“I thought all Chicago had was big receivers,” Flores said.
Funny because Weems is 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, and not long ago he would have fit in with just about all the other wideouts on the roster. That is one significant way the roster has turned over in the last two years and Alshon Jeffery was the big target that showed up in the third preseason game, catching seven passes for 77 yards in the first half. Go ahead and fill in your own joke here about Jay Cutler not spreading the ball around.
Jeffery got most of the action but Cutler targeted seven different receivers in the first half when he completed 12 of 21 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown on a 32-yard swing pass to running back Matt Forte. Cutler’s numbers would have looked much better had there not been a slew of dropped passes. Coach Marc Trestman said there were “at least” three drops and maybe as many as six depending on what his staff finds when it goes over the film.
Jeffery was the reliable target, though, and he continues to look like a completely different player from a year ago. Cutler’s first completion was to Jeffery on a short route on the left side. He spun around and blew past cornerback D.J. Hayden, Oakland’s first-round pick and the 12th overall pick back in April. Jeffery maintained his balance on the dirt infield for the O.co’s other tenant, the Oakland Athletics, and made a big gain out of a short pass.
“I’m just more experienced and the game is beginning to slow down for me,” Jeffery said. “I am coming out each and every day trying to get better in practice. And I need to get better at everything.”
Maybe Jeffery doesn’t feel much different but he looks more fluid, more refined, more powerful and certainly more sure of himself. He’s also more complete, setting a big block downfield on Forte’s touchdown.
“That’s something he worked on from last year,” Forte said. “Coaches have been harping on our receivers. That’s how you get big plays, blocking downfield, and on that one swing pass to me that I scored on, he locked the dude down on the outside. (Tight end) Martellus (Bennett) blocked two people on that play. If I don’t have those guys, it’s a nice play but I don’t score.”
Cutler said earlier in the week that Jeffery had the best training camp of any player on offense, a target that he has more confidence in now. Brandon Marshall didn’t catch a pass, guilty of one drop and maybe two depending on a review, but the game in the air still thrived and Cutler traced Jeffery’s improvement back to the time he spent in the offseason working out with Marshall in Florida.
“The guy’s hungry. He wants to make it in this league,” Cutler said. “He knows he’s got a great opportunity opposite (Marshall). He knows he’s going to get a lot of single coverage, and he’s in a great system with Marc and the guys out there calling plays. It’s a good spot for him. I think he’s in a really good place mentally, and obviously tonight he had a great showing.”
With Marshall, Jeffery and Bennett, it’s big targets across the board. It wasn’t too long ago, 2011, when the Bears were featuring Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Dane Sanzenbacher and Roy Williams as the big target. Times have changed and Flores took notice.
2. Rookie Push I. The more you see from Michael Ford, the undrafted free agent from LSU, the more you think he might really be pushing for a spot on the 53-man roster. Ford followed up the 100-yard kickoff return he had last week against the Chargers with a better performance on the ground. He carried nine times for 58 yards, scoring on a 15-yard run in the fourth quarter when he made a nice cut and then a spin move. Ford also had a 17-yard gain around left end, punishing Raiders cornerback Usama Young at the end of the play.
The spin move was daring, the type of move that will often get a ball carrier knocked across the field.
“You gotta take a chance sometimes,” Ford said with a smile. “It was guts.”
Meanwhile, Armando Allen, who held the role of the third running back last season, did not play. Allen has been working his way back from a hamstring pull suffered at the end of the team’s stay in Bourbonnais. He’s been active in practices recently but on a limited basis.
There is a little bit of apples to oranges when you evaluate the two backs. Ford is a compact, physical runner at 5-foot-10, 216 pounds. Allen is listed at 5-foot-8, 190. All things equal, it’s probably a no brainer to go with the back that is 26 pounds heavier. But Allen has more experience on special teams and a better understanding of the offense at this point. But if Ford is cast as the third running back, there ought to be time for him to learn as he goes behind Matt Forte and Michael Bush. It’s going to be interesting. Ford now has a team-high 30 carries for 101 yards. They are not numbers that excite you, and he’s been running against a lot of defenders that are going to be seeking jobs very soon, but there are traits to like.
“It’s just getting better and better every week,” Ford said. “That is the goal, getting with Matt and Bush and trying to learn from those guys and improve every week. The goal (is to make the team). That is all I can do is keep working hard and let the chips fall where they fall.”
3. Rookie Push II. In a flash, it looked like C.J. Wilson’s opportunity had come and gone. The undrafted free agent from North Carolina State was on the field before he should have been. When Zack Bowman went out in the second quarter with an injured right hamstring, the Bears called on Wilson to play opposite Sherrick McManis as the next cornerbacks in the game behind starters Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. It was a big break for Wilson, who caught the attention of the coaching staff with a strong effort in training camp.
