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Defensive grades: Peppers, Tillman lead the way

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Defensive grades: Peppers, Tillman lead the way

GLENDALE, Ariz. The overall play of the defense in a must-win game like this one is a little difficult to critique in absolute terms just because of the quality of the opponent. But all the Bears can do is play who shows up across from them and the Bears certainly did that on Sunday, against a woeful Arizona Cardinals team that faced one of the NFLs best defenses with quarterbacks Ryan Lindley and then Brian Hoyer in the second half.
The defense scored two touchdowns of its own, one on a fumble recovery by backup defensive back Zackary Bowman and the other on an interception by Charles Tillman in the third quarter. That ran the defenses total to nine for the season and the Bears record to 6-0 when their defense has scored in 2012.
A workmanlike effort when one was needed.
DEFENSIVE LINE A
Julius Peppers was dominating, with three sacks and a forced fumble as well as four tackles for loss and two quarterback hits in a game with the season on the line. He has played with emotion and leadership through the losing stretch and led by example on the field.
Without 3-technique Henry Melton, Israel Idonije moved in at tackle and provided good push inside, including a first-half sack of Lindley. The Bears frequently went with a rush line of four defensive ends that included Idonije, Peppers, Shea McClellin and Corey Wootton. The group played the run sufficiently and got enough pressure on two bad quarterbacks.
Amobi Okoye also was in on a forced fumble that the Bears recovered for a touchdown.
LINEBACKERS A-
The linebackers flow to the ball prevented Arizona and Beanie Wells from getting into any rhythm in the run game, forcing the game into the hands of inept quarterbacks.
Nick Roach led the Bears with eight solo tackles and continues to be very solid alternate to Brian Urlacher. His responses to reads has gotten progressively quicker and he delivers more significant hits as his confidence has grown.
Lance Briggs broke up a pass and had six tackles in a strong performance overall. Geno Hayes was back in the lineup after missing last week with a knee injury.
SECONDARY B
Zackary Bowman gave the entire team a boost when he fell on a Beanie Wells fumble for a first-quarter touchdown. Charles Tillman, who contributed eight solo tackles, drove in the final nail with his interception return for a score in the third quarter. Kelvin Hayden gave the offense a scoring opportunity with an interception and return of 39 yards.
Chris Conte was lost with a hamstring injury, sending Anthony Walter into the free-safety spot and played well.
All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald had 111 yards on eight catches and rookie Michael Floyd caught six for 47 yards.
COACHING A
The Arizona offense was not much of a challenge in any area so the key was not exposing areas for big plays or mistakes. A conservative game plan was called for and the Bears executed it well.
SPECIAL TEAMS
The Cardinals blocked a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter and returned it for a touchdown in something of a disappointing breakdown that needs to be fixed before the Lions or someone else exploits it.
KICKING D
Adam Podlesh was called on to punt nine times and averaged 43.8 yards with three inside the 20. But the blocked field goal was a costly mistake that gave the Cardinals seven free points. Olindo Mare did kickoff three times for touchbacks.
COVERAGE A-
Amobi Okoye avoided a problem by staying on assignment when Arizona tried a fake FG in the second quarter. Patrick Peterson, one of the NFLs most dangerous returners, was limited to 11 net yards on two punt returns and the Cardinals averaged only 19.5 yards on two kickoff returns.
RETURNS D
Devin Hester put the offense in jeopardy fielding a punt inside the Chicago 5 and getting nothing on a frenetic return try. D.J. Moore effectively handed the Cardinals three points late in the second quarter when he let a punt bounce off him and into Cardinals hands. But it was on Hester to let Moore know where the ball was and he did not. Hesters one kickoff return for 40 yards was his best.
COACHING C
Penalties continue to occur too frequently and the breakdowns that allow kicks blocked cannot occur at the next level. Devin Hesters returning has always had an element of freelance, but without the explosiveness of his early years, something else needs to be built in.

