Special teams score, dominate Titans

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Special teams score, dominate Titans

NASHVILLE Bears special teams players are holding each other down and fighting among themselves.

Exactly the kinds of things their coaches want.

First there was defensive end Corey Wootton, picking up a Tennessee Titans blocked by former Northwestern teammate Sherrick McManis, and charging five yards into the end zone for the first Chicago touchdown in Sundays 51-20 rout of the Tennessee Titans.

It was Woottons first touchdown since high school and he was ready to dust off some moves with a touchdown dance. But something someone -- was holding him down.

I was trying to get a dance but Anthony Walters jumped on my back so I carried him for about 10 yards in the end zone, so I wasnt able to get one, Wootton said, laughing.

I told him we should celebrate as a team, Walters claimed.

Woottons last score came on an intercepted pass in high school. That one he had to tote that one 40 yards to score so this one was easier, Wooton said. It was a heck of a play by Sherrick so a little bit of a Northwestern connection there.

Players said coordinator Dave Toub and staff had scouted Tennessee protections perfectly and when the Titans showed this look, the Bears attacked.

And they attacked particularly against what was one of the better kick returners in the AFC. So confident were the Bears that they were talking trash to the Titans, hoping to goad them into trying to run kicks back.

Tennessee kick returner Darius Reynaud was averaging 25.8 yards per runback, which the Bears took as a special challenge. Usually a touchback and forced starting position at the 20 is a good thing. The Bears wanted Reynaud to try them.

He did seven returns, modest 20.7 yards average, none longer than 32 yards.

We knew he likes to bring the ball out from wherever so we had a plan for that, Walters said, adding that it fueled what is becoming a standard competition within the coverage team.

We try to beat each other to the tackles. We have lane integrity but we argue about who had this tackle or that one. You should hear us in the film room.

Cubs' bats go silent in shutout loss to Marlins

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USA TODAY

Cubs' bats go silent in shutout loss to Marlins

MIAMI – This is a 37-36 team dealing with injuries near the front of the rotation (Kyle Hendricks), the middle of the lineup (Ben Zobrist) and the heart of the defense (Jason Heyward) while a World Series legend (Kyle Schwarber) gets a few days to clear his head before reporting to Triple-A Iowa.

The Cubs are the defending champs, but they really don’t have much of an identity beyond that, unsure what they’re going to get from one night to the next and still searching for that sense of rhythm 45 percent into the season.

Friday’s 2-0 loss to the Miami Marlins followed a familiar pattern for a team that’s been at the .500 mark at 15 different points this season and has been shut out six times already. 

Pitching and defense became the backbone for a World Series team, but the Marlins needed only three hits to score two runs (one earned). John Lackey gave up his 21st home run – he allowed 23 in almost 190 innings last year – in the third inning when Giancarlo Stanton launched an 83-mph pitch 458 feet beyond Marlins Park’s garish pink-flamingos-and-palm-trees sculpture.   

The night after blitzing Miami and scoring 11 runs, the Cubs managed only six hits against right-hander Jose Urena and three different relievers. 

Joe Maddon on Ian Happ: ‘Pound for pound, man, he’s got as good a power as I’ve seen’

Joe Maddon on Ian Happ: ‘Pound for pound, man, he’s got as good a power as I’ve seen’

MIAMI – The Cubs factored Ian Happ into their preseason plans, hoping he could give the team a shot of adrenaline at some point and play well enough to be marketed as a trade chip in a blockbuster deal for pitching.

But the Cubs couldn’t have projected this for late June: Happ batting third behind Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, the switch-hitting presence and middle-of-the-order force needed with Ben Zobrist on the disabled list and Kyle Schwarber about to get a mental reset at Triple-A Iowa.

“Pound for pound, man, he’s got as good a power as I’ve seen, when you look at the size and how far the ball goes,” manager Joe Maddon said Friday at Marlins Park. “It’s a unique combination of size and strength. You normally see a bigger guy with that kind of juice."

Happ (6-foot, 205 pounds) also patrolled right field that night – one of four different positions the rookie has handled so far – with Gold Glove defender Jason Heyward also on the disabled list and the Cubs in scramble mode.

The Schwarber demotion is a reminder of how hard this game is, how quickly it can spin out of control and how small sample sizes can be misleading, even on the biggest stages against some of the best pitchers on the planet.

But check out Happ’s first six weeks in The Show projected as a 162-game average on Baseball-Reference.com: 46 homers, 97 RBI, .916 OPS and 199 strikeouts.

“He’s just really interesting,” Maddon said. “Now you’re seeing him hit better from the right side, too, which is really going to matter. That really makes him a threat. You put him in the lineup based on that.”

The shorthanded Cubs have needed Happ – at the age of 22 – to protect Bryzzo Souvenir Co., add another layer of Zobrist versatility and learn it all on the fly for a team with World Series expectations.

“He’s pretty self-confident,” Maddon said. “There’s times I can tell when it’s beating him up a little bit when he goes through some of those funks where maybe he’s chasing pitches out of the zone. But he seems to rebound very quickly. Strong-minded. Strong-willed. Very confident individual.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs hopeful Kyle Hendricks returns before All-Star break]

Two weeks into Happ’s big-league career, Maddon got questions about how long the Cubs will be patient and what they would need to see out of him before thinking about a return trip to Des Moines.

Though Happ was hitting .207 as recently as last week, his average has jumped roughly 40 points. He’s homered eight times in his last 13 starts. Fifteen of his 21 RBI have come with two outs. His OPS hasn’t fallen below .741 at any point this season.

“That’s adjusting,” Maddon said. “You get here, nobody really knows you, they throw you pitches, you hit ‘em well. And all of a sudden, you stop seeing those pitches. You’re not going to see them again until you stop swinging at the stuff that they want you to swing at.

“He’s done a pretty good job of laying off the bad stuff. That’s why it’s coming back to him. He’s really reorganized the strike zone here.”

That whole process sped up on Schwarber, who lost the swagger and the ability to crush fastballs that made him such a dangerous hitter. Happ doesn’t have it all figured out, but by the look on his face and the sound of his voice, you would have no idea whether or not he’s hitting. 

“Unbelievable guy,” said Happ, who’s tight with Schwarber. “He’ll go down, rake, be back soon and do what he’s capable of doing, which is hitting the ball hard all over the ballpark. He’s done it his whole life. And he’ll continue to do it.”