Lovie: We're not going to back to the drawing board

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Lovie: We're not going to back to the drawing board

Monday, Sept. 26, 2011Posted: 4:45 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
Coaches, players and teams certainly dont admit to panic reactions (no matter how many times they drop back and pass, even when they dont need to or shouldnt). So not surprisingly, the Bears are not going to submit their offense, defense or special teams to any sort of major football niptuck procedure.

I dont think we need to go back to the drawing board, coach Lovie Smith said Monday. As you work the numbers, we lost two games where we didnt run the football.

But the thinking is that where the 52 pass plays11 runs vs. New Orleans was indefensible, the 439 distribution in the loss to the Green Bay Packers was simply the only way that made sense under the circumstances.

The offense didnt try running in New Orleans; it couldnt vs. Green Bay, and the decision to stay with throwing the ball was based on improved pass protection as well as the pathetic ground production.

We didnt run the ball enough, we didnt have enough rushes a week ago, Smith said. Im OK on the Atlanta game and the last game on what we had to do to win the football game. When you get behind, youre going to do whatever you need to do to win the game.

First game, we were in a position where we could have more of a balance. This week hopefully well start off and a lot of things will work and well have that kind of balance.

Dialing down the panic II

The hand-wringing over the notion of an undrafted rookie free agent being a significant piece of the Bears passing offense is amusing. No one seemed alarmed when another undrafted free agent Tom Waddle was doing good work with a playoff offense in 1990-91. John Randle was an undrafted, undersized free agent defensive tackle whos in the Hall of Fame. And Jay Hilgenberg wasnt bad, either, for a leftover afterthought.

By the way, can you name the four main wide receivers on the New England Patriots when they won Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004? Deion Branch was a No. 2 pick. David Givens was a 7. Troy Brown was an 8. And David Patten, undrafted free agent.

The difference? The quarterback. A sixth-round pick.

How people get to the NFL is beyond irrelevant. Dane Sanzenbacher gets that, even if not everyone seems to.

When youre targeted, Sanzenbacher said, you have to catch the ball.

It shouldnt be a big surprise that Sanzenbacher has caught more passes than any Bear except Matt Forte (which is a bigger problem, anytime your running back has more than twice as many catches 22 as any two of your wideouts combined). Roy Williams missed a game with a groin injury and Earl Bennett missed most of New Orleans and all of Green Bay with his chest injury.

Chico watch

Five years ago, in the aftermath of Super Bowl XLI, coach Lovie Smith had grown weary of then-defensive coordinator Ron Riveras annual flirtations with teams and head-coaching opportunities. Smith did not bring Rivera back in 2007 and Rivera went on to San Diego (where he blitzed the Bears senseless in the first preseason game last year and drove them to pull Jay Cutler after eight plays) and then to Carolina as head coach.

It is not a game of Rivera vs. Smith, at least in the mind of the latter.

We're excited about getting an opportunity to play the Carolina Panthers, Smith said, correcting a questioner whod inquired about thoughts coming up about matching up with Rivera. I dont think Ron is going to be out there but his football team is doing a heck of a job. They lost a couple of tough games before this one Sunday. They found a way to win. Their record is the same as ours right now. Its a football game we both need to win.

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.

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Pro Football Focus has more than its share of both supporters and detractors of how it goes about grading NFL players. They break down every snap for every player, and while there are general agreements on what's seen by naked, untrained eyes who don't put the time and investment into its system that PFF does, there are other evaluations that seem to come out of the blue. While there's occasional guesswork on a player's particular assignment on a given play within its scheme, those of us who've watched and studied nuances of the game, or those who've played it, can usually identify how many jobs were done correctly.

