The Chicago Bears wrapped up their seventh practice of 2015 Training Camp this morning. The weather in Bourbonnais was again beautiful, with temperatures hovering in the upper 70s.
Crowds at camp have consistently grown each day and today was no exception. The stands were packed again, with spectators two to three deep in the standing areas. For a Thursday morning, that’s not too bad.
Maybe the news from camp has peaked fans’ interest and heightened their curiosity about a team undergoing serious change. For whatever the reason, the buzz in Bourbonnais rose an octave the past week.
OL Michael Ola (knee) was not at practice today. Head coach John Fox had good news on Ola’s prognosis.
“Michael Ola did not participate today. His prognosis was a knee strain,” Fox said. “He’s day to day right now, more than likely it looks like about a week. And maybe faster. Maybe a little bit slower. Luckily it wasn’t real, real serious.”
Ola went down in yesterday’s practice and had to be helped off the field before being carted away. It didn’t look good at the time, so this is definitely good news for him.
For the second day in a row OL Tayo Fabuluje had an asthma attack and had to leave practice. The Bears will monitor him going forward.
DL Ego Ferguson was excused for personal reasons.
DAY 7 NOTES
-At yesterday’s practice the defense had its way with the offense, particularly the first and second teams. Much of that success was due to pressure up front, as the club’s top two offensive lines could not square up on defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s blitz packages.
Typically during 7-on-7 drills, the linemen engage in 1-on-1 pass protection drills. Today, the trench staff focused on combo blocks against different blitzes and stunts.
During the drill, the center, guard and tackle on one side of the ball would block three pass rushers. Those defenders would slant and stunt, forcing the offensive linemen to work in tandem and communicate their blocks.
The Bears have a decent offensive line but there are a number of question marks, both individually and as a unit. The only way the front five will have any success this year is to build chemistry and play off each other’s tendencies and strengths. The coaching staff knows this, which is why they put in extra time today to help strengthen those mental and physical bonds.
-If there’s one thing that can be said about Fangio’s blitz schemes it’s that they are unpredictable. There is a lot of movement by the linebackers pre-snap, which adds another level of deception to the pass rush.
Think about it, a 4-3 defense puts four guys in the dirt, winds them up and lets them go at the snap. One or two linebackers might come on a blitz but the defense itself doesn’t allow for much creativity.
Lovie Smith’s Cover 2 wasn’t about deception, it was about execution within a simple set of rules. Yet Smith was able to do that because, for most of his tenure, he had a high level of talent on defense, led by Brian Urlacher in the middle.
This year’s defense is nowhere near as talented as recent Bears teams, or as the 49ers teams Fangio coached the past four years, where he was always near the bottom of the league in number of blitzes called.
Sitting back in a 3-4 system with mid-level talent is unlikely to reap positive results, so we can expect a large variety of blitz calls from Fangio this year.
-QB Jay Cutler did not turn the ball over again today. That makes seven straight practices without an interception.
Former Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly once called Jay Cutler the best 7-on-7 quarterback in the NFL and he’s right, yet that rarely transfers to game day. So let’s not anoint Cutler the MVP just yet but at the very least, this is a positive step forward for Jay.
I’ve seen Cutler practice roughly 100 times the past four-plus seasons and he doesn’t often go long stretches without throwing a pick. “Bad Jay” shows up regularly in practice, where he throws a pass into triple coverage and everyone in the stands slaps their foreheads.
So for him to go seven days without any interceptions, or even close to an interception, is pretty exceptional. Yes the defense is undergoing a transition and yes the first-team secondary isn’t particularly strong and yes quarterbacks can’t be hit in practice. He obviously didn’t turn into Tom Brady overnight but if he can just turn into, say, Russell Wilson, with a strong run game in support, Chicago’s offense could be very good this year.
-The Black Unicorn was again in full force today. On one of the first plays of team drills, the defense sent five pass rushers. Cutler was under pressure almost immediately and fired a quick pop pass to TE Martellus Bennett up the right seam.
