1st-and-10: Bears’ defense eager to push the envelope

Even in early practices, the Bears look like they’ll push the limits of aggressiveness and physicality under Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams. “Play like your hair’s on fire,” Williams said.

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Linebacker Roquan Smith had one of five sacks of Joe Burrow in the Bears’ 20-17 victory over the eventual AFC champions at Soldier Field last season.

Linebacker Roquan Smith had one of five sacks of Joe Burrow in the Bears’ 20-17 victory over the eventual AFC champions at Soldier Field last season.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s difficult to get any indicators from non-padded practices, but one in particular at Bears training camp seems notable — the defense already looks like it will push the envelope of physicality and aggression under coordinator Alan Williams, especially in the secondary.

It remains to be seen if the Bears can approach the line without crossing it, but if you do it right — like the 49ers under Vic Fangio and the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom unit in the past decade — you redefine what a foul is and often get the benefit of the doubt. But if you don’t do it right, it gets ugly in a hurry.

Coach Matt Eberflus and Williams have made a point of instilling that mindset from the beginning, even before training camp began. And the difference is noticeable. Whether it will pay off remains to be seen.

“When you come in shape and you can run all day long, you can really push that envelope,” Williams said. “You’re playing 100 miles an hour. We’d say, ‘Play like your hair’s on fire.’ So when you can go hard at long stints of time, you’re practicing up to the edge. That’s your standard.”

The trick, of course, is getting as close to the line as possible without going over it.

“You just coach it,” Eberflus said. “You coach every play. So when you see a penalty [in practice] . . . I’m going to address it. I will pull those [penalties] up in the team meeting and tell ’em, ‘OK, this is a foul. You made the play, but really it’s a new set of downs. We fouled.’

“So we all have to coach that way — offense and defense. We’ve been fortunate where we’ve been in the top of the league in least penalized. So it’s about being violent. It’s about having self-control. It’s about having discipline. It’s about coaching the guys in the rules, so they know where the rules are.”

Eberflus’ approach seems to take some getting used to, though. The Colts were 26th in fewest defensive penalties (50) in 2018, Eberflus’ first season as defensive coordinator. They had the fewest (26) the next season. They were 21st in 2020 (45) and first last season (23).

2. Teven Jenkins’ demise with the Bears is the most glaring example of Ryan Poles’ repudiation of the roster he inherited from Ryan Pace.

Jenkins, an offensive tackle from Oklahoma State, was drafted in the second round by Pace last year as a foundation piece of the offensive line for quarterback Justin Fields. But he almost immediately was deemed expendable by the Bears under Poles — being replaced as an offensive-line starter by fifth-round rookie Braxton Jones in OTAs.

After one day as a backup in training camp, Jenkins was sidelined by a mysterious, undisclosed injury that sounds more and more fishy the more we get to know how the Poles/Eberflus regime operates.

It’s no big surprise that Jenkins is on the trading block, as reported by NFL Network. NFL teams have widely differing opinions on personnel, especially offensive linemen.

Still, the Jenkins situation puts an even greater focus on Poles, who arrived with a background and expertise in the offensive line. Much of the success of the 2022 season is based on the development of Fields — and under Poles, the Bears are trying to do that with an offensive line of Riley Reiff/Jones, Cody Whitehair, Lucas Patrick, Michael Schofield/Sam Mustipher and Larry Borom.

If they’re not good, Fields struggles and the Bears begin looking for another franchise quarterback, critics are going to wonder why Poles didn’t give Fields a better chance to succeed.

3. The Bears will practice in full pads for the first time Tuesday — and it can’t come soon enough. It’s tough enough to make judgments on a team in preseason games and in padded practices against teammates, but it’s never more difficult than in practices in shorts. The Bears used to have two practices in shorts in training camp. This season they had five — and we just can’t wait that long to judge.

Defense won the day Monday, with Fields and the offense looking out of sync, especially in a two-minute drill at the end. It’s hardly a surprise that a rebuilt offense in a new system will have those days in the first week of training camp.

The next week will put the Bears’ offense in more of a specific relief. For one thing, you get a much better perspective on the running game in pads, and it’s becoming clearer that the running game will be the foundation of the offense.

4. Rookie defensive end Dominique Robinson, who has been getting first-team snaps with Robert Quinn still in a ramp-up phase, remains an intriguing player to keep an eye on and someone who warrants a look in full pads.

“So far, it hasn’t gotten too big,” Williams said. “Each install that comes in, he gobbles the install up. It’s nice to have a player that maybe makes a mistake Day 1, you correct it in the meeting, and then in Day 2, he fixes it when it comes up again. That’s the sign of a guy that’s going to be OK — a guy that’s a professional.”

Quinn is obviously the starter at that position. But Robinson’s progression could present a quandary that is the essence of this season: Will a 32-year-old Pro Bowl edge rusher like Quinn stand in the way of the development of a promising pass rusher?

5. That situation bears watching. Eberflus indicated Monday that Robinson will continue to get a quality look even as Quinn gets more first-team snaps.

“He’s intriguing to me and to the defensive coaches,” Eberflus said. “We’re excited for the pads, though — to see [Robinson’s] pass rush, if that stays with the pads on. And also the ability to play the run.”

6. One big difference in this camp: Roquan Smith’s rookie holdout was virtually a daily subject for Matt Nagy in 2018 — with Nagy eventually growing weary of the daily questions about Smith’s contract status. This time, with the Bears expected to go 6-11 or 7-10, Smith’s absence is barely a factor. He’ll be here when he’ll be here.

7. There are plenty of false narratives at any Bears training camp, but wide receiver Darnell Mooney reaching another level in coordinator Luke Getsy’s offense after being a rare offensive star in Nagy’s offense isn’t one of them. Mooney looks ready for takeoff.

8. Five years ago, the Bears tried to sell quarterback Mike Glennon as a leader who would rally the offense. The case for Fields in that role seems much more credible.

“I think anyone who watches practice can see just how determined and focused No. 1 [Fields] is,” tight end Ryan Griffin said. “When he’s the leader of your offense, it permeates throughout every unit on that side of the ball.

“He’s leading by example and leading in the huddle by getting the call right, making sure guys are on the same page. I’m excited to see what he’s like in game time.”

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bear of the Week: Steelers wide receiver Anthony Miller showed off his dexterity at training camp Sunday by catching six punts in a row without dropping any. But Miller has been more than just a showman. He’s making a big early impression and the most of a third NFL chance with the Steelers and Mitch Trubisky.

10. Bear-ometer: 7-10 — vs. 49ers (W); at Packers (L); vs. Texans (W); at Giants (L); at Vikings (L); vs. Commanders (W); at Patriots (L); at Cowboys (L); vs. Dolphins (W); vs. Lions (W); at Falcons (W); at Jets (L); vs. Packers (L); vs. Eagles (L); vs. Bills (L); at Lions (L); vs. Vikings (W).

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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