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Baby steps: Young Bears on D making progress, ‘but not enough’

Rookie defensive end Jonathan Bullard (74) and second-year cornerback Jacoby Glenn (39) are among several first- and second-year players on defense for the Bears. (Ron Jenkins/AP)

Jonathan Bullard’s contribution against the Dallas Cowboys was largely imperceptible to the naked eye Sunday night. In 19 defensive snaps, the rookie defensive end made two tackles, both in the fourth quarter when the Bears down by two and three touchdowns.

It’s been slow going for the third-round draft pick from Florida — just 58 of the Bears’ 215 snaps on defense (27 percent) in the first three games. But Bullard is seeing progress.

“A lot of people questioned whether I would be able to [play in the NFL] because I’m a lighter guy,” the 6-3, 290-pound Bullard said. “I’m probably the smallest d-lineman. So I get a lot of scoop blocks and double teams and I’m holding the point. I’m doing pretty good at it. Some of them you’re going to lose, but for the most part I’ve been liking the way I’ve been playing those blocks.”

That’s one small first step for Bullard that could lead to a bigger next step.

“I definitely can tell [I’m getting there],” he said. “Each week I get more comfortable. It’s really understanding when to use my get-off within the defense. Each week I’m getting better.

“I can tell in practice, too. You might not get that many reps in a game right now, but practice is where I really earn the reps. I can tell in practice I’m taking strides forward. I’ve still got a long ways to get where I should be, where I want to be. But I do see progress.”

In a season that already seems more and more about player development than a shot at the playoffs, the Bears are seeing modest results at best from an influx of first- and second-year players on defense. Rookies and second-year players have combined for nearly half the total defensive snaps in three games.

Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, the team’s first-round draft pick, is the only rookie starting and playing more than half the defensive snaps. But three other rookies played against the Cowboys: Bullard, nickel back Cre’Von LeBlanc (playing for injured Bryce Callahan) and linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (playing for injured Danny Trevathan). Cornerback Deiondre Hall, played meaningful snaps against the Texans and Eagles but had none against the Cowboys.

Five second-year players are starting: nose tackle Eddie Goldman, safeties Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey, cornerback Jacoby Glenn (starting for injured Kyle Fuller) and Callahan.

The progress report: “We’re seeing some growth, but not enough,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “We’re 0-3 and everybody’s got their fingerprints on that record.”

Though the results have been unimpressive so far, this coaching staff at least is willing to give young players a chance. “There is no better way for young players to develop than to play,” Fangio said.

Coach John Fox lamented the Bears inablity to field a stable lineup because of injuries. “But the good news about that is you’ve got some young guys getting to step in and get some experience and get on-field experience and they’ll be better for it.

“When you have younger guys and first-time guys, they learn you, you learn them. In many cases they’re learning the system. But I’ve seen growth. It’s there. Now you’d like to keep the same group together for a period of time.”

Like most top-10 picks, Floyd’s progress can’t be fast enough. He has made a play here or there, but mostly looks like a rookie finding his way. At least he’s getting the chance to learn from his mistakes — Floyd has played 70 percent of the defensive snaps.

“I know I’ve gotten better each game,” Floyd said. “My technique’s better each game. I’m learning. I’m figuring out what my opponent is trying to do to me. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned — formation recognition. As soon as I get the play call, looking at the formation and recognizing what they’re in and knowing they have a higher percentage of run or pass depending on the formation.”

It remains to be seen if Floyd will become the impact player the Bears expect. But the soft-spoken Floyd is gaining confidence every game he’ll get there.

“I’m very confident in my abilities and what I can do to help this team,” he said. “And I’m going to go out every day and work hard and get better to help the team win.”