NFL Nation: Mel Tucker

Mel TuckerJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Bears and Mel Tucker might be looking for young, tough players to develop rather than spend in free agency.
Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker tried in 2013 to run the same defense as former head coach Lovie Smith, and even assimilated to teaching the same language from the scheme.

But it didn't work for several reasons, with injuries to key players and a general lack of depth chief among them. Tucker appears to now have autonomy to shape the defense how he sees fit.

"I think he's always had the autonomy to do things within parameters," Bears coach Marc Trestman said.

With most of the parameters seemingly off now, it begs the question of what Tucker actually plans to do with the defense in 2014. Trestman said, "It's wide open." But it'll be interesting to see how much Tucker and the rest of the defensive coaching staff take full advantage of what would likely turn into carte blanche, provided they're successful.

"Everything's on the table this year in terms of where we're going defensively," Trestman said. "Right now these coaches are getting in position to learn more about each other. They're meeting to learn more about their styles and the pre-existing defense and where we can go with our existing players, knowing that there's going to be a lot of change. The most important thing right now is our system of football. The language is wide open."

No knock on former Bears defensive coaches Tim Tibesar, Mike Phair and Michael Sinclair. But the reality is none of them had ever worked in the past with Tucker, who basically inherited two coaches (Tibesar and Sinclair) that worked with Trestman in Montreal, and one of two holdovers from Smith's staff in Phair.

When the Bears brought in new defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni and linebackers coach Reggie Herring, the brass made sure to add what one NFL source called "two damned good ones" before adding "Mel loves them both." General manager Phil Emery played a major role in that because he wanted to help Tucker find a way to do his job better.

Will that translate to success on the field? It's certainly not guaranteed.

Pasqualoni and Herring come to the staff with reputations for being two of the league's better teachers, but more importantly, they're considered "tough guys," according to the source.

So it wasn't a surprise to hear general manager Phil Emery discuss that attribute last week a couple of times at the NFL combine. When the team starts acquiring players in free agency and the draft, look for toughness to be among the chief attributes of the new additions.

"We need tough, physical players," Emery said. "Mel has said it several times to me and I believe it. I know our players believe it that generally the toughness of the team shows up at corner. That's what we want: tough, physical athletes."

They don't have to be big-name players, either. Tucker generally prefers those "tough, physical athletes" that Emery mentioned, who are coachable, up-and-comers over the name players.

So if the Bears hit free agency in the coming days, and don't sign a bunch of household names on defense, it wouldn't be a surprise. In fact, I'd think in some ways it would be by design.

"We went through an evaluation process, which is never easy, of moving forward with our staff and bringing in a couple guys we felt not only had the experience to develop young players -- because we know we're going to have new players and we're going to be young -- but also work daily with the veteran element on our football team as well. We felt Mel was the guy to lead the way in that regard," Trestman said. "We hired Paul Pasqualoni and Reggie Herring. These guys have 3-4 backgrounds. We think we've put together a staff of guys who can really incorporate and be flexible with the players we're going to have going through this process. We're going start from the 4-3, but we've got to be flexible in our scheme to move people around and have the ability to get it done, and not just do it because we see other teams doing it; but doing it because we have the skill set and experience to be able to do it."
Chicago plans to stick to its base 4-3 defense, according to a story posted on the team’s official website, and that falls in line with what league sources have said all along about the team’s future, despite recent additions of coaches with 3-4 backgrounds.

At the conclusion of the regular season, rampant speculation circulated about the possibility of the team moving to a 3-4 front after the Bears put up historically horrid numbers during a 2013 season in which they surrendered the most yards (6,313), points (478), and rushing yards in franchise history and rushing yards (2,583). But the club refused to tip its hand as to plans for the 2014 season.

“I can say this: We know we have the coaching ability to move scheme,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said when asked specifically about a potential switch to a 3-4. “We have that kind of intellect in this building. I've said this early on: We're not looking to put a square peg in a round hole. [General manager] Phil [Emery] is going to do everything he can to give us the best possible players. I don’t know. Everything is on the table in terms of a discussion. Once we get an evaluation from inside-out of what our players can do, then we’ll move forward with what we can do with them schematically. Part of our decisions and how we move forward schematically will be based on the players that are in our locker room.”

Trestman’s last remark explains why the Bears plan to stick to a 4-3 front: those types of players are what the team has in terms of personnel. Switching over to a 3-4 front would require the Bears to spend at least one entire offseason bringing aboard players that fit that scheme.

The club’s acquisition of former Jaguar Austen Lane on Tuesday provided further evidence of the team’s plans to stick to a 4-3. That’s not to say the Bears won’t experiment. The addition of defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni and linebackers coach Reggie Herring gives the Bears flexibility if they decide to try different looks based on their backgrounds in 3-4 defenses.

“It’s a matter of being to utilize the people that we have and be ready to do whatever it’s going to take with a system that’s flexible enough to do it,” Trestman told the team’s official website. “It’s making sure we have a scheme that can utilize our players and bring the best out of them.”

Obviously one component of that might involve the Bears veering away some from the defense brought to the team by former coach Lovie Smith. So while it’s likely Chicago will continue to run some elements of Smith’s system, it’s also expected that the Bears will become more multiple to prevent opponents from catching on to what they’re doing on a game-by-game basis.

“We want to be very stout and physical in the run game and then in the passing game be able to pressure with four guys,” Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker told ChicagoBears.com. “Our pressure packages will fit our personnel and be dynamic enough where we can play to guys’ strengths and be unpredictable.”

NFL Week 17 Studs and Duds

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
11:00
PM ET
Phew.

That's all I can say.

Phew.

It has been a while -- if ever -- that we have had such a dramatic final day of a regular season. I could go on forever about the decisions, the turnarounds, the final plays and the reported comings and goings. But, alas: We must narrow down our final list of regular-season Studs and Duds to a manageable number.

Let's get to it.

