LB Pernell McPhee on Chicago Bears' improved defense: 'We're playing like dogs'

By The Sports Xchange  |  Oct. 25, 2017 at 9:41 PM
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears defense has carried the team to consecutive victories for the first time since 2015 despite special teams breakdowns for touchdowns and an offense that considers punting a success.

Whether this can continue against one of the league's strongest offenses Sunday in New Orleans could be the true measure of how far coordinator Vic Fangio's defense has come.

"We're playing like dogs, we're playing like animals," linebacker Pernell McPhee said. "We're playing like some maniacs, and we deserve to play like that because it's been a long time coming."

It takes a dominant defense to stay on the field 38-plus minutes and hold an opponent without a touchdown, like the Bears did Sunday to Carolina. They haven't allowed a touchdown in 25 consecutive opposing possessions while rising to seventh in league rankings.

Now they play possibly the best offense they've faced to date, with the possible exception of Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay.

Fangio admits stats are nice when measuring his defense.

"But to me it's just what your eyes tell you, not what stats tell you," Fangio said.

And the eyes tell Fangio two years of fighting through injuries with a lack of depth is now paying off in a defensive surge despite losing linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Willie Young, and safety Quintin Demps to injured reserve. Freeman and Demps were captains and Young their most consistent pass rusher.

"Honestly, I can't say that we haven't missed a beat," defensive end Akiem Hicks said. "I know our performances in the past two weeks have been really good.

"There's been an adjustment. There's been an adjustment period of just having to go from one voice in the room to -- you know what I mean? It's different. And the communication is different."

Linebacker Danny Trevathan thinks it's all possible because the formula for success was already set in motion before the three starters' injuries.

"We're taking it upon ourselves to challenge one another," Trevathan said. "There's a lot more emphasis on it this year, a lot more than in the past since I've been here."

The front seven figured to be a strength heading into the season. With nose tackle Eddie Goldman and Hicks combining to stuff the middle, the Bears are 11th against the run. Hicks said the key has been forcing third-and-seven instead of third-and-two.

"It's not to say that there's not a run here, that pops here and there," Hicks said. "But I think overall, as a defense, we take the run game pretty seriously. I think that if you can keep an offense one-dimensional you have a great chance of winning at the end of the day."

Despite losing Demps' veteran touch, safeties Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos and cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller have the Bears ninth against the pass. They have two touchdown returns on four interceptions the last two games, and a fumble return for a touchdown.

"I think overall we haven't played perfect all year, but I've been pleased or satisfied or, you know, not overjoyed but these guys have played well and I see them getting better," Fangio said. "I see Eddie Jackson getting better and better. I've been telling you (media) guys for weeks I like where Kyle Fuller is right now and that's happening more and more."

A secondary with only eight interceptions each of the last two years is suddenly seeing the opportunity to make plays.

"Once you do it and get a feel for it, it starts becoming contagious and you want to do it more and more and more because you get that feeling, especially for the young guys back there, the cornerbacks and safeties, especially after last year not getting too many," Hicks said.

The Bears used to practice picking up footballs and returning them after every incomplete pass, when Lovie Smith's defenses ranked among the best at producing turnovers and touchdown returns. They've reinstituted this practice.

"We're scooping and scoring incomplete passes now in practice," head coach John Fox said. "So we're working on that transition from defense to offense, I think, has helped us really in the last two weeks.

"And I think better understanding of our packages, some of the schemes we're doing, I think you're seeing that comfort level executed better. I think guys know where each other are supposed to fit and what they're supposed to do, particularly in the coverage element."

McPhee traced it back to knowing Fangio's scheme and intent better.

"We mold to his mind, his attitude and the way he is," McPhee said.

While the defense is thriving, it's difficult to see how they can continue without help. Staying on the field for two-thirds of a game would challenge any defense, particularly against an offense as high powered as the one Saints quarterback Drew Brees leads.

