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NFC North preview: Bears won’t let kicking game derail their Super Bowl hopes

The Chicago Bears hope they won’t have to endure another Cody Parkey situation with Eddy Pineiro handling the team’s kicking duties this season.
The Chicago Bears hope they won’t have to endure another Cody Parkey situation with Eddy Pineiro handling the team’s kicking duties this season.
(Getty Images)

The Chicago Bears are determined to get this season off on the right foot.

And they’re hoping that’s the right foot of Eddy Pineiro.

Eight months removed from the devastation of Cody Parkey’s “Double Doink” — a field goal miss so painful it got its own nickname — the Bears are moving forward with Pineiro, who has no NFL experience beyond exhibitions.

Don’t blame the Bears if they want to cover their eyes and peek through their fingers. It was a comically errant kick that ended their promising 2018 season with a home playoff loss to Philadelphia. There were 10 seconds left when Parkey lined up for a 43-yard attempt with the Bears trailing 16-15. He hooked his kick and the ball plunked the left upright, then caromed off the crossbar on the way down for good measure — hence the double-doink.

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Unbelievably, it was the sixth time Parkey had hit the upright that season.

Believably, Parkey hit the bricks. The Bears absorbed $4.1 million in dead-cap money to get rid of him.

Previewing the 2019 NFL season as the league celebrates its 100th year and the Rams and Chargers look to contend for the Super Bowl LIV title.

Eight rookies tried out for the job in a spring minicamp, but the Bears ultimately went in another direction. They traded a conditional 2021 draft pick to Oakland for the rights to Pineiro, a former University of Florida standout who was on track to win the Raiders’ job last season before a groin injury.

Pineiro, 23, beat out South Carolina’s Elliott Fry in training camp but understands the tenuous nature of the job.

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“I’ve just got to make all my kicks,” Pineiro said. “With the whole kicking struggle from last year, they’ve got us on thin ice here.”

The Bears have the ingredients of a Super Bowl contender. They had the league’s No.1 defense last season and were ranked ninth on offense, with the creative Matt Nagy winning coach-of-the-year honors.

Chicago is aiming to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2005-06.

Chicago Bears pass-rusher Khalil Mack reacts during a game against the Seattle Seahawks in September 2018.
Chicago Bears pass-rusher Khalil Mack reacts during a game against the Seattle Seahawks in September 2018.
(Getty Images)

Coordinator Chuck Pagano takes over a defense led by outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who had 12½ sacks last season despite missing training camp. He was a contract holdout for the Raiders, who wound up trading him to Chicago just before the start of the season.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky helms an offense that won’t have running back Jordan Howard (traded to Philadelphia) but has added running backs Mike Davis and rookie David Montgomery, as well as receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

Trubisky is the only starting quarterback in the NFC North who isn’t coming off a disappointing season. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins had forgettable 2018 seasons.

None was abysmal, but none guided his team to the playoffs.

“There were high expectations and we didn’t deliver,” said Cousins, referring to the Vikings, “and so I’ve been frustrated since the season ended.”

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Minnesota used its opening pick on the player who touches the ball first, drafting North Carolina State center Garrett Bradbury. The team also brought in Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach/offensive advisor as Cousin enters the critical second season of his guaranteed $84-million contract.

Green Bay has a new head coach in former Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, and a trio of high-octane outside linebackers in Za’Darious Smith, Preston Smith and first-round pick Rashan Gary.

Under first-year coach Matt Patricia, Detroit lost seven of its final 10 games and finished with double-digit losses for the first time since 2012.

The Lions added defensive end Trey Flowers and receiver Danny Amendola as well as running back C.J. Anderson, the outstanding fill-in for the Rams last season, and rookie T.J. Hockenson, the best tight end in this year’s draft class.

The Lions have a new offensive coordinator in Darrell Bevell, having parted ways with Jim Bob Cooter after a disappointing 2018. Detroit finished 24th in total offense last season and 25th in points per game.

Chicago Bears

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Mitch Trubisky: Entering his third season, Trubisky has worked on diagnosing defenses before and immediately after the snap. Coaches say he’s made huge strides in that department, but observers notice his accuracy has wavered this summer.

OLB Leonard Floyd: A first-round pick in 2016, Floyd has not put up great numbers. He went without a sack for the first half of the 2018 season before rallying in the second half. Being a bookend to Khalil Mack should create opportunities.

ILB Roquan Smith: The eighth overall pick in 2018 is starting to shine. He’s got great instincts and range. Smith missed training camp last year because of a contract holdout, so it took a while to catch up. Now, he’s already in fifth gear.

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THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

TE Adam Shaheen: The Bears don’t have a proven in-line tight end, so if he plays well, Shaheen could be a key to unlocking some elements of Matt Nagy’s offense. Shaheen needs to stay healthy and block better.

RB David Montgomery: This rookie from Iowa State brings flexibility and versatility to the offense. He’s not super-fast, but he’s a fluid runner with elusiveness. The Bears want to use him the way the Chiefs, Nagy’s old team, used Kareem Hunt.