STUDS

Manning
1. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos: What do you want your quarterback to do when a victory means a top seed in the playoffs? Pretty much exactly what Manning did Sunday for the Broncos: Complete 25 of his first 28 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns. That was enough for a 31-0 halftime lead over the Oakland Raiders; backup Brock Osweiler took over to start the third quarter of an eventual 34-14 victory. Manning was so sharp that none of this three incompletions were judged to be over- or underthrown in video analysis by ESPN Stats & Information. Against the Raiders this season, Manning threw seven touchdown passes and eight incompletions. And oh, by the way, Manning finished with new single-season NFL records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdown passes (55).

Patterson
2. Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings receiver: Patterson capped a fierce end to his rookie season with a two-touchdown game in a 14-13 victory over the Detroit Lions. The first came on a 50-yard running play, an improvisation originally designed to be a pass to receiver Greg Jennings, and the other was the winning eight-yard reception. Patterson scored a total of six touchdowns in December and became the only wide receiver since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to score three rushing touchdowns in one season. Meanwhile, Patterson's 32.4.-yard kickoff return was the NFL's third-best (minimum 20 returns) since the merger. Patterson is a unique player who proved every bit as versatile and instinctive as the one he was drafted to replace: Percy Harvin.

Williams
Blount
3. LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots tailback: One of the cool things about watching the Patriots is seeing how they match their personnel to game plans and circumstance, sometimes in wildly varying ways from week to week. Blount has had less than 10 rushes in half of the Patriots' games this season, but on a rainy field Sunday, the Patriots gave him the all 24 times. He responded with a career-high 189 yards in a game that locked up the AFC's No. 2 seed for the Patriots. Weather conditions convinced the Patriots they needed to utilize a physical runner, and Blount excelled even when the Buffalo Bills stacked the line with eight or more runners (113 yards on 10 carries), according to ESPN Stats & Information. How do the Patriots keep winning with so many key players on injured reserve? Their use of Blount on Sunday is a prime example.

DUDS

1. Cleveland Browns: Plenty of people thought the Browns whiffed last winter by hiring Rob Chudzinski as their head coach. Chudzinski was clearly a fallback choice after negotiations fell through with Chip Kelly, Bill O'Brien and others. And it now appears the Browns agreed. Chudzinski, fired Sunday, can now be viewed as the longest-tenured interim coach in NFL history. How else to explain firing a coach after one season? Yes, the Browns lost 10 of their final 11 games and finished 4-12, and nothing Chudzinski did or said suggested he was the next Vince Lombardi. But there were plenty of mitigating circumstances, including the Browns' lack of a franchise quarterback and an early-season trade of tailback Trent Richardson. The Browns owed it to the notion of franchise stability, if nothing else, to give Chudzinski an honest commitment. If you were a head coaching candidate with options, how likely would you be to consider the Browns' opening? Some might think that the Browns were smart, if unconventional, to cut ties quickly with a coach who wasn't taking them anywhere. But whatever pain Chudzinski would have put the Browns through next season will at least be equaled by the long-term damage to the franchise of this 12-month charade.

2. Defense, Chicago Bears: NFL franchises are notorious for ping-ponging philosophy, so it was no surprise that the Bears sought a head coach with an offensive background to replace the defensive-minded Lovie Smith last winter. On cue, new coach Marc Trestman installed a dynamic offense that entered Week 17 averaging the third-most points per game (27.8) in the NFL. But it was his defense, coordinated by veteran coach Mel Tucker, that is to blame for the Bears' failure to win the NFC North. Given two opportunities to clinch the division, the Bears allowed a total of 87 points in losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. I realize the Bears were crushed by injuries at various points this season, but that shouldn't excuse Sunday's botched coverage on the Packers' final chance to make up a 28-27 deficit. The Bears blitzed seven, and the four remaining men allowed receiver Randall Cobb to run straight down the field uncovered to catch a 48-yard touchdown on fourth-down-and-eight. A year after firing Smith for his unbalanced teams, the Bears are no closer to center.

3. Bill Leavy, NFL referee: In an earlier post, I relieved Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid of responsibility for denying the Pittsburgh Steelers a playoff spot. And I can't really take San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy to task for a fake punt deep in his territory during overtime that, by all accounts, was the independent idea of upback Eric Weddle. What we can do, however, is decry the multiple instances of questionable decisions by Leavy and his crew that corrupted the final minutes of the game. First, Leavy ruled that Weddle's forward progress had stopped before he had the ball ripped out of his hands by Chiefs defender Sean Smith. A review of the play confirms Weddle was still moving forward when Smith had the ball. Meanwhile, on the penultimate play of regulation, the Chargers lined up in an illegal defensive formation, as former NFL officiating vice president Mike Pereira pointed out. Had the penalty been called, Chiefs place-kicker Ryan Succop would have gotten another attempt after missing from 41 yards out. Officiating mistakes are to be expected, as I've written many times, but these were season-changing plays that impacted the fortunes of two franchises.
CHICAGO -- The Green Bay Packers took a 10-7 lead over the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field under a freakish set of circumstances. But ultimately, the play came as the result of failure by the home team to play heads-up football.

With 3:28 left in the opening half, Julius Peppers sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers from behind as Rodgers attempted to throw the ball. The ball came loose and hit the cold, damp turf at Soldier Field. Players from both teams froze, but officials never blew the play dead.

As the players watched, Rodgers appeared to scream out to Jarrett Boykin to scoop up the ball, which he alertly did, before romping 15 yards for a touchdown.

Officials immediately reviewed the play and determined that Rodgers fumbled as opposed to throwing incomplete, and confirmed the original call of a Boykin touchdown.

Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will take some heat for the club’s defense not being more alert and not following the tenet of playing until the whistle is blown, something that is taught to players at every level, all the way down to the youth leagues. Surely, some will question whether a defense coached by Lovie Smith would have let such a play occur.

Given what’s on the line -- the NFC North title and a berth in the playoffs -- all those criticisms would be legitimate, even though I tend toward placing the blame on the players in this instance.

Either way, the Bears need to find a way to bounce back.

