By Brad Biggs Tribune Reporter 10:50 a.m. CDT, August 19, 2012
Ten thoughts on the Chicago Bears' 33-31 exhibition victory Saturday over the Washington Redskins:
1. For the first time in a while, there is a buzz about the Bears' rookie draft class, which usually is a key component for playoff success.
First-year players aren’t going to guide a team through the postseason, but an injection of young talent often helps teams fill needs and get over the hump.
Finding splash free-agent additions has not been a problem for the Bears. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall will change the face of the offense this season. Defensive end Julius Peppers was given the largest contract in franchise history in 2010 and has helped Lovie Smith’s defense remain relevant. The Bears have done well with role players in free agency, too, and once upon a time they even found competent offensive linemen via free agency.
It’s been a completely different story when it comes to draft classes, the reason team president Ted Phillips launched general manager Jerry Angelo in January. Angelo wasn’t fired because backup quarterback Caleb Hanie flopped when Jay Cutler was injured last season, he was released because the Bears could not effectively build the roster through the draft.
The last time the Bears got significant production from the top of their draft class was 2006 when they went to the Super Bowl. Danieal Manning started at safety and Devin Hester revamped special teams. Both were second-round picks. Defensive end Mark Anderson set a franchise record for sacks by a rookie with 12. He was a fifth-rounder.
Not since 2000 and the draft that brought Brian Urlacher and Mike Brown have the Bears had their top two picks perform as standout starters. Although it doesn’t look like defensive end Shea McClellin will win a starting job, he still could play a significant role. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery continues to impress, catching three passes for a team-high 62 yards against the Redskins. If he keeps it up, he’s going to take major playing time away from Hester and Earl Bennett.
McClellin is being counted on to at least provide a boost to the pass rush in nickel situations and as a member of the rotation. He had a sack against the Broncos but didn’t flash as much against the Redskins. He’s playing end in the nickel package and that has allowed the defense to push Israel Idonije, who had 2 1/2 sacks, inside to tackle in those situations.
Jeffery is working behind Hester, second on the depth chart opposite Marshall. It’s often difficult for rookie wide receivers to make big contributions but Jeffery looks like he’s going to fit in nicely. The Bears are cautiously optimistic that Phil Emery’s first class will have a sudden impact.
“It starts with the top pick first always,” Smith said. “Shea, you know I’ve heard he is a linebacker and he can’t play the run, all of these things. All we’ve said is that we’ve loved him from Day 1 and like him a whole lot more now that we’ve seen him in pads. He’ll only get better and better.
“As we talk about the Robert Griffins coming into the NFL, you need athletic guys that can run to be able to chase those guys down and Shea can do that. He’s taken just about every rep and he’s probably gotten as many reps as anyone around here (in training camp) and they’ve all made him better.”
McClellin was prematurely judged and knocked during training camp. He’s got plenty of work to do in order to elevate his game but writing him off a week and 10 days into camp was a mistake.
“Everyone has an opinion,” McClellin said. “You can’t do anything about it. You just have to not listen to it and go out there and play. They will be up and down on you no matter what. You just go out there and play.
“I tried to work as hard as I possibly could every day in camp. Go out to practice and take the mentality that I was going to get better. I think I accomplished that. I’m better at the technique side of things and a little bit of everything. Like I have been saying, I’ve got a lot of work to do. I have a lot to get better at so I have to keep grinding.”
The Bears didn’t see a lot of Jeffery in the spring because he had some leg issues. But he’s been a constant on the practice field for them since camp opened and he’s shown up in both games. There were concerns about his conditioning and weight but none of those issues have cropped up for the Bears. He’s been dynamic and there wasn’t a better of example of how he uses his 6-foot-3, 216-pound frame to get open than when he fended off pass interference that was called by the officials on Redskins safety Tanard Jackson to make a reception in the second quarter.
Has he convinced himself yet he’ll be a contributor during the regular season?
“I still have to produce in the games,” Jeffery said. “We’re going to see how that goes. Whenever your number is called, you’ve got to make plays.”
Hester is convinced Jeffery can help make a difference right away.
“He is doing good,” Hester said. “He is going to be a big factor on our team.”
What is the key to Jeffery succeeding where so many other first-year receivers have struggled?
“He’s a humble guy,” Hester said. “He is willing to learn from the veterans. He is one of those guys where he didn’t come in with a big ego. He always asks for help and advice with little things so I think that is going to help him out a lot.”
Again, it’s premature with the rookie class but initial signs point to help being here for the veterans. It would be a welcome change.
