NFL Nation: Zackary Bowman

CampTour'12: Vikings Day 2

August, 3, 2012
8/03/12
7:54
PM ET
MANKATO, Minn. -- A few thoughts and observations from our second day with the Minnesota Vikings:

  • The team held its fifth consecutive afternoon practice in full pads, and on Friday the temperature had reached 90 degrees by late afternoon. After about an hour of practice, offensive lineman Kevin Murphy left the field with a cold blue towel draped over his head. He left an adjacent area in an ambulance, but coach Leslie Frazier said after practice that Murphy was fine.
  • The Vikings worked on their two-minute drill during 11-on-11. The first-team defense got the better of the offense, allowing seven short completions to quarterback Christian Ponder but not allowing the offense past the 30-yard line before time ran out.
  • Cornerback Antoine Winfield got a veteran's day off Friday, so the nickel defense included Chris Cook, Chris Carr and Zackary Bowman. The Vikings also used a three-man line at times with Everson Griffen as a stand-up pass-rusher. That seems like an appropriate way to use a defensive end who is an experiment at linebacker.
  • Rookie place-kicker Blair Walsh drilled a 55-yard field goal through the middle of the uprights to end practice. The kick had at least another eight yards on it.
  • The Vikings ostensibly had a competition set at the right guard position, but for now second-year player Brandon Fusco is holding onto the job. Friday, veteran Geoff Schwartz returned to the Twin Cities to have an abdominal strain examined.
  • The team will hold its first night practice Saturday at 7 p.m. local time (CT). Frazier made clear it will not include any live tackling drills.
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
The Chicago defense has been exploited in recent losses to Cincinnati and Arizona.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Walking into Chicago’s locker room Sunday, I was tempted to ask a few players for fingerprint identification. They had to be imposters, right? There seemed to be no way a Bears defense could allow an opponent to score on its first six possessions, as Arizona did Sunday in a 41-21 victory.

Nor is it believable that two weeks ago Cincinnati scored on its first seven drives. Both the Bengals and Cardinals pulled back in the second half, the kind of pity move a college coach makes against an overmatched homecoming opponent. Or, as FOX analyst Troy Aikman said during Sunday’s broadcast: "I thought high school football was played on Friday.''

Indeed, no NFL defense should ever be trampled to this degree, no matter how explosive the opponent. That it’s happening to the Bears, a team built on the concept of a swarming and dominating defense, is particularly jarring. What has happened since the Bears' defense carried the team to the Super Bowl three years ago? Let’s examine a few key developments, using the chart at the bottom of this post to trace its statistical decline.

Uncoordinated

We could spend all day debating coach Lovie Smith’s decision to fire defensive coordinator Ron Rivera after the 2006 season. Let’s put that argument aside for a moment and agree on this: Three years later, Smith still hasn’t found an adequate replacement.

Smith acknowledged the failure of Bob Babich’s tenure last winter, gently demoting him to linebackers coach while allowing him to keep the coordinator title. Smith has taken over as the primary playcaller and de facto coordinator, but if anything, the Bears' defense has performed worse under that arrangement.

Take a look at the chart. You’ll notice that most statistical measurements began a decline after the 2006 season except for one: Third-down conversions.

The Bears ranked second among NFL teams in stopping opponents on third down in 2007 and fifth in 2008. Third-down defense is a great equalizer, and on more than two-thirds of those occasions the Bears were holding the line and getting the ball back for their offense.

Third downs are also a strong measure of scheme and play calling. Much like a two-strike count in baseball, third down is football’s greatest battle of wits. You use tendencies, history and instinct to guess what the offense will fall back on to maintain possession.

On that count, Smith has failed as a playcaller. Opponents are converting 42 percent of third downs this season, plummeting the Bears to No. 25 in the NFL.

Consider the Cardinals’ first third-down conversion last Sunday. The Bears showed blitz by running linebackers Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer to the line, but ultimately rushed only four players on third-and-10. They defended with their traditional Tampa 2 scheme, but cornerback Zack Bowman played far off of receiver Steve Breaston, who ran a simple square-in for a 23-yard reception. If you don’t challenge the quarterback, you have to challenge the receiver. Smith’s call did neither, and the play looked like a half-speed practice rehearsal.

"[We’re] not making plays on third down," Smith said. "I know that’s a pretty simple answer to your question. But we have to get off [the field] on third down."

To this point, Smith isn’t giving the Bears a fair chance.

