PERSONNEL NEWS

Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

GAME PLAN: Matt Nagy’s offense is facing a different challenge from Green Bay than the Bears have seen in recent years, with Dom Capers no longer coordinating the Packers’ defense. New coordinator Mike Pettine tends to rely on single-safety high coverage and matches up man-to-man on receivers. It’s likely to give the Bears opportunities with slot receivers if they give Mitchell Trubisky time. Players like Trey Burton or Taylor Gabriel can exploit gaps in coverage resulting from the lack of two safeties in the middle of the field, or from the single safety cheating to assist in covering deep threat Allen Robinson. Mitchell Trubisky will have to overcome tight man-to-man coverage, and he hasn’t had great success at this to date. Then again, he wasn’t in a modern pro-style offense last year, either. The passing game may get emphasized more in this game because Green Bay will crowd the line of scrimmage with an extra safety in the box.

Defensively, it’s uncertain how much Khalil Mack will be able to contribute immediately without knowing the Bears’ defensive scheme well. On the other hand, the best way to battle Aaron Rodgers is by getting the push from the middle of the line anyway, forcing him out to the edge. It’s critical for Akiem Hicks to cave the pocket. They can’t sit back in zone all day and let Rodgers settle in. This has to be a mixed approach, with disguised coverages. Disguising coverages are what Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio does very well, when he isn’t forced to cover up for other weaknesses.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Bears CB Kyle Fuller, whose 22 passes defended was second in the NFL last year, vs. Packers WR Davante Adams, who made 22 of his 26 TD catches in the last two seasons. The Bears didn’t have to cope with Adams in the first game last year because Danny Trevathan knocked him out. Adams got his revenge in Game 2 with a TD catch and four other receptions all for 90 yards. Adams was one of the few receivers to get the better of Fuller last year, and uses his height well.

–Bears DE Akiem Hicks, who led the Bears with 8.5 sacks last year, vs. Packers RG Justin McCray, who last season became the first Packers lineman to start at three different positions since 2008. Hicks overpowers blockers, but McCray is 6-3, 317 and at his best playing a physical opponent. McCray had eight starts last year but four of them came in the top four Packer rushing efforts of the year. While Hicks has to cave in the pocket on Aaron Rodgers, the Bears have had their worst games against the Packers when they’ve allowed themselves to be run on. So Hicks’ role preventing this will be critical.

–Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, who threw for only seven touchdowns in 12 starts last year, vs. Packers secondary, which returns only one starter from last season. Anything can happen here in this matchup, and the Bears must win it because they’re virtually never able to run with authority on Green Bay. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the only full-time secondary starter back from last year and Green Bay is in a new scheme. The Matt Nagy offense tries to put a premium on creating a conflict of assignments for defenders, and doing it against a new defense should be easier. The idea is to get wide-open receivers for Trubisky after breakdowns.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Mitchell Trubisky. Backup — Chase Daniel.

In his second preseason, Trubisky displayed better on-field leadership, along with more accuracy throwing on the move as well as from the pocket. Still, he needs to improve his overall accuracy and also his arm strength in the deep passing game. Last year’s offense lacked any receivers of note, and Trubisky never really tested the deep passing aspect of his game. He completed no preseason passes to Allen Robinson. So finding a way to get it to his go-to receiver is a key in development. Daniel seemed dialed into the offense in preseason, as he should after spending time in Kansas City and Philadelphia. The ball often came out of his hand faster and to more open receivers than it did with Trubisky — although it was usually against reserve defenders. Daniel lacks regular-season experience but can offset it with scheme knowledge.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Jordan Howard, FB Michael Burton. Backups — Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham.

