Lovie: Bears have core in place, starting with Cutler

369720.jpg

Lovie: Bears have core in place, starting with Cutler

Friday, Feb. 25, 2011
2:05 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

INDIANAPOLIS New York Jets coach Rex Ryan on Thursday issued a declaration and a guarantee that the Jets will win the next Super Bowl. That isnt Lovie Smiths style and he wouldnt guarantee much more than max effort from his team and staff.

But he was very, very clear that the core from a team that was within a score of reaching the last Super Bowl is in place.

Theres a couple of areas we need to improve, Smith said, but I think the core is in place, starting with our quarterback, Jay Cutler, leading us. I wouldnt want any other quarterback except for Jay. Im excited about him going into that second year with Mike and seeing those improvements on the offensive side.

READ: Lovie, Bears agree to extension through 2013

The sting of the 21-14 loss to Green Bay in the NFC Championship game has faded a bit by this time. Seven points. That is a deficit Smith is certain that the Bears can make up.

We know that were close, Smith said. We played the Super Bowl champions as well as anyone in the course of the year. And we need to; theyre in our division like some of our other division opponents. We feel like well make ground on them next year.

Position flux?

For all of the travail and shuffling of last season, sources told CSNChicago.com that the Bears quite possibly could open the 2011 season with none of their 2010 offensive line starters in the same places they were. Olin Kreutz is a free agent and the collective bargaining uncertainty has some of those kinds of situations on hold.

But offensive line is an offseason target area. Frank Omiyale is not a lock at left tackle, nor is Chris Williams at left guard, Roberto Garza at right guard or JMarcus Webb at right tackle.

READ: Bears, Packers shouldn't look past the Lions

I dont think you try to just pin yourself down on those things, Smith said. There are a lot of different options. What I like is when you have guys with flexibility. You mentioned Chris Williams. Hes played three different positions. That gives you flexibility. Like our safeties Chris Harris, Danieal Manning, Major Wright. All of those players can play different positions.

Enough about Jay already

A reporter who appeared to not be paying a lot of recent attention wondered if Smith was satisfied with the toughness of his quarterback. There are few things that spark an anger flash in Smith the way questions about Jay Cutlers toughness after his knee injury do.

Just to kind of hit Jay one last time, Smith said, measuring his words.No. Theres no question about Jays toughness or anything like that. For guys to even challenge that or question that dont know what theyre talking about, dont know him. Hes as tough as any quarterback in the league. Really, Ive said enough about him.

Tice talk

The Bears turned down a request from the Tennessee Titans to interview offensive line coach Mike Tice for the Titans post of offensive coordinator under new coach Mike Munchak. It was not a move out of spite; anything but. The team earlier allowed special teams assistant Chris Tabor to go to the Cleveland Browns and permitted defensive backs coach Jon Hoke to interview with the Philadelphia Eagles opening at defensive coordinator. Defensive line assistant Eric Washington also was permitted to interview and leave.

But those moves were some time ago and the vacancies were quickly filled. The Tice situation was deeper into the offseason, to the point where finding a quality assistant would have been virtually impossible.

A lot of things come into play, Smith said. As a general rule I would like to see our guys advance anytime they can. But theres a deadline a little bit there. Its a little late in the game. Mike was OK. Its not like were keeping any secrets or anything. Mikes excited about being on our staff right now. The timing wasnt right for it right then.

But you look at it. We had other coaches going out. Jon Hoke interviewed for the defensive coordinator position a little earlier in the year. We felt like it was a little late in the season and we felt we had to go with looking at whats best for the Chicago Bears.

Ill make a prediction that the guys are going to play as hard as they possibly can each week and I can take the results knowing the football team that we have. I can just guarantee you were going to play the way our players play always. Cant ask for anything more from them. Theres nothing guaranteed. But you look at our history. Weve won more games than weve lost. In our team here, weve won the division championship three times. Weve been to the championship game a couple years. Our staff knows what theyre doing. We have good players. And I like our chances next year.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Eric Kush was in some pain after the Bears win over the San Francisco 49ers. But it was a “good” pain, particularly since part of it was inflicted by a teammate.

