Talking Bears with Ramona Rice

I had the privilege of spending some time recently with Ramona Rice (@SportsGalPal). We braided each other’s hair and stayed up all night talking boys.

Or not.

This one’s only 20 minutes so you get to find out what I really sound like when you aren’t playing a podcast at double time. Check it out for some good perspective on the Bears and listen to all of her podcasts at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/sportsgalpal.

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“The Drill with the Bell” and Other Points of View

Bears

  • Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune rightfully describes the Bears situation after the third exhibition game as abysmal. The most significant highlights:

    “This team is short on talent, and you didn’t need to watch the most significant of the four exhibition games to know that. The Bears’ drafts from 2009 through 2014 — six drafts totaling 40 selections — produced four of the team’s starters in the 21-10 loss to the Bengals.”

    “Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery should return soon enough from a calf injury and make it five starters from those six drafts. That’s it. Cornerback Kyle Fuller, offensive linemen Kyle Long and Charles Leno and inside linebacker Shea McClellin are homegrown talent from those drafts. The core that general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox inherited is abysmal. When Fox said he wanted to underpromise and overdeliver when he was hired, you can bet he knew he couldn’t promise much. Not right away.”

    “The team is going to be flush with salary-cap room after this season when Jeffery comes out of contract, and Pace won’t have a long list of his own players to lock up long term. The Bears could be a major player in free agency, but that’s a trap. Free agency is for plugging a hole, not laying a foundation.

    “The Bears’ only way out of this predicament is to draft better. Pace and Fox need two and probably three draft classes to really build a foundation. That much was reinforced Saturday night.”

    The key phrase: “two and probably three draft classes to really build a foundation.” Up to this point most people have been saying “at least one more”. But I always thought at least two sounded more like it. And lets not forget that by the time that third additional draft is over, a lot of the talent on offense will be significantly older. So that side of the ball needs young talent almost as much as the defense does.

    Bottom line, this team is officially rebuilding from scratch. Bears fans had better be in this for the long haul if they’re going to find any enjoyment in the performance of their team over the next few years.

  • Hub Arkush at chicagofootball.com also was gloomy after the game but did note some positives, including this one:

    “I do think we learned that Rashad Lawrence is either the third or fourth best receiver on the roster right now, depending on how you rank him against Josh Bellamy, and he should make the team. If you view it objectively, Lawrence has shown more in a Bears uniform than Marquess Wilson has in two-plus seasons.”

    Here’s hoping that Arkush is right in this evaluation. Having young players like Lawrence emerge is one of the few good about a dismal injury situation.

  • Arkush also has some interesting thoughts on the inside linebacker situation that I happen to agree with:

    “There has been a perception throughout camp that [Shea] McClellin and [Christian] Jones have earned those spots, but the reality is they were just given to them because they are perceived as the best options.

    “Jones is a great-looking prospect but appeared completely lost against the Bengals.  McClellin keeps getting credit for looking comfortable and learning the position, but the reality is he has shown no signs he is physical enough to play the position or can make plays less than 5 or 10 yards downfield.

    “It’s time to give [Mason] Foster and [Jon] Bostic some fraction of the chances McClellin and Jones have enjoyed.”

    Jones and McClellin were the initial choice over Foster because of their relative youth and upside. Bostic’s been injured. But its time both got the chance to show what they can do in the middle after a poor showing by McClellin and Jones against the Bengals, especially in coverage.

  • Two time Pro Bowler Tim Jennings was undoubtedly the most surprising cut Sunday. But I was also taken aback when young cornerback Al Louis-Jean was cut. Louis-Jean has the length that the current coaching staff was seeking at the position but apparently wasn’t progressing fast enough after a promising start to his career last summer.
  • It looks to me like Zach Miller has won the battle for the third tight end spot. Adam Jahns at the Chicago Sun-Times notes that he’s been playing a lot of fullback with the first team offense and he’s been the Bears choice as the second player in two tight end sets. Martellus Bennett was a given and Dante Rosario is a very valuable special teams contributor. The Bears carried three tight ends last year.
  • Everybody should be holding their breath for another Kevin White-style injury revelation. Not only did Alshon Jeffery not play in the game against the Bengals, he wasn’t even healthy enough to make the trip to Cincinnati. Via Jahns. The other injured wide receivers watched from the sideline. It’s hard to trust this regime after the White affair and their initial description of Jeffery’s injury as minor, despite the fact that he was in a walking boot afterwards, looks more and more like it may have been another smoke screen.
  • If you think you’ll feel better if former Bears head of scouting Greg Gabriel blows smoke up your rear end, read this.

