Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Brown Down Cleveland Browns

Editors Note: With the Bears wrapping up the 2011 preseason against the Cleveland Browns this week, we highlight a guest post from our sister distant cousin blog, The Ohio River Fire.

“If it’s brown, flush it down.” “The Mistake by the Lake.” “The Cleveland Frowns.”

Go on, run your mouths, Chi City. Jay Cutler wants Kristin Cavallari Back… Your team.

Going into this season, I’m about as excited as ever—aka since our grand return to the NFL in 1999—about the Browns’ evolving squad, coaching and front office. It’s a new year with a lot of new faces and strategies. It won’t be our year (again), but I think we’re moving forward and that our near future looks bright.

Best case scenario? My beloved boys in orange and brown jell and rack up more than five Ws this season. Worst case? It’s a publicly awkward, déjà vu kinda year in which everyone struggles to get on the same page and we end up banking on the first- and fourth-round 2012 draft picks we scooped up from Atlanta this time around.

The eternally hopeful Clevelander in me says it will be the former—that the Brownies will emerge as AFC North contenders, giving grown men reason to sing the Baha Men and putting Christmas Ale-fueled “Suuuper Bowl” chants in a whole new context. Twenty-some years of unfulfilled fandom says it will be the latter—that I’ll be freezing my ass off roaming the mean streets of Cleveland wondering why I thought the Browns could score 21 points with five minutes on the clock, thus ruining my chances of beating the other drunkards to Panini’s for pizza and increasing my wait time exponentially. So let’s just say somewhere in between—an unexpected big win or two, some nail-biters and a strong finish—would be A-OK with me during this time of transition.

Some Cleve highlights to look for in Thursday’s game:

Pat Shurmur. Out with Eric Mangin[a], in with the new. The Rams-offensive-
coordinator-turned-Browns-head-coach is shrouded in question marks, but he earned a few character points in my book with these opening remarks at a post-practice press conference on Monday: “I guess it’s still morning, so good morning. Today in the Browns’ world, it’s Thursday. I realize it’s Monday, but it’s Thursday as we prepare our team for a game on Thursday, which is Sunday.”

Colt McCoy. This young QB from Texas is showing signs of promise. Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace injuries gave him an in last year. And thankfully so. Performance and decent stats rightly earned him this season’s starting position.

Peyton Hillis. Dude ain’t showing no signs of the Madden curse. This Browns sophomore, surprise superstar and hunky hulk of man is fun to watch and should prove to be McCoy’s go-to runningback.

Dick Jauron’s 4-3 defense. The veteran NFL coach brings in a new scheme, and it seems from the first few weeks of preseason play that enormous rookie tackle Phil Taylor, much-smaller-and-swifter second-round draft pick right end Jabaal Sheard and company are climbing the learning curve.

That said, may the best (preseason) team win. And join me, won’t you, in crossing your fingers for a real-deal Browns-v-Bears matchup on next year’s sched.

Go Browns.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Adrenaline Rush

For the Bears to make another serious run this year the defense is going to need to stay in top form. While I expect the offense to be vastly improved from last season, they're clearly not ready to carry a team to the playoffs. So the defense is once again going to need to be the best unit on the team for the Bears to have a shot this season. With the defensive system staying the same, the Bears are not especially hurt by the shortened offseason. They are mostly a veteran group who have been in this system but there are a few new faces as well. Since the defense relies so heavily on creating turnovers to stop the opponent, the pressure from the defensive line is the key to success.

The obvious star of the line is Julius Peppers. At age 31, Peppers is another year older but he takes good care of himself and still holds the upper hand athletically in every match up he will face this season. Peppers was a force for most of the season although he only registered 8 sacks. He often commanded double and triple teams which allowed his line mates to exploit one on one match ups. Peppers also has a very strong presence in defending the run. He follows the ball until the play is dead and can span the entire field to make a play on the ball carrier. There were some games when Peppers was shut down last year, specifically against Russell Okung and the Seahawks, but for the most part he was one of the two best players on defense every game. I expect Peppers to return to putting up double digit sacks this year, especially with the improvement in his line mates.

The player I'm most excited to see play this year is Henry Melton. H Melt is a solid mass of muscle with above average speed. As a former running back, Melton likes contact and to put a charge into blockers. He has a very good initial burst which will help him beat offensive linemen off the snap. He created a lot of pressure on the QB in limited chances last year and with his number of snaps expecting to rise this season, I also expect his productivity to go way up. Melton needs to show that he can continue to make plays and keep pressuring the QB when given a high volume of snaps. If the Bears are able to get pressure from the inside linemen that will force opponents to divert attention away from Peppers and the other DEs.