When he saw Raiders wide receiver Jacoby Ford bearing down on him at his left cornerback position and Ford began to break down his route, Wilson knew what was coming. A hitch route. He diagnosed it and jumped in front of the Matt McGloin pass. There was about half a football field ahead of Wilson.
“I don’t know what happened,” Wilson said. “I broke on the route and the ball was coming and I was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is it.’ I put my hands up and it just spun right off my hands. I am so used to doing that in practice. That was my opportunity. I knew if I caught it, I was gone. I said, ‘This is bad right now. This was the opportunity.’ That was really bad.”
His luck turned on the next play. McGloin threw for Ford again and missed badly and Wilson made the interception.
“The second one kind of just floated, I caught it arms, chest, hands and all,” he said. “It was a blessing to get a second opportunity.”
The extended playing time is clear evidence the Bears are taking a hard look at Wilson. Bowman’s situation isn’t known just yet but the veteran looked to have a roster spot locked up considering his experience in the defense and value on special teams.
“Hopefully it's not something that is going to take him a long time to heal,” coach Marc Trestman said. "But hamstrings are what they are. They're always some of the most difficult injuries to come back from in a quick period of time.”
Wilson wasn’t going to examine how his chance came about. He was focused on what he learned and what he needs to do moving forward.
“It was my opportunity,” Wilson said. “Things happened on the field and I ended up being out there. At first I was nervous, I had to shake it off. I knew what to do. I knew what to do but I didn’t know how to react because I was so nervous. I had to get the jitters out but then I calmed down. I started playing.
“I try not to think about (pending roster cuts). I am trying to show what I can do. If I worry about it, I am going to drive myself crazy. I am having fun with these guys.”
4. Rookie Push III. What was the best sign for the Bears offense in hanging 27 points on the Raiders with the starters in only two quarters? Maybe that Jay Cutler didn’t get hit in the pocket. There was a little bit of pressure but not much and when the focus isn’t on the rookie right side of the line coming out of the game, well, that is a positive.
It’s a near certainty first-round pick Kyle Long and fifth-round pick Jordan Mills will be holding down that side of the line when the regular season begins Sept. 8.
Are they ready for the big stage of the regular season?
“I hope so,” Cutler said. “They played well tonight. They get better and better each week. The thing about them is they want to do it. They’re excited about it. It matters to them and they’re getting better, so I don’t see why not.”
Long talked about going through the process and learning more. He and Mills went back out with the second team in the second half, playing most of the third quarter.
“More snaps, more experience,” Long said. “I feel that is exactly what we need on the right side. Obviously, the guys starting from left tackle, left guard and center have thousands of snaps in this league. We need to see certain things and that is what this preseason is for, to get us prepared for the regular season, not just us but across the roster.”
Does Long believe he is ready for the Bengals?
“Who do we have next week?” he said. “We’ve got the Browns next week. We’ll prep for the Browns and then that next time you come and talk to me, maybe we can talk about the Bengals.”
The starters may not play much at all against Cleveland on Thursday night at Soldier Field but look for the rookies on the right side of the line to get some action.
5. There probably will not be action in that Browns game for Jonathan Scott, but he did do some work under the careful watch of the medical staff before the game. It was the first work on the field for the offensive tackle since arthroscopic surgery on his right knee “about 10 days ago.”
“I am feeling better,” Scott said. “It is definitely progress.”
Scott has practiced only one time since July 31 and finally got the scope done putting him on target for what could be a return at the start of the regular season.
“That’s my goal,” he said. “If I can be ready tomorrow, that would be even better. It’s just a process that I’ve got to take it day by day and do what the doctors order.”
The Bears have guaranteed $100,000 of Scott’s base pay of $715,000 for the season. He was in very good position to make the roster when camp opened. He’s probably still on solid ground provided the knee continues to respond the way everyone expects.
“This game, as fickle as it is, I know I feel secure about my abilities, what I can do and how I can help this team,” Scott said. “That is the only thing I can guarantee right there.”
6. Jonathan Scott’s status for the roster brings us to another tackle with starting experience. If J’Marcus Webb had confidence in his game when the Bears approached him about a pay cut a week ago, he would told them to go fly a kite and release him, and he would have said it in that order. Instead, Webb agreed to the reduction and signed his name to a contract that slashed his base pay from $1.323 million to $630,000. That’s money he earns if he is on the team.
If Webb was confident in his game, he’d believe that one of the 31 other teams would surely jump at the opportunity to claim a healthy 25-year-old with 44 career starts on his resume, and he would have refused a pay cut. But Webb’s game is without confidence right now. Before that he was demoted to the second team following a brief appearance with the starters in the preseason opener at Carolina. Webb was asked if he expected to remain a starter.
