Bears are confident on the upcoming season

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Bears are confident on the upcoming season

Many early publications are already projecting the Bears to finish third in the NFC North. Chicago finished 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs, while Green Bay (15-1) lost in the divisional round and Detroit (10-6) lost in the wild-card round. This ranking doesnt sit well with Bears fans or the team, especially after the 2011 playoffs evaporated with one injury.

The upcoming season could shape up to be a good one. I can hear the Peanut Gallery already shouting, Mills, you're a Bears homer!
Au Contraire!

For the Bears, 2012 is more or less about offensive accountability and consistency. If they can achieve this at a high level against their opponents, they will be a playoff team. If not, discussions of rebuilding with a new head coach will come into play as Lovie Smith would be entering a lame duck season in 2013. The offense could potentially be even stronger in 2013 if a good foundation is built in 2012.

The best comparison to the Bears' situation can be seen when analyzing the Baltimore Ravens. Since head coach John Harbaughs arrival in 2008, offensive accountability has been stressed. The Ravens have made the playoffs four straight seasons because their offense has come up big, bailing out what once was a feared defense. The Ravens' offense has also built leads in games their defense has not been able to hold on to. During Harbaughs first season in Baltimore, offense jumped from 17.2 points a game under Brian Billick in 2007 to 24.1 points a game under Harbaugh. The Ravens have hovered around that number ever since. The bottom line is Harbaugh has achieved his goal--the Ravens are a more complete team with greater consistency offensively.
Shaping Offense

Before the Bears reach the bye week during Week 6, they will play three teams with new head coaches installing new schemes, who are rebuilding with young quarterbacks (Indianapolis: Week 1, St. Louis: Week 3, and Jacksonville: Week 5). Much like the Bears' offense, these teams will be sorting things out early, defining who they are and what they can do. The Bears understand their other two opponents (Green Bay: Week 2 and Dallas: Week 4) very well. The Bears' defense will have to rise to the occasion like they normally do, but these, by no stretch of the imagination, are unwinnable games as many will predict. The Bears would then have the bye week to really start getting their offense humming smoothly.

The Bears could be re-living the fast start from 2011, but can they sustain it this time around? If Mike Tice can embolden the offense with a mindset of confidence and consistency rather than depressed and unpredictable chaos, the Bears will be dangerous in 2012.

Cubs in holding pattern with Jorge Soler

Cubs in holding pattern with Jorge Soler

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs are downplaying the discomfort Jorge Soler has been feeling on his right side, saying the injury-prone outfielder should be cleared by this weekend and for what they hope will be a long run into October.

Soler stayed back in Chicago for another MRI and didn’t travel with the team to Pittsburgh, where the Cubs are trying to find the right balance between keeping players rested and sharp with a division title and the National League’s No. 1 seed already clinched.

“Nothing horrible,” manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday at PNC Park. “Nothing to be highly concerned about. But we kept him back for the test.”

Soler — who had already gotten an initial scan — didn’t play in five consecutive games (Sept. 17-21). He then pinch-hit against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday and started in right field the next day at Wrigley Field.

“The side bothers him,” Maddon said. “It wasn’t bad. I know that.”

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A series of injuries have stalled Soler’s career — he missed almost two months this season with a strained left hamstring — but there is no denying his immense talent, right-handed power and age-24 potential.

Built like an NFL linebacker, Soler is hitting .240 with 12 homers, 31 RBIs and a .773 OPS in 85 games, making him a physical presence in the lineup that opponents have to respect.

Whether or not you believe in the concept of clutch hitting, Soler played a big role in knocking the Cardinals out of last year’s playoffs, setting a new major-league record by getting on base in his first nine career postseason plate appearances and launching two homers in four games.

Seven Notre Dame players who could see more time after 1-3 start

Seven Notre Dame players who could see more time after 1-3 start

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly has publicly vowed in the past to play plenty of players who ultimately saw sparing, or no, snaps during the season. But those claims have come during winning seasons in which at the least Notre Dame was all but guaranteed to reach a bowl game or, at the best, was a championship contender. 

So this year is different, with the Irish off to a 1-3 start and in desperate need of a spark on both sides of the ball. 