At intermission, the Bears trail 13-7, and the Packers get the ball to start the second half.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker faced a bevy of difficult questions Monday after his group gave up 514 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in a 54-11 thumping, but displayed confidence when asked if he worried about job security.

“No, I don’t,” Tucker said. “I just stay focused on the task at hand and working to teach, motivate and develop, and work with these guys and get them ready for the next outing. That’s really my main focus.”

In addition to giving up 21 points in both the first and fourth quarters, the Bears allowed LeSean McCoy to run for 133 of Philadelphia’s 291 rushing yards. Chicago allowed two 100-yard rushers in that outing, and on the season they’ve surrendered at least one 100-yard rusher in 10 games.

[+] EnlargeMel Tucker
AP Photo/Scott BoehmChicago's defense, led by coordinator Mel Tucker, hasn't held an opponent to under 20 points this season.
In the latest setback, Philadelphia reeled off 10 plays for gains of 16 yards or more, with three coming on Nick Foles completions. The Eagles also converted 56 percent of their third-down attempts, and scored touchdowns on five trips into the red zone.

The seven touchdowns scored by the Eagles were the most the Bears have allowed in franchise history (although one of the TDs was on an interception return). The 54 points rank as the second most allowed by the Bears in franchise history.

Earlier in the season, however, Bears head coach Marc Trestman expressed confidence in Tucker’s ability to lead a defense that has been ravaged by a plethora of injuries. Trestman was asked again on Monday about that assessment.

“At the end of the day, and I said this throughout the last two weeks, we did see some work moving forward, and the guys took a step backward [at Philadelphia],” Trestman said. “The only way I can evaluate it is presently. Two weeks of getting a little better at what we were doing, not where we want to be, and a week where we took a step back.”

Is Tucker to blame? Absolutely not. Tucker isn’t missing tackles, busting assignments, not leveraging blocks correctly or just flat out being handled physically by the opponent. And for those who argue that Tucker should be teaching the Bears how to perform fundamentals such as tackling and getting off blocks, you have to realize these guys are NFL players, which means they’ve learned and worked exhaustively on these elements of the game their whole lives.

After all, what team drafts a guy into the NFL that doesn’t know how to tackle?

Tucker’s job is to put the players in the best position to succeed through schemes and game planning. He's done that. But once they’re in position, it’s up to them to make the plays. If the Bears did decide to part ways with Tucker, it would be a major mistake. He's a head coach basically in waiting, and several folks around the league would agree with that assessment.

The Bears won’t use excuses. But injuries are a major part of the defense’s decline, as is the fact the club likely overestimated the type of production they’d get in 2013 from some of their aging veterans, while several of the team's younger players didn't build on what they had done in 2012. The defense has definitely fallen off in 2013, but the truth is the unit started showing signs of decline last season.

Chicago hasn’t held an opponent to fewer than 20 points all season, but in 2012 a mostly healthy Bears defense failed to accomplish that feat in seven of the last 10 games, while also allowing four 100-yard rushing performances.

“Sometimes we’re in the right place, but we’re just not winning the one-on-ones or you missed a tackle. That’s a big part of it,” Tucker said. “Like I said the past couple weeks, it’s not so much now knowing where to fit, it’s when you get there, are you able to shed the block? Are you able to finish on the ball, are you able to make the tackle, are you able to get there quickly enough? That’s part of it, too. We have to eliminate the hesitation, and continue to coach through and work through that as players. That’s pretty much what it is.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- As Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon makes a run at the NFL record books, Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker expects his group to face a tall order containing him Sunday on the road.

Chicago held down Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant (two catches for 12 yards and a touchdown) on Monday night with Tim Jennings as the primary man in coverage, but Gordon presents perhaps a more formidable challenge.

Tucker sees big-play ability as Gordon’s most significant attribute.

“He has a large catch radius. He’s fast. He can take a 5-yard slant and turn it into a 60-yard touchdown,” Tucker said. “Really, he’s playing with a lot of confidence. The quarterbacks have confidence in him to go up and make plays. He can catch the ball in a crowd and win the contested one-on-one battle.”

Gordon’s eye-popping statistics over the past four games certainly support that. Suspended for the first two games, Gordon leads the NFL in receiving yards (1,400) and has racked up 774 yards over the past four games.

He currently averages 127.3 yards per game, and the NFL record for single-season average per game is 129 yards.

Browns quarterback Jason Campbell believes Gordon has hit his comfort zone.

“Coming into the season, I know there was a lot of trade talk and a lot of trade rumors. And with him missing the first two games of the season, I think he had a chance to really sit back and just look at things on the outside of what a great opportunity he has and what a great opportunity he’s missing out on when he wasn’t playing,” Campbell said. “When he came back, he had a totally different mindset about playing in the NFL, a totally different mindset about his ability to make plays, and I think a lot of it is, once the trade rumor was also over with, I think he was able to relax and just start to play the game.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson declined to make predictions about what he might do to Chicago’s 32nd-ranked run defense Sunday at the Metrodome.

But if someone as innocuous as St. Louis’ Benny Cunningham could rip the Bears for 109 yards last week, Peterson could be in for a field day against a Bears defense allowing an average of 145.2 yards per game.

“I don’t know,” Peterson said, laughing. “I don’t really want to sit here and make any predictions. I just want to contribute and do whatever it takes to help my team win. So if that’s 300 yards, perfect. If that’s 150, perfect; 50, with 100-something receiving, any way I can help my team get this “W” this weekend, that’s pretty much all I’m worried about. I’m just going to go out there and play ball and let the chips fall where they may.”

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAdrian Peterson has averaged 107.7 yards per game in his career against the Bears.
Peterson produced his first 100-yard game since Nov. 3 last week against the Green Bay Packers, and even Bears players such as cornerback Zack Bowman admitted that once the running back sees tape of Chicago’s performance against the Rams, he’ll see “that he can have a big day against us.”

“They’re going to go back and watch the Rams game,” Bowman said.