Tuesday, PFF released its rankings of all 32 NFL rosters but in essence focused on the quality of each team's starting lineup, listing the Bears — are you sitting down? — 18th in the league. That's ahead of the likes of the Ravens, Saints, Texans, Dolphins, a Jaguars franchise that's had tons of high draft picks in recent years, as well as the Broncos and Lions (whom they rank 28th). The top five are the Falcons, Patriots, Titans, Packers and Steelers (the Bears play three of those teams in September alone). Among other Bears opponents, they rank the Panthers 10th, Vikings 12th, Buccaneers 13th and Eagles 15th.

[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Their evaluation is based on each player's final score from last season, "elite" and "good" being the top two levels, followed by "average" and "below average" to "poor." The only Bear earning elite status was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Another nine Bears finished with good grades: Jordan Howard, Zach Miller, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps (who earned his grade in Houston).

Those earning average grades were Cam Meredith, Kendall Wright, Kyle Long, Charles Leno, Jr., Pernell McPhee and Prince Amukamara. Below average: Mike Glennon (in mop-up duty in Tampa Bay), Kevin White, Bobby Massie, Leonard Floyd and Jaye Howard. The only Bear earning a poor grade among projected starters was tight end Dion Sims (with Miami). The other potential flaw is that PFF lists Kyle Fuller (no grade) and Bryce Callahan (average) as starters when Marcus Cooper and Cre'Von LeBlanc likely have the inside track to start at cornerback and nickel back, respectively.

How did the Bears get to 18th, above three playoff teams and another that won the Super Bowl two years ago? Well, all of those other teams have more elite players at certain positions, but it's offset by a number of spots occupied by more players with poor or below average grades. The Broncos (25th) for instance, had four elite players, just another four falling under the good grade, but five players listed as poor.

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

So Jordan Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing in his rookie season, despite just a dozen carries in the first three games. The fifth-round pick joined the man who beat him out for the rushing title, Ezekiel Elliott, as one of just five rookies in history to average five or more yards per carry on over 250 carries. And he set the Bears' rookie rushing record with his 1,313 yards while becoming just the fourth in franchise history to rush for that many yards in a season.

Sounds pretty hard to top, like we might be set up for the dreaded sophomore slump.

But...

"Things are a lot different this year because I know what to expect," Howard said during the team's minicamp two weeks ago. "I know all the plays and things like that. I’m not out there thinking, so I can just play free and fast.

"I definitely feel like a veteran 'cause I know what to expect and can help the young guys on the plays that they're not understanding. I’m just more comfortable and want to be a leader."

One of the other things we learned about Howard last year is he's low-key, a man of few words. So the Indiana product by way of UAB will make his points verbally when needed, but his actions will speak louder.

"He was a rookie a year ago and didn't even go in trying to be a leader, telling a five-year guy what was up," said head coach John Fox. "I think with time, and obviously with production like he had, I think it's a role he can fall in to. We're in a performance-based business and even in that locker room, what they do on Sundays gives them some credibility."

One of the concerns about Howard coming out of college was durability, but he answered the bell once he became the starter in week four against Detroit. And he probably wasn't used nearly as much as he should have. The good news about that is he was subject to less wear and tear, averaging just 18 carries per game from that Lions game on.

But besides taking more of a leadership role, Howard wanted to work on his speed without sacrificing the strong base that, paired with keen vision and work by the offensive line, allowed him to hit holes quickly and charge toward the second level of opposing defenses.

"Just improving on the little things – my conditioning, my weight, catching passes. And looking for ways to finish runs better," says Howard. "I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up."

"It's just training," said Fox. "When you get to that it's more like track speed than football speed and I think he proved pretty worthy of that a year ago as a rookie. Y'know we all can improve on things, and that's the expectation. He's trained hard.

"This time of year last year he wasn’t even practicing," Fox remembered. "I like where we are, we’ve brought in more competition, and he’s better for it. He’s kind of gotten used to an NFL season, he’s come back ready to roll, but he still has work to do before we get to training camp."  

Oh, and the 22-year-old has a couple of other goals he didn't mind sharing, besides being a leader and getting a little faster.

"First off, make the playoffs. Be the leading rusher, and just help the team in any way I can and stay consistent."