With a driving rainstorm pelting the roof of the Walter Payton Center, the Chicago Bears this afternoon conducted their second full practice of the 2013 season. The team worked out for nearly two hours in another fast-paced, up-tempo session.
Hester in coverage
Yesterday, I mentioned that Devin Hester now only sees the field during special teams drills. He worked as a punt and kick returner, while also doing positional work with the gunners, a role the Bears are going to give Hester a shot to earn.
"He's definitely going to be fresher to do those things. That's something that we're evaluating right now," said special teams coach Joe DeCamillis. "He's still working on all those things. He'll be working on all the cover teams and working some other things for us, too. He's a great weapon and we want to try to use him as much as we can."
The thinking behind Hester as a gunner is to utilize his speed and force fair catches.
"The biggest thing about a great gunner sometimes is the guy who can get there the fastest," DeCamillis said. "We had a guy in Denver long time ago who was an Olympic sprinter named Sam Graddy. Sam wasn't the best tackler in the world, but he sure caused a lot of fair catches. Hopefully we can expand [Hester's] role and see what happens."
Finding ways to use Hester could be one way to keep him mentally focused, as he'll be sitting on the sidelines for 90 percent of practice each week. Yet DeCamillis doesn't see that as being a potential problem.
"No. I think he'll be great with it, personally just because his attitude's been great. He's a prideful guy and he wants to be great again. And we're going to try and get him in that position again."
I mentioned yesterday that Gabe Carimi was working at both guard spots with the second team and at right tackle with the third team. That continued again today. In fact, during 11-on-11s, Carimi played one snap at left guard, the next at right guard and the next at right tackle. It's very apparent the coaching staff wants to see him perform numerous reps at each position before deciding where he fits best. The rotation will also get him comfortable playing multiple positions.
The starting offensive line was the same for the second day in a row:
Yesterday, the coaching staff flipped the two guards back and forth. Yet today, there was no such rotation. Brown stayed at left guard the entire practice, while Slauson was planted on the right side. I asked Brown after practice if the players were told why the rotation stopped and he said he did not know. For now, we'll assume offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer likes his guards where they are, until further notice.
The Trestman cadence
The Bears installed 100 more offensive plays today, after installing the same amount yesterday. Today, we got a look at the pre-snap routine of Chicago's quarterbacks under Trestman.
For many plays, Jay Cutler, Josh McCown or Matt Blanchard would approach the line and immediately put his hands under center. The quarterback would then shout out a quick call and bark two straight hard counts. He then backed off from center and called out his reads to the rest of the offense, moving players around as necessary. This isn't a new procedure by quarterbacks but the consistency with which the Bears signal callers used this process means we're bound to see much more of it going forward.
This pre-snap process allows the quarterback to get a full read on the defense up to the point of a fake snap. The hard count mimics a snap, so if the defense bites, the quarterback will see defenders revealing their assignments. He then has the liberty (keys to the car) to make necessary adjustments or to call an audible. It's a system made famous by Peyton Manning and one that Chicago's quarterbacks will also employ.
Next man up
With Marshall out, Cutler's first read on most plays was wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Cutler has targeted Jeffery repeatedly the past two days, slinging passes to him all over the field.
One particularly impressive play today came during 11-on-11s. Jeffery ran a post corner to the far sideline. His cut was quick and it allowed him to gain separation from CB Kelvin Hayden. Cutler dropped a perfect pass to his receiver's outside shoulder, which Jeffery caught in stride.
We know the chemistry that Cutler has with Marshall. With Jeffery getting the No. 1 reps this week, it should help him grow in comfort with Cutler and the rest of the offense. Jeffery's route running has improved measurably. If he can play to his potential this year and stay healthy, he'll serve as an outstanding compliment to Marshall.
Also moving up on the depth chart is Eric Weems, who is serving as the club's No. 3 receiver during Marshall's absence. Weems made a diving catch early in practice, showing off his ability as a receiver. He's a special-teams ace and has never been much of a pass catcher throughout his career. Yet he's scrappy and has a knack for making plays. If any of the top three receivers miss time, Weems should make a quality backup option.