"We can't really worry about that," McPhee said. "We've just got to have our offense's back and just keep playing football.

"It's football. We've got to have fun no matter if we're playing 10 (minutes) or 50 (minutes), just have fun."

Disparities between offense and defense can mean rifts. Bears lore has it that this occurred in 1963 when, after defensive stops or turnovers, defensive end Ed O'Bradovich would tell quarterback Bill Wade, "Hold 'em."

Nothing of the sort is building with the Bears because it's understood quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is still early in the learning process. The defense says they'll survive.

"We want to be on the field," Trevathan said. "Defense: That's our job. When we get put in a tense situation, we've got to rise. We've got to take that as a challenge."

Fox said rifts are dangerous because players have memories.

"There will be a day where it'll be the other way and I wouldn't expect the other side to look at that group sideways," Fox said.

SERIES HISTORY: 28th regular-season meeting. Saints lead series, 14-13. New Orleans has won the last three, including 31-15 at Soldier Field in 2014. The Saints have won four of the last five at home over the Bears, but the only loss in that stretch was at Baton Rouge following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Bears' last victory in New Orleans was in 1991. The teams met twice in the postseason, the Bears winning both in Soldier Field, 16-6 in 1990 and 35-14 in the NFC Championship Game after the 2006 season.

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The Bears saw an obvious need for another wide receiver and traded a seventh-round pick to acquire Los Angeles Chargers receiver Dontrelle Inman. The fourth-year receiver has just two receptions this year, but has been slowed by a hamstring injury.

"Maybe another veteran presence in the room and a guy that's played in the NFL, played with a good quarterback, that's going to help everyone," offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. "That's going to help that (receiver) group."

Mitchell Trubisky threw only one pass to a wide receiver last week. The past two weeks, his starting wide receivers were undrafted rookie free agent Tanner Gentry and Tre McBride, who has three career receptions and arrived in Chicago as a waiver acquisition just before the season.

The Bears have lost Kevin White (scapula), Cameron Meredith (knee) to injured reserve, and Markus Wheaton (groin) is out for an extended period.

Trubisky is hoping to get on the same page quickly with Inman.

"I'm not really sure how this whole process works, a guy coming in in the middle of the season, but I'm looking forward to it," Trubisky said. "I've heard he's a good player and I'll just help him any way we can. He's part of this team and family now.

"We're invested in all of our guys and we're going to get him as ready as we can as well as the other guys."

Head coach John Fox isn't certain how fast a new receiver can pick up the offense, but the Bears have a bye next week and the extra time will help.

"It depends on the guy," Fox said. "Some guys are wired differently. I've not even met the young man yet, so we'll determine that kind of as we go."

The Bears haven't had a taller receiver who can play a vertical game since White's injury, but Inman is 6-foot-3, 205 pounds. He has 107 catches for 1,463 yards and seven touchdowns.

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The ill effect of throwing only seven times in a game on Trubisky's development might continue to be a debate away from Halas Hall, but not to coaches. To them and to players, winning is what matters.

"You've got to win as you grow," Loggains said. "The organization has to win while you grow.

"Sometimes it doesn't unfold the way you want to. The development thing, he's going to develop. He's going to get plenty of snaps and plenty of throws, those things. There is nothing like winning for a young quarterback and that's what we're judged on."

Trubisky said he's working extra this week to establish more continuity with receivers.

"It's all about rhythm, staying in a groove and really just continuing to evolve and find our identity and what works best for our offense to help out our defense," Trubisky said.

As for too few passes slowing his development, Trubisky agrees with his offensive coordinator.

"My confidence is fine," Trubisky said. "Winning's the most important thing. I don't care if I throw zero passes if we win the game. I don't care if I'm not playing if we're winning the game. As long as the Chicago Bears are winning, we're doing something right."

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Fox defended the seven-pass offense that turned out Sunday's victory over Carolina, and brought back the memory of games past as proof it was the right approach.

