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NFC North camp preview: Cutler isn’t the only one learning for Bears this year


The Sports Xchange

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Jay Cutler has company.

For six training camps, the move to get the quarterback in sync with a new offense — or even an old one — took priority for the Chicago Bears. With the start of training camp this week, a complete team-wide reconstruction project moves into the critical phase for new coach John Fox and his staff, and Cutler is only a part of it.

In fact, this time the challenge on the defensive side of the ball looks every bit as difficult for coaches considering the drastic departure in scheme and type of talent necessary to run the 3-4.

When the defense lines up in practice on Thursday, there could be six or seven different players with the starting unit, with only cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Tim Jennings and safety Ryan Mundy at the same positions as last year.

Just 43 players on the 90-man roster worked at Halas Hall last year, but at least Cutler will have the advantage of working with a familiar wide receiver in Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett, who has promised to be present even though he stayed away from all offseason workouts until June minicamp.

“I feel great about the offense we’re in right now,” Cutler said. “I know the guys like it. I’m comfortable with these guys. I’ve known some of these coaches throughout my career. They’ve had a lot of success in this league, and they’re trying to bring it here.”

While the offense could have only two new players — first-round wide receiver Kevin White and center Will Montgomery — not everything went according to plan in the offseason. As a result, they’ll start off fighting from behind to some extent, particularly on the line.

Aside from Bennett’s absence, White missed minicamp due to an unspecified injury. And the offensive line was a work in progress throughout the offseason. Injuries kept tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills from taking the field for much of the spring.

In fact, no one would be surprised if Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long lined up at right tackle to start camp — he finished minicamp there due to Mills’ injury situation.

Cutler pointed out the obvious, but with a bit of humor, when he said of Long: “I think it’s safe to say he’ll be on the field at one of those five positions when we open up.”

All of the offseason movement means it’s necessary to keep the group together as much as possible in training camp to build a cohesive unit. But Long thinks the group possesses high football IQs, which will help.

“I think the higher your football IQ, the slower the game is,” he said. “From a reaction standpoint, you see things before they happen. You can communicate certain things to teammates pre-snap. And I think it helps everybody.

“If there’s five guys up there with a high football IQ, there tends to be less chaos in the backfield.”

Building running back depth behind Matt Forte and solidifying backup tight end spots are two other goals for the offense during camp, but the real task falls on defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and his assistants as they try to fit round square 4-3 talent pegs into round 3-4 holes.

“Football is football: 3-4, 4-3,” Fangio said. “It’s still seven guys up front; it’s just how you organize it and the mechanics of it. So I don’t think the experience is a big thing.

“A defensive lineman playing the 3-technique in our defense is very similar to what they do in a 4-3. So, experience helps, but it’s not the ultimate.”

If that is true, it wouldn’t matter that defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton haven’t played the nose or end spots in a 3-4 as they’ll be asked to do, or that Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young will be pass rush linebackers from standing positions rather than putting hands on the ground.

Having former 3-4 players such as linebackers Pernell McPhee and Sam Acho outside and linemen Jeremiah Ratliff and Jarvis Jenkins helps in the teaching, but eventually the Bears’ front will need rapid and drastic improvement to avoid another season like the last two, when Chicago ranked 30th on defense.

The inside linebackers could be only slightly less experienced. Christian Jones played outide in college and in his first Bears season. Jonathan Bostic never practiced this offseason due to injury.

Beyond these questions, there simply hasn’t been enough time to prepare. Fox, however, said he isn’t worried.

“This is the first time as a new staff that we got the extra minicamp,” Fox said. “Four years ago when I went to Denver, it was the lockout. So we were a new staff and didn’t get that opportunity and were still able to have some success.”

Repeating the type of first-year playoff run Denver made in 2011 under Fox will be a formidable challenge considering all the movement and generally unsettled nature of this team.


July 30: First practice

Aug. 16: Camp ends

–Team strength: Offensive line.

It’s not often a line can lose a 14-year NFL center such as Roberto Garza and continue to march in step. The Bears could. Having center Will Montgomery come over from Denver after playing in the same offense was a huge plus. Kyle Long has been in the Pro Bowl in his first two years and left guard Matt Slauson appears to be over a torn pectoral muscle. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod sat out organized team activities as more of a precaution than due to injury. Tackle Jordan Mills often has been a target for critics, and his injury status is a question heading into camp. But this could be the deepest line the Bears have had in several years. Vlad Ducasse showed an ability to fill in at either guard spot, and rookie center Hroniss Grasu should challenge Montgomery.

–Breakout player: Cornerback Kyle Fuller.

When coaches watched film of last year’s team, Fuller jumped out at them as an impact player. Only a few minor injuries slowed him down, and he lost some confidence then. However, the physical ability and reaction time Fuller showed early in the year and then very late made it obvious he has the skills to be a standout. Moving to a defensive scheme using more man-to-man may not be the ideal fit, since he was drafted partly because of his zone coverage skills. So, it could be a few games in the new scheme before his full potential becomes apparent.

–Work in progress: Defensive line.

The defensive line needs plenty of attention still — and possibly by more than coaches. The talent may be insufficient because of the loss that Ray McDonald represented. General manager Ryan Pace will keep looking for five-technique end types. When Phil Emery was the Bears’ general manager, he lamented not getting coach Marc Trestman more defensive linemen for his first season (2013). It looks like Pace has done the same for this year. The linebacker crew looks unsettled as well, but the numbers are much greater there than on the D-line, where 4-3, one-gap linemen have suddenly become two-gap plugs and, in some cases, seem unsuited for the roles.

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