In place of Armand Allen, running back Harvey Unga got the third-team reps carrying the ball. Unga has been with the club since 2010, after being selected in the seventh round of the supplemental draft, yet has never been active for a regular season contest. He has used up his eligibility for the practice squad, so if he can't make the squad this year, the Bears will finally be forced to cut him. Getting quality reps today will help Unga's cause.
Youngsters stepping up
Two second-year players stood out during today's practice: WR Terrence Toliver and CB Isaiah Frey. Toliver, a third-year player who spent time with two NFL teams and the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL the past two seasons, had a pair of very nice catches. The first was a dig route that he hauled in with a defender on his back. The second was a seam pattern in which he got behind the cornerback. The Bears will need a fifth wide receiver this year. Toliver has some competition for that job but so far, he's the player who has stood out.
Frey was a sixth-round pick of the Bears last year who spent the 2012 campaign on the practice squad. He struggled in training camp last year and looked overwhelmed by the speed of the NFL game. This year, he has taken a step forward and no longer looks like a deer in the headlights. He's currently rotating at nickelback with the second and third team. He had one very nice pass deflection, chasing a receiver on a crossing pattern and getting his hand in at the last second to knock the ball away. Frey still has a long way to go but it was good to see him showing progress.
-I mentioned the starting linebacker trio yesterday. Today, I focused on the second-team linebackers:
Costanzo is also the team captain on special teams and is a very vocal leader during those portions of practice.
-For those wondering, LB Dom DeCicco is working at MIKE with the third team.
-S Brandon Hardin, the team's third-round pick last season, has been working alongside Craig Steltz with the second team. Hardin had a rough preseason his rookie year and was placed on IR with a neck injury before the start of the campaign. He's built like a brick house and he's very fast. The Bears are obviously trying to harness that athleticism and are willing to put Hardin in with the second team, ahead of Anthony Walters, who started the season finale last year.
Hardin has been playing mostly free safety, with Steltz serving as the strong safety. The good news for Hardin is that his assignments under Mel Tucker are basically the same as they were under Rod Marinelli.
"Nothing changed for us," said starting free safety Chris Conte. "It made us a successful defense so why change it?"
-During special teams drills, Roberto Garza was working with James Brown 1-on-1 on his technique and footwork coming out of his stance.
"Right now I'm having a little trouble with my stance," Brown told Bear Report after practice. "He's looking out for me. He's giving me some pointers. You can always learn from somebody that's been doing this a long time."
Garza took up the mantle as leader of the offensive line after Olin Kreutz's departure before the 2011 season. His effort today in working with Brown shows his continued dedication to the improvement of the club's front five.
-Evan Rodriguez has many different roles in Trestman's offense. He was split out wide on at least four occasions, while also lining up at fullback, H-back and tight end. Overall, he has looked decent as a receiver but he made an egregious error in pass protection today, allowing a defender a free run at Cutler. If it had been a real game, Cutler would have been clobbered. If Rodriguez plans on seeing the field more during his second season, he has to better learn his assignments in pass protection.
-At defensive end, Corey Wootton and Julius Peppers are the starters, with Shea McClellin rotating in. As of now, the player getting the most reps as the No. 4 defensive end is Turk McBride. Cheta Ozougwu is also rotating with the twos but it appears McBride has the early lead on the club's final DE spot.
-J.T. Thomas was asked to cover Rodriguez out wide on one play during 11-on-11s. Thomas covered the receiver like a blanket, forcing the quarterback to throw to the opposite side of the field.
When Thomas, the club's 2011 sixth-round draft pick, first began with the club, he was absolutely lost in coverage. I remember his first few weeks with the team and he looked like a cow that had lost his herd. To seem him lineup with confidence across from a player with tight-end receiving skills, and stay on him like a glove throughout the pattern, was a good sign as far as Thomas' development.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.