At the NT position the Bears have a solid veteran in Anthony Adams. When they didn't immediately address his contract at the beginning of free agency, I was worried that they undervalued him. But thankfully they brought him back for at least another couple years. Anthony is the Bears best overall run defender. He often occupies multiple blockers and is still able to shed them and make a play on the ball carrier. Although not a special athlete, Double A has great strength and is surprisingly agile, considering his build. Although he has been injured during the preseason, he should be a large contributor the entire season and remain a starter on the line.

Israel Idonije had a career year in 2010. The two biggest factors in that were his increased playing time as well as the presence of Julius Peppers. Izzy has been moved back and forth bewteen DE and DT his entire career. Last year was the first year that they decided to give him a shot as one of the starting DEs. Idonije took advantage of seeing one on one match ups the whole season and was able to get good pressure on the QB. He is also a capable player in the run game with his size and strength. I expect Idonije to produce at about the same rate as last year when he recorded 8 sacks and 49 tackles. However some of the younger DEs may push him for playing time.

Corey Wootton is a another young player that I'm excited to see get extended playing time. Although his preseason has gotten of to a rough start, getting hurt on the first play of the first game, if he's able to come back healthy I expect him to have a big impact on the defense. At 6'6", 270 lbs Wootton is an imposing figure in the Julius Peppers vein. Corey Wootton is already a Bears legend for ending the career of brett favre, but he has the size and the upside for that to only be a small note is his overall career. Before getting injured, Wootton was in line to be the first DE off the bench, and assuming he's able to return to full healthy, he is expected to fill that role and see plenty of snaps.

The Bears took a flyer on Vernon Gholston this offseason and the way that he's been praised at times by Rod Marinelli, I wouldn't be surprised if he makes the team. He would be the 4th DE and in this defense that means he would be rotated in for his share of snaps. Gholston has proven to be ineffective so far during his NFL career, but the hope is that the switch back to a 4-3 DE as well as input from Marinelli could help Gholston find success that he has yet to find in the NFL. With Wootton expected to be out the rest of the preseason, Gholston will get plenty of looks and the opportunity to show whether or not he's got anything in him.

Gholston's biggest competition for a roster spot is Mario Addison. Addison is an undrafted free agent out of Troy University, which is a well known school thanks to DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora. Addison has come on strongly towards the end of camp and showed some good things on film during the first preseason game. Barring any setbacks to Wootton's recovery, I don't expect Gholston and Addison to make the team, but whichever one wins the jobs will have opportunities to contribute this season.

With the Bears defense being such a vital component to their success, they'll need consistent play from their defensive line. They need to put constant pressure on QBs while still defending against the run properly. The return of Peppers, Idonije and Adams should provide stability along the front four and allow some of the younger players the opportunity to step up and and contribute. I fully expect the defensive line to be the biggest story on defense all year, and hopefully it's because they are getting the job done.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Watch The Thrown

Despite the fact that the Bears' biggest name WR acquisition this off season was Roy E Williams, they have improved their WR corps considerably. Even though Williams is very inconsistent with his game, he has the size that Jay Cutler likes in his receivers. Williams will likely lead the team in targets because he'll usually be the biggest option on the field and that's exactly what Cutler needs. That's exactly what Greg Olsen was before he was Martzed from the game plan last year. Williams is the kind of receiver that can help make up for a poorly thrown ball.

But he's certainly not without his faults. The worst characteristic of a Roy E Williams is his excessive celebration on first down catches. It doesn't matter what the game situation is, if he's catching a first down he's letting the crowd know it. Hopefully with him being on his third team trying to salvage his NFL career, he will save the celebrating for clutch first downs... Unlikely. Williams has been known for not being a hard worker on the practice field in his career. We saw glimpses of it down in training camp earlier this summer, while he was wearing a Crocodile Dundee hat and not running hard. He's very experienced at coasting on his talent, which shows when he disappears in games. But on a one-year contract, I do expect Williams to lose some of the antics and to be one of the biggest contributing factors in whether the Bears succeed or fail this year. Being a Martz guy like Brandon Manumaleuna, expect Williams to get every shot at staying on the field and having his number called this season.

