Bears training camp: Sean Desai’s defense dominating without pads

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Hoge’s camp notes: Defense dominating (without pads) originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Late in Friday’s practice at Halas Hall, Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor moved from the offense’s sideline to the defense’s sideline, but he swears he wasn’t playing favorites.

“Sometimes that can be a barometer. I like to be on both sides. I’m Switzerland. I’m neutral. Those guys on both sides are all my guys,” Tabor said.

But let’s be honest, it was more fun on the defensive side.

It’s common for the defense to win the first few practices of camp as the offense works out the kinks, but Friday was borderline unfair. Khalil Mack was parked in the backfield. Bilal Nichols and Akiem Hicks were blowing up plays. The linebackers had free lanes to the ballcarriers.

And the defense was letting the offense hear about it. Tight ends Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham were both on the receiving end of some jeering from the defensive sideline. And Nichols had no problem saying something to head coach Matt Nagy after getting into the backfield and nearly making an incredible interception.

“We're having fun, man. And when you have fun, you make plays,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “At the end of the day, that's what it's about.”

Nagy loves that energy, by the way. And there seems to be more of it with new defensive coordinator Sean Desai in charge.

“I’m not a big rah-rah guy but when it’s authentic and they’re having fun, I think that’s good for them,” Desai said. “I mean, training camp can get long. They need to have some fun and levity.”

And yet, Desai and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor both acknowledged that they have to be careful with making grand conclusions while the players aren’t wearing pads.

“When it comes to team periods without pads on, I’ve just kind of learned over time not to make too many evaluations until pads are on. That’s NFL football,” Lazor said.

On the downside, the defense hasn’t come up with an interception in the last two days despite putting themselves in position to grab multiple passes. Nichols’ dropped interception would have been a tremendous play – especially for a defensive lineman – as he jumped up to knock Andy Dalton’s pass, but nearly caught it instead. But Roquan Smith missed a big opportunity as he blew up a screen but couldn’t corral the football, while a defensive back (I couldn’t tell who it was because I was screened by the sideline) dropped Justin Fields’ last pass of the day.

The good news? The defense is seeing the football and getting in the right positions to make plays. Now they just need to finish. Takeaways are a huge emphasis for the defense this year so it’s going to be important to cash in on those opportunities the rest of the training camp.

QB update

So if the defense was that good, what did it mean for the quarterbacks? From my vantage point, Fields had the better day, as the dropped interception at the end was the only concerning throw. The rookie had some impressive throws to tight end Jesse James and wide receiver Javon Wims over the middle and generally made good decisions with the ball.

As for Dalton, he didn’t necessarily have a bad practice. The issues appeared to be more on the offensive line. My notebook is littered with things like: “throwaway” and “sack 52” and “sack 96.” There wasn’t much the quarterback could do.

So… about the offensive line

For all the complaints about Charles Leno Jr., the guy made 93 straight starts over the last six seasons at left tackle. He was extremely durable. The Bears took a chance by moving on from Leno and their depth is already being tested with rookie Teven Jenkins missing the first three practices with a back issue.

It’s not time to panic (especially because the pads aren’t on), but the Jenkins injury coupled with right tackle Germain Ifedi suffering a hip flexor injury during the conditioning test is stressing the depth at tackle already. Veteran Elijah Wilkinson and second-year Lachavious Simmons have been filling in with mixed results, but again, the pads aren’t on and that tends to give the defense the advantage.

“Some of the physical play is just hard to say,” Lazor said. “(Offensive line coach Juan Castillo), this isn’t his first time, right? Many times he’s gone through the non-padded part of practice and seen what happens. So you just coach the parts that you can coach. A week from now is kind of like, the learning has happened, the non-physical part is in the past and we’re doing physical drills and getting going. It’s just kind of how the NFL is set up to go.”

Emptying the notebook

- Hicks missed Thursday’s practice because of toe soreness but was back Friday and looked fine.

- Nagy noted that Andy Dalton was given the chance to call his own plays during a two-minute drill in Thursday’s practice, but Fields isn’t quite to that point yet, so the coaches called the rookie’s play.

- It was interesting to see undrafted kicker Brian Johnson take the field goals in Friday’s practice, especially since the Bears don’t even need to be carrying two kickers after giving Cairo Santos a sizeable extension in the offseason. Tabor likes to keep his kickers fresh though and mentioned that alternating days helps accomplish that.

- Former Loyola basketball star Cameron Krutwig watched Friday’s practice from the sideline.

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