Why wouldn’t they? After all, the Bears surrendered 258 yards on the ground against the Rams, which averaged 8.9 yards per attempt. Cunningham, Zac Stacy, and Tavon Austin averaged 8.4, 7.3 and 65 yards, respectively, on 26 attempts, with each breaking loose for gains of 27 yards or more.

Against the Rams, the Bears allowed eight runs for gains of 10 yards or more. On the season, the Bears have given up 48 such runs, including 10 for gains of 25 yards or more.

“[We’re] looking to rebound from a very disappointing outing, especially in the run game on Sunday,” Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “In order to play great defense, especially run defense, everyone needs to be exactly where they need to be on every play. It only takes one breakdown to cause a big play. We really don’t have margin for error, especially when you’re playing good teams with good talent. Everyone has to be on point.”

That especially holds true for Sunday’s matchup against Peterson, who gained 100 yards against a healthy Chicago defense in the first meeting between the teams before injuries decimated the unit.

Peterson has hit the century mark in four games this season, and his 98.5 yards per game over his seven seasons rank as No. 3 in league history for players participating in a minimum of 100 games. Peterson admits to taking some pride in maintaining such productivity against defenses loading the box seemingly every week to stop him.

“It feels good, but then it feels like just another play because I’ve been dealing with it for so long,” Peterson said. “For seven years, every time we play, guys are in there to stop the run. So it’s become a norm.”

It’s also becoming fairly common for Chicago’s defense to surrender yardage in chunks on the ground. But Peterson refuses to underestimate the Bears. Peterson said the Bears are “not the defense we played earlier this season,” with the unit “going through a little funk right now.”

But the running back isn’t quite on the same tear as he was in 2012 when he finished the season with 2,097 yards. With 997 yards so far, Peterson needs 154 yards against the Bears on Sunday to become just the fifth player in league history to hit 10,000 yards or more rushing in their first seven seasons.

Given Chicago’s epic struggles against the run, Peterson was asked if he predicted a 300-yard outing against the Bears.

“Don’t make that the headline,” he said, laughing.

Peterson may be able to do that himself.

“Well, we take a lot of pride in being able to run the ball,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “We go into every ballgame with the intent of being able to run the ball. We feel like we’ve got the best running back in the NFL on our team. So we’re going to try to play to our strength.”

In 11 career games against Chicago, Peterson has averaged 107.7 yards, which ranks as the most by any player all-time against the Bears. Peterson gained more than 120 yards in four of those contests, including a 224-yard explosion during the running back’s rookie year.

“His will and determination is so apparent on every single run,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “It’s his will, his determination, the things that go beyond his ability that really stand out to me. Certainly, there are guys who do just as much, but nobody more than Adrian Peterson. We’ve seen a lot of running backs come and go. He’s certainly one of the greatest to ever play the game. Some of us have seen a lot of running backs over the last 50 years in the National Football League, and he has to be one of the best.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker knows help isn’t on the way for his injury-stricken defense, but he remains confident the group can do its job efficiently because the deficiencies he sees on tape can be fixed.

Having been in dire situations in the past with the Jacksonville Jaguars, whether brought on by injury or a lack of talent, Tucker sees his 20th-ranked defense improving.

“What gives me confidence is I know we haven’t played as well as we can play yet with the guys we have in there. I know that,” Tucker told ESPN.com. “I know the areas where we need improvement, I see where it’s correctable, and it’s not necessarily ability [holding back the defense]. Everything that we’ve seen that we can do better on tape, we feel like we can correct it through coaching, teaching, motivation, drill work and things like that [that] we can take and practice fast and take into games. That’s what we feel about this group.”

The Bears rank 23rd against the pass, but are tied for third in the NFL with a plus-seven turnover ratio. Still, the defense hasn’t yet held an opponent to fewer than 21 points through the first six games. Through the first six games of 2012, the Bears held opponents to fewer than 21 points on four occasions.

Obviously, at this point in 2012 the Bears hadn’t lost three starters -- four if nickel cornerback Kelvin Hayden is included -- as they have this season: franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton, Nate Collins and middle linebacker D.J. Williams. To compensate for the losses up front, the Bears are rotating in players such as recent signees Landon Cohen and Christian Tupou, along with unheralded contributors such as Zach Minter and David Bass.

Although the Bears started two games in nickel defense, the club has played the first six games with five different starting lineups along the defensive line.

Nose tackle Stephen Paea admitted that all the change affects chemistry. Through the first six games of last season, the Bears had collected 21 sacks. So far this season: eight.

“Last week, we had David Bass coming in,” Paea said. “We had Zach Minter. It was those guys playing with [defensive end Julius] Peppers in there -- Peppers looking over there giving signals, like something he always does to me or Melton. Those guys don’t even know. [They’re like], ‘What is that?’ [It could be] like a signal [where Peppers is saying], ‘I’m coming in, and you’re coming out. I do this, you do that.’ So when we get that chemistry down and people have that trust, [we’ll] feel comfortable in there. It’s getting there, but we have new guys coming in. It’s like having new classmates every day.”

Still, Tucker remains confident in his ability to reach all the new pupils.

“We haven’t hit our ceiling with any of the guys we have now. We feel like we should get better day in and day out, and carry it over into the game,” Tucker said. “We feel like we have a good group. We feel like we can do what we need to do to perform and play winning football. In terms of the challenge, every day is a challenge regardless of the situation. That’s why we play this game. That’s part of it.”
CHICAGO -- For two weeks in a row as the Chicago Bears prepared to take the field, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker told quarterback Jay Cutler, “We’ve got your back,” and in the end, the unit did despite a sometimes shaky performance Sunday during a 31-30 comeback win over the Minnesota Vikings.

“When it comes time for the defense to make a stop or the defense to get a turnover, they do,” Cutler said.