Elsewhere

  • Having said that, Gabriel and I do agree on Bills (in my opinion likely starting) quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Taylor is mobile and has been much more accurate than I expected during the preseason. He’s been head and shoulders above both Matt Cassel and, especially, E.J. Emanuel. If Taylor is as good as he’s looked, the Bills may be just good enough offensively to find their way to the playoffs behind an excellent defense.It’s worth noting that Manuel was promised a start in the third preseason game and got it. But he threw only two passes and got only 10 minutes of work. He’s looked very bad in the previous games and reportedly hasn’t been much better in practice. Taylor and Cassel have likely both surpassed him.
  • Michael David Smith at profootballtalk.com discusses the possibility that Robert Griffen III may not be ready to start the regular season. The Redskins, who initially said he’d be ready to play in the third pre-season game against the Dolphins, suddenly changed course, claiming that the doctors still want him to be held back for “one or two weeks”. He has the support of ownership but RGIII hasn’t looked good this preseason and the football people reportedly want him gone from the team altogether. Head coach Jay Gruden would love to see Kirk Cousins take the job away in week one. The Bears play the Redskins December 13.
  • The Animal Rescue League is pulling an October event out of Heinz Field in protest of the Steelers signing of Michael Vick.

    “‘While we understand that Mr. Vick has made an effort to atone for his past mistakes and has worked to help strengthen animal abuse laws, we do not believe that it is appropriate for him to continue a high-profile and influential public career,’ the release [from the League] states.”

    Like everyone else, I abhor what Vick did. But let’s bear in mind that this isn’t a Ben Roethlisberger situation where Vick bought his way out of a rape conviction. Vick did his time on the dog fighting conviction and now he should be able to continue living his life, “high-profile and influential public career” or not.

  • Conor Orr at nfl.com explains what he learned from the Vikings – Cowboys game Saturday:

    “Completely understand the Vikings’ reticence with Cordarrelle Patterson, but my goodness, he is the most athletic player on the field every time he leaves the bench. It is a type of Tavon Austin situation that has to be taken care of so as not to waste Patterson’s prime years.

    “Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner and head coach Mike Zimmer mentioned a certain precision lacking in his routes. But just look at this kick return! Something has to give.”

    Patterson is Percy Harvin. All potential and no production. He’ll flash and entice and if the Vikings are lucky, they’ll sucker another Seattle into a trade once they give up on him.

Next Opponent

The Cleveland Browns play the Bears Thursday at Soldier Field. A few notes:

  • Keep an eye on the Cleveland defense. Though the starters probably won’t see much action, the defensive line has been impressive in its ability to penetrate to stop the run.
  • Also keep an eye on Cleveland returner Shane Wynn. He’s looked to me like he might be special.
  • Don’t expect to see Johnny Manziel. He’s out with an elbow injury. It’s a shame because he’s been looking like a real quarterback in the preseason. There’s still some hope there for Browns fans.
  • Don’t expect to see former Bears quarterback Josh McCown, either. According to Mary Kay Cabot at the Cleveland Plain Dealer head coach Mike Pettine has already said he’s not playing. McCown had a very good tune up game against the Buccaneers on Saturday. His passer rating was 113.9.
  • One of the more interesting things to watch for will be how the Browns handle Terrelle Pryor. He didn’t play Saturday (or in any of the preseason games) with a lingering hamstring injury. The former quarterback is trying to make the roster as a wide receiver.

One Final Thought

This unique Jets drill where offensive linemen keep pass rushers from getting past them to ring a bell caught my attention. From Ben Shpigel at The New York Times:

“That tinny sound signifies superiority or regret, serenading the linebacker who bulled past, or mocking the lineman, like a sad trombone, who failed to stop him. In other pass-rush or pass-protection drills, heavyweight bags or dummies or even sacrificial equipment managers or coaches simulate the quarterback.”

“‘You do not want to hear that bell,’ guard Brian Winters said.”

This is a clever idea. It’s one thing to lose or win an encounter in a drill. Its another thing altogether for everyone within a hundred yards to know. Something tells me linemen on both sides of the line of scrimmage are concentrating extra hard leading up to the start of the season.

Posted in Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins | Leave a comment

Quick Comments: Bears at Bengals 8/29/15

Defense

  • Once again the defensive starters were simply a step too slow all over the field.  We can only hope that the players will be able to play faster with time spent in the defensive scheme.
  • The defensive line was blown off the line of scrimmage too often, especially late in the first half.  With second round rookie Eddie Goldman out with a concussion, Will Sutton may have stepped up enough to earn some playing time when Jeremiah Ratliff is absent to start the season.  Jared Allen played reasonably well with discipline and with some good tackling.  Generally speaking, though, the Bears simply have to play better in the front seven or its going to be a miserable year.

Offense

  • I thought the Bears ran the ball reasonably well, especially considering that their top four wide receivers were out and the whole stadium knew they were going to have to grind it out on the ground.  But the Bears committed five penalties for 62 yards in the first half.  Not all of that was on the offense but it was enough.  You simply can’t run the ball when you commit that many penalties.  You put the offense into a hole that they can only pass their way out of.  The Bears will have to clean that up.
  • Once again, the Bears went to the no huddle in order to establish some momentum on offense.  It didn’t really work but if they manage to establish that running game they might wear some people down this season.
  • It was notable that quarterback Jay Cutler was throwing the ball away when nothing was there.  He’s been taking care of the ball and he isn’t forcing anything.  Jimmy Clausen has convinced me that the offense wont do a face plant if Cutler gets hurt.
  • I can’t really say that any of the young wide receivers took advantage of the absence of Alshon JefferyEddie Royal, and Marquess Wilson to really step up.  It not that they were generally terrible but I didn’t think anyone really distinguished themselves.  Martellus Bennett was solid.
  • The offensive line was fine in general but Charles Leno had another rough night. He gave up a sack and had a penalty.  Two weeks before the opener and the Bears still don’t have a right tackle.
  • Jeremy Langford was solid once again.  He’s got a knack for making yards on his own out of nothing.