“I see a lot of potential,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “We are in the preseason and you’ve got the season to go. Football and playmakers, it’s about consistency so you’ve got to come in week in and week out and produce the same way that you did that week when everyone saw you. There are going to be weeks when maybe they don’t perform to expectations. But it’s about getting back in there and digging back in, it’s a grind.
“A lot of things have happened this year as far as free agents, draft picks, getting our own guys signed. I think it’s all a recipe for success.”
Here are the top two rounds for the Bears since 2000:
2012 – 1. Shea McClellin, 2. Alshon Jeffery
2011 – 1. Gabe Carimi, 2. Stephen Paea
2010 – 1. None (Jay Cutler trade), 2. None (Gaines Adams trade)
2009 – 1. None (Cutler trade), 2. None (trade down with Seattle)
2008 – 1. Chris Williams, 2. Matt Forte
2007 – 1. Greg Olsen, 2. Dan Bazuin
2006 – 1. None (trade down with Buffalo), 2. Danieal Manning, 2. Devin Hester
2005 – 1. Cedric Benson, 2. Mark Bradley
2004 – 1. Tommie Harris, 2. Tank Johnson
2003 – 1. Michael Haynes, 1. Rex Grossman, 2. Charles Tillman
2002 – 1. Marc Colombo, 2. None (trade down with Dallas)
2001 – 1. David Terrell, 2. Anthony Thomas
2000 – 1. Brian Urlacher, 2. Mike Brown
2. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice said the competition at left tackle could carry through the third preseason game against the Giants on Friday at MetLife Stadium. If the Bears want to test their players, it makes perfect sense to challenge them against one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the NFL in the one preseason game that involves a real game plan. Why not see what J’Marcus Webb and Chris Williams can do at the site of the line’s 2010 meltdown when Jay Cutler was knocked out with a concussion?
If Tice was seeking a definitive answer against the Redskins, nothing jumped out. Webb held up just fine against Brian Orakpo until the Redskins' outside linebacker was lost on the second series to what looked like a painful shoulder injury when he tried to arm tackle Hester in the open field. Earlier in the series, Webb missed his block against defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, who came down the line to stuff Forte for no gain. That was the only glaring negative play Webb had.
“It was definitely a positive experience,” Webb said. “Definitely good to get a win in. Good to get back out there at home and battle it out.”
Was it difficult for him to rotate? Tice continued switching Webb and Williams until the midway point of the fourth quarter when undrafted rookie free agent James Brown finally took over at left tackle.
“I don’t think so,” Webb said. “You just have to have the mindset that you are still going to be playing and you gotta get used to working with different guys. It happens.”
Williams is hoping to get another chance with the starters against the Giants. He played well against Denver at right tackle and looked to have another clean performance.
“Feel like it went all right,” Williams said. “We’ll see the tape and go from there. I am just working to improve and I was trying to work on some things from last week and I think I did that. I am ready for next week.
“I am looking to start. I am hoping to get a shot at playing.”
3. Don’t look now, but it appears the entire left side of the offensive line is up for grabs. On the heels of a poor performance by veteran Chris Spencer at left guard against the Broncos, he was forced into a rotation against the Redskins, something Tice informed the players about on Friday.
Chilo Rachal was used in a similar pattern to Williams, getting opportunities to work with the starters for the first time. It was a quick turnaround for Rachal, who missed practice until Thursday with a minor groin strain. It’s hard to say which player performed better. Both got whistled for a false start.
Spencer, who was a center by trade until adjusting to right guard last season, isn’t talking like his job is on the line even if it looks that way.
“The only concern I have is continually trying to get better, getting comfortable where I am and go from there,” he said Saturday. “It was just a bad one (against Denver). That is all I can say. I played at a much better level tonight. It was one of those things where I just went out and turned it loose and played. Today, I was not thinking.
“When you move positions and things like that, the first time you are just trying to feel your way through it. I got caught feeling my way through it (against Denver) and this game, I just went out and let it rip. That’s all it was. I’ve just got to turn it loose and play ball.”
Rachal isn’t pronouncing he is in the mix for the starting job but he doesn’t have to do that. He’s a bigger player at 6-foot-5, 323 pounds, giving him two inches and 14 pounds on Spencer. Tice likes rugged, physical linemen. But Rachal wasn’t always consistent during four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, certainly a reason why he lost his starting job early last season.
“I just want to focus on what I control and keep getting better and let it take care of itself,” Rachal said. “I don’t want to say, ‘That’s my spot.’ I know if I go out and handle my business that is going to speak volumes.”
