Seven players who must perform for Bears

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Seven players who must perform for Bears

We've all enjoyed the build up, trash talking and hype which normally precedes the most storied rivalry in all of sports: Bears vs. Packers.

Tension was kicked up a notch after Packers tight end Jermichael Finley spoke disrespectfully of Brian Urlacher. Now the division is on the line and players will perform accordingly to what's at stake, but there are seven players who will be key to the Bears upsetting the Packers.

Jay Cutler

Cutler hasn't performed well in past matchups against Green Bay. His 16 interceptions do not generate much confidence in fans, the team and Cutler's own confidence. Furthermore, losing five of the last six games, while contributing with poor play, is something Cutler is looking to rectify.

The Bears don't need Superman at quarterback, but they do need smart play from Cutler who must play a turnover-free game.

Matt Forte and Michael Bush

It doesn't matter who's running the football when it's in Chicago's possession. Whether it's Forte or Bush, they must make guys miss or push the pile forward for the offense to stay on schedule. Negative runs on first or second downs will destroy Cutler's bid for a mistake-free game if he's dealing with third and long situations.

During the Bears-Packers matchup earlier in the season, Green Bay played mostly 2-man coverage on third downs and Forte left the game early in the third quarter with an ankle injury. To beat 2-man coverage, a quality route running, receiving running back is needed to beat linebackers in the backfield.

Forte most likely will be a big key today on third downs. The Bears cannot afford to lose him again.

Defensive linemen

Again, it doesn't matter who is in the lineup of when, but the Bears' front four defensive linemen must be dominate. There is a reason Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers leads the league with 42 sacks; his team is just not very good at pass protection right now with a makeshift, rag-tag offensive line.

If all other positions play their normal game and the aforementioned seven positions step up to the challenge, the Bears' chances of upsetting the Packers improve greatly.

A special teams play might help too. Wasn't it the Packers who converted a fake field goal for a touchdown in the first matchup? It might be time for Devin Hester to come through for an ailing team with something special too--make it eight positions!

Robin Ventura used blowout loss to rest key White Sox

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Robin Ventura used blowout loss to rest key White Sox

BALTIMORE — One of the few positives to Thursday night’s blowout loss to the Baltimore Orioles is it offered Robin Ventura a chance to rest several players.

With the White Sox down by eight runs, Todd Frazier, Jose Abreu and Jimmy Rollins all exited a cold, windy and miserable contest two innings early. For Frazier, it was the first two innings he hasn’t played all season out of 205. Even though it’s only two innings, Ventura thinks it was a nice breather for a team in the middle of a span with 19 games in 19 days.

“The way we’re playing, you just try to get them off their feet,” Ventura said. “If I had more guys to do that with I probably would have. But you’re trying to get those guys out of there. If it would happen again, you’d get (Brett) Lawrie or someone like that out of there. You’re just hoping it helps them somewhat. It doesn’t sound like a lot, two innings. But in a game like that, it helps. It’s a little sticky out there. It’s just a way to get them out of the game and they feel like they get somewhat of a break.”

Frazier likes that the rest got some plate appearances for his teammates. Otherwise, he’d rather be out there. But Frazier gets that it’s important for Ventura to find playing time for Carlos Sanchez, Tyler Saladino and Jerry Sands.

He also admitted he didn’t mind sitting the final six outs of a contest where the temperature at first pitch was 48 degrees.

“It's different in the American League — you might go a month without hitting it seems like,” Frazier said. “To get guys in there that need at-bats, that’s probably the best thing that comes out of it. You don’t ever want to be out of the game, but it was a cold day. Robin understands it was damp and there’s just a right time to get them in there.”

Jaylon Smith’s ex-Notre Dame teammates, coaches confident he’ll succeed in NFL

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Jaylon Smith’s ex-Notre Dame teammates, coaches confident he’ll succeed in NFL

The speculation about Jaylon Smith won’t end until he finally sets foot on an NFL field and proves that his knee has fully healed. The Dallas Cowboys drafted Smith with the 34th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft on Friday with the expectation he’ll have a lengthy, successful career in the NFL (

). 

Smith is in relatively uncharted territory when it comes to the damage to the stretched peroneal nerve in his left knee. But universally, Smith’s coaches and former teammates expressed optimism about his recovery and gushed about the elite abilities possessed by the 2015 Butkus Award winner. 

