Chicago Bears

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for special teams

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for special teams

With training camp starting in less than two weeks, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears position units heading into Bourbonnais. Today’s group: special teams.

1. Connor Barth, Year 2 (right?)

Robbie Gould had a bad finish to 2015, a poor preseason last summer and was shown the door in favor of Barth. When he got off to a shaky start, he heard it from Bears fans, but wound up recovering fairly nicely. Despite that, however, his 78.3 percent field goal accuracy (18-for-23) fell shy of his career 84 percent mark. If Barth has the same kind of preseason that Gould did a year ago, you’d have to think the personnel department will be keeping a close eye on the waiver wire. Right now, the competition is 28-year-old rookie Andy Phillips from Utah, who grew up playing soccer and was an Olympic downhill skiing hopeful (never having played high school football). Phillips connected on more than 80 percent of his field goal attempts with the Utes.

“I think every job is a competition,” said special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers in May. “You get to this level, and you’re looking at positions where there’s only one of them. All those guys understand that, not only from them competing with guys on this field in our camp, they’re competing with 31 other teams, and the guys on those depth charts.”

2. Kids in the (Return) Game

The Bears' leading punt returner last season was the now-departed, injury-plagued Eddie Royal and his 19 returns (one touchdown) came in just nine games. They could give cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Cre’Von LeBlanc chances, but they’ll also give fourth round rookies Eddie Jackson and Tarik Cohen looks. Both will make this team and camp will sort out how much they’ll be relied upon on at safety and running back, respectively. Jackson had big-time success in that role at Alabama, but is coming off a broken leg. Cohen was mostly kept off returns his senior season at North Carolina A & T so he wouldn’t get worn down as the starting running back. One he did take, however, wound up with him scoring only to be called back by penalty.

Kickoff returns would seem to be pointing towards free agent signee Bennie Cunningham, whose 27.2-yard average with the Rams was third in the NFL and virtually matched his career average. He has the fourth-most kickoff return yardage since making the league as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Incumbent Deonte Thompson led the league with 35 returns a year ago and finished sixth in average at 23.0. But depending how healthy the wide receiving corps is through training camp, Thompson may be facing a numbers game at the position. Joshua Bellamy is a virtual lock to make the roster because of his Teams prowess. If Cam Meredith, Kevin White, Markus Wheaton, Victor Cruz and Kendall Wright all earn spots as well, where would that leave Thompson?

“He’s a good athlete, he’s had good averages and production in this league,” Rodgers said of Cunningham. “He’s a thicker body (5’10, 217), incredibly smart, a hard worker. There’s a lot to like about what he does. Contact balance is another thing he does well. He’s a compact player and he’s strong, so generally speaking, arm tackles aren’t something that’s gonna bring him down.”

3. Roster balance, with effective puzzle pieces.

After the oft-criticized Joe DeCamillis exited along with the Marc Trestman/Phil Emery Era, the Bears’ overall special teams rankings (as computed by the Dallas Morning News) rose from 26th in 2014 to 12th in 2015 under Rodgers. But last season, it slipped back to 27th. Their punt coverage sunk from 14th to last in the league and their kickoff return average plummted from third in the NFL two years ago to 18th last season. Their only improvement in the four units was in kickoff coverage. Finding effective parts during roster cutdown time is a balance that’s difficult to find for a team with such regular roster turnover. 

Dave Toub has been missed. But with a squad that’s been injury-plagued the past two seasons and will have an offense learning on the fly with a new quarterback, this phase must stay away from critical mistakes. That’s especially crucial  in the first month, when the defense will be tested by four high-powered offense in a 19-day span.

Why Ben Roethlisberger's perspective on young QBs (like Mitchell Trubisky) is worth keeping in mind

Why Ben Roethlisberger's perspective on young QBs (like Mitchell Trubisky) is worth keeping in mind

If Mitchell Trubisky takes over as the Bears’ starting quarterback this year and has some success, keep Ben Roethlisberger’s perspective in mind: It’ll take a couple of years before he’s solidly established in the NFL. 