Asked whether mental mistakes been his undoing in the past, Rachel said, “I haven’t really had mentals since I’ve been here. I’ve done a real good job this season, coming into my fifth year, of becoming a better student of the game and having a better understanding of the offense. So, I really wouldn’t say it’s mentals. I think it’s more I have somebody that started last season and has been here. I have to come in here and earn a spot.
“That’s what they were saying (in San Francisco), inconsistency. But at the same time, it’s different when you are watching film and when you are seeing something on TV. I’ve always got room to get better but I am a new player, this is a new year and I am with a new team. New everything.”
4. Matt Forte scored three rushing touchdowns last season and Marion Barber had six. If the offense is going to be more explosive, as it appears to be so far, Forte should score five or six rushing touchdowns. If he has that many, Michael Bush should be good for 10 or so. The Bears are going to use Bush in the red zone and you got a good look at that Saturday with Bush scoring on one- and eight-yard runs. On the second, he met Redskins linebacker Perry Riley in the hole and completely faked him out.
Bush was signed because he is a physical, 245-pound runner who can, as Tice says, “move the pile.” He also showed he’s got a little shake to his game.
“We know Michael can run in between the tackles but I think it was good for him to show everyone he can make you miss also,” Smith said. “A guy was 1-on-1 in the hole and it was a great cut by him to make the guy miss. He’s a big back. He can do a lot of good things.”
5. His final numbers were not pretty, but undrafted rookie free agent quarterback Matt Blanchard did what he needed to in driving the Bears into range for Robbie Gould’s game-winning, 57-yard field goal with 31 seconds remaining. The Redskins were blitzing from almost every angle on the drive and Blanchard (3-for-9, 41 yards) got key completions of 15 and 19 yards to rookie tight end Evan Rodriguez. Both came on third down. This comes a week after an impressive debut against the Broncos.
“It felt great,” said Blanchard, who was a tryout player from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater. “I was able to get some reps. It’s exciting to be in that situation. I am just glad we were able to move the ball and Robbie is a great kicker so all we had to do was get in field-goal range to win the game. I love those moments. We were in those types of situations at Whitewater a lot. We were very fortunate everything worked out.”
Blanchard needs to do a better job of identifying pressure but he stood in there and picked himself up off the turf when he was knocked down. He’s got the attention of teammates.
“To come from D-III to be in here and throw the ball the way he is, it’s phenomenal,” backup quarterback Jason Campbell said. “Just from seeing him in OTA’s to how far he has progressed to this point, he’s a gunslinger. It’s exciting to have a young guy on our roster with Jay, myself and Josh (McCown) and watch his development. And for him to be in this situation, tonight, with the game on the line to go down and at least get us in field goal range. That’s not easy to do. Coming from D-III now all of a sudden you have to go do that against a defense that brings a lot of different blitzes, he was fun to watch.”
Campbell says tasting a little success is the main thing for a young passer attempting to find his way in the league.
“To play in this league, No. 1 is confidence. No. 2, you have to get more experience,” Campbell said. “The rest of it is try to take care of the ball and make good decisions. He’s been doing that. He got hit a couple times tonight and got right back up. He kept fighting. He wasn’t looking around. Right to the next play.”
It’s still too early to say what the future holds for Blanchard but making the practice squad might be realistic at this point if injuries don’t force the team to fill spots with needs for practice players.
6. Adam Podlesh sounded better than he looked after the game. The veteran punter was hobbled in the locker room with what Smith described as a left hip flexor. Podlesh pulled up lame on the 91-yard return for a touchdown by the Redskins' Brandon Banks. Podlesh ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2007 when he came out of Maryland but he doesn’t have the kind of speed needed to track down Banks.
Podlesh will undergo an MRI and the club will evaluate the results Sunday.
“I am planning on being back Week 1,” he said. “From what I have heard so far, it seems pretty positive. We’ll rehab it until Week 1 and we should be good. The good news is it’s not my kicking leg. If it was, then it would be a little tougher to do my motion.”
The alternative on the roster is Ryan Quigley, the undrafted free agent from Boston College. He had punts of 44 and 39 yards in his two opportunities. Quigley did well at times during training camp but he’s not going to offer the kind of consistency Podlesh does. Last season, Podlesh became the first punter in franchise history to finish with a net average over 40 yards.
“It’s really tough for something freaky like that to happen,” Quigley said. “That is what I am here for. I’ve got to do better than what I did tonight and just keep improving. I knew I was here to help these guys out for camp as a camp leg. You have to be ready to step up. I’ve got to improve. I am comfortable out there and I feel good, leg feels good. Hopefully, Adam will get back as soon as possible. He’s is going to have a great year.”
