Nick Schmaltz figured it would be different at this level.
Yes, Schmaltz had played against some of college’s best en route to that national title with the University of North Dakota. But the pro level is the pro level for a reason.
“It’s a big transition from the college level. Guys are faster, more skilled, and you have less time and space,” he said. “But as camp’s gone on everyone’s gotten a little more comfortable and making more plays and I think we’ll continue that into tonight.”
Schmaltz looked pretty comfortable on Wednesday night, when the Blackhawks lost their preseason opener to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 2-0. Schmaltz logged 18 minutes, 30 seconds of ice time, including 2:53 on the power play. For the Madison, Wisc., kid who used to come to Blackhawks playoff games, playing that first game at the United Center was “surreal.”
“It was good,” he said after the game. “Obviously we didn’t get the results we wanted, but we had some good opportunities. We can get more pucks on net. We let the goalie off a little easy, but hopefully just keep building and keep getting better every day.”
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Schmaltz has practiced some on the left wing, and that’s where he was in Wednesday night’s scrimmage (with Vinnie Hinostroza centering and Richard Panik on right wing). The Blackhawks always love versatility, but Schmaltz going on the wing is more of a need than an option right now.
“Most of the openings in the organization are on the wing. We’re pretty full down the middle. It’s something we’re trying to see if he can fit in there and play well there,” assistant coach Mike Kitchen said. “And he’s got a nice set of hands, a nice skill set, so hopefully he’ll be comfortable on the wing there.”
Schmaltz has played more right wing than left, but he said the adjustments aren’t so bad.
“Just wall work. Might have to make some backhand plays off the wall but other than that, nothing, really,” Schmaltz said. “Since me and Panik are playing off wing, we’ll get across the blue line, cut across and make plays to each other. It’ll be fun out there.”
Schmaltz held his own in his first game in a Blackhawks uniform. There are high expectations for him entering this season, but he’ll let his game dictate where he ends up.
“If I play my game, play hard, I should put myself in a pretty good spot,” he said. “But I can’t control what decisions they make, so I’ll compete as hard as I can every night and show them what I can do.”
That the Dallas Cowboys were able to put 447 yards, almost 200 of them running the football, and 31 points on the Bears was concerning in itself. The way much of it happened, however, was perhaps more concerning, even if not completely surprising.
And the issues were in more than one area.
The rushing yards, of which 140 were provided on 30 carries by rookie Ezekiel Elliott, were largely gained by simply pounding away on an undermanned Bears front seven. The Bears have allowed 10 runs of 10 yards or more; five of those came in Dallas.
The problem was an alarmingly simple one. Not scheme, not missed assignments.
“We were getting blocked and not getting off blocks well enough,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said on Wednesday. “But basically getting blocked most of the time, a guy or two every time was just getting blocked.”
The defense was without linchpin and nose tackle Eddie Goldman (ankle) as well as inside linebacker and co-captain Danny Trevathan. In Trevathan’s spot, rookie Nick Kwiatkoski started and played on 18 of Dallas’ snaps (26 percent).
“He did OK,” Fangio said. “Again, he was part of those guys that got blocked some. Had some good plays, some not so good. The first play of the game that popped out of there for 21 yards, he was at the point of attack on that one. It was OK, hope for better, expect better moving forward.”
The Bears use something of a hybrid form of gap control, not strictly two-gap with linemen responsible for gaps on either side of the blocker in front of them, and not strictly one-gap, with a tighter responsibility but with expectations that the defender get more penetration and disruption.
The system is what one lineman described as “gap-and-a-half,” playing their assigned gap but also with responsibility to help out with one other assigned gap. They are not head-up on offensive linemen, being slightly shaded toward a gap a’la one-gap schemes most of the time.
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The Bears generally were unable to control either their assigned or their secondary gaps.
The issues were not confined to the run defense. The Bears’ pass rush was virtually non-existent (zero sacks, one hit on Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott) and yet it allowed Prescott to scramble free three times, converting first downs on all three.
“Our rush wasn’t good enough when they weren’t throwing it quick,” Fangio said, “and it was evident by the times [Prescott] scrambled. He scrambled three times for first downs and they hurt us.
“Our rush wasn’t good enough. There are a lot of passes that the rush won’t be a factor because it is coming out fast. But we have to get better coverage to make them hold the ball longer, too.”