Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the running backs

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the running backs

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each Bears position group heading to Bourbonnais. Today’s group: the running backs.

1. Can Jordan Howard get to the Starting Gate healthy?

By now, there’s no question the franchise’s all-time leading rookie rusher can do it. And after the fifth-rounder answered some durability questions last season, the last thing the Bears need is Howard to be banged-up or unavailable heading into a brutal first month of the season. If the Bears are to compete against the likes of the Falcons, Buccaneers, Steelers and Packers, they’ll need their ball-control game to be effective behind the league’s second-leading rusher last season. The humble star spent the offseason trying to get even better, from eye surgery, to finding ways to get through the second level and outrun defenders.

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

2. Spark from Sparty

Jeremy Langford entered last season as the starter following an impressive rookie season of his own, looking like the heir to Matt Forte as he split time with the veteran. But after 28 carries the first two games, the Michigan State product injured an ankle in Week 3 at Dallas after gaining 31 yards on only three carries. He was never the same once he came back, totaling just 31 carries for 84 yards. He remained out of team work during minicamp last month, working out individually on the side in an effort to be full-go for Bourbonnais. Howard took the ball and ran with his opportunity once Langford went down. But it’s not reasonable for him to carry the entire workload once the season begins, unless Dowell Loggains is asking for trouble. Langford returning to his rookie form will help.

3. The 3 C’s

That’s Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Ka'Deem Carey. Carey heads into his fourth season, having bought into special teams roles and being fearless charging into opposing defenders, even pancaking a few in his time here. But unless he finds a way to make himself a core performer on Teams, or if Howard, Langford, Cohen, or Cunningham suffers an injury, one doubts the Bears would enter the season with five running backs, especially if they decide to keep a fullback around. Cohen provides his unique skillset as the “human joystick” third down threat and potential as a returner. The latter is what Cunningham’s built his career upon, and has a similar build as Carey.

“I think it’ll play a key role and benefit me,” the 5-foot-6, 179-pound Cohen said of his stature and waterbug-like moves being a part of the offense. “The linemen are going to be bigger and it’ll be really hard for defenders to see behind my linemen. I didn’t necessarily want to be bigger (growing up), but I wanted to beat the bigger kids.”

Bears rival report: Are the Packers any more vulnerable?

Bears rival report: Are the Packers any more vulnerable?

The short answer to the above headline is "no." Great quarterbacks overcome so much, and Aaron Rodgers is still there.

The Bears are well-versed in both aspects of that last statement, since they haven't had a quarterback who capable of putting a team on his shoulders to overcome blemishes, and the fact facing No. 12 in green and gold is more exasperating than facing the No. 4 who preceded him.

Now, Rodgers has an even more dangerous arsenal in adding ex-Bears tight end Martellus Bennett to a mix that includes a couple of guys who combined to catch 26 touchdown passes in Jordy Nelson (now two years removed from his torn ACL) and Davante Adams. And the commitment to Ty Montgomery as the starting running back is strong (after especially victimizing the Bears in averaging six yards a carry in a stop-gap role last season).

That doesn't mean there aren't things in the back of Packers' fans minds that are disconcerting.  Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers is the favorite punching bag, yet remains on the job after ranking 22nd in total yards, although top ten against the run.

So here's a couple of areas of concern as they head to camp next week:

Dom's DB's: More specifically, his "CB's." For the second time in three years, general manager Ted Thompson used his top two draft picks on cornerbacks. That doesn't mean the investment two years ago won't pan out, as Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins were just banged up a year ago. If they stay relatively healthy this year, along with the drafting of Washington's Kevin King and the reacquistion of Davon House, it could turn around. They're still young. But it helps to have one of the best safety tandems in the league to work with as well in Morgan Burnett and HaHa Clinton-Dix. Second-round pick Josh Jones is listed as a safety, but is expected to be used in a hybrid role in the box as situations dictate. Clay Matthews is 31 and has been sidelined by and fought through injuries for much of the past five years, and as the Packers try to move him around more, they'll need a handful of young "LB's" to step up. The Packers have selected four linebackers in the third or fourth rounds over the past two drafts.

[RELATED: Bears rival report: Lions needing a 'rush' on both sides]

Getting their guards up: Perhaps no quarterback in the league is more elusive, and better at buying time, in the pocket than Rodgers. That helps a lot. Since the Packers convened at camp a year ago, two Pro Bowl guards have departed to division rivals in Josh Sitton (Bears) and T.J. Lang (Lions). Center now belongs strictly to Corey Linsley after JC Tretter left in free agency. Undrafted Lane Taylor held up fairly well replacing Sitton a year ago. They'll look to 12-year veteran Jahri Evans (former All-Pro with the Saints) or career backup Don Barclay to hold down the right guard spot.

The Packers always seem to find a way to make things work, thanks to Rodgers and his weapons. If for some reason they don't in 2017, it'll likely be for the reasons above.

Clay Matthews fired a shot at Jay Cutler, promptly gets owned on Twitter

Clay Matthews fired a shot at Jay Cutler, promptly gets owned on Twitter

Clay Matthews couldn't resist taking a shot at Jay Cutler.

The Packers linebacker went full Charles Woodson — "Same old Jay" — when he hopped on the Rich Eisen Show on NFL Network Tuesday night:

“Listen, I always enjoyed playing against Jay,” Matthews said. “Obviously, he rubbed some fans the wrong way. I know people get on him about his nonchalant attitude, but I always enjoyed playing against him. I’m glad I got a lot of sacks against him. I’ll miss that the most. But hopefully the next in line in Chicago will be as equally willing to help me pad my stats.”

Now, Matthews does have more sacks — 8.5 — against Cutler than any other quarterback. That makes sense given the entire time Matthews has been in the NFL, Cutler has been the starting QB for a team in the Packers' division, meaning Matthews has had two chances a year to tee off on Cutler.

But Matthews' statement on "padding stats" also is curious given he hasn't had much success against Cutler or the Bears lately.

Matthews has 11.5 sacks the last two seasons...none of which came against the Bears.

In fact, the 31-year-old pass-rusher has just one sack against the Bears since 2013, and that came on Nov. 9, 2014, a fact Aaron Leming pointed out on Twitter:

That's five straight games against the Bears in which Matthews has not had a sack, though he's also been palying inside linebacker more and rushing the passer from the outside less due to injuries.

Still, Clay Matthews getting owned on Twitter is a great way to make a Bears fan's day.