Throughout camp and preseason, Jordan Howard gave indications of better hands in the passing game. Whether his improvement carries over to the pressure of regular-season games remains a great unanswered question. Howard had college experience running the ball on RPO plays and has quickly adapted to finding holes behind a new blocking scheme. The undisputed load back on this team, he will likely get fewer runs because of a new emphasis on the passing game, and he must make the most of carries. Cohen should be an ideal fit as a weapon in this offense and his potential in it is still largely a secret in head coach Matt Nagy’s mind. He’ll line up anywhere and present a big-play challenge to defenses. Cunningham combines the skills of Howard and Cohen, and remains possibly their best blocking back in passing situations. It’s safe to anticipate Burton taking on a bigger role in the offense, especially as an occasional receiver circling out of the backfield. He showed it right away in preseason with a TD catch.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Trey Burton. Backups — Dion Sims, Daniel Brown, Ben Braunecker, Adam Shaheen (IR/could return later in season).

Burton will begin plays on the line or in the backfield and displays skills like an extra wide receiver, with good hands and better speed than most tight ends. He’s not going to be an in-line blocking asset the way Sims is. Sims has flashed multiple skills throughout his career and Nagy’s offense could be the catalyst allowing him to put it all together. Shaheen starts on injured reserve, but GM Ryan Pace said the second-year tight end will likely be brought back when eligible after his ankle/foot injuries heel. He did not require surgery. Shaheen made major strides as a red-zone receiver and at running seam routes prior to the injury, which may now delay his growth. Brown and Braunecker possess similar skills, although Brown is probably a better blocker. They’re not vertical receivers to the level of Burton, Shaheen or Sims. At the outset, Brown has a severe leg bruise suffered in the fifth preseason game and his status is uncertain.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Allen Robinson II, Taylor Gabriel. Backups — Kevin White, Anthony Miller, Javon Wims, Josh Bellamy.

The ingredients for a well-rounded receiver group exist, but starters haven’t shown much as the season approaches. Robinson says he’s no longer overly conscious of his rehabbed knee after ACL surgery, but he’ll have to prove it because he’s been brought along slowly. The Bears need his ability to get downfield and elevate to stretch defenses. Slowed in camp by a foot injury, Gabriel appears set now to use 4.3-second 40-yard speed to beat the single coverage for the catch and run. He’ll see time in the slot and hopes to burn teams who rotate an extra defender toward Robinson. Miller and Wims were both pleasant surprises in camp for being more advanced at route running than many rookies. Miller, in particular, has a knack for finding open spots and making tough catches. In what could be his final Bears season, White has to justify his early draft status by being the all-around explosive receiver who complements Robinson. His great natural talent sporadically surfaced in preseason. Bellamy will be active on Sundays ahead of younger, more talented receivers due to special teams skills and leadership.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Charles Leno Jr., LG Eric Kush, C Cody Whitehair, RG Kyle Long, RT Bobby Massie. Backups — T Bradley Sowell, G James Daniels, T Rashaad Coward.

Long’s health status continues to be key for a potentially solid line. He’s had no problems to date after three offseason surgeries and in limited preseason action his aggressiveness and experience came to the forefront. The only real line issues in preseason were Whitehair’s long snaps and whether Daniels was more of a guard or center. He performed at both spots adequately, and was close to overtaking Kush as starter. As a result, the center/guard situation is deep. The Bears will get by again with two tackles who rate lower than many at their positions in the league. Both are effective enough run blockers, but have their trouble when speed rushers take the outside shoulder. Fortunately for Leno and Massie, the idea is to have the ball out of Mitchell Trubisky’s hand quickly and with fewer seven-step drops. So interior pass blocking looks more critical. Avoiding presnap penalties will be a key, and it’s something this line struggled with in the past.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LDE Akiem Hicks, NT Eddie Goldman, RDE Jonathan Bullard. Backups — DE Bilal Nichols, DE Roy Robertson-Harris, DT Nick Williams.

