Chicago Bears third-round rookie defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard returned to practice today, after being excused the past two practices for personal reasons.
“I had a few family issues back at home that I wanted to go home and be supportive of," Bullard said. “Today was my first day back. I made peace while I was at home. I kept up on my iPad at home. So I’m up to speed on everything. And I met with [defensive line] coach [Jay] Rodgers and he got me caught up, so I’m fine."
The Bears have been banged up the past week, with 22 players missing practice this past Sunday. A number have resume practicing this week, including Jeremy Langford and Eddie Royal, yet Bullard's return is especially encouraging, as he's flashed serious ability throughout training camp and the preseason.
"I think he’s more comfortable in our scheme, what’s being asked of him by his coaches, and transforming that into playing fast in game situations," head coach John Fox said. "Obviously if you’re not thinking, you’re performing and you’re not being slowed down in the mental aspect. I think you just get more comfortable."
Bullard played mainly 3-technique defensive tackle at Florida, where his main responsibility was to get upfield and be disruptive in opposing backfields. He was very successful in that role, racking up 18 tackles for loss his senior year, which was just 0.5 fewer than the school record, set by former Bears defensive end Alex Brown.
Off the ball, Bullard is very quick. He's been able to shoot gaps with regularity during practice and could be a serious interior pass-rush weapon for the Bears this season.
"He’s a tough minded player, he’s a tough player, physically," said Fox. "I think from a trait standpoint he’s explosive, which helps, obviously, in a pass-rush situation. That’s a lot of the reasons why we drafted him, and I just kind of liked his mindset and how he goes about his business so far."
While the Bears run a 3-4 defensive system, coordinator Vic Fangio switches to a 4-3 defense in sub sets, which he used on more than 60 percent of the snaps last season. That makes Bullard extremely valuable, as he's the only defensive lineman on the team with the ability to consistently collapse the pocket in the face of opposing quarterbacks. That, combined with pressure off the edges, is the key to a successful pass rush.
"That's all I was doing was [being] a penetrating guy," Bullard said. "I got a lot off of that penetration, off of getting off the ball so fast that I shock them. I'm not the biggest guy, I'm probably the littlest D-lineman we've got, so I use that to my advantage."
In nickel sets, that ability to fire off the ball could be extremely valuable for the Bears this year. Yet in base sets, Bullard will be asked to two-gap at the point of attack, something with which he has very little experience.
"[I have] to stay in my gap and make sure nothing gets through my gap, then I can help out my teammates in their gaps," Bullard said. "That's kind of how they explained it to me, just come off the ball, but come off using my hands more than just getting straight upfield. I had to learn to be more stout, [rather] than just getting off the ball."
It could take Bullard time to perfect the art of being a 5-technique defensive end, so he'll likely work as a situational pass rusher early in the season, where he should be able to have an immediate impact.
"Our expectations are big," Fox said. "My experience has been, if you don’t expect much, you don’t get much. I think he’s lived up to expectations so far."