Still, the defense isn't performing at a level it wants to be, but what it did against Minnesota was actually better than things looked. Although the Vikings scored 21 points in the first half, Chicago’s defense was responsible for only one touchdown -- a 20-yard touchdown pass from Christian Ponder to Kyle Rudolph -- because the other two touchdowns came on special teams (a Cordarrelle Patterson kickoff return) and Brian Robison's return of a Cutler fumble.

In the second half, the Bears allowed just nine points on three consecutive possessions, with all three field goals coming from 28 yards out or nearer, meaning the defense tightened up in the red zone.

[+] EnlargeTim Jennings
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports"I don't care how we win them," said Tim Jennings, who returned an interception of Vikings QB Christian Ponder 44 yards for a score. "It still counts as a win."
“I don’t care how we win them,” cornerback Charles Tillman said. “It still counts as a win, and I’m very appreciative of that. It was a pound-for-pound, blow-for-blow heavyweight battle. They had some plays. We had some plans, and the momentum kept shifting back and forth.”

The defense bailed out Cutler when he threw an interception in the end zone during the second quarter with a Tim Jennings 44-yard interception return for a touchdown. The defense saved the offense again in the fourth quarter with the Bears trailing 27-24, when Matt Forte was stripped by Letroy Guion.

“On the pick [I threw] in the end zone, they turn around and pick-six [by Jennings],” Cutler said. “Then at the end, whenever we fumbled, they got a stop down at the goal line.”

Instead of allowing Minnesota to score a touchdown to put away the game by making the score 34-24 with approximately three minutes remaining, the Bears surrendered just two yards on three plays run from their 6 to force the Vikings to settle for a Blair Walsh 22-yard field goal, which made the score 30-24 with 3:17 left to play.

“That right there was what hurt the most,” Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said. “Being in the red zone and having to settle for three. In those situations offensively, we have to come through and make a big play. We weren’t able to do that today. We do that, we win.”

They didn’t, and lost. Chicago’s defense definitely played a role in that.

Peterson rushed for 100 yards on 26 attempts, but if you subtract the 36-yard run he broke in the second quarter, the running back averaged 2.5 yards on the other 25 carries.

“I think anytime you came out of a game with a win, you did good enough,” middle linebacker James Anderson said. “I don’t think we played it perfect. We’ve got some things we’ve got to correct. We’re improving. We had a good start last week. This week, we took some steps.”

The defense needs to take more. Minnesota converted 44 percent of third downs, and finished 2-for-2 on fourth-down conversions. Although Chicago’s front seven pressured the quarterback at times, it dropped Ponder just once, and he was still able to make several plays with his feet.

“We’re still trying to figure it out. It’s a long year. It’s still early,” Jennings said. “Of course I hate that it seems that we keep letting them (score) 30 points, whatever we gave up last week. It’s too many points. We can just go out there and create the turnovers that we’re able to create, give our offense back the ball, and try to go out each and every week during the week of practice getting better. We’re still trying to figure it out.”

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 1

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
12:00
PM ET
An examination of four hot issues from the Bears’ 24-21 win over the Bengals:

No pressure from the defensive line: Let’s not get too worried about it now because Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton let the ball fly quickly at the end of his drops. Cincinnati’s game plan was to get rid of the ball quickly and take what the defense was giving it. That meant lots of dink-and-dunk football.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJay Cutler and the Bears' offense got off to a slow start, but rallied in the second half to beat Cincinnati.
“There were times we were getting frustrated,” Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton said. “You couldn’t really even get into your pass-rushing moves because the ball was already coming out. They were playing small ball.”

Defensive end Shea McClellin posted the lone sack, but that play came in a timely fashion considering it was Cincinnati’s final drive. Again, this isn’t something to be concerned with. Also, after one game, I’m not buying the theory that defensive end Julius Peppers has all of the sudden lost it. Trust me, he hasn’t.

Slow start on offense: Left tackle Jermon Bushrod said if there was anything he thought the Bears could’ve done better Sunday, it would have been getting out to a faster start.

The Bears converted on just 2 of 8 third downs in the first half, while generating 97 yards of offense, compared to Cincinnati’s 245. The 10 points Chicago scored in the first half came as a result of prime field position from a Charles Tillman interception and a 15-yard personal-foul penalty by Dre Kirkpatrick, which gave the Bears possession at the Bengals' 44.

“We could always start faster,” Bushrod said.

Missed tackles: Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker thought the defense performed well, but admitted the unit missed too many tackles while squandering opportunities to get off the field on third down -- issues that seem to go hand in hand.

In the first half, the Bengals converted on 71 percent of their third downs.

“It wasn’t like it was third-and-short. It was third-and-10, third-and-11,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “Those are defensive-heavy, winning-percentage downs. That’s stuff we have to correct. I missed a lot of tackles today.”

No running game: Matt Forte averaged 2.6 yards on 19 attempts, which is a little low. But it’s to be expected considering the caliber of competition the Bears faced Sunday against Cincinnati’s dynamic front seven.

What’s important is Forte was able to gain 8 yards on a crucial fourth-and-1 with the game on the line.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- One year after taking over for Jerry Angelo as general manager of the Chicago Bears, Phil Emery put his stamp on the organization by firing longtime head coach Lovie Smith, despite a 10-6 finish to the 2012 regular season -- the fourth time in nine seasons that Smith reached the 10-win plateau.

Emery took a rather unconventional route when hiring a new head coach, bypassing 2012 NFL coach of the year Bruce Arians in favor of Marc Trestman, who spent the previous five seasons enjoying success as the head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes. But Trestman is no stranger to NFL circles, having spent the bulk of his career coaching quarterbacks and calling plays for the likes of the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.

While Smith’s strength was defense, Trestman’s strong suit is the offensive side of the ball, where the Bears typically struggled under the former regime. The most noticeable change in training camp has been the emphasis placed on reinventing the offense, while the defensive scheme has undergone little change under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.

Trestman’s greatest challenge: maximizing the talent of quarterback Jay Cutler before it’s too late. Cutler’s four seasons in Chicago can be best described as inconsistent -- with the quarterback, coaching staff and substandard personnel all sharing the blame for the team’s mediocre offensive output.