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With or without Justin Verlander, Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to stay in first place: ‘We have the pieces’

The Cubs already have a Cy Young Award winner, someone who was transforming into the hottest pitcher on the planet around this time in 2015, and then beat the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in last year’s World Series.

So the Cubs can keep discussing Justin Verlander and trying to figure out the price point where it makes sense, what caliber prospects they would have to give up and how much money the Detroit Tigers would have to kick in to cover a bill that could soar toward $90 million. 

But Jake Arrieta showed why the Cubs might finally start to run away from the division and become a very dangerous team in October, dominating the White Sox on Wednesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field during an 8-3 win that vaulted them into first place in the National League Central.          

“We expect to remain in first place,” Arrieta said. “We know it’s going to be a tough task, but that’s kind of what you deal with at the highest level of sports. You expect to have really good competition from teams that are either equal with you or close behind.

“We feel like we have the group to separate ourselves at this point in time and remain in first place for the remainder of the way.”

The Cubs probably don’t have the blue-chip prospects – and the appetite to raid their farm system again – to blow away the Oakland A’s and win a bidding war for Sonny Gray. The Cubs kick the tires on everything, but Yu Darvish would be a rental and the Texas Rangers are torn over what to do with their Japanese star. 

This is another reason why the Cubs are focusing on adding a veteran backup catcher and strengthening the bullpen before the July 31 trade deadline: Arrieta Watch is back, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning in front of a sellout crowd of 38,517 before Omar Narvaez drilled a ground-rule double into the right-center field seats.  

The Cubs are 10-2 since trading for Jose Quintana during the All-Star break, erasing a 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers heading into this weekend’s showdown at Miller Park. At 53-47, the Cubs are a season-high six games over .500, and it all starts with pitching.  

“I think we’ve got the pieces to get it done,” Arrieta said. “If there’s a situation where we can get another guy and not lose any key players, it might work in our favor.

“Obviously, when we traded for Quintana, that’s a huge addition to our ballclub. This guy’s really good. He works his butt off. And just seeing how he carries himself in between starts is a really great sign. To have a guy like that who works extremely hard and cares about the team winning ballgames – you can’t replace that.

“That trade right there in itself is one that’s going to pay huge dividends for this ballclub, not only for this year, but for the next couple years. But we’re a great team right now, and I think we have the pieces to get it done.”  

Arrieta was on cruise control until Yoan Moncada launched his 98th and final pitch – an 0-2 curveball – 409 feet over the center-field wall with two outs in the seventh inning. Arrieta only allowed those two hits, giving up two runs and finishing with five strikeouts against two walks, continuing the correction super-agent Scott Boras predicted when the Chicago media and Cubs fans wondered about his flashes of diminished velocity and spikes in hard contact during a free-agency push.

Arrieta has methodically put together 10 wins and three straight quality starts after the All-Star break, chopping his ERA down from 5.44 in the middle of May to 4.03. Ricky Renteria’s White Sox are obviously tanking for the future and there are a lot of conditions attached to this statement: 

But if Arrieta pitches like this, Jon Lester continues to be one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation, Quintana excels in a pennant race and Kyle Hendricks regains his feel and rhythm after six-plus weeks on the disabled list, then the Cubs might have a better playoff rotation than the one that ended the 108-year drought.     

“We’re feelin’ it,” Arrieta said, thinking back to last summer, when Theo Epstein’s front office added 100-mph closer Aroldis Chapman to a team with close to a 99-percent chance of making the playoffs. “I remember last year we were in this clubhouse around this same time, and it’s no different.” 

Look at the competition: The Washington Nationals might be forced into adding a frontline starter now that Stephen Strasburg is headed to the 10-day disabled list with a nerve impingement in his right forearm. The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping a strained lower back won’t stop Clayton Kershaw from making a few tune-up starts in September before becoming their Game 1 starter in October.

With or without Verlander, the Cubs are ramping up to defend their title.

“I’m going to continue to get stronger as the year progresses,” Arrieta said. “I feel like my best baseball, my best pitching, is still ahead of me. And I’m ready for it.”