The teammate was running back Jordan Howard, and the Bears left guard was learning along with his linemates that when Howard is coming, “he’s a-comin’,” Kush said.

“Oh man, sometimes you’re, ‘[groan-groan-groan], and he’ll hit you right in the back, you fall and try to take your guy down with you and stick him in the snow so you’re not the only one getting soaking wet and cold. But Jordan’s a lot fun and we try to kick some butt for him.”

The rookie running back has become more than simply a draft nugget from the fifth round of this year’s draft. Howard has established himself as an integral part of a winning formula of complimentary football, the concept long favored by John Fox, Lovie Smith and coaches who operate from the foundation of a premier running game, impact defense and solid special teams.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears’ three wins have come this season in the only games in which Howard has been given 20-plus carries: 23 vs. Detroit, 26 vs. Minnesota, 32 vs. San Francisco. Add to those the 3 pass receptions against the Lions and the 4 against the Vikings and the true centerpiece of the 2016 Bears offense is more than a little apparent.

For obvious reasons beyond simply the rushing numbers.

“Especially pass protection,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “I think he's taken a big jump that way. When you're young in this league, those are the things that can get grey for you. You run the football, he's obviously a talented player there, but in pass pro, he's made his biggest growth.”

As a corollary to Howard, San Francisco was only the second game this season in which the Bears called fewer than 30 pass plays (the only other time was at Green Bay, when the Bears only ran a total of 45 plays, 27 of them pass plays). In that respect, the snow was viewed as an ally by some in the locker room who have been unhappy at the run:pass balance, which was just 36-percent-run coming into the 49ers game.

“It was one of these games where, with the weather, we couldn’t pass the ball like we normally do —  30 times — so we had to keep it on the ground,” said one member of the offense.

Howard’s breakout game as an NFL ball carrier came against the Lions (23 carries, 111 rushing yards, 3 receptions). The Bears, looking for a breakout of their own in the form of a first two-game win streak in more than a year, are expected to keep it simple — and in Howard’s hands.

“I always expected a lot out of myself,” Howard said. “I didn’t really think that things would happen maybe this soon or this fast. I’m definitely grateful for it.”

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

The adage “play the man, not the board” seems somehow appropriate for what the Bears are doing to prepare for the Detroit Lions behind quarterback Matt Barkley.

“The man” is Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and the Bears have been scouting him as well as his defenses, beyond just Bears games, beyond this season and last, taking in his 2014 Detroit season when Austin prepared defenses for Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen.

How did Austin scheme for rookie Carson Wentz when the Lions played (and beat) the Philadelphia Eagles? How did he structure is defense to stop a rookie Teddy Bridgewater when Detroit played Minnesota? (Not very well, apparently, since the Vikings won both games and scored 54 points combined in the two games).

While the John Fox Bears staff went against Austin’s Lions defense twice last year, Cutler was the Bears quarterback. When the Bears beat Austin and the Lions two months ago, it was with Brian Hoyer.

Now the Bears quarterback is Matt Barkley, who has fewer NFL games played (seven) than Cutler has NFL seasons (11), Hoyer (eight), too, for that matter.

“Different defensive coordinators attack young quarterbacks differently,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “Some guys blitz, some guys play a bunch of zone. This group on defense there, they have a really good defensive coordinator, they're really smart, they do a bunch of stuff. On the back end, they run all the coverages.

“As a game, we'll have to make adjustments as the game goes and see what their plan to come out is early.”

Coaches and players may talk about how they prepare for a scheme irrespective of which opposing quarterback, running back, linebacker or whatever they will be facing. But in fact, preparations start with who is orchestrating the opponent’s offense or defense – play the man, not the board.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

A risk can be out-thinking yourself trying to anticipate what a coordinator will do. The first point, Loggains said, is to start with your own strengths.

“We definitely look at that,” Loggains said. “As you go in the league long and longer, you face these guys, you see them in crossover games. We always know how a guy attacks a rookie quarterback or attacks a young quarterback, a veteran, or, in Matt's case, a guy who hasn't played as much.”

Evaluations of Barkley’s performance will broaden, particularly now that he is on tape for defensive coordinators to scheme for and scout. And while they are watching Barkley, the Bears are watching them.