“You're going to see a lot more players playing,” Kelly said when specifically asked about the defense. “There is going to be some depth, some camaraderie. We need to get that morale up on defense, and we will do that with a lot more players involved in what we're doing on a day-to-day basis.”

While most of the players receiving increased volume are on Greg Hudson’s defense, there are a few on the offense that are in a position to play more, too. Kelly wouldn’t go into direct specifics about who would be the beneficiary of the team’s renewed push for better depth, but there are seven guys who can probably be earmarked for more snaps going forward:

1. RB Dexter Williams

Williams shed two unblocked tacklers on his way to a 13-yard touchdown against Duke and was praised after the game as “the only one” that Kelly saw play with emotion and fire in that embarrassing 38-35 loss. 

Kelly pointed to Williams only playing 10 snaps against Duke against fellow sophomore Josh Adams’ 54, saying that “the cliff for me in terms of the number of reps that we're getting is too stark.” While Adams won’t see a significant reduction in snaps, expect Williams — perhaps at the expense of redshirt junior Tarean Folston, who’s only averaging 3.9 yards per carry — to see an uptick in use starting this weekend against Syracuse. 

2. DE Jay Hayes

Hayes began taking first-team reps at weakside defensive end near the end of spring practice and held on to those through preseason camp until he suffered a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for a few weeks. Kelly said Sunday Hayes is fully healthy, but he hasn’t seen many snaps this year, with most of those going to junior Andrew Trumbetti.

“Jay Hayes had zero reps (vs. Duke),” Kelly said. “That can't happen.”

The 6-foot-3, 285 pound former four-star recruit could, at the least, probably help Notre Dame’s rushing defense. At the best, if he splits time with Trumbetti and gives Notre Dame 30-40 max-effort reps a game, he could grow into a factor in the team’s lagging pass rush. 

3. LB Asmar Bilal

The redshirt freshman turned some heads during preseason camp with his outstanding speed trait, but hasn’t played much through Notre Dame’s first four games. With Kelly pointing to the guy ahead of Bilal on the Will linebacker depth chart — sophomore Te’von Coney — playing too much against Duke, perhaps Bilal (along with junior Greer Martini) has an opening to play more. 

4. CB Donte Vaughn

Vaughn had an impressive interception in the end zone against Duke after not playing against Michigan State or Texas. Notre Dame needs its cornerbacks — whether it’s Cole Luke, Nick Coleman, Julian Love and/or Vaughn — to make plays in the absence of Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Devin Butler. In picking that pass off against Duke, Vaughn likely earned himself some more snaps, and he could continue to carve out a larger role with more plays like that. 

5. S Jalen Elliott

Kelly pointed to Devin Studstill playing 67 snaps against Duke — and on one of his final plays, he missed a tackle that wound up allowing a 64-yard game-tying touchdown. Elliott, a four-star member of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class, is listed as Studstill’s backup on Notre Dame’s depth chart, so he’ll probably play a little bit more to aid in that quality-over-quantity concept. 

6. DE Daelin Hayes

Hayes broke up a pass against Michigan State, but his five-star talent is best utilized as a pass rusher. Notre Dame needs to figure out a way to get Hayes on the field and in a position where he can be triggered toward the quarterback on passing downs. Maybe streamlining the defense and simplifying things will make it easier for Hayes to get on the field — and into the backfield — with more frequency.  

7. WR Chase Claypool

After Claypool impressed with a 33-yard reception against Michigan State (and a near-grab of a Hail Mary to end the first half), Kelly said he and his coaching staff were looking at ways to get the Abbotsford, British Columbia native on the field. Claypool mostly saw special teams work against Duke — an area in which he’s done well, it should be noted — though he could get some more plays on offense going forward as Kelly aims to avoid over-working some of Notre Dame’s other underclassmen. It's also worth noting Claypool lined up as a tight end when Notre Dame had to air things out during its furious and futile comeback against the Spartans. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and practice for Syracuse week — which began Tuesday — will determine plenty about who emerges on Saturday at MetLife Stadium. But Kelly made it clear Notre Dame needs to get more players on the field to pull out of its tailspin.

“I'm not saying everybody's gotta play and we all gotta go have a big, group hug at the end of practice,” Kelly said. “It's merit based, too. But there are too many good football players that haven't been playing, in my estimation, and I'm making the calls on both sides here and they gotta get in the game.”