However, in the final year of his contract, Cutler is now surrounded by the most offensive talent during his tenure with the team, and by a head coach determined to make it work.

"I think on every level I’ve enjoyed the process with Jay, the interaction in our meetings, the level of content in our football discussions and his assimilation of the system based on the fact that he’s been in so many of them over the last four or five years," Trestman said. "Jay’s been all-in."

If that trend continues, the Bears have a legitimate chance to compete in the NFC North and earn just their second playoff berth in seven years. If not, the Bears would be expected to rebuild the roster heading into 2014.

HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler has to hurry up and learn new coach Marc Trestman's offense in more ways than one.
1. Cutler’s grasp of the offense: This marks the fifth different offense for Cutler in the last six years, dating back to his time in Denver under Mike Shanahan. After installing the offense approximately three times over the course of the offseason program and the first week of camp, the quarterback said he is still in the process of mastering Trestman’s West Coast system.

"It’s been going well," Cutler said. "There have been ups and downs. That’s any training camp. Guys are learning the offense and we’re moving along. Just the verbiage is the most difficult aspect. Any time you go to a new offense guys are going to be in similar positions on the field. It’s just learning the verbiage and being able to spit it out."

Trestman is constantly pressuring Cutler and the offense to get plays off in 16 seconds or less. This "controlled chaos" is a stark departure from the Smith era, when there wasn’t such an emphasis placed on running plays in such a timely fashion.

"Practice has been chaotic, and that’s the way coach Trestman wants it," center Roberto Garza said. "He wants it upbeat. He wants it competitive and as close to real game speed as possible so you do get those reactions to come out faster. He’s doing it so there’s not a big difference between practice and the game ... that’s his big emphasis."

2. Finding a complement to Brandon Marshall: Marshall joked before the start of camp that his offseason hip surgery was a result of the amount of times he was targeted by Cutler last season. Maybe he was telling the truth. Marshall was targeted a team-high 194 times in 2012. The next highest targets by a wide receiver? Earl Bennett with 49.

The Bears tried to address the problem in free agency by signing tight end Martellus Bennett to a four-year deal. Bennett had 55 receptions last season for the New York Giants, and should be a major upgrade over former Bears tight end Kellen Davis, who had a difficult time catching the football.

"I am [looking forward to having more weapons]," Marshall told ESPNChicago.com. "It was tough sledding last year. I think that's why I had to have the surgery. I had two or three guys on me every single play, but bringing in big boy Martellus, I don't think the league really knows how good he is. I didn't know, and that was one of my great friends in the league. So I'm excited to see him; he's going to be awesome this year for us."

Alshon Jeffery, a second-round draft choice in 2012, is also being counted on to take pressure off Marshall. After hand and hip injuries forced Jeffery to miss six games during his rookie season, the former South Carolina All-American is playing with a sense of purpose in camp, and has clearly established himself as the No. 2 wide receiver on the roster, with Bennett doing his work primarily in the slot.

3. The leadership void left by Brian Urlacher: Although Urlacher’s performance on the field last season may have suffered, his leadership and influence in the Bears’ locker room was as strong as ever. The future Hall of Famer is now retired, having been replaced in the middle of the Bears’ defense by veteran D.J. Williams and rookie second-rounder Jon Bostic.

Urlacher’s close friend Lance Briggs has assumed the role of calling the defensive plays from his weakside linebacker spot, a duty Urlacher handled with ease in Chicago for over a decade.

If Briggs' comments during the first week of camp are any indication, Urlacher might be gone, but he isn’t forgotten.

"It’s tough [without Urlacher]," Briggs said. "But we’re all grown men. We have to move on."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Four Pro Bowlers (cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Henry Melton) return to a defense that scored nine touchdowns and generated 44 takeaways last season. If the core veteran group -- which includes seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Briggs -- manages to stay healthy, there is no reason the Bears cannot once again boast one of the top defenses in the league, even with the departure of Smith and respected defensive coordinator/defensive-line guru Rod Marinelli.

On offense, the Bears can’t get much worse than they were in 2012 under former offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Trestman is their first offensive-minded head coach since Mike Ditka, and while it’s fair to question how he’ll handle the nuances of running an NFL team, his credentials on offense are legit. With the offseason upgrades made at tight end and on the offensive line, the Bears should have enough talent for Trestman to successfully implement his offense. And if Cutler continues to buy in and respect the new head coach, the Bears should, at the very least, be respectable on offense and not have to lean so heavily on their defense.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Emery fired a head coach coming off a 10-6 season with 84 career wins -- the third-highest total in franchise history -- three division titles and a Super Bowl appearance. Why?

Most veterans are saying all the right things publicly about Trestman and the new regime, but the writing seems to be on the wall. Unless the Bears have a successful season, there figures to be a massive roster turnover heading into 2014, especially since 43 players on the training camp roster have contracts set to expire after the season.

Emery made it clear he does not anticipate awarding contract extensions until after the season, citing salary-cap concerns. But players don’t care about the salary cap; that’s a management issue. So if the Bears get off to a bad start, will the team rally for Trestman like it did so many times for Smith over the years?

With a difficult schedule that opens with home games against 2012 playoff teams Cincinnati and Minnesota, followed by a trip to Pittsburgh, the fear is that players will be looking to jump ship if the waters get rough. That never happened under Smith. But this is the calculated risk Emery took by firing a popular head coach and failing to extend contracts in the offseason.

OBSERVATION DECK

[+] EnlargeKyle Long
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsDespite missing the team's offseason program, Kyle Long, the Bears' top pick in the 2013 draft, is on track to open the season as the starting right guard.
" The fact that guard Kyle Long made just five career starts at Oregon didn’t deter the Bears from selecting him No. 20 overall in April’s NFL draft. Long is raw and is bound to make his share of rookie mistakes, but his strength is undeniable. From a physical standpoint, Long can hang in there against experienced defenders. But it’s the mental aspect of his game that needs work after he was forced to miss the Bears’ entire offseason program due to NCAA rules. Despite Long’s steep learning curve, he is on track to open the regular season as the Bears’ starting right guard.

