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After a day off Thursday, the Chicago Bears held a two-hour non-padded practice Friday morning at Halas Hall. The session is what Matt Eberflus labels a “red” practice, designed as more of a ramp-up before the Bears get back into pads Saturday in Lake Forest.
Here are the highlights from Friday’s practice and well as the rundown of what we learned from interviews with Eberflus and players.
The Bears’ long-talked-about quest to add teeth to their pass rush took a step in the right direction Thursday night when the team agreed to terms on a one-year, $10.5 million deal with veteran Yannick Ngakoue. Drafted in the third round by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016, Ngakoue has been with four other teams since August 2020, playing six games for the Minnesota Vikings, nine for the Baltimore Ravens, 17 for the Las Vegas Raiders and 15 for the Indianapolis Colts.
He has 65 career sacks with at least 8½ in each of his seven seasons and is an immediate upgrade to a Bears defensive line that, before Friday, had 14 players on the roster who combined for 20 sacks last season.
Ngakoue’s arrival Friday at Halas Hall came with excitement.
“I feel like it was meant for me to be here,” he said.
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Eberflus sees Ngakoue as a three-down defensive end and an ideal fit for what the Bears do. Ngakoue, 28, played in similar defensive systems under coordinator Gus Bradley with the Raiders in 2021 and with the Colts in 2022. Former Bears coordinator Rod Marinelli was Ngakoue’s defensive line coach with the Raiders with Travis Smith — now the Bears defensive line coach — as Marinelli’s assistant.
Eberflus received positive intel on Ngakoue from both coaches in terms of his talent and makeup.
“He checked all the boxes,” Eberflus said.
The Bears starting quarterback overcame an interception on the first play of an end-of-game 2-minute period to lead a field-goal drive on the first-team offense’s next attempt. That possession included Fields completions to DJ Moore, Robert Tonyan and Chase Claypool that ultimately set up a 42-yard kick by Cairos Santos as time expired.
In the previous team period inside the red zone, Fields threw a decisive 4-yard touchdown pass to Tonyan on a bullet over the middle and followed on the next series with a 7-yard TD toss to Claypool on a pass that first ricocheted off Tonyan’s hands near the goal line.
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After the Bears offense sputtered through a sloppy and somewhat lethargic effort Wednesday, Eberflus was eager to see how Fields and his teammates would respond with their effort and energy level.
“They came back and had a nice day today,” Eberflus said.
The Bears defense continues to be loud and full of life during competitive periods, which has been music to Eddie Jackson’s ears. The veteran safety has been thrilled with the combination of effort and swagger the defense has been playing with and senses something special developing. (And, yes, Jackson is self-aware to know he has made similar declarations in seasons past.)
“I hate to sound like a broken record every year saying the same thing,” he said. “But, man, listen, this is a different feeling right now. … We’re high energy. We’re flying around. We’re ready for this thing to head in a different direction.”
At present, the secondary seems to be the strength of the defense with Jackson, Jaquan Brisker, Jaylon Johnson, Kyler Gordon and Tyrique Stevenson collectively gathering steam. Jackson has loved the playmaking ability the Bears defense has been showing. But he might love the unit’s edge just as much.
“Everyone is just playing free,” he said.
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Jackson also acknowledged the defense has been letting its passion show in a way that will hopefully help push the Bears offense to match the intensity.
“We are going to keep testing them,” Jackson said. “Keep poking the bear until the bear attacks. That is all it is. Just bringing that out (of them).”
More from a revved-up Jackson, who after expressing supreme confidence in the direction of the defense was playfully asked whether he wished Aaron Rodgers was still in Green Bay.
“Most definitely,” he said. “I really do wish he was back on the Packers. Hey, we’re going to take it how it comes, man. But I really do wish that. Because, woooo. This year? It’s going to be scary, man.”
Running back Roschon Johnson stressed during rookie minicamp in May that he was most eager to get to practices with pads on so he could best display the type of runner and player he is. Then, unfortunately, Johnson missed the first two padded practices of his first NFL training camp this week with an undisclosed injury.
“I hated every second of it,” Johnson said, “just not being involved and not getting my feet wet.”
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Johnson was back on the field Friday with the Bears practicing in shells and now will turn his attention to his first padded practice Saturday. He also is looking forward to next week’s preseason opener at Soldier Field against the Tennessee Titans.
“I know the talent I possess and what my capabilities are,” he said. “I know I’m more than capable of providing for this team. So it’s just a matter of being able to play faster and learning the nuances of the system so I can go out there and not think and just play.”
Bears fans cheer for autographs after practice on July 27, 2023, during training camp at Halas Hall. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)
Add linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to the list of starters unable to practice. Edmunds sat out Friday after missing the latter portion of team drills Wednesday. Other starters unable to participate Friday were guards Nate Davis and Teven Jenkins, defensive end DeMarcus Walker and linebacker Jack Sanborn. Receivers Dante Pettis and Joe Reed and tight end Chase Allen also did not practice.
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For the offense, the absences of Davis and Jenkins will be worth monitoring. Jenkins’ durability has been one of his biggest weaknesses through two seasons. He has played more than 50% of the offensive snaps in only 11 games while missing 15 games due to injury. Davis has missed eight contests the last two years and finished last season on injured reserve with an ankle injury.
Center Cody Whitehair also did not partake in large chunks of Friday’s practice, leaving the Bears first-unit offense to work with three reserves — center Lucas Patrick and guards Alex Leatherwood and Ja’Tyre Carter — on the interior.
Said Eberflus: “We need everyone out there. And when they’re not out there it does hurt the continuity.”