Miscellaneous

  • Special teams have been solid and a bright spot this preseason.
  • There were too many penalties on both sides in the first half.  But it ws nothing compared to the second half when the backups were in.  The half seemed to take forever.
Posted in Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals | Leave a comment

A Few Things to Watch For: Bears at Bengals

  1. The Bears were feeling pretty good about themselves after Saturday’s exhibition win over the Colts. But after they reportedly came out on the short end in two days of practice leading up to the game, I’m inclined to think that was as much because of the Colts under-performing as it was the Bears performing well. The Bengals, similar to the Colts, didn’t play well on Monday night against the Buccaneers and I would expect them to pick it up in the last exhibition game in which the starters will see any time. at minimum, I would expect them to tackle better. So once again, we are looking at a good test for the Bears to judge how close or, more likely, how far away they are from being truly competitive.
  2. This game should be about who steps up. The Bears are now officially looking for unknowns to emerge in the wake of injury to rookie WR Kevin White, a more minor, but lingering, injury to veteran Alshon Jeffery and a three game suspension to start the season doled out to defenive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff this week.  Jermon Bushrod may also be on the sidelines with a bad back and its unlikely that Eddie Royal will play with a hip injury as well.  .  This is an opportunity for younger players to make themselves known as potential building blocks for the future. Marquess Wilson will be getting a long look at wide receiver and 2014 third round draft pick Will Sutton will undoubtedly get a good long look as well. Sutton is an interesting story. He was drafted as a 3-technique tackle for the 4-3 and most thought he wouldn’t have a place with the Bears. But he is reportedly emerging as a decent nose tackle. Now is his time to show us. Second round draft pick Eddie Goldman will now likely become the starter at nose tackle. He won’t be coming from nowhere but Bears fans will be watching to see if he continues to progress with what will likely be even more playing time. Other guys to keep an eye on are Willie Young, Brandon Dunn and Cornelius Washington. Each could step up and fill a void on the line in some capacity.
  3. Competitions at OLB and safety continue. For now, Jared Allen appears to be holding on as a starter at the former with rookie Adrian Amos apparently still starting at the latter position. Both positions may still be in flux into the season.
  4. Charles Leno is trying to hold on to the right tackle position.  He’ll likely be doing that from the left side if Bushrod is out, giving us a good look at both him and Jordan Mills on the right.  The side-by-side comparison could be interesting.
  5. On a related note, with the wide receiver corp down to second and third string backups, it will be even more important for the Bears to be able to establish a running game once the season starts.  Keep an eye on this aspect of the game.  So far this preseason, I’d say the backups have run the ball well.  But the best I can say about the first unit is that they’ve held their own.  With or without Bushrod, with or without the wide receivers where a team like the Bengals might reasonably expect the Bears to run the ball out of necessity, if the running game stalls against the Bengals, it might spell bad things for the start of the regular season.  Injuries are never an excuse.  You either do or you don’t do.
Posted in Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts | Leave a comment

Quick Game Comments: Bears at Colts 8/22/15

  1. The Bears looked pretty good in general through most of the first quarter but it was as much because of the sluggishness with which the Colts hit the field as it was because of the Bears’ play. Once the Colts got into the game in the second quarter, the Bears looked more like the team we saw last week against the Dolphins (i.e. a step slow all over the field). Still they were competitive against one of the better teams in the league, albeit in a preseason game. Baby steps…
  2. The competition at safety opposite Antrel Rolleremains an area of interest. The Bears started rookie Adrian Amos over Brock Vereen and he didn’t do anything that I saw to lose the job. Veteran Ryan Mundy was not in uniform, likely with a minor injury.
  3. The competition at outside linebacker also remains up in the air. Jared Allen was the starter and didn’t do anything of note. Lamarr Houston made his first appearance of the preseason and appeared to be solid if not spectacular. Willie Young had a sack. Sam Acho continues to perform the best of the competitors, causing a fumble with a sack against backups. You have to wonder if he’s eventually going to get a shot as a starter.
  4. Quarterback Jay Cutler was 8 of 9 for 69 yards and had a solid night but he probably should have been more accurate. The offensive communication problems with the receivers continues as tight end Dante Rosario failed to adjust his route to a blitz causing back up quarterback Jimmy Clausen to throw an interception.
  5. Charles Leno started at right tackle over Jordan Mills and had an up and down night. He missed a couple blocks and had a holding penalty but was more than solid at other times. He’s notably light on his feet. He got a lot of help from the tight end on that side.
  6. Bears special teams have been solid this preseason with both good kick returns and coverage. Marc Mariani looks particularly good.
  7. The taunting call on Kyle Fuller after he got burned by T.Y. Hilton wasn’t a good look.
  8. There were some bad missed tackles out there. The Bears will be working on that this week.
  9. It was facinating to watch new Bears outside linebacker Pernell McPhee. He had a sack early and the right tackle got constant help with a tight end on that side to chip McPhee after that. Its been a while since the bears have had a player that required that kind of attention.
  10. The offensive drive at the end of the first quarter was nice but the way it ended in the red zone with a sack and a penalty was all too reminiscent of last year.
  11. Some nice running from Jeremy Langford in the second half. He runs with good vision. He was helped by some awful tackling by the Colts.
  12. I don’t remember quarterback David Fales having such a big wind up. That release take about an hour to complete.
Posted in Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts | Leave a comment

Preseason Game Two: A Few Things to Concentrate On

Bears-Indianapolis Game Preview

  1. There are a number of competitions for starting spots still up in the air on defense and none is more intense than the one at starting safety opposite Antrel Rolle. Brock Vereen started against the Dolphins last week ahead of Ryan Mundy and was a step slow all night. The Bears must really be averse to starting the veteran Mundy because instead of promoting him, they appear to be preparing to give rookie safety Adrian Amos a shot ahead of him. Bears fans will be watching closely to see how he does.
  2. The competition at outside linebacker opposite Pernell McPhee is still wide open. Sam Acho was with the No. 1 unit for much of the early camp. But Jared Allen started against the Dolphins. Then Acho gave a very good showing against the Miami backups last week — sack, tackle for loss, quarterback hit, interception, pass defensed. He may start this week and will bear watching against stiffer competition.
  3. The Bears defense was slow all over the field last week and Bears fans will be watching to see if their play recognition becomes faster and if the react with more of the quickness that they will need to be competitive this season.
  4. Offensively things appeared to be pretty well set until Charles Leno played with the starters at right tackle over Jordan Mills on Thursday.  There appears to be a genuine competition here that will be interesting.
  5. The communication of quarterback Jay Cutler with his receivers and his comfort with the new offense also bears watching.  Cutler had a costly miscommunication with Eddie Royal last week, reminiscent of what fans often saw last season from Cutler and his receivers.
Posted in Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts | Leave a comment

Preseason Game One: A Few Things to Concentrate On

If there’s one thing that sticks out about the Bears entering the 2015 NFL preseason, its that youth is being served everywhere. Despite having a reputation for being reluctant to start rookies, it appears that Bears head coach John Fox is allowing defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and, to a lesser extent, offensive coordinator Adam Gase to take a good, deep look at the younger players on the roster. Everywhere you look at the various position battles across the team, youth is being put forward over experience. Whether it stays that way will be largely up to the younger players, who are being given a chance to show that they can’t do it before hungry veterans waiting behind them to step up and win their jobs.

With that in mind, lets take a look at some of the things I’ll be particularly watching from the Bears perspective tonight.

  1. How will Shea McClellin and Christian Jones look at inside linebacker? Many fans and members of the media believed from the moment that McClellin was drafted that he would be the heir apparent to Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker. Previous coaching staffs disagreed and placed McClellin at defensive end and strong-side linebacker. This year is widely believed to be McClellin’s last chance to make an impact and many believe that he may have found a home on the inside in the 3-4.It’s worth noting that this competition has followed the theme of youth. Both McClellin and Jones have veteran Mason Foster looking over their shoulders. If they stumble on Thursday night, Foster will undoubtedly be in the starting line up against the Colts August 22.
  2. Who will win the competition at outside linebacker? There are literally a half a dozen men competing to start opposite Pernell McPhee at outside linebacker. It appears to me that Jared Allen might currently have a very slight edge but Bears fans will be watching closely as the names roll in and out all night.Though the position seems to be stacked with mediocre talent, it will be a disappointment if these men don’t show well against the Dolphins. The team is hurting badly at left tackle where starter Branden Albert is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and will not be playing. His immediate back up, Jason Fox didn’t play in last week’s intra-squad scrimmage and may be injured. That leaves the Bears linebackers up against third stringer Donald Hawkins. Don’t disappoint us, boys.
  3. Who will start on the defensive line? Fangio said last week that the defensive line is literally Jeremiah Ratliff and a bunch of other guys fighting for roster spots. Not starting spots. Roster spots. Once again, in line with the lean towards youth, the current starters look to be rookie Eddie Goldman at nose tackle with Ego Ferguson at one end and Ratliff at the other. These spots are wide open but it seems evident that the Bears would prefer that the younger linemen earn the job over options like run-stuffing veteran end Jarvis Jenkins. He’ll probably be the first option if either Goldman or Ferguson show that they can’t do the job.Having said that, one would hope that these players do perform well against a Dolphins offensive line that is hurting on the interior. Mike Pouncey is a Pro Bowl-quality center but right guard Billy Turner has been struggling badly as he tries to handle free agent signee Ndamukong Suh and, in fact, his back up, third stringer Jacques McClendon saw time with the starters this week in practice. Left guard is in arguably worse shape where veteran Dallas Thomas appears to be winning the job over fourth round pick Jamil Douglas. Neither has reportedly performed well. Edit: The “starters” in this entry were based upon media reports indicating who the first team was during the Bears recent scrimmage at Soldier Field. An unofficial depth chart released by the team after publication puts Jenkins at end and Ratliff at nose tackle ahead of Goldman.
  4. Who will win the competition at safety? How will Antrel Rolle look? Rolle is a free agent pick up and the only established starter but looked last year like he’d lost a step. He’s 32. Competing for the other spot are veteran Ryan Mundy, fifth round draft pick Adrian Amos and Brock Vereen. Once again youth is being served as Vereen appears to have the edge currently and is being given the chance to lose the job. But many still believe that the job will eventually still be Mundy’s.
  5. Who will win the competition to back up Matt Forte? Another wide open competition between free agent pick up Jacquizz Rodgers, Ka’Deem Carey and fourth round pick Jeremy Langford. This is the exception to the youth movement as Rogers currently has the edge. This may say more about Carey than it does about Rogers and it could be a very bad sign for him. Langford is unlikely to be cut so Carey, a draft pick under the previous regime, is fighting for his NFL life. This competition is not trivial as whoever wins it may see significant carries over the course of the season as a change of pace back. Special teams play looms large here.
  6. Related to number five, the Bears have talked big in the offseason about running the football and about their new “smash mouthed” style. This observer has his doubts after watching them struggle to block the run for some time. However, I’m willing to be wrong and if the Bears manage to run often and effectively against a rugged Dolphins defensive line, I’ll be very impressed. But I’m not holding my breath.
  7. And related to number 6, guard Kyle Long Vs. Suh promises to provide much entertainment for the quarter or so that both see the field. Suh is already arguably the best defensive lineman in the NFC, if not the league, and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Ratliff recently said that Long could eventually be one of the best ever.
  8. How will Eddie Royal look against one of the league’s best pass defenses? Chicago media have been raving over the performance of this free agent pick up but many in the national media believe that the Bears over paid for Royal at 3 years for $15 million with $10 million guaranteed. Quarterback Jay Cutler has shown very little proficiency when throwing to smaller slot receivers but he has a past with Royal from their days with the Denver Broncos. They reportedly have a rapport on the field that seems to be showing up at practice. We’ll see if it translates to game conditions.
  9. Finally, who will win the competition for the last tight end spot? The Bears will likely only carry three and, of course, Martellus Bennett is a lock. The versatile Dante Rosario also appears likely to make the roster with his special teams play factoring in the decision. That probably leaves bruising blocker Bear Pascoe competing with the athletic Zack Miller for the last spot. Fans will remember that Miller created a minor stir during the preseason last year with his evident ability catching the football. But he has had difficulty staying healthy throughout his career and, once again, got hurt last year.
Posted in Chicago Bears | Leave a comment

Previewing the Dolphins Game: “I Tell ‘Ya I Get No Respect. No Respect at All.”

There were 11 people in the Dolphins photo when Ndamukong Suh signed his contract. And none of them was named Joe Philbin. After playing a game of “Where’s Waldo” the press finally spotted Philbin in the room. Philbin was in the audience and, as Dan Hanzus at NFL.com put it, “probably next to some schlub columnist who calls for his firing on a weekly basis. It’s just a matter of time before Joe’s desk is in the basement.”

This is the life of Joe Philbin, the Rodney Dangerfield of pro football. What kind of job Philbin is doing in Miami depends upon who you ask. This debate between veteran Dolphins beat writer Omar Kelly and Chris Perkins at the Sun-Sentinel is typical. Kelly argues that the Dolphins consistently play below their talent level with Philbin as head coach while Perkins claims that he believes that this isn’t true and the Dolphins play exactly to their talent level, though they never overachieve.

This is how you know that you are the NFL coaching fraternity’s version of a JAG. Your critics argue that you suck while your defenders passionately object by claiming that you are mediocre.

Joe Philbin is on a seat that is beyond hot. It’s scorching, perhaps the hottest in the NFL. Ownership spent lavishly in the offseason on Suh and there are signs that they are about to spend more on guard Evan Mathis. Even given that, the weakest link on the team is the offensive line, the unit that is supposed to be former offensive line coach Philbin’s specialty. Not a good look.

It is against this back drop that the Dolphins visit Soldier Field on Thursday. It’s fairly clear that the Dolphins are all in and the indications are that Philbin’s going to have to at least make the playoffs or he’s out. If the team underperforms significantly, even in a preseason game, there will be howls from the fan base led by members of the press like Kelly.

Miami Rookies to Keep an Eye On

The Miami draft class is led by wide receiver DeVante Parker, chosen 14th overall out of Louisville. Parker has his flaws but his most important attribute is that he’s a legitimate vertical threat because he can create late separation with his good top-end speed, length, body control and leaping ability. The Dolphins have been heavily criticized for their poor deep passing game and Parker is being counted on to help improve on that weakness this year.

Unfortunately Parker is currently out with an injured foot. He had surgery last year to put a screw in and he had to have that screw replaced in June. Two weeks ago, Philbin sounded fairly confident that Parker would be ready to play in the regular-season opener, saying he just didn’t know if the rookie would be available for 30 snaps or maybe 60 snaps. That is probably still the case but he hasn’t sounded so sure that Parker will be fully recovered in his more recent comments.

The Dolphins second round pick was defensive tackle Jordan Phillips out of Oklahoma. He is a massive, wide-bodied nose tackle prospect that might have been a good fit for the Bears had things fallen that way. He moves well but he was unreliable at Oklahoma in terms of his on-field effort, particularly on passing plays. But he’s definitely got the potential to help the Dolphins defend the run, something they had their share of problems doing, especially late in the year. Phillips will fit in well with the Dolphins but his effort will be worth keeping an eye on Thursday night.

The Dolphins fourth round pick was offensive guard Jamil Douglas from Arizona State. Douglas reportedly struggles with speed-to-power off the edge and his below-average arm length raises concerns about his ability to prevent NFL speed rushers from turning the corner. That makes him a poor tackle prospect but a good fit for the Dolphins at guard. He has the frame, size and enough foot speed to provide depth there in a zone-heavy scheme. Douglas is currently in a competition with Dallas Thomas. Thomas is currently slightly ahead and no one is comfortable with the situation. Douglas will bear watching.

The Dolphins also took runningback Jay Ajayi in the fifth round. Ajayi is a big back from Boise State who reportedly has good overall vision, patience and agility. He is also a natural pass-catcher.

Ajayi came to the Dolphins in the last draft with the promise of being a physical, hard-knocking, capable pass protector who offers a bigger alternative to what the Dolphins have on the roster. Unfortunately reports out of camp have indicated that this has not been the case. He also reportedly needs to work on his blitz pick up.  Ajayi has no been practicing with a hamstring injury and we may not see him Thursday night.

Also drafted in the fifth round, Tony Lippett, a wide receiver out of Michigan State, is long and tall and was supposed to have had good ball skills. He’s on the leaner side so he was known to get pushed around at times. Lippett has reportedly looked good in camp and he may be a surprise on the field this year. Both Bears and Dolphins fans will be looking forward to getting a good look at him Thursday.

One last prospect worth keeping an eye on is fifth rounder, Bobby McCain, a cornerback from Memphis. McCain reportedly lacks ideal length and doesn’t have great overall range and long speed. However, he has been making a name for himself so far in camp and Dolphin fans and media members have been extremely impressed and it will be interesting to see what he can do.

 

Posted in Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins | Leave a comment

Previewing the Dolphins Game: The Defense

The Miami Dolphins ranked 12th in total defense in the NFL last year. That was primarily because they were 6th in the league against the pass. However they were 24th against the run.  If the rush defense was the primary deficiency, they have moved to correct it.

Despite their nice overall ranking, the Dolphins had their share of troubles last year. They were up and down throughout the season and many blamed defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle for the problem. For instance, after a blowout loss to the Chiefs in September last year, the Dolphins players were reportedly “beyond furious” with the defensive game plan and reporters could hear their vocal displeasure in the locker room after the game. Probably more concerning, the year ended on a down note as there was a significant defensive slide over the last six games where they were particularly poor against the run. Coyle said in the offseason “Finishing is the name of the game. This league, the competition is so fierce, so close, the good teams find ways to win in critical situations. And we need to do that. We need to do that better than we’ve done over the past three years to get from being an 8-8 team to the upper echelon of the league. It’s making plays in crunch time.” Coyle recognizes the problem. It remains to be seen if he understands the considerably more difficult task of finding the solution.

After much uncertainty, Coyle was retained by the team after the season and in the end, the Dolphins decided to correct their problems through him instead of without him. Evidently as a result, the Dolphins have simplified their defensive scheme this year. The claim was that the complexity of the defense stunted the growth of rookies and new players to the team. There have been veterans of the Dolphins who have openly complained about how complex the system was and how much thinking that was done on the field. Indeed, defensive rookies haven’t played much for the Dolphins and it apparently has nothing to do with head coach Joe Philbin’s preference. The defense was reportedly simply too difficult to learn in the first year, especially when you’re a rookie in the NFL.

The Dolphins play a standard 4-3 which, in its simplified form, will probably be similar to the type of front the Bears used over the past decade or more before this year. As most Bears fans will know, when you play such a defense, fundamentals are key. In that respect, the Dolphins have been emphasizing better tackling in the offseason, something that they were notably poor at last year. This will be something to watch on Thursday.

Building a Wall

Those putting together the Dolphins offense might not recognize that games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. But they definitely have the right idea on defense. This is a rugged group headed by free agent addition Ndamukong Suh. Suh promises to improve the run defense and, perhaps as important, he may help provide for a better pass rush. Outstanding defensive end Cameron Wake promises to be the major beneficiary of the increased attention which Suh will command and Dolphin fans may reasonably expect the pass rush, and therefore the pass defense, to be significantly improved by this signing.

This offseason included questions about Suh’s commitment. Suh had a previous habit of not showing up for OTAs but its one thing not to want to spend months of your precious offseason in Detroit, it’s another thing altogether to pay a man $60 million guaranteed only to have him not show up for workouts in Miami. The Dolphins, somewhat concerned about it, dispatched Mike Tannenbaum to Portland, Oregon to check on their highest paid player. He was happy to find Suh working hard at the Nike state of the art facilities. Suh apparently was spending a great deal of this time there and the Dolphins were satisfied that their investment was safe, something Lions fans could have told them without spending the price of a plane ticket.

Suh has dominated defensive workouts in camp and he’s beaten right guard Billy Turner so badly that the Dolphins replaced him with third stringer Jacques McClendon yesterday at practice. As always, how Bears Pro Bowl right guard Kyle Long does against his familiar foe, Suh, will be entertaining to watch for both Dolphins and Bears fans, even if the stakes are somewhat lower than usual.

One other point worth noting.  The Dolphins signed C.J. Mosley, late in free agency.  He’s a veteran of 10 NFL seasons who was signed as physical, savvy depth.   But there has been a lot of concern over Moseley’s performance in camp.  He is languishing on the third team for the Dolphins and reportedly hasn’t stood out against third-team offensive players. Mosley should be dominating these players and he’s not.  No team stays 100% healthy over the course of the season and the Dolphins are counting on Moseley to perform this year as part of a defensive line rotation where he could eventually be called upon to take on a major role.  Mosely’s performance Thursday night will be something to keep an eye on.

Areas of Competition

Given the quality of the Dolphins run defense and the emphasis on improving the defensive line, this could be one heck of a front seven if they get their linebacker situation straightened out. The position is an area of wide open competition right now with weak side linebacker Jelani Jenkins as the only established starter. Jenkins became a starter in Week 2 last season after Koa Misi and opening-day starter Dannell Ellerbe both were injured in Week 1. He ended up leading the team with 108 tackles to go along with 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

This year Misi, veteran Kelvin Sheppard and second year man Chris McCain are competing to be the other two of the best three linebackers on the team. Misi started last year and Sheppard has started 31 games for the Bills and Colts over his previous 4 year career but McCain has the length and athleticism that coaches look for in an outside linebacker and third-down pass rusher. Currently it looks like it will either be Misi at strong-side linebacker with Sheppard in the middle or McCain on the outside with Misi in the middle. This competition would be better addressed if Misi could stay healthy. He is currently not practicing with a calf injury. His durability is a concern.

The other competition of note for those watching Thursday night will be at cornerback opposite Brent Grimesfor the Dolphins. Jamar Taylor entered camp as something of a front-runner but he is being challenged primarily by free agent pickup Brice McCain. Taylor is a former 2013 second-round pick. He earned some valuable experience at the end of the 2014 season when he started three games in place of injured former cornerback Cortland Finnegan and played reasonably well. McCain has started 86 games over a six year career, most of which was played with the Houston Texans. These guys both look solid to me and it looks like one of those rare camp competitions where the Dolphins win either way.

Bottom Line

I didn’t have a lot of good things to say about a Dolphins offense that appears to have major problems along the offensive line yesterday. But I love this defense and, like Coyle, I’m having a hard time understanding why they slid so far late in the season last year. But I’ll say this. With the addition of Suh and reasonably solid starters everywhere I look, if these guys aren’t’ a wonderful unit to watch in 2015, Coyle should and will be fired. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what they do on Thursday night against a Bears offense which is good at the skill positions but which, to my eye, leaves a lot to be desired at the line of scrimmage. These guys are going to be a significant challenge for them.

Points to bear in mind while watching:

  1. Long Vs. Suh. ’nuff said.
  2. Will the Dolphins tackle better than last year.  This is something that’s going to be critical for them over the course of the season.  It’s probably the most common reason why otherwise talented defenses can under-perform.
  3. How will veteran C.J. Mosley look?
  4. Matt Forte (if he plays) and the other Bears running backs against the Dolphins linebackers. This could be an interesting match up as the linebackers in competition on the outside are assigned some reasonably good pass catchers out of the backfield.
  5. Will the Bears be able to run on what should be a much improved Dolphins run defense?
  6. Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and the rest of the Bears passing game against an excellent pass-defending unit. The Dolphins pass rush will be something both teams fans should be interested in keeping an eye on. Wake, in particular, has the potential to eat them alive if they don’t perform well.
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Previewing the Dolphins Game: The Offense

The Miami Dolphins ranked 14th in total offense in the NFL last year. They played with reasonably good balance in that they were 17th in passing and 12th in rushing, being almost equally mediocre in both – statistically that is.

Deep Thinking

The Dolphins hired Bill Lazor to be their offensive coordinator last year, hoping that he’d bring some Chip Kelly magic to the team after he spent time as the Eagles quarterbacks coach. Lazor kept life simple for quarterback Ryan Tannehill in 2014, with a vast majority of his throws targeted at receivers on short and intermediate routes. Tannehill accumulated 1,965 of his passing yards after the catch (11th-most in the NFL), although his YAC percentage was 48.6 (19th), according to Advanced Football Analytics. This sounds OK but it points to the major issue with last year’s Dolphins offense – the lack of explosive downfield plays. Tannehill has a reputation around the league as throwing one of the worst deep balls of any NFL starter.