“His traits of explosion and speed and all the physical traits we talk about, they’re top-line,” Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “But the big thing with him is he’s a pro. He can walk in any pro locker room, any pro meeting room — he’s incredible in the meeting room — and he’ll talk better football than a lot of those guys that are already there. He’s very knowledgeable. Worked at it hard. Wanted to see the big picture of football. 

“So he’s NFL ready the minute he walks into a meeting room. Incredible note-taker. He’s just — if I were still in the pros and I drafted him, I can’t imagine that I’ve ever had any rookie come in that would be where he is. He’s just so far ahead. So far ahead.”

VanGorder has a keen knowledge of what it takes to succeed as a linebacker in the NFL, too, having spent four years as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator and single seasons as the linebackers’ coach for the Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. 

“He’s gonna have a hell of a career, he is one heck of a football player and it’s very, very important to him,” VanGorder said. “He’s a champion. He has a champion attitude. He’ll be good.”

While Smith’s trophy-winning junior season certainly was extraordinary, that he still totaled 114 tackles in 2014 was impressive in a different way. That year, Smith was learning a new position — Will inside linebacker in VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme — and was frequently caught out of position, especially after talismanic middle linebacker Joe Schmidt suffered a season-ending injury against Navy. 

But even though Smith struggled with the move inside, his athleticism took over to generate that triple-digit tackle total. Seeing Smith glide from the field to the boundary to make a tackle on an opposing running back was a somewhat common occurrence. 

“Jaylon was a production man,” Notre Dame linebackers coach Mike Elston said. “He made everybody else around him better because he was gonna make up for you. You got reached as a defensive tackle? He was gonna get to the ball and make the tackle. It didn’t matter. Doesn’t matter what happens in front of him. Jaylon made up for a lot of things. He was productive.”

Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace offered a different perspective on what made Smith such a good player. 

“If he wasn’t in class, I don’t know if he’d instantly transport and just be right here in the (Guglielmino Athletics Complex), in the film room, just wanting more and more and more,” Grace said. “Because he didn’t necessarily want to rely on his physical ability. That’s a tremendous trait, God-given and something he’s worked toward as well. 

“But what makes these guys great players is their instincts on the field and they’re able to direct that to the ball, to the play, understanding the game as well. That’s just taking it to the next level. There’s plenty of tremendous athletes out there, you’ll see guys pop up all the time with these crazy numbers, jumping like this. But Jaylon has that and the other side.”

Coach Brian Kelly found himself publicly politicking for Smith over the past few weeks, trying to convey what impressed him so much about his former linebacker to an NFL audience. All Smith needed was a chance, according to Kelly, and he’d prove to be the kind of linebacker he was at Notre Dame — and maybe a better one, too. 

The Dallas Cowboys, on Friday, gave Smith that chance. 

“He’s going to come back from this injury, and when he does, he’s going to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL,” Kelly said. “He has that kind of ability. … Jaylon is somebody that has an incredible, positive attitude. 

“Look, he’s not a gamble. He’s a smart business decision.”

Jihad Ward drafted in second round, first Illini picked since 2013

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Jihad Ward drafted in second round, first Illini picked since 2013

After two years without an NFL Draft pick, Illinois’ draft drought is over.

Defensive end Jihad Ward became the first Illini selected in the draft since 2013 when the Oakland Raiders picked him with the No. 44 pick Friday.

Since 1971, only four drafts have not featured an Illinois product, with two coming in succession in each of the past two years (1972, 2006, 2014, 2015). This recent drought snapped a string of successful drafts for the Illini, which featured a first-round pick in four of five drafts from 2008 to 2012.

The 2013 draft featured four Illinois players selected: Hugh Thornton (third round), Akeem Spence (fourth round), Terry Hawthorne (fifth round) and Michael Buchanan (seventh round).

Ward is the highest Illini picked since the 2012 draft, when Illinois saw four players taken in the first two rounds: Whitney Mercilus and A.J. Jenkins in the first, Jeff Allen and Tavon Wilson in the second.

Ward spent the past two seasons at Illinois after transferring in from junior college. In 25 games, he recorded 104 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries.