By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) The Bears held their first padded practice of 2014 on Sunday in front of a raucous crowd of faithful fans. The new arrivals on the defensive line set the tone, the offense was out of sync and the most unlikely training camp hero emerged on special teams. Here are my notes from today’s practice.
New defensive additions making an impact
Both in free agency and the draft the Bears prioritized bolstering their defense with new and dynamic talent, particularly along the defensive line and secondary. Not only does it appear that the talent has been upgraded, but the overall attitude and swagger of the defense is palpable.
Defensive lineman Lamarr Houston is a fluid athlete who is light on his feet and plays with a chip on his shoulder. Houston manned the left defensive end in the Bears base defense, but kicked inside on sub packages.
“We can play Lamarr inside or outside, that’s the flexibility he offers, he’s very versatile,” said Bears defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni after practice.
The Bears gave a glimpse of their “NASCAR” package, deploying Willie Young at left end, Houston at three-technique, Jeremiah Ratliff at nose and Jared Allen at right defensive end. This line had some success pressing and collapsing the pocket against the Bears first team offensive line, and while camp is still early, Houston and Allen have created their own celebratory handshake.
It was encouraging to see the new acquisitions are developing a bond and got off to a strong start on the field.
Another new addition, safety Ryan Mundy, had a strong practice. Mundy was involved in a few pass breakups over the middle of the field and provided some strong run support, making plays that would’ve been potential tackles for a loss. The Bears used Mundy and rookie Brock Vereen exclusively with the first team, playing them interchangeably as box and single-high defenders.
Chris Conte is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Each day Conte misses, he’s missing opportunities to get on film and make a play to catch the coach’s attention. After a rough 2013 season and missing the majority of the offseason program, Conte will have to have a strong preseason showing to earn his job back in what has been deemed a “wide open” battle.
At the second level of the Bears defense, the only job that is secured is that of Will (weak-side) linebacker Lance Briggs. The Bears used a rotation of Jon Bostic, Shea McClellin and DJ Williams in their base defense at the Mike (middle) and Sam (strong-side) linebacker positions.
Bostic got the first team reps as the nickel linebacker alongside Briggs. In nickel, defenses are replacing a linebacker with a fifth defensive back. With teams like the Lions and Packers in their division, the Bears will spend the majority of their snaps this upcoming season in nickel. That being said, if Bostic wins the job as the second nickel linebacker, it raises the question of how much McClellin will see the field this season.
Special teams highs and lows
On a team full of star players and household names, it’s strange to think that a rookie got the biggest reaction from the crowd. What takes it from strange to bizarre is the fact that the rookie was punter Pat O’Donnell. Yes, Pat O’Donnell got the loudest cheers at camp today.
O’Donnell boomed a series of punts during special teams period, sending perfect spirals into the air that traveled well over 65 yards down the field, much to the delight of the fans. Cheers of “Mega punt! Mega punt!” echoed throughout the practice field.
Special teams coach Joe DeCamillis was equally surprised at the reaction O’Donnell got from the fans.
“That’s a first. I was thinking, you gotta be kidding me over there, let’s keep the kids feet on the ground,” said DeCamillis.
In between some of O’Donnell’s crowd-pleasing punts, were some errant snaps from long snapper Chas Rempel. Rempel sailed a snap and had a few skip back to the punters, which won’t sit well with the coaching staff as they review the film.
“The evaluation is day-to-day. They all count, and everything you do within the framework of that football play is being evaluated by our coaching staff and personnel department,” said head coach Marc Trestman about the long snappers.
Offense out of sync
Considering they returned all 11 starters on offense, one would assume the offense would be ahead of the defense during the early portion of camp. That certainly wasn’t the case on Sunday. Jay Cutler was erratic with his passes down the field, and the group of backup quarterbacks didn’t fare much better.
Despite the hiccups on offense, second-year wideout Marquess Wilson had a strong day of practice. Wilson is the early leader in the competition for the third wide receiver spot and got all of the snaps with the first team when the Bears went to ’11’ personnel. Wilson is visibly bigger, and was crisp with his route running both over the middle of the field and on vertical routes up the sidelines.
“He certainly made plays throughout the first three days of practice,” said Trestman about Wilson.
Additionally, tight end Marcellus Bennett made some nice plays over the middle of the field, securing the ball in traffic.
Pro-bowl guard Kyle Long remained sidelined as he recovers from a viral illness. He was replaced by Eben Britton.
Tim Jennings started the practice, but was removed himself after the first play with a quadriceps injury. This gave the Bears more opportunity to evaluate rookie Kyle Fuller at left cornerback and Kelvin Hayden at nickelback.
Safeties Craig Steltz (groin) and Conte (shoulder) also did not suit up for practice.
Wide receiver Terrance Toliver (toe) did not participate.
The Bears will again be in pads on Monday morning before getting the day off on Tuesday.