By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – Following a “sloppy” day where the Bears came out lethargically, Matt Nagy challenged his young roster.
While letdowns are to be occasionally expected, Nagy needed and wanted better from his players than to waste a practice while they try to right this organizational ship. Training camp is first about building team unity, but it’s second the foundation of a collective mental resolve to power through poor performances. These Bears are learning about that thin balance on the fly.
On Sunday, amidst another blazing 90-plus degree day in Bourbonnais, the Bears responded to Nagy’s button pushing with a demonstrative purpose. Throughout goal line and red zone drills, there was a palpable liveliness to everything about this Bears practice. Offensive and defensive linemen bursting off the ball with power and speed at the one-yard line. Charles Leno Jr. running 30 yards downfield to push Dion Sims to finish a catch to the end zone, after he had stopped, as a specific example. You name it.
This was pads continually crunching with a baking sun overhead, and it was as all-out of a testy battle between two sides of a roster as you’ll see in the summer.
Ideally, you’d like to see the Bears self-motivated, but the time and experience for that will come. For now, pushing back against criticism was everything the Bears coaching staff needed to see.
“That was our message last night to the guys, come out and compete in a live practice today,” Nagy espoused. “And they did that. The energy was up, it was more of a game-like atmosphere, but they were smart.”
The example the Bears set in early August when mired in the doldrums is the product they’re going to put out on the field in November and December, once the real grind of a long season kicks in. There are going to be setbacks, and some of them self-inflicted.
The fact that this roster is already mentally tough enough to rise to a challenge near the tail end of an exhaustive camp season bodes well for how they’ll answer the bell once the action has significance.
“Yesterday, I thought we took one step back,” Nagy said. “Today, I thought we took two steps forward and we were happy with that.”
It’s Nagy’s brutal honesty that was the catalyst the Bears necessitated to come out firing. Candor that only helps the Bears.
“With all due respect, if I’m not real with them, then they won’t respect me. And they get that.”
Same old dominance for Hicks
Last year, Akiem Hicks became the fourth-highest paid 3-4 defensive end in the NFL after signing a four-year, $48 million dollar extension with the Bears. Since then, while he hasn’t been recognized by any Pro Bowl or All-Pro nods, he’s been worth every penny. Hicks has the rare ability to eat space and create plays for his linebackers, and act as a one-on-one pass rush nightmare.
While Hicks hasn’t had a quiet camp by any means to this point, when the Bears needed a charge on Sunday, the 28-year-old decided to take the responsibility upon himself. A star in midseason form.
In a goal line drill early on, Hicks was thoroughly unblockable. Before runners like Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, and Benny Cunningham even had room to make cuts on carries, Hicks was already blowing back Bears offensive linemen well into the backfield for stuffs. Whatever the Bears offense did to slow his penetration, it didn’t work. Whatever plan they had, it didn’t matter. This was a battle of wills combined with talent. The cliche question of “who wants it more?”. A question that Hicks will almost always have the answer to because he wants it more.
In any team drill overall, you could count on one hand the amount of times that Hicks didn’t get into the offensive backfield. His all-encompassing performance completely overshadowed what might have been the sharpest day for the Bears’ offense thus far. That’s how stellar and powerful Hicks was.
This was a man on a mission in Hicks looking to create havoc and galvanize his teammates simultaneously. That’s what leaders and franchise players do.
“I don’t like pointing out a lot of guys, but today 96 brought it,” Nagy said of Hicks harassing the Bears’ offensive front on Sunday. “He understands it all starts with him, and for him to come out like that was a great way to set the tone for the defense.”
Indeed, Hicks is the Bears’ best defensive player. He’s also likely the Bears’ most important non-quarterback considering his immense responsibilities for Chicago’s defensive front. Danny Trevathan, who plays directly behind Hicks and who practiced for the first time in full pads in this camp on Sunday, knows Hicks’ presence means everything to their unit.
When the 332 pounder is on (as he usually is), you see the light flick on for everyone else.
“That’s two defenders off me,” said Trevathan of Hicks’ immense assistance. “That’s a linebacker’s dream to have someone up front that’s disruptive and who also makes plays and doesn’t leave you out to dry. He’s a beast.”
Floyd “real close”, getting burst under him
There were concerns abound in the off-season about how Leonard Floyd would look in his return from a knee injury that robbed him of the last six games of the 2017 season. An injury that stole away most full participation in off-season programs leading into camp.
The stoically quiet Floyd had an emphatic answer as to whether he still had the same first step and confidence in his special potential on Sunday: he’s back.
After a short red zone period, the Bears wanted to take practice up a notch. So they ingratiated in one-on-one pass blocking drills. Tight ends and running backs against the linebackers. A dream for naturally gifted and relentlessly athletic pass rushers like Floyd. Floyd pulled out every card in his hand and ran through some of the Bears’ biggest names like they were turnstiles
Floyd beat him cleanly around the edge in the blink of an eye, once before he was barely out of his stance and most others a deadly swim move. Speed and power conversions that the athletically inferior Sims couldn’t account for.
Floyd worked the “U” tight end with a bull rush and deadly quick hands to control all the leverage in every matchup. Burton blocking in-line isn’t going to happen often (if ever) for the Bears. Floyd showed why.
Here, the young tight end actually held his own compared to his older teammates. And yet that still meant Floyd ripping through and pushing Shaheen back like he was a blocking sled. No contest, regardless if he fared better.
To be fair, Floyd isn’t going to receive the benefit of being matched up against a tight end often in regular game action. He’s too good of a pass rusher to be left on an island like that with limited blocking attention.
Nevertheless, it had to be extremely heartening for the Bears to see the 26-year-old carry himself like every bit the franchise pass rusher they believe he is. After each repetition, there was Floyd wanting to jump immediately back in, wanting to take on all comers before a coach told him to step aside. Floyd took control of a situation and made it his own because he felt like it. This was the Floyd the Bears drafted in 2016, and it’s not like he ever left.
“Leonard’s real close, if not being there,” said Nagy of Floyd’s elevated play. “You see him in one-on-one’s, he got some good moves he’s working on right now, he’s in a good spot.”
Considering a thin edge rush situation that may or may not see an upgrade before the Bears visit the Green Bay Packers in five weeks, Chicago needs this Floyd to show up every time they hit the field. Anything less means they’re in dire straits defensively.
It’s a testament to the third-year outside linebacker’s commitment and renewed comfort that Floyd’s returned back to this stage. Floyd’s the main understatement of need for this Bears defense, which Nagy undoubtedly fully understands.
“It’s a credit to Leonard for working this hard to get back to this, because we need him.” R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.