Coming off the field after yesterday's practice, Chicago Bears linebacker Geno Hayes was visibly searching for something. His head on a swivel, Hayes was struggling to locate the object of his desire.
"I'm looking for this jug machine," Hayes told Bear Report.
The jug machine is a pair of wheels that spin rapidly, between which you can place a football and have it fire out to a player. In essence, it's a way for NFL players to work on their hands.
Hayes was in search of the jug machine as a result of one play during Thursday's preseason opener.
It was a 1st and 10. The Denver Broncos lined up in a double wing formation, with two receivers bunched tight to either side of the offensive line. On the left side, TE Jacob Tamme was positioned in the slot. Hayes lined up directly across from Tamme, yet just before the snap, he took a step to the inside.
At the snap, QB Peyton Manning dropped back to pass. Tamme ran a quick out route. Hayes took a false step forward then quickly changed directions to follow Tamme. Peyton threw the pass to his open tight end, yet Hayes was able to undercut the pass. The ball bounced right off his Hayes' hands, floated up into the air, and landed in Tamme's waiting arms. The play went for a 12-yard completion and a first down.
It was a great play by Hayes, anticipating where Manning was going to throw the ball. His quickness in changing direction was very impressive. Yet because Hayes failed to hang onto the ball, it ended up a first down, when it should have been a turnover.
LB Geno Hayes & DT Henry Melton
"I can't be dropping picks. That's something that we don't do here in Chicago," Hayes said. "I know for a fact that we don't take [pass break ups] lightly around here, so I have to get the picks instead of a PBU. That's something I work hard on myself. That's why I'm looking for this jug machine. Try and get some reps and make sure my hands are good."
Despite not hauling in the interception, Hayes had a very good game, his first in a Bears uniform.
"It felt great to go out and play with the first team and get some good reps, and get some experience as far as the defensive scheme. And doing what I have to do as far as knowing what to do on the field."
Hayes only had one tackle during the game – he only played half of the first quarter – but it was a memorable take down.
After the offense turned the ball over on a Michael Bush fumble, the Broncos started with the ball on Chicago's 6-yard line. It was a three-receiver set with RB Lance Ball alone in the backfield. QB Caleb Hanie lined up under center and made an audible motion as he reached the line of scrimmage. Hayes was lined up three yards across from the left guard but when he saw Hanie audible, he moved up to the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, Hayes shot the gap untouched and exploded into the ball carrier, dropping him on the spot. The play went for a four-yard loss. Throughout his four-year career, Hayes has been inconsistent against the run. His effort on this play shows he's been working hard under the tutelage of Bears linebackers coach Bob Babich to improve that part of his game.
"I'm feeling really comfortable in the scheme," said Hayes, "but you never want to be too comfortable because there's always something to learn. That's something I'm doing every day."
Hayes could be a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Chicago defense in 2012. It's anyone's guess at this point how well Urlacher's knee will hold up during the grind of a 16-game season. It's likely that he'll miss time at some point during the campaign. That puts Hayes front and center in a starting role. Based on his play so far this offseason, that shouldn't be too much for him to handle.
"Right now, I just want to really improve on finishing plays and making sure I stay consistent. Every play, making sure I go hard and playing to the standards, and above the standards, that they set for us."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.