Talent drain

The Bears built a strong nucleus of players earlier in this decade, but over the past five years they’ve failed to infuse any notable talent to maintain their skill level. The last impact player the Bears drafted was defensive tackle Tommie Harris, their first-round pick in 2004 whose production has fallen off considerably over the past two years.

In Week 9, the Bears started six players who arrived after 2004. Only defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, acquired in a 2005 trade with Miami, has been a difference-maker -- and even Ogunleye has dropped off since notching 10 sacks in his first season with the Bears.

There has been some hope for Bowman, who seems to have some ball skills. But to this point, his performance has been no different than any of the legions of middling draft picks the Bears have trotted out at defensive back.

Defensive players drafted in past five years
Year Player Comment
2005 S Chris Harris Traded to Carolina
2006 S Danieal Manning Has struggled as a starter
2006 DT Dusty Dvoracek Injuires ended his Bears career
2006 LB Jamar Williams Has been a backup
2006 DE Mark Anderson Invsible after 12-sack rookie season
2007 DE Dan Bazuin Knee injury ended his career
2007 DE Michael Okwo Waived after injuries
2007 S Kevin Payne Lost starting job this summer
2007 DB Corey Graham Plummeted to bottom of depth chart
2007 CB Trumaine McBride Waived this summer
2008 DT Marcus Harrison Starting at nose tackle
2008 S Craig Steltz Reserve
2008 CB Zack Bowman Starting
2008 DE Ervin Baldwin Waived
2008 LB Joey LaRocque Waived
2009 DL Jarron Gilbert Inactive most of this season
2009 DE Henry Melton Injured reserve
2009 CB D.J. Moore Inactive for most of this season
2009 LB Marcus Freeman Waived
2009 S Al Afalava Starting

Quite simply, you can’t have a dominating defense without at least a few dominating players. At this point, the Bears have two semi-elite players in Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman.

No interior disruption

Last week, NFL Network offered a replay of the Bears’ legendary 2006 victory at Arizona. Among many other twists and turns, the game was notable for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher’s 25-tackle performance.

We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of Urlacher’s season-ending wrist injury this year. More than anything, however, I’m reminded of Urlacher’s postgame interview that evening. Urlacher essentially acknowledged he went unblocked most of the night. The interior duo of Harris and Tank Johnson kept Urlacher clean throughout.

You see none of that while watching the Bears’ defense these days. All three linebackers are regularly fighting off blocks. Neither Harrison nor Anthony Adams approaches Johnson’s ability to absorb blockers. And Harris rarely makes a play in the backfield, let alone affects the outcome of the game.

To realize how a defensive tackle can change a game, you only have to think back to the Bears’ 2006 victory at Minnesota. Harris sliced through the Vikings’ offensive line to force a fourth-quarter fumbled exchange between quarterback Brad Johnson and tailback Chester Taylor. The Bears recovered, and Rex Grossman soon hit Rashied Davis for a go-ahead and, ultimately, winning touchdown pass.

Interior disruption is a hallmark of dominating defenses. The Bears haven’t had that in awhile. According to their official statistics, their defensive tackles have combined for seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage. That’s less than one per game.

I’m sure we could come up with other factors, causes and effects of the Bears’ defensive decline. The trio above are what came to my mind. Feel free to add your ideas to the comments section below.

Bears defense: 2006-09
  2006 2007 2008 2009
  No. Rank No. Rank No. Rank No. Rank
Yards per game 289.1 5 354.7 28 334.7 21 326.0 15
Points per game 15.9 3 21.8 17 21.9 T-16 23.9 22
Rushing yards per game 99.4 6 122.9 24 93.5 5 119.5 21
Passing yards per game 194.8 11 231.8 27 241.2 30 206.5 12
Third-down pct. 31 2 33 2 35 5 42.0 25
Sacks 40 T-8 41 6 28 22 16 23
Ints. 24 2 16 17 22 T-3 8 T-10
Forced fumbles 20 1 17 4 10 16 6 10


Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Add one more injured defensive back to the Chicago Bears' continually growing list.

Rookie cornerback Zackary Bowman, who scored a touchdown and had a game-clinching interception in his NFL debut last Sunday, will miss the rest of the season because of an injury to his right biceps. The Bears are hoping to get most of their other injured players back after this bye week, but they won't have the services of a rookie who made the leap from practice squad player to end-game hero Sunday.