WR Anthony Miller: As a rookie last season, Miller led the Bears with seven touchdown catches. He wasn’t as detailed on his routes as he could have been, however. Now, he’s coming off labrum surgery that kept him out of offseason workouts.

BURNING QUESTION

Can the Bears make a kick? That used to be automatic back in the Robbie Gould days, but it was the team’s undoing with Cody Parkey last season. There were nine kickers trying out at rookie mini-camp. It’s essential that the Bears get that right.

2018: 12-4, first in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018

Detroit Lions

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Matthew Stafford: Last season was not a good one for Stafford, who had his lowest passing totals since 2010. He has a new offensive coordinator in Darrell Bevell and will look to improve on his sporadically accurate deep passes.

RB Kerryon Johnson: The Lions need to get back to running the ball, and Bevell plans to do that. Johnson is the team’s best back and was off to a good start last season before suffering a sprained ligament just past the midway point.

DE Trey Flowers: For a team looking to become Patriots West, Flowers is a logical addition. Even though the former New England standout had shoulder surgery after the Super Bowl, the Lions made him the NFL’s third-highest-paid defensive player.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

S Tracy Walker: A second-year player and backup last season, the solid-tackling Walker takes over for the retired Glover Quin, a longtime leader in the secondary. Walker looks the part, but can he play it?

C Frank Ragnow: The second-year Ragnow was moved to center this year — his college position — after playing guard his first NFL season. He bumped an established veteran and is key to getting Bevell’s running game rolling.

TE T.J. Hockenson: Selected eighth overall in this year’s draft, Hockenson was taken the highest of any tight end since Vernon Davis (sixth by San Francisco in 2006). Hockenson is a rare talent who’s good at blocking and catching.

BURNING QUESTION

How will players respond to coach Matt Patricia in his second year? They didn’t like him much last season, but he seems to be a little more flexible this year. Patricia has brought in a lot of his old Patriots.

2018: 6-10, fourth in division

Last year in playoffs: 2016

Green Bay Packers

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Aaron Rodgers: Considered by many the league’s top quarterback, Rodgers was hurt the last two seasons. Last season, he was atypically inconsistent, missing some throws he usually completes. Looks good in camp so far.

OLB Za’Darius Smith: A rising star in Baltimore, he signed a four-year, $66-million deal with the Packers, the most lucrative deal among Green Bay’s big four free-agent signings. The team needs a double-digit-sack season from him.

WR Davante Adams: Trust is a huge factor with Rodgers, and Adams is his most-trusted receiver by far. He already was the target on 28% of the team’s passing plays, and now Randall Cobb is in Dallas.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

CB Kevin King: Wiry and wildly athletic, King has had serious difficulties getting onto the field because of injuries. Now in his third year, he’s finally healthy and starting to make the plays the Packers envisioned when they drafted him.

FB Danny Vitale: A tight end in college, Vitale is a key fixture in this fullback-friendly offense. The Packers will use two backs frequently, and Vitale is particularly talented when it comes to catching balls out of the backfield.

WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling: Great size at nearly 6 feet 5 inches, Valdes-Scantling has scorching speed and looks a lot better in camp this year than last. With his stature and speed, he reminds some people of Plaxico Burress.

BURNING QUESTION

Will Rodgers click with new coach Matt LaFleur? The former Rams assistant coach wants to run the ball more after Green Bay dropped back more than any team in the NFC. Everyone is breathing easier after some tense years with Mike McCarthy.

2018: 6-9-1, third in division

Last year in playoffs: 2016

Minnesota Vikings

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Kirk Cousins: Almost every move the Vikings made this offseason was directed toward making life better for Cousins, including bringing in quarterback guru Gary Kubiak. Cousins needs to prove he can show up when it matters most.

DE Everson Griffen: The former USC star missed five games because of a mental-health issue last season and wasn’t the same player when he returned. The Vikings need him back at his dominant 2017 level.

CB Xavier Rhodes: A Pro Bowl player in 2017, Rhodes was building a case as one of the league’s top shutdown corners. He dropped off last season, however, and committed a lot of pass-interference penalties. Prove-it time.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

TE Irv Smith Jr.: The Vikings selected Smith in the second round with an eye toward him stretching the field. At 21, he’s raw, and Kubiak said the rookie’s mind is “swimming” because “we’re asking a lot of him right now.”

WR Chad Beebe: The son of former NFL receiver Don Beebe, Chad made the most of his free-agent tryout and has worked his way into a third-receiver role. He’s a situational guy who can line up in the slot and get open.

C Garrett Bradbury: A first-round pick from North Carolina State, Bradbury fits Minnesota’s zone-blocking scheme beautifully. The Vikings feel so good about him that they already have moved Pat Elflein from center to guard.

BURNING QUESTION

Can Cousins prove he was worth the money and get the team back to its 2017 level? The club’s future rests on his shoulders, and the first month of the season will be a significant test, including games at Green Bay and at Chicago.

2018: 8-7-1, second in division

Last year in playoffs: 2017


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