“I’m not totally sure,” he replied.
There is nothing wrong with a player grounded in reality but the truth is Webb’s confidence is shot and that was apparent last season. Players and coaches alike wondered why he did not go back at Jay Cutler after the quarterback shoved him walking off the field following a series in Week 2 at Lambeau Field. No one advocated Webb imposing his 6-foot-7, 333-pound frame on Cutler, but they would have respected Webb had he stood up for himself instead of allowing a teammate to show him up in plain view of a national television audience. Cutler looked bad, an unchecked player letting his frustrations boil over, and a case can be made Webb looked worse.
Webb has been a success story. He’s started more games than any seventh-round pick from his 2010 class, and it’s not close. He started in the NFC Championship Game his rookie season. He’s been a durable performer, playing through some legitimate injuries in 2011, including a not so minor knee issue.
But the adventure seems to have run its course here, especially with a new coaching staff taking over. Webb had a shot to pin down the right tackle position and impress coaches. General Manager Phil Emery clearly wanted him to excel or he would have pushed him out the door along with the previous staff that supported Webb despite his missteps on the field and off.
The offensive line is a team within the team, a cohesive unit that needs chemistry. Webb is a loner and the J-Webb Nation T-shirts he (or his circle of advisors) created were an abomination. As a code, offensive linemen do not seek attention for themselves. Former Bears Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown had championship belts made for the linemen during his tenure through a friend in the pro wrasslin’ industry. He presented one to each of his position mates. Brown and others also created T-shirts for linemen with slogans, some that aren’t printable on this Web site. They were for the group. They encouraged camaraderie. They weren’t about Brown or any individual.
As fresh start would truly be best for Webb. He missed the chance to get one when he accepted a salary reduction.
7. There were some interesting moves on special teams when it came to the first team as coordinator Joe DeCamillis shifted some players around to get some more evaluations. The Bears are clearly preparing for rookie Jon Bostic to start at middle linebacker, reducing him to a two-phase role down from three a week ago. Linebacker J.T. Thomas got a look on three phases, increased work after his blocked punt last week. Blake Costanzo was a four-phase starter and that was difficult to full evaluate because the team used a “punt safe” look on the first punt with starting linebackers Lance Briggs and James Anderson and defensive tackles Stephen Paea and Nate Collins on the field to guard against a fake.
Fullback Tony Fiammetta was on the starting kickoff return and punt team and tight end Kyle Adams was with the kickoff and kickoff return teams. Wide receiver Joe Anderson started on punt and kickoff return teams and rookie wide receiver Marquess Wilson was even with the starters on the punt team as a gunner although he’d be unlikely to get that starting role in a regular-season game.
8. Eric Foster is a long way from being able to say, “I told you so,” to anyone. But the defensive tackle might be the most appreciative of 90 players on the roster at this point. He’s nearly two years removed from a gruesome injury on “Monday Night Football,” a dislocated right ankle he suffered when his leg was trapped underneath teammate Tyler Brayton. You can find the video on the Internet and most places it is accompanied with a graphic warning because the ankle is bent so horribly in the wrong direction.
Foster was signed Sunday and realistically he is a longshot to make it through two waves of cuts. But just to be in the mix is a blessing for him.
“It was a long, long road to recovery. I am grateful now,” he said. “I look it at like any opportunity I get, no matter if my chances of making this team are slim, I just have to be ready for anything I can get so I can show people that I still can play.”
Foster was with the Colts when he was injured on Oct. 3, 2011, at Raymond James Stadium playing against the Buccaneers. He spent a brief period with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts this summer but they tried using him as a standup linebacker.
“I am a defensive tackle,” Foster said.
A defensive tackle that fits the Bears’ penetrating one-gap style. He’s only 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, but he’s familiar with the scheme and anxious to prove he’s still got the short-area burst and quickness needed to excel. That is the size he played at in Indianapolis in the same scheme.
Foster, 28, played in 49 games, making 19 starts over four seasons for the Colts. He says Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson was one of those that doubted his career could continue. Grigson was hired a little more than a year-and-a-half ago, following Foster’s injury.
“A couple people told me that,” Foster said. “I talked to Grigson over there in Indianapolis. He said it was one of those injuries that people do not come back from. It was one of those things where I said, ‘OK.’ It is what it is and I know how I feel about it.
“I know who I believe in and (Grigson) didn’t have the last say-so. It didn’t piss me off. It’s fine. Part of it maybe was true because the injury was severe and it was one of those things where he said, ‘I don’t think you can come back from that.’ We’ll see.”
Nearly everyone that talks in-depth with Foster about the injury references the career-ended injury Joe Theismann suffered on a sack by Lawrence Taylor in 1985. Foster is trying to pull off something Theismann couldn’t do, continue his career.