Later, the offense ran a naked bootleg and Cutler found Bennett in the right flat, where he outraced LB Christian Jones to the sideline before turning up-field. In one of the final team sessions, the defense sent six guys up the middle. Cutler quickly found Bennett in the right flat and there wasn’t a defender within 20 yards of him. He turned up the field and ran 40 yards before being touched.
Chicago’s offense is developing a system to beat the blitz and that obviously includes a heavy does of Bennett as Cutler’s primary hot read.
-Watching RG Kyle Long and DL Jeremiah Ratliff square off is must-see television. Those are two of the nastiest, toughest players in the NFL and they go hard on every snap, which will only make each of them better.
“I think Jeremiah Ratliff is as good as they get in the league in all phases — the run game, the pass game, from a mental standpoint,” Long said. “Jeremiah Ratliff is the final boss you’ve got to face in the video game. You play it all summer and then you’ve got to beat Jeremiah Ratliff. He’s who I go up against every day so it’s always awesome to line up on Sunday and not see No. 90 with a giant beard across from you.”
At nose tackle, Goldman is going to demand attention on run downs, which is one of the main reasons he was drafted in the second round. That’s going to open up room for the linebackers, which is how you start the 3-4 engine. It all begins in the middle and Goldman has the makings of a dominant interior defender.
-The last session of practice was live-action goal-line drills. The ball was placed at the three-yard line and the offense had one play to score.
LB Mason Foster scraped off-tackle left and met Jacquizz Rodgers at the two-yard line. Rodgers has thick legs and I’ve seen him drive defenders forward but Foster ate him up and dropped the running back before he could score. Notable about Foster is his downhill playing style. He likes to hit.
The offense ran a play-action pass and QB Jimmy Clausen lobbed the ball into the back of the end zone. TE Chris Pantale went up and caught the pass but LB Jon Bostic was able to rip the ball away before Pantale could complete the catch. It’s still early and Bostic has been very limited but he’s looked good so far in camp.
The offense ran a stretch run but RB Ka’Deem Carey was unable to turn the corner and could not carry a defender into the end zone.
The only touchdown came from RB Daniel Thomas. Taking a handoff off-tackle left, he was met in the hole by CB Demontre Hurst. It was a big collision but Thomas drove his legs and fell forward into the end zone. He doesn’t play special teams, which hurts his value, but in Thomas the Bears have a quality short-yardage back already on the roster.
-C Hroniss Grasu understands body positioning. He’s quick but not all that powerful and must rely on technique to secure defenders. Grasu has good hips and balance, and knows how to use his body to seal a block. That’s a skill set upon which any coaching staff can build.
-On one snap during team drills, LB Christian Jones blitzed the left A gap. LG Matt Slauson stood his ground, threw a forearm into Jones’ chest and knocked the defender to the ground. Slauson might be the standout of camp to this point. At the very least, he’s been the most consistent.
-A few days ago I wrote about DE Cornelius Washington’s struggles to hold the point of attack. Today, he struggled to generate pressure from his new 5-technique position. Washington has value on special teams but he’s definitely a work in progress as a defensive end.
-WR Levi Norwood had success as a return man collegiately and is in the mix for a starting returner gig in Chicago. The 6-0, 197-pounder has also flashed as a receiver. Today, he took a quick screen outside and made two defenders miss before turning up the field. Norwood’s open-field ability could sneak him onto the final 53-man roster, or at least on the practice squad.
-DL David Carter is a big human being (6-5, 300). He’s been working mainly with the third team but he’s been the standout of that unit. Carter has been manhandling blockers in the run game and today used a good swim move to collapse the pocket. Carter is a fourth-year player who may soon leapfrog Washington on the depth chart.
-OLB Willie Young continues to suit up but has seen almost no action in team drills through seven practices. During the final set of 11-on-11s today, he was on the far field pulling a sled, ostensibly to strengthen his Achilles. Young being on the field is a surprise in itself, as many Achilles injuries take 12 months to heal, and it will be interesting what role he plays once he does return to the field.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.