"The upside to that is that we haven't turned it over nearly as much as we did early in the season," Fox said.

When Fox dumped quarterback Mike Glennon, it was because of eight turnovers in three games.

"When you do that, there's no chance of winning," Fox said. "I don't care what you're doing."

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Jackson was named NFC defensive player of the week after becoming the only player in NFL history with a fumble and interception return of at least 75 yards for touchdowns.

Cornerback Prince Amukamara told him to gather up his shoes, gloves, helmet and uniform because the Pro Football Hall of Fame might be calling on him to collect them after the performance.

"For those plays he should be in Canton," Amukamara said. "He had a great day. A lot of us didn't know he was that fast because he never had to open up like that."

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Last week, Kendall Wright had only eight plays after he started to develop chemistry with Trubisky. Loggains and Fox thought it had more to do with an offensive approach that called for running and using two or three tight ends instead of a slot receiver, or other strategies.

"The last two weeks we've chosen to do some no-huddle stuff on third down to kind of help Mitchell," Loggains said. "So, it has limited some of Kendall's touches and those things."

Wright continues to fit in team plans.

"He is very smart, he's very intelligent, he's got a football IQ," Loggains said. "He is a slot receiver. He does have the ability to play outside. His strength is playing inside, though."

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Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski has more of a chance of seeing action this week after returning from his pectoral injury to be active for the last game. He dressed but didn't play against the Panthers.

At first, he thought he was headed for injured reserve after the Week 2 injury.

"When it first happened, I didn't know what to expect," he said. "It was hard. If you would've said (I'd miss) three weeks to begin with that first day, I would've absolutely signed up. It's hard to tell.

"It was painful, I never had a pec injury before, I didn't know anything about it, so I didn't know what happened. Even after the first MRI, there were what-ifs or get another couple things like that. It was scary. It kind of turned out in the best way."

NOTES: WR Dontrelle Inman was acquired from the Chargers for a seventh-round pick and is to have a physical Thursday. He'll likely be available after the Bears' bye week Nov. 12 against the Packers. The Bears will have to make a roster move to fit him on the roster. ... G Kyle Long (ankle) missed practice Wednesday (Oct. 25) as a precautionary measure. Long continues to play and practice after his surgery of last season and needs longer to recover. The Bears have held him on consecutive days before, or practiced him on a limited basis to get him more rest. He is likely to play Sunday. ... DB Sherrick McManis (hamstring) was held out of Wednesday's game after missing the last game with an injury suffered at Baltimore two weeks ago. ... DL Roy Robertson-Harris (hamstring) was held out of Wednesday's practice with an injury suffered in Sunday's win over Carolina. Robertson-Harris has been involved in special teams and in providing downs off for defensive end Akiem Hicks or nose tackle Eddie Goldman. Jonathan Bullard would get more playing time if Robertson-Harris can't play, or John Jenkins also could get playing time. ... LB John Timu (ankle, knee) missed Wednesday's practice due to an injury suffered three weeks ago. Timu is week-to-week and unlikely to play Sunday. ... WR Markus Wheaton (groin) missed Wednesday's practice and is week-to-week. Wheaton, who has had one catch and has been targeted nine times this season, is unlikely to play Sunday. ... CB Bryce Callahan (neck) practiced Wednesday on a limited basis. Callahan, the Bears' nickel corner, has been battling through the injury and is likely to play Sunday. Cre'Von LeBlanc is his backup if he's unable to go. ... RB Benny Cunningham (hamstring) practiced Wednesday on a limited basis and is day-to-day after missing last week's game with an injury suffered against Baltimore. Cunningham's return would be an asset on special teams and also in some third-down situations on offense. ... C Hroniss Grasu (hand) practiced Wednesday on a limited basis. He has been out since Week 2 with an injury suffered in the win over Pittsburgh. ... DE Mitch Unrein (quad) practiced on a limited basis. Unrein played through the injury last week and should be available to play against New Orleans.

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