across from him. The biggest concern is lack of communication and how a blocking assignment might be different, which can lead to a total breakdown. That's when pass rushers arrive virtually untouched at the QB. This is much more likely to happen when there is lack of familiarity with position, teammate and assignment.

What's even more scary is the pass rush is vanilla in camp. They aren't being besieged by blitzes which require complicated, late blocking adjustments.

A side issue to all of this is how Fields needs some pocket time to learn his receivers and his defense. He's a bit too willing at times to move off his launch point largely because the pass blocking isn't consistent enough. This can slow his development.

4. The Running Back Multiverse

There are different dimensions to this Bears running back corps even with Tarik Cohen sidelined, and it was even obvious before Tuesday's padded practice. However, the pads helped make it clear as they ran more plays closer to live action. Damien Williams has made it look like the opt-out year had no effect. David Montgomery does indeed look faster, as he promised after his offseason training included speed work. What is very apparent and welcome to coaches is that even without Cohen, there is no shortage of pass receivers in the backfield. Montgomery already was a good receiver. Williams always was in Kansas City and Miami, and still displays good hands. And Khalil Herbert was a player who didn't get many chances to catch passes in college but has shown nice hands in practices. Herbert is a different type of back, a complement to Montgomery and Williams, who can both make tacklers miss. Herbert is more of a one-cut runner with excellent speed. It showed up on Tuesday when he took one handoff on an angle toward the sideline, then made an extremely sharp cut straight up the field in a gap between the slot cornerback and outside cornerback. He was gone in an instant.

5. Making them pay

When Mitchell Trubisky was quarterback there were two uncertainties to the deep pass. There was the receiver's ability to get open and then Trubisky's ability to hit him even if he got wide open. It might sail long or wide of the mark. Fields and Dalton both displayed time and again when a receiver gets open, the ball will be there. For that matter, so has Nick Foles. On Tuesday, the safeties blew coverage on receiver Chris Lacy and he ran straight to the end zone with Marqui Christian the closest Bear 15 yards away. The ball arrived right in his hands for the TD.  That's the way it should be. Defenders pay for missed assignments.

6. The competitors

Some players get painted as being probable cut victims because of highly competitive situations, but some rise in these battles to new levels. A few Bears who face tough squeezes at roster cuts are making statements. 

One has been edge rusher James Vaughters. He has made strong rushes repeatedly or dropped adeptly into coverage. While Jeremiah Attaochu and Trevis Gipson applied heat from time to time, Vaughters has been consistently doing this. ... Lacy is a player who has come open often in the secondary, and while he has dropped a few he has also made more than his share of catches. With Javon Wims nursing a slight ankle injury after he got stepped on Saturday, and Riley Ridley quiet lately following a good camp start, Lacy is stepping forward. ... Jesse James will make it hard for other third tight end candidates. He barely knows any of the offense, after signing right before camp. Yet, he has still made more than his fair share of catches. For some reason, Fields seems to find him open most often. The big problem with James is he doesn't look the part of a tight end, wearing jersey No. 18.

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