On Tuesday, I headed down south of the city to Bourbonnais, IL with the NFP’s Greg Gabriel to check in on Lovie Smith’s Bears at training camp. Let’s check out my observations from practice…

Hester’s Development

Devin HestsrICONHester's route running has improved.

I was impressed with Hester because of his route running. He looked like a veteran in Mike Martz’s route tree and his technique has improved. Hester showed the ability to use his eyes to sell routes, his footwork was solid, and was able to stem his releases to create separation and gain leverage on the DBs. In one-on-ones and throughout practice, his route running looked crisp and I saw a major improvement from last season. Very smooth in and out of his breaks. And, we got to see him align inside the numbers in certain situations—a position he should excel in against a nickel corner.

An athletic Peppers

I saw DE Julius Peppers during my own career, but watching him work in a practice setting makes you appreciate the athletic ability he has for a player his size. Great burst out of his stance, quick hands and speed off of the edge. Even in basic individual periods, Peppers looks as a good as advertised. Ideal speed/power player at the defensive end position.

Defense is ahead

No surprise here, but the defense under Rod Marinelli is ahead of the offense at this point of camp. We will see that around the league, but it is more evident in Chicago as the offense is still learning Martz’s system. And, we have to remember that Martz is still learning his personnel as camp rolls along. The O-Line under Mike Tice needs time to work on protection schemes and the offense in general is still developing. Marinelli’s defense challenged the receivers in the blitz periods and didn’t make many mistakes. I saw a lot of the Tampa 2, some Cover 1 schemes and plenty of zone blitzes—and they played fast. What we should expect from a defense that has years of experience in this scheme.

Watching Cutler

Jay Cutler ICONCan Cutler protect the football under Martz?

The Bears QB can sling the football. In the 3-step game, the ball comes out quickly and has some heat on it. And, just like last season, he will challenge the defense down the field—because he has the arm to do it. At times, I saw the same QB who will throw into coverage and can get carless with the football. But, there were also situations in practice when Cutler would fit the ball between two defenders and put the throw on the up-field shoulder away from the defender. Martz is going to push the envelope on offense and Cutler is the right QB for this system because he will take chances. Enormous talent, now he just has to learn how to produce and limit the turnovers in this system.

Olsen’s Role

Another big question for the Bears is the impact of TE Greg Olsen. On Tuesday, the TE aligned all over the field.  I saw him in the core of the formation, but for the most part, Olsen was removed and aligned as a WR—where he will draw the matchup of a corner or a safety.  This is where he is going to make plays for Chicago in 2010. Brandon Manumaleuna was brought in to be the “Y” or the “on the line” TE in Martz’s system. But after all of that offseason talk, Olsen looks like he will play a major role for this offense. He ran a variety of routes (comeback, slant, inside vertical seam, 7, etc.) and Cutler likes to get him the ball down the field. Plenty of talk about the lack of production from the TE in Martz’s offense, but I didn’t see a player who was just out there to block.

Safety Play

With both Chris Harris and Major Wright out with injuries, I had some time to focus on Craig Steltz. The former LSU safety doesn’t have great top end speed, but he has good instincts and showed some solid range out of the middle of the field. He was technique sound in his run/pass reads and I didn’t see him taking false steps or playing too deep in coverage. He trusts his skills and was around the football. Big position of need for Chicago, and as long as the Tampa 2 is a core coverage for this unit the safeties will have to get off of the numbers and make plays on the football.

Forte/ Taylor

Matt ForteICONForte looks healthy again in Chicago.

Matt Forte looks healthy and comes downhill hard with the football in his hands. Had a good burst out of the backfield and runs with good pad level in the hole. Looked like a different player that we saw in ’09 and had that explosive power back in his legs. With Taylor, the Bears get a player who I see playing a major role running the option routes out of the backfield and in the outside run game. He can get downhill and work inside the box, but his lateral quickness is key to this offense. Chicago has two good backs.

Martz’s creativity

As we talked about with Olsen, Martz will spread the field. Plenty of three and even four wide receiver sets, pre-snap movement and, well, “window dressing.” Under Martz, the Bears will shift, move and re-set before the snap of the ball to get the defense to show their coverages and to check out of pressure packages. They get to the line of scrimmage quickly and run multiple formations and personnel groupings.

Quick Hits…

Brian Urlacher looks lean and fast. He has no issue running with any inside vertical route in the Tampa 2 scheme and his athletic ability is still evident when he pursues to the football.

WR Devin Aromashodu has great top end speed and once he gets past press coverage at the line of scrimmage, he can separate down the field. Stiff in the hips and not the type of receiver who can run multiple breaking routes, but the ideal player for the 9 route (go route) 8 route (deep post) and the 7 route (flag route) in this offense. Should be the vertical player for Cutler.

Tommie Harris ICONHarris needs to stay on the field in 2010.

DT Tommie Harris can get off of the ball with speed. It is early in the camp (and we still have to see if he can stay healthy), but his first step is explosive and he uses his hands like a pro at the point of attack. Chicago needs him on the field.

C Olin Kreutz is still the leader of that offense and can still get it done going into his 13th season. Safeties better keep their head on a swivel when they blitz the “A” gap against Kreutz.

The Corner play for the Bears is something to keep an eye on. Charles Tillman and Zack Bowman can support the run and play in the Tampa 2, but can they produce in the Bears Cover 1 and blitz schemes?

WR Johnny Knox has been the top target of Cutler this camp from what I am told. Knox can beat press coverage and has the unique ability to eat up the DBs cushion with ease. Lots of speed here.

Lovie Smith still preaches turnovers—in every period of practice. Each and every player on that defense goes after the ball. A staple of the Tampa 2 teams in the NFL. Now, can they get it done in the regular season?

The heat was the theme of practice. Temps were high and the heat index was over 100 degrees. Lovie’s squad practiced hard in full pads.

Click here to read my notes from Packers Training Camp on Monday.

Follow me on Twitter: @MattBowen41

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