" The loss of Williams for at least a week due to a right calf injury gives Bostic an opportunity to work extensively with the first unit at middle linebacker. But not being responsible for calling the defensive signals, a task held by Briggs, is an adjustment for Bostic and has led him to commit a handful of mental errors. "I kind of feel like when you’re talking loud and calling the plays it kind of helps you in what you are doing," Bostic said. "At the same time, we have this thing called loud and wrong. If you’re talking loud everyone can hear you. But if you’re wrong, everyone can hear you and tell you you’re wrong." Bostic has been in charge of calling signals for the No. 2 defense since OTAs kicked off in May.

" The Bears already boast two Pro Bowlers on their defensive line in Peppers and Melton, but two other projected starters are turning in some of the best efforts so far in camp: defensive end Corey Wootton and defensive tackle Stephen Paea. Wootton sacked the quarterback seven times last season, and entering the final year of his contract he could be in line for a sizeable bump in salary if he recovers from a hip injury suffered in practice last Thursday. Paea is the heaviest he’s ever been (295 pounds) and the fastest since the Bears moved up in the second round to take him in 2011. “I’m doing something right,” Paea said.

" Trestman has been especially high on running back Matt Forte, who besides rushing for 5,327 yards in five NFL seasons is also an accomplished receiver out of the backfield. But for reasons unknown, the Bears failed to utilize Forte much last season in the passing game -- he caught a career-low 44 passes for 340 yards. That is expected to change under Trestman.

" The verdict remains out on 2012 first-round pick Shea McClellin after he posted 2.5 sacks as a rookie in a limited role as a situational pass rusher. However, the offseason departure of veteran defensive end Israel Idonije opens the door for McClellin to receive more playing time in a three-man end rotation with Peppers and Wootton. McClellin gained weight in the offseason but promptly lost it, raising more questions about whether he truly is suited to be a 4-3, hand-on-the-ground defensive end. "My expectation for Shea is simply to get better," Tucker said. "That’s the expectation I have for every player on the defense. He just needs to get better." The likely scenario for McClellin this season is to move around on defense and line up in different spots along the line of scrimmage in both a two-point and three-point stance. McClellin also has the speed and agility to drop back into coverage every now and again.

" Devin Hester seems content in his new role as strictly a return man. Hester has not taken a single rep at wide receiver since Trestman was hired, spending time at practice either with the other specialists or on a side field catching punts from the JUGS machine. "I feel great," Hester said. "I haven’t felt like this in a while. I’m very excited for the season, what’s at stake this year. I do feel like we do have a great chance to make a run for the playoffs as well as the Super Bowl. I’m more excited than a lot of guys this year coming in and hopefully having fun out there on the field." Hester is in the final year of his contract and set to earn a base salary of $1.857 million if he makes the 53-man roster.
Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery was careful last month to avoid pinpointing an exact position for rookie linebacker Jon Bostic, a middle linebacker at Florida who should have the inside track to be Brian Urlacher's long-time replacement. Veteran D.J. Williams is under contract and available to play the middle, and Emery said he wanted Bostic to learn all three linebacker positions.

So it's worth noting that Bostic worked at his familiar and presumed position during the Bears' rookie minicamp over the weekend, as Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com notes. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker called Bostic "a smart guy" and a "take-control guy," describing the natural attributes of a middle linebacker, but he also added: "It's a case-by-case deal. You just have to wait and see. Our job is to get the best players on the field, so we'll see how it shakes out. But you never want to paint a guy into a box. It's open competition across the board in our system, but obviously we are not going to pre-determine what a guy can or cannot do early. So we'll just see."

The Bears have several options if they want to ease Bostic into the job. According to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune, veteran outside linebacker Lance Briggs has offered to call the defense in Urlacher's absence and did so at the team's recent veteran minicamp. If Briggs handles that part of the job, the Bears could take Bostic off the field in nickel situations and not be concerned about a transition in making calls.

Also, Williams could shift outside and start alongside Bostic and Briggs if the Bears decide they are the team's top three linebackers. Williams told the team's website last month that the Bears had approached him early in free agency with two separate plans: one if Urlacher had re-signed and one if he did not. That approach suggests a willingness to play Williams on the strong side. (Note: The quote no longer appears on the site.)

All of it will depend on how fast Bostic picks up the defense and exhibits a comfort level in training camp. But as we've discussed, the Bears did not appear to sign Williams with the intent of making him their long-term middle linebacker. Bostic is a more logical answer there.

Mulling Shea McClellin as a linebacker

February, 24, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Here at the NFL scouting combine, we learned that new Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman isn't a fan of providing offseason specifics about his plans for the roster. So when Trestman declined to say what position former first-round draft pick Shea McClellin will play in 2013, it was difficult to know if he was simply following policy or if McClellin might actually be moved from defensive end to linebacker or some mix in between.

On the surface, it wouldn't make much sense to use McClellin as an outside linebacker in the 4-3 we're assuming the Bears will play. He is a pass-rusher first and foremost, and the two premier pass-rushing positions in the NFL are as an end in the 4-3 and an outside linebacker in the 3-4.

The Bears are planning a 4-3 base defense under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. So would the Bears really use McClellin as a linebacker in the 4-3, where his role would be to play over the tight end and rush the passer only in blitz situations?

I ran the idea past Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., who was more open to the idea than me. Williamson noted how the Denver Broncos use Von Miller as a strong-side linebacker in their base 4-3 scheme and move him to defensive end in sub packages. Given that most NFL teams playing their base scheme on less than half of their snaps, a similar approach would give McClellin plenty of opportunities to rush the passer.

"Miller obviously is one of the truly elite defenders in the league," Williamson said, "but he too plays the strong side in their 4-3 and then lines up at DE in sub packages. Denver also is rather multiple and can switch things up pre-snap. Maybe the Bears take such an approach with McClellin? I can buy that."