Devin Hester will be the second most important receiver on this team. When Williams was brought in, many expected him to take snaps away from Hester, but instead it will take snaps away from Johnny Knox. I am one hundred percent on board with this decision to bump Knox instead of Hester. Hester is a better receiver in my opinion. I know that Knox has put up much better numbers than Hester has, but Knox'impact on the game is minimal. Devin Hester has been overly criticized the last few years since he has made the transition to WR. He has good hands with the ability to catch bad throws, especially low ones. He does have lapses where he will drop an easy pass, including blown TD opportunities, but he has improved his hands every offseason since becoming a full time receiver and reports out of camp are that the trend has continued. What Hester needs to improve most is his route running. He's had problems in the past where he tips his routes at the line of scrimmage and he also doesn't run crisp routes which affect timing with Cutler. After a year of the Martz offense under his belt, Hester has shown an improved confidence in his overall game. He is a full year familiar with the playbook and it should show in his number of targets and overall production. I fully expect Hester to have the best year of his career statistically as well as impactfully as an offensive weapon.

Earl Bennett should continue to be the steady factor that he is. While he's the least gifted athletically, Bennett is still the Bears' best overall WR and often gets overlooked. He is a great safety valve for Cutler when he needs to dump the ball over the middle. He has very sure hands and an already established chemistry with Cutler. Bennett does not have very good speed but he has good understanding of the WR position. He knows how to get open enough and provide a good target for his QB. Bennett may not lead the Bears is any statistical categories this year, but it's very possible that he makes the biggest plays every week.

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of Johnny Knox. I think he is ridiculously overloved by the fans and is a liability when he's on the field too much. Even after gaining some solid weight in the offseason, there is still not very much mass to Knox. He is easily knocked around and overpowered and he avoids contact because of it. When jammed at the line of scrimmage, Knox has trouble starting his routes and is eliminated as an option for Cutler. But his biggest flaw is still his unwillingness to go after the ball in traffic. This has led to interceptions and plenty of incompletions when Knox is asked to run towards the middle of the field. If he doesn't improve this aspect of his game, he will never reach the potential that his speed implies. Knox has very poor hands actually does not use them when he catches the ball. Knox likes to catch the ball with his stomach or chest, choosing to corral the ball with his arms. And even though I'm very glad that Knox was bumped to the #4 WR, I do expect him to play a big role in the offense. With Olsen gone, the Bears will often line up 4 WRs this year. Knox's speed automatically makes him a threat down the field, so hopefully he can continue to convert on long completions. If Knox can sustain his high yards per reception average and big play ability, it won't matter that he's not capable of being a high volume receiver.

At 6'3" Sam Hurd is also a player to watch. If he sees any time on the field, I would expect Cutler to like him as a target. Even though it's just practice, he did stand out when we saw him at training camp this year. He is a big body who hasn't seen much playing time in his career, but has shown the ability to make plays in limited opportunities. His greatest impact will most likely be on special teams, but I hope that he gets a fair shake on offense because in a pass happy system, you want the type of WR that your QB is comfortable with, so size is good.

There are two young receivers that have the ability to make a good impression this season. The first is Dane Sanzenbacher. Sanzenbacher has been the biggest surprise in camp so far this year, but failed to do anything in the first pre-season game. There have been many camp legends in the Bears' past that go on to do nothing once the games start. Hopefully Sanzenbacher doesn't turn out to be one of those players, but I do expect the Bears to give him some opportunities to step up.

The second rookie WR to keep an eye on is Kris Adams. Adams made a big impression against the 2's and 3's of the Buffalo Bills, but I wouldn't put too much stock in that. What I do like about Adams is his size. At 6'4" Kris Adams definitely stands out on the field. I don't know how well he runs his routes or how consistent he is with his hands, but with limited exposure to him I am intrigued. I think that if he were able to find a roster spot and a shot at playing time, Cutler would like to throw his way.

With the departure of Rasheid Davis, the veteran free agent WR acquisitions the Bears made and the signing of undrafted free agents, I absolutely believe the position has been improved. There is competition for playing time and that simply means the players who step up should be able to get on the field. Hopefully the addition of size to the WR corps will allow Jay Cutler to be more comfortable throwing the ball in tight coverage. While the Bears will still need to add a Larry Fitzgerald type true #1 in the future, they have at least pretended to address the position this year.