According to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times, the injury occurred sometime between Bowman's second-quarter recovery of a muffed punt and his fourth-quarter interception of Minnesota quarterback Gus Frerotte. Coach Lovie Smith said Bowman was "definitely playing with pain" on that final play and added:

"But that said a lot for him in his first game. He'll never forget that."

With any luck, the Bears will have cornerbacks Charles Tillman (shoulder) and Nate Vasher (wrist) back after the bye. Nickel back Danieal Manning (hamstring) could also return. Vasher likely will split time with Corey Graham, who has been starting in his place.

Continuing our morning look around the NFC North as the divisional bye approaches:

  • Vasher spent Saturday night in a Chicago-area hospital when his wrist and hand swelled, according to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune. Vasher was released Sunday when officials determined he was not at risk for a serious infection.
  • Given his own team's long medical list, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy cancelled a bye week practice and won't have his team back on the field until next Monday. Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel lays out the schedule.
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette examines the fumbling habits of tailback Ryan Grant. McCarthy's assessment was blunt: "It needs to stop."
  • Minnesota safety Madieu Williams, who missed the first seven games of the season because of a neck injury, said he expects to resume playing after the bye. Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press explains Williams' situation.
  • Some fans in Minnesota have blamed punter Chris Kluwe's fumbled snap Sunday on coach Brad Childress, who called Kluwe out publicly three weeks ago for his performance. Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune reacts thusly: "If you're embracing this theory -- that Childress should be held accountable for a fourth-year NFL punter dropping a snap -- then you have serious emotional issues and should avoid watching future sports events."
  • Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com suggests that Detroit coaches stop looking for tweaks and changes that could make a difference in games. It's too hopeless now. "While everyone in the organization seems to be searching for the answer, the troubling trend that has developed makes it pretty clear what the problem is: The Lions can't compete."
  • Mike O'Hara of the Detroit News wonders if the Lions will be able to sell out Sunday's home game against Washington.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

CHICAGO -- It's always fun to read the cheap shots and one-liners from newspaper columnists the day after a game as wild as Chicago's 48-41 victory Sunday at Soldier Field. Before jumping on a plane, we wanted to bring you a few of the highlights.

Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Tribune summed up the afternoon nicely:

What a silly, fun, exhausting game this was. If you blinked, you likely missed a blocked punt. If you turned away, you probably missed a muffed punt. If you blinked and turned away at the same time, well, you were better at multitasking than the Vikings, who couldn't seem to think and play special teams at the same time.

Greg Couch of the Chicago Sun-Times had some trouble spitting out nice words on quarterback Kyle Orton:

Kyle Orton is for real. He is the leader of the Bears. I'll need a little more time before going further.

Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press heard Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen predict the team would be different when it returns from its bye and couldn't help but mock it:

Gosh, I hope it's the Giants or the Steelers. You know, somebody good. But after listening a bit more, it became clear that he meant the Vikings would look different when they come back from the bye week. That didn't excite me nearly as much. Something about putting lipstick on a pig.

Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune found humor in a throwaway line from coach Brad Childress:

The players acted oddly nonchalant about the loss, and Childress was loathe to criticize anyone, even the punter who dropped, then drop-kicked, the ball. "Accentuate the positive,'' Childress said. "Eliminate the negative." Those are lyrics from a hit song from the 1940s performed by such hip-hop stars as Bing Crosby, Perry Como and the Andrews Sisters. There is a chance that Childress, who coaches edgy young men, may not be reaching his targeted demographic.

We'll bring you more on this game and the rest of the NFC North later today. But first, let's continue our morning roundup:

  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune tells the story of Bears defensive back Zackary Bowman, who had a touchdown and interception in his first NFL game. Bowman spent his formative years in Alaska.
  • Green Bay tailback Ryan Grant is slowly rounding into shape, writes Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "We're moving on the right track," Grant said. "I don't feel like I'm doing what I've been doing and what I need to be doing. So, I don't want to say it's back yet because I'm not performing at the level that I need to be. But we're getting better, and I'm going to get better."
  • All things considered, the Packers' 34-14 victory over Indianapolis was everything they could have hoped for, writes Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal. "That's what it looks like right there," coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's the way you want to go into the bye."
  • Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson had the two longest catches of his career, a 96-yard touchdown and a 58-yard "Hail Mary" reception to end the first half of a 28-21 loss at Houston. But as Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com writes, the postgame question was why the Lions didn't throw his way more.
  • Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press has some fun with years of Lions incompetence.

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