“When it happened, after they put it back in place and they took him to the room, my next question was how long will it take me to get back?” he said. “They told me I was going to be down for a while.”
It was eight months before Foster could even run again. He was at Halas Hall on a tryout basis during rookie minicamp in May. He also had a workout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for his former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
“To feel really good, it’s almost been two years,” Foster said.
9. D.J. Williams might not return to practice until the week of the Sept. 8 opener against the Bengals, so it’s nearly a lock rookie Jon Bostic will be at middle linebacker for the first one or two games of the season. After that, it’s impossible to say if Bostic will hold down the job or if the veteran Williams, who has been out with a right calf injury since July 31, will reclaim the position he held.
Williams is scheduled to earn $1.75 million and that’s big money for a backup linebacker and $500,000 more than strong-side starter James Anderson is set to earn. It’s necessary for all backup linebackers to be active on special teams and that’s a big question for Williams.
“You’d have to look back at that tape,” special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said when asked if Williams could play special teams. “We are in the process of going through that. We’ll see what happens. We have to look at the tape and see what he has done exactly.”
10. Nine NFL teams were represented by scouts in the press box. Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Miami, Minnesota, the New York Jets, San Diego and San Francisco were all present. The Ravens, Browns and Vikings have had a scout at all three Bears’ preseason games. This is the first game the Bengals, their Week 1 opponent, has shown up.
10a. The Bears are creating every opportunity possible for Fendi Onobun to make the roster but the tight end seems to be dropping them, literally at times. He was wide open without a defender anywhere near when a pass went off his hands in the first quarter. That wasn’t the only ball that went off his hands in the game and he had the dropped pass in the preseason opener at Carolina. Making matters worse? Onobun was called for holding on one play. You have to think his chances could be dwindling.
10b. The good news is Terrelle Pryor did most of his damage against the Bears defense after the starters were out. The slippery former Ohio State quarterback completed 7 of 9 passes for 93 yards and ran for 37 yards on four carries with a 25-yard touchdown scamper. The Bears struggled most last season against mobile quarterbacks -- Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton. They face Robert Griffin III this season in Week 7.
10c. Middle linebacker Bostic did a fine job of sniffing out a read option play where Pryor kept the ball and was trying to turn the corner. He wound up losing five yards on a tackle by James Anderson but it was Bostic who pinned him down. It was an example of Bostic’s range.
“James came over the top and made the tackle,” Bostic said. “I definitely have to give him credit for that. I made sure he couldn’t go anywhere outside, but like I said, he’s a guy that we know is very mobile. We’ve got to make sure we contain him all the time.”
10d. Adam Podlesh handled all of the punting duties –--just four kicks -- so the “competition” with rookie Tress Way is more or less complete.
10e. The Bears have seven interceptions by seven different players. The Panthers are the only other team with seven picks but only 10 of the 32 teams have played three preseason games to this point.
10f. Tight end Martellus Bennett tried to get ahead of the after the first two preseason games when he was not targeted with a pass. So, he took to his Twitter account to say it was no big deal and he didn’t mind because preseason games are meaningless.
“I listen to the fans,” Bennett said. “I try to be one with the fans. So I got a lot of questions about that. For me, it’s preseason. If I don’t catch any balls in the preseason and I catch 150 in the regular season … preseason, those catches don’t get you extra checks. In the regular season, those catches do. We’ll take it up a notch. We’re not even showing our full hand right now so it’s like a poker game right now. We’ve got an advantage not showing our hands. No one knows what our offense is.”
They’ve probably got a pretty good idea what the Bears are going to run on offense. It’s worth wondering if Bennett’s pass-catching opportunities will be limited a little with rookie fifth-round pick Jordan Mills looking like the starter at right tackle. The Bears might want to keep Bennett in a little more in passing situations to help on that side of the line.
10g. Marc Trestman chose to have the Bears practice inside the Walter Payton Center on Wednesday, something former coach Lovie Smith rarely did. Smith wanted to keep players on natural grass as often as possible and for the most part the team only went indoors during inclement weather.
“There’s a number of reasons,” Trestman said. “I wanted guys to get a chance to see our new surface here. It’s going to be a tool we’re going to be able to use during the season at times when we need to get inside. I thought it would be a good opportunity on a short field on a shorter practice day to just allow them to come inside and see what the organization has done for us to help our football team to get better on the days we need to be inside.”
For those who maintain the Chicago Park District should install an artificial surface at Soldier Field, it’s not up to them. The Bears want to maintain a natural grass surface at the stadium.
10h. Veterans during training camp and preseason are earning $1,700 per week. Rookies collect $925 per week. Regular-season paychecks are not far off for those who make the 53-man roster.
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