By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – In seven NFL seasons, Prince Amukamara has picked off a total of seven passes with the Giants, Jaguars, and Bears. For a man oft-praised for his technical coverage ability, averaging just one interception a season is disappointing. To boot, not snatching a pick in two seasons is an egregious deficiency. You can only do so much as a pure coverage cornerback if you don’t get the ball back for your offense.
Thus far in camp, it’s clear that intercepting more passes was a major area Amukamara centered on this off-season. What was a man that previously struggled to take the ball away now looks like Chicago’s top ballhawk based on a training camp sample size. Amukamara has been Mitchell Trubisky’s worst nightmare on more than a few occasions. Taken further, he’s been a terror for every Bears quarterback. This paints the picture of the veteran corner taking advantage of his lockdown coverage to prove more than worthy of a new three-year deal worth $27 million signed in March.
Of course as with all cliche camp boilerplates, the 29-year-old attributes this newfound interception success to focusing in and letting the game come to him. But it’s not that simple. It’s the relationships Amukamara has built in his career by taking and understanding keys away from previous and active players he’s been around.
“A lot of veterans that I played with the with the Giants like Corey Webster, Aaron Ross, Antrel Rolle, they taught me to trust your eyes,” Amukamara told me. “We go by a term with DB’s as ‘see ball, get ball’ and it’s crazy, but it’s now starting to kick in as I’m trusting what I see.”
Often times as a young player, you don’t fully grasp what experienced players try to teach you because the game is moving so fast and you’re having to make adjustments on the fly at every level. For some, this transition is seamless as they become superstars right away. For others like Amukamara, it can take years to fully master the nuances of your position. Better late than never.
What has also helped the steady Amukamara pick rise is the connection he’s made with fellow Bears starting cornerback Kyle Fuller. Fuller, while three years younger, has assisted in Amukamara becoming an even more intelligent football player than he already is.
That has lead to improved play when processing goes faster, as has been evidenced by Amukamara regularly jumping routes purely based on two minute drill and third down situations. Or, when he mirrored rookie Anthony Miller step for step for a deep pass breakup on Monday. Your teammates always have a lesson to teach if you look hard enough.
“I’ve been learning from Kyle (Fuller) to be more of a student of the game,” said Amukamara. “That’s in recognizing formations, down and distance, and everything that goes into it.”
Whatever Amukamara has done to be an improved ballhawk, it’s working. If a strong 2017 camp was the harbinger of a solid season for the veteran last year, this year’s summer interception bonanza is an excellent sign of what’s to come this fall.
Trubisky a quick learner
It’s a game week for the Bears this week so practices are naturally being scaled back in their intensity as to keep the roster fresh for preseason action that “matters”. The context of these teaching periods means a magnified emphasis on mental repetitions and how players are grasping Matt Nagy’s offense, particularly Trubisky.
By accounts from each of his main mentors in Nagy himself, Chase Daniel, and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich: Trubisky is right on schedule with where he should be picking up a complicated scheme. Of everyone in this guiding hand trio, it’s Daniel that sees how Trubisky has shown a fiery diligence to incite his progression along.
“He’s (Trubisky) 100 percent there. He’s one of the smartest young guys I’ve ever been around,” said Daniel of how Trubisky sees Nagy’s attack. “A lot of guys you have to regurgitate concepts, and you don’t have to say it twice to him.”
Daniel saying Trubisky is one of the smarter quarterbacks he’s played with is notable because he’s played with legitimate Hall of Fame talents like the Saints’ Drew Brees, a solid starter in Washington’s Alex Smith, and one of the rising elite young talents in the Eagles’ Carson Wentz. If Trubisky’s mental trajectory and drive matches this procession of quarterbacks, and helps him have complete command of the Bears’ offense: there’s no need to worry about any pitfalls he has with bad plays in camp. The young passer’s situation is lining up properly.
It’s from his dealings with Wentz specifically that Daniel sees the right elements from Trubisky. It’s from his relationship with Wentz that Daniel knows when to harp on Trubisky’s play and when to step back. It’s rare that Trubisky isn’t asking questions, though.
“I learned from how I dealed with Carson (Wentz),” said Daniel of his mentorship balancing act with Trubisky on and off the field. “I’ve learned when to step in and when not to step in. There’s a little bit of a difference between on-field coach-speak and player-speak, but Mitch likes me to step in more because he’s so eager to learn. He’s constantly coming up to me.”
As the veteran brought in to help Trubisky, Daniel knows he has to take his teaching to a measured stage with the Bears’ future of the franchise. If he can’t successfully teach Trubisky based on where he’s come from as a player, then he’s failed. If Daniel can’t build a strong relationship as the backup constantly on Trubisky’s shoulder, then he’s failed. Luckily, it’s not only the time of year to establish that rapport between the pair, but Daniel also relishes being a shoulder to lean on.
“Mitch (Trubisky) is such a great guy away from football, so our relationship is great. This is the time of year to build it,” said Daniel. “I do, I do enjoy giving back as much of my knowledge as possible.”
Hall of Fame Game housekeeping
On Thursday, the Bears get to play a live opponent in the Baltimore Ravens for the first time in 2018. Based on how Nagy and Helfrich played coy Monday, don’t expect much of any starters to be featured aplenty in Canton, Ohio. Without hesitation, Helfrich first said that “the goal is the opener” meaning the regular season opener against the rival Green Bay Packers. So aside from some bottom of the roster competitions like Tanner Gentry against Javon Wims starting to take shape, see Thursday as an overall unsurprising tune-up.
What the real takeaway from Thursday is how Nagy is having these Bears respect tradition of the franchise. The Bears wouldn’t be playing in Canton this week if not for former great Brian Urlacher’s first-ballot Hall of Fame induction on Saturday. Urlacher is not only a model for much of a good current defense to take after, but for a young team that spent it’s youth watching the linebacker thrive. A young team that can potentially emulate that kind of excellence from an all-timer.
“They need to understand we’re playing this game because of him,” Nagy said of Urlacher and how he’s projected his legacy to the Bears. “They were young enough to watch and appreciate him, and we’ve made sure that resonates.” – R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.