Roethlisberger said even after his rookie year — in which he won all 13 regular season games he started — he still was facing defensive looks he hadn’t seen before in Year 2 and 3 as a pro. So saying someone is and will be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL after a productive first season is, for Roethlisberger, too early. 

“I think it takes a couple years,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s why I’m always slow to send too much praise or anoint the next great quarterback after Year 1. I think people in the media and the 'professionals' in some of these big sports networks are so quick to anoint the next great one or say that they’re going to be great; this, that and the other. Let’s wait and see what happens after two to three years; after defenses understand what you’re bringing; you’re not a surprise anymore. 

“I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks. In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”

The flip side to this would be not panicking if Trubisky struggles when he eventually becomes the Bears’ starting quarterback. For all the success he had during preseason play, most of it came against backup and third string defenses that hadn’t done much gameplanning for him. Defensive coordinators inevitably will scheme to make things more difficult for a rookie quarterback with normal week of planning, and it may take Trubisky a little while to adjust to seeing things he hasn't before. 

“They’re not going to line up in a 4-3 or a 3-4 base defense, they’re going to throw different looks at you, different blitzes to try and confuse you,” Roethlisberger said. “The confusion between the ears part is really one of the biggest keys to it.”

The “it” Roethlisberger referred to there is success as a rookie. The former 11th overall pick was lucky enough to begin his NFL career with a strong ground game headlined by Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, a balanced receiving corps featuring Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randel El and a defense that led the NFL in points allowed (15.7/game). Trubisky, as the Bears’ roster currently stands, won’t be afforded that same level of support. 

Roethlisberger, though, had a chance to meet and work out with Trubisky before the draft (the two quarterbacks share the same agent) and, for what it's worth, came away impressed with 

“I thought he was a tremendous athlete,” Roethlisberger said. “I thought he could throw the ball. I thought when he got out of the pocket and made throws on the run, his improvising. I got to watch some of his college tape. Just really impressed with the athleticism. The ease of throwing the ball; it just looked easy to him when he was on the run, when it wasn’t supposed to be super easy. So I thought that those were the most impressive things that I got to see; obviously not sitting in a meeting room and knowing his smarts or things like that, but just the athleticism.”
 

For Bears' receivers and Mike Glennon, dropping the ball misses the point

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USA TODAY

For Bears' receivers and Mike Glennon, dropping the ball misses the point

The Bears classified six of Mike Glennon’s incompletions against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as drops, something coach John Fox used to bolster his argument that the entire offense needs to be better, not just the quarterback. Had those six passes been caught, Glennon would’ve finished with 37 completions on 45 attempts for probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 330-350 yards with at best a touchdown or two more than the one he threw.  

But that misses the point: Glennon still threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Whether he completed 69 or 82 percent of his passes wouldn’t have really changed anything. And it leaves out when those incompletions happened, too.

Only one pass that could possibly be classified as a drop happened in the first half — that when Glennon threw behind running back Jordan Howard, who couldn’t contort his body and hands to make a catch in the second quarter. But that was an inaccurate throw from Glennon. Could it have been caught? Possibly, but the ball placement could’ve been better. 

Other than that, the rest of the drops came in the second half — when the game was well out of reach. Wright, Bellamy and Deonte Thompson didn’t drop anything in the first half, and each made some solid catches in traffic. 

That doesn’t absolve anyone here, though, and that most of those drops came late in the game reflects poorly on the team’s effort level, even if that wasn’t necessarily a problem. 

“You could make a number of excuses,” tight end Zach Miller said. “You get late in the game, it’s playing down in a different environment, heat — it doesn’t really matter. You’ve just got to catch the ball.”

Four of those six drops were egregious, with accurate passes hitting receivers Kendall Wright, Josh Bellamy and Tanner Gentry in the hands only to have the ball wind up on the ground. All of those came in the fourth quarter. 

Fox did bring up the two passes the Bears dropped from inside the five-yard line in Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons, which are more relevant for evaluating Glennon. Had Bellamy or Howard caught passes that hit them in the hands — Bellamy in the end zone, Howard at the one-yard line — the Bears likely would’ve been 1-0 heading to Tampa. But had any of those six balls been caught on Sunday, it only would've served to pad Glennon's already-flawed stat line.