He wasn’t helped by the presence of wide out Mike Wallace, his only downfield threat at receiver and a disappointment as a Dolphin after signing a huge contract to come over from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013. Wallace was criticized for his lack of physicality and fell further out of favor in Miami last season following a Week 17 sideline altercation with head coach Joe Philbin in a loss to the New York Jets. He was benched in the second half, which raised questions about his future with the team. He was traded along with a seventh round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for a fifth round draft pick in the offseason.

Time will tell whether the lack of a deep threat was more due to Wallace or Tannehill. Thanks to a younger, bigger, stronger and faster group of wide receivers this year, in theory Tannehill will have more capable options in the vertical passing game. The hope is that Kenny Stills, acquired in the offseason by trade from the New Orleans Saints, and first round draft pick DeVante Parker may provide a one-two punch of downfield threats and finally force defenses to play a little further back, opening up everything else in the process.

Parker is out with a foot injury and the hope is that he’ll be ready for at least limited snaps by the opener.  Nevertheless, how often the Dolphins throw deep and how effective they are at it will be a point of interest to keep an eye on Thursday night. We will also want to keep an eye on how Wallace does with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback under offensive coordinator Norv Turner in Minnesota this season. Between the two, much will likely be determined in Miami about the reasons for the limitations in their offense, past and/or present.

One last note on the Dolphins’ receiving game. The Dolphins signed Jordan Cameron at tight end while losing Charles Clay in free agency. Clay accounted for a lot of yardage last year but wasn’t particularly effective at scoring touch downs in the red zone where tight ends can become such a huge factor in the game. The hope is that Cameron, a former Pro Bowler, can improve this area of the game and it will be interesting to see if that is evident on Thursday night.

Line Dancing

Lack of a deep threat aside, there has been much offseason hand-wringing amongst fans and media in Miami about the offensive line.  And with some justification.

The Dolphins use a zone blocking scheme, something the Bears will be doing more of this year and it will be interesting to observe their technique along the line. At least where they have the talent to play there.

The Dolphins are well-established at right tackle, where Ja’Wuan James is a solid starter, and at center, where Mike Pouncey is a star. The problems come when you look virtually everywhere else.

They start at left tackle where Branden Albert is normally the best player in this group.  But he has undergone a knee reconstruction. He’s supposed to be ready for the season opener but he hasn’t seen the practice field and no one knows if he’ll be the same coming off of the injury. Jason Fox is supposed to be starting at left tackle in his place but he didn’t play in Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage and may be injured. Donald Hawkins reportedly is not playing well at the position as Fox’s backup. It will be a bad sign if whoever plays outside linebacker for the Bears on Hawkins’ side on Thursday night, likely either Jared Allen or Pernell McPhee, doesn’t dominate.

Both guard positions are arguably an even bigger problem. Albert at least is a very good player when healthy. But the right guard is Billy Turner, a virtual nobody. How big of a nobody? When looking for biographical information about Turner on the Dolphin’s website the only notation was “No data available”. Other sites where they apparently care more about Turner than the Dolphins do indicate that he was drafted in the third round in 2014 by the team.

Turner has been competing with (and understandably losing to) newly signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. In fairness, a likely guess is that, for the purposes of practice in camp, the Dolphins have been often leaving Turner to single block Suh, something that no sane offensive coordinator would do very often in a real game. It will be interesting to watch Turner against the lesser talent along the Bears defensive front to see how well he can be expected to play against normal competition.

The left guard competition is between Dallas Thomas and rookie Jamil Douglas. It sounds like the third year veteran Thomas is winning the competition but that’s not very comforting to many Dolphins fans. Veteran football writer Armando Salguero at the Miami Herald calls Thomas “only good enough to be embroiled in a full-blown competition with a rookie fourth-round pick who is still learning the offense”.

The Dolphins are painfully aware that they have a problem at guard. They sent a committee of players to woo guard La’el Collins, the undrafted standout from LSU, but they were unsuccessful. They were amongst the first teams to call Evan Mathis after the Eagles released him but they are reportedly far apart on money. Still, no one would be surprised if something is done on this front before the season starts.

Bottom Line

The Dolphins are going to be a good opening opponent for the Bears defense with their newly minted 3-4 scheme. Problems along the Miami offensive front should give fans a good idea of where the Bears are in terms of their front seven. Given the Bears’ inexperience in the scheme and the apparent lack of talent in this area, the Miami offense should still be significantly better but not overly so. They should offer just the right degree of competitive challenge to allow some individual Bears players to perform without the team overall being completely buried by a much superior unit.

Points to bear in mind while watching:

  1. How well will the Bears outside linebackers do against a team that should be badly hurting at left tackle?
  2. How will the Dolphins competition at left guard between Thomas and Douglas grade out? How will right guard Turner grade out against fair competition?
  3. How will Bears rookie Eddie Goldman, who shows a fair prospect of starting at nose guard, do facing a Pro Bowl-quality center in Pouncey?
  4. Will Tannehill be able to effectively throw the deep ball against a mediocre Bears defensive backfield that is unlikely to do anything fancy on Thursday night?
  5. Will the Bears linebackers and/or safeties be able to clamp down and keep tight end Cameron out of the end zone?
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