The Bears have done well with camp legs in recent years. Richmond McGee held the role and then got a job with the Cleveland Browns last season before a back injury wiped out his opportunity. Spencer Lanning was in Quigley’s role last summer and he’s now competing with Reggie Hodges for the punting job with the Browns. Quigley has a strong leg for kickoffs so that makes him marketable, too. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub has a knack for finding prospects and convincing them to join the Bears, even if it is just for the summer. He’s hoping he won’t need Quigley much longer.
7. It was an up-and-down game for special teams, but Gould delivered with four field goals, including the 57-yarder. That tied his career long that he set last year. But the 57-yard boot during the regular season came in Denver with the thin air.
Smith said Gould came to him before the final drive and said the offense would get in position and he would kick a 58-yarder. He was off by just one yard. Fullback Tyler Clutts snapped for the long kick and Quigley was the holder.
“Quigley and Clutts did a great job getting it down and I am just glad I made it,” Gould said.
What was his outer range for a late kick?
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s whatever they give me.”
Coverage teams struggled, though. It wasn’t just the touchdown by Banks. The Redskins also had kickoff returns of 34, 31 and 26 yards. But Bears running back Lorenzo Booker had a 105-yard kickoff return in the third quarter so there will be plenty of pluses and minuses for film review.
“We had some young guys in there,” special teams ace Blake Costanzo said. “Coach is getting a look at them. But everyone is playing hard and stuff like that happens in preseason. It’s the preseason and we’re all trying to do our jobs and correct our mistakes so it doesn’t happen when it really counts.
“I am positive we’re not going to let (a punt return for touchdown) happen again.”
8. A strong training camp was derailed last summer for Corey Wootton when the defensive end suffered a knee injury on a kickoff. He tweaked his groin muscle on a punt return in the first quarter and was held out on defense but the former Northwestern star said he’s confident he’ll be in action this coming week.
“I will be ready,” he said.
It’s critical for Wootton to close the preseason strong after another quality camp. He needs to remain healthy, too.
“I felt really good in training camp,” he said. “I am excited to come back next week ready to go.”
9. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher walked out of the locker room shortly after the win. He was moving quickly and had nothing on his left knee four days after arthroscopic surgery. One team source said he’s feeling much better already.
10. Who did Cutler throw against on a fade route to Marshall from the red zone in the first quarter? DeAngelo Hall, of course. He is the Redskins cornerback who picked off Cutler four times in a 2010 meeting at Soldier Field. Hall and Cutler did some jawing after Jeffery ripped off Hall’s helmet during a shoving match.
Smith said there is a simple message for Jeffery on that: “Don’t do it. It’s kind of as simple as that. We can’t have that. We’ll coach him up and he’ll see how that can really hurt our football team, but I am going to talk to him first about all those good plays he’s made. He’s done a lot of great things in training camp and he’s taken that over to the game, too.”
10 a. Scouts from 11 NFL teams were in the press box for the game with all three NFC North foes represented. The other teams in attendance were Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Indianapolis, two scouts from Miami, New Orleans, Oakland and Pittsburgh. Ten of the teams also saw the Bears last week in the game against the Broncos. The Saints were the only team in the group that wasn’t at the Denver game. For the second consecutive week, the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL were also represented.
10 b. The 33 points scored by the Bears were the most in preseason under Smith and the most since the team scored 38 vs. the St. Louis Rams in the third week of the 1999 preseason. Of course, the Rams went on to win the Super Bowl that year. It was the third time in the last nine exhibitions the Bears have allowed at least 31 points.
10 c. Defensive tackle Nate Collins got work early with the starters as Stephen Paea was sidelined with a sprained ankle. Collins is making a push for a roster spot and was credited with four tackles, including one for a loss.
10 d. Second-year safety Anthony Walters got a little time with first special teams units, a positive sign for him. He was credited with two tackles. It might be an uphill battle for him to make the roster but injuries at safety could create an opening for him.
10 e. Undrafted rookie free agent offensive tackle James Brown got an earful from Tice when he came off the field midway through the third quarter. Brown was playing right tackle and on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, he blew a block on Redskins defensive end Doug Worthington, allowing him into the backfield unblocked to stuff Kahlil Bell short of the goal line. It looked like Brown simply turned the wrong way.
10 f. Smith seemed upbeat about the health of rookie safety Brandon Hardin, who was taken to a hospital after being carted off the field with a neck injury. Hardin never lost consciousness and had movement of his arms and legs.
10 g. Friday’s game at MetLife Stadium will mark the third time in four years the Bears have played the Giants in preseason.
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