Possibly the greatest strength of the team last season, the defensive front appears deeper and stronger at rushing the passer. Robertson-Harris and Bullard have settled in after acquiring experience. Goldman needs a big year in the final year of his contract, and the only problem he’s ever had is staying healthy. Hicks remains a force, and last year commanded double-team pass blocking. This will be more difficult for opponents to achieve now with Khalil Mack rushing off the same side. The chief line problem will be lack of depth at nose. Nichols, Robertson-Harris and Williams all can rush the passer and play aggressively, but a blob in the middle of the line to sub for short-yardage situations is one luxury this line lacks. The health of Goldman and Hicks will be keys.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — LOLB Khalil Mack, ILB Danny Trevathan, ILB Nick Kwiatkoski, ROLB Leonard Floyd. Backups — ILB Roquan Smith, LOLB Aaron Lynch, ROLB Sam Acho, OLB Kylie Fitts, OLB Isaiah Irving.

The obvious strength of this team now, the Bears upgraded in the draft and through trade with the acquisition of Mack. It’s a group that should take a few weeks to display dominance, but when they do the potential is limitless. They’ve heightened overall linebacker speed and scare quarterbacks into getting rid of the football quickly. Floyd’s broken hand bones will be an issue in early weeks, as will Mack’s inexperience in the system. Smith’s lack of experience in the league will initially keep Kwiatkoski in the starting lineup, but this won’t last long. Trevathan’s calming veteran influence and ability to call the defense will be important until Smith is able to assume this duty, as is eventually expected. Depth exists inside and outside, as Acho has been a spot starter. Fitts and Irving both had strong preseasons as pass rushers, but need to polish up against the run. They liked Lynch enough as a third or fourth outside linebacker to keep him on the roster despite doing virtually nothing due to nagging injuries.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Kyle Fuller, FS Eddie Jackson, SS Adrian Amos, RCB Prince Amukamara. Backups — CB Marcus Cooper, S Deon Bush, S DeAndre Houston-Carson, CB Bryce Callahan, CB Sherrick McManis, CB Kevin Toliver II.

The Bears secondary made the most surprising climb of all units last season, and returns intact with a goal of ending a string of three straight years with a franchise-record low of eight interceptions. With the pass rush bolstered by Khalil Mack, it should be easier for Amos and Jackson to make plays on the ball, and for Fuller and Amukamara to peel off from coverage and do the same. Amos is in a contract year and needs to continue drastic improvement getting to the ball like he displayed last season. Jackson has to become more physical, even at a time when tackling rules make it difficult. Depth-wise they’re not hurting, with Callahan back at nickel and Cooper possessing great experience. They saw something in Toliver during limited practice early, possibly his (6-foot-2) height matched up on taller receivers. Bush and Carson have grown up in this system the past few years and are now ready to fill in at safety despite lacking extensive game experience.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Cody Parkey, P Patrick O’Donnell, LS Patrick Scales, PR Tarik Cohen, KR Benny Cunningham.

Parkey’s consistency looms as the largest special teams issue despite his solid 2017 effort with Miami. His short miss in the preseason finale set off warning signals. The Bears will keep an eye on the waiver wire just in case. O’Donnell won a real camp battle despite inconsistency with his hang time, and must continue the gradual improvement shown in each of his NFL seasons because he received only a one-year deal this year. After ACL surgery, Scales proved he could get downfield and cover on punts. There had never been a question about his snapping consistency. It’s possible Cohen will be called upon to return both punts and kicks again, but league-wide, teams are taking advantage of new rules by using higher, shorter kickoffs to try and pin opponents deep. Protecting the undersized Cohen on those type of plays would be difficult, so using Cunningham instead is a wise move. Coverage units are battle-hardened behind Sherrick McManis, Josh Bellamy and Nick Kwiatkoski.

PRACTICE SQUAD: OL Dejon Allen, DL Abdullah Anderson, QB Tyler Bray, WR Tanner Gentry, DB Michael Joseph, DB Jonathon Mincy, RB Taquan Mizzell, RB Ryan Nall, OL James Stone, LB Josh Woods.

 

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