This isn't to compare McClellin to Miller as much as it is note there are plenty of ways to use a player in an alternate position while limiting exposure to his presumed weaknesses. Like everyone, Williamson said he would have concerns if and when McClellin were asked to "turn and run" with tight ends such as the Green Bay Packers' Jermichael Finley and the Minnesota Vikings' Kyle Rudolph. It would be on Tucker to limit those possibilities and maximize McClellin's pass-rushing skills. It's worth an offseason conversation, if nothing else. Your thoughts?
Another in a series of important offseason issues facing NFC North teams:

If there were ever a time for the Chicago Bears to make a clean and relatively controversy-free break from their history, it's now. Parting ways with one of the best and most popular players in a franchise's history can be dicey, especially when he wants to continue playing, but the Bears' coaching changes provide them justifiable cover if they decide to move on from middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireBrian Urlacher has been a mainstay with the Bears since 2000, but his future in Chicago is unclear.
Urlacher will be a free agent in March, turns 35 in May and his best days are clearly behind him. He played 12 games on a gimpy knee last season and, according to our friends at Pro Football Focus (PFF), had a below-average season at best. (PFF ranked him as its 44th-best inside linebacker in 2012.) But the Bears have no heir apparent on their roster, and had coach Lovie Smith returned for 2013, the team might have been tempted to squeeze more time from Urlacher in a scheme that perfectly suits him.

But new coach Marc Trestman hired Mel Tucker to lead what should be a different-looking defense in 2013. At the very least, Tucker is unlikely to run the exact Tampa-2 scheme that Smith installed in 2004 and was centered around Urlacher for most of the past nine seasons.

Trestman was notably non-committal on Urlacher's future during his introductory news conference, saying he wanted to study the team more closely. Urlacher is one of the NFL's most noted players over the past decade, however, and it's quite likely Trestman knows everything he needs to at this point.

"I've watched the man play for a lot of years," Trestman said. "He exemplifies what being a Chicago Bear is all about, and we all know that. When I step out of this room we'll begin to study, and I'll talk to [general manager] Phil [Emery] about where personnel fits on this football team and how it works. I need to be educated on that and I can't wait to get started."

Asked if he had a gut feeling on Urlacher's return, Trestman said: "I have a feeling that this guy has been a great player for this team, and I recognize certainly what he's meant to this locker room and to the fan base of the Chicago Bears."

I wouldn't disagree if you think that sounds like a coach paving the way for an honorable discharge. It takes considerable care to navigate the departure of a player in Urlacher's position, but it would have been a more difficult task for the Bears' previous regime than the Emery-Trestman duo.

With that said, the Bears would be jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool if they decide against re-signing Urlacher. That decision would require an immediate replacement be found, either in free agency or the draft or perhaps both. The worst time to fill a prominent roster spot is when you have to, as opposed to a year or more before it's mandatory. The Bears wouldn't have a choice in that scenario.

For that reason, we can't totally rule out a return. But at the very least, the stage seems set for someone other than Brian Urlacher to open the 2013 season as the Bears' starting middle linebacker.

Bears: First glance at Mel Tucker

January, 21, 2013
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New Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman largely completed his coaching staff during the extended weekend I took away from the blog. Based on this roster on the Bears' website, it appears he still needs position coaches for receivers and linebackers but has most of the major hires in place.

[+] EnlargeMel Tucker
Jason O. Watson/Getty ImagesMarc Trestman hired Mel Tucker (above) to run the Bears' defense.
That includes all three coordinators: Aaron Kromer on offense, Mel Tucker on defense and Joe DeCamillis for special teams. Given how much we've already discussed Trestman's role in revitalizing the Bears' offense, I thought it was worth taking a first glance at Tucker's history as an NFL coordinator.

A few graybeards might join me in recalling Tucker as a defensive back at Wisconsin from 1992-95. His first job as an NFL coordinator came with the Cleveland Browns in 2008, when he was 36, and if he has a connection with Trestman, I'm not aware of it.

More simply, Trestman just moved quickly to hire one of the league's most respected young coordinators after Rod Marinelli turned down his offer to remain with the team. Tucker has been sought after for years, including last season when the Minnesota Vikings tried to hire him as their defensive coordinator, and with some quick success in Chicago he could be a strong head-coaching candidate.

The Bears offered Tucker a pretty decent platform to succeed, given Trestman's focus on offense and their returning nucleus of three All-Pro players. Trestman seems open to the most basic decisions, including whether Tucker runs a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. (His patience in that regard could be a different story. As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune noted, Trestman went through four defensive coordinators in the past four years as the Montréal Alouettes' head coach.)

It's difficult to compose a comprehensive statistical profile of a defensive coach. In many ways, you would hope that his tendencies change with the ebb and flow of personnel. But to start off the Tucker conversation, at least, I pulled the blitz percentages of all five defenses he has coordinated -- one year with the Browns and four with the Jaguars.

As the chart shows, Tucker has never had among the top 10 heaviest-blitzing defenses. And in his past two years, he has been one of the lightest blitzers in the NFL. Even Marinelli, a devotee to the four-man standard rush that distinguishes the "Tampa 2," sent extra rushers more than Tucker in both the 2010 and 2011 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

We should be careful about drawing too many conclusions from that information. It doesn't necessarily mean Tucker is passive and/or somehow doesn't believe in pressuring the quarterback. Most coordinators will tell you that they want to apply pressure with the fewest amount of defenders as possible.

It's true that the Jaguars had the second-lowest rate of sacks per drop backs (4.5 percent) in the NFL over that stretch. But sacks alone aren't always the best measure of a pass rush. Opposing quarterbacks averaged 2.63 seconds in the pocket against the Jaguars over that time period, the eighth-lowest in the league. That's a statistical way of suggesting quarterbacks threw the ball before the rush could get there.

Again, this post offers just a glimpse of the coach who will lead the Bears' transition from a scheme they have run for most of the past decade. I'm sure we'll add to the conversation as we move forward.

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