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What to watch for in preseason opener

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What to watch for in preseason opener

Two days before his preseason debut as an NFL head coach, Matt Eberflus talked about the two perspectives he must maintain as he begins his quest to turn around the Chicago Bears.

The telescope view, he said, is about where the Bears are headed long term. Saturday’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs is about the microscope view as Eberflus, his staff and his units work out the kinks of operating together in a game setting for the first time.

“I’m just focusing on having good game-day operation, working on the scheme, evaluating the personnel for this first game,” Eberflus said. “That’s the way you function best. You’ve got to be in the moment. You’ve got to be right here, right now.”

The beginning of the Eberflus era is one of the four biggest storylines as the Bears kick off their 2022 preseason at noon at Soldier Field.

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A 30-year coaching veteran, Eberflus has been preparing for the moment for his entire working life. But he kicked up his game-management training in January with Bears director of research and analysis Harrison Freid.

Eberflus said they had 15-20 video sessions to prepare for various game situations — running through end-of-game, end-of-half and challenge scenarios, among others. He also had video sessions with the coordinators to work out their communication for situations, consulted with NFL officials for rules education and ran through game scenarios Tuesday at Family Fest at Soldier Field.

So Eberflus said he feels “very prepared” to handle his debut.

“You’ve got to be fast-minded,” Eberflus said. “You’ve got to be quick. … You’ve got to know what you’re doing a play ahead.”

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Eberflus didn’t reveal his exact plan for second-year quarterback Justin Fields on Saturday, but he said many starters would get between 15-20 plays. The number is dependent on the player, and some starters will sit out.

The Bears are missing several key players due to injury, including running back David Montgomery and tight end Cole Kmet, both of whom Eberflus said would likely sit out. And Eberflus said the Bears are going to be “basic and simple with our schemes during the preseason.”

But there’s still intrigue to get a first in-game look at Fields as he begins his operation under new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who said his goals for Fields would be “process-oriented.”

“It’s going up and making sure you have a process when you break the huddle,” Getsy said. “You’ve got to go through that process to be disciplined to that process. Train your eyes. And then each play tells you to do something. Your eyes are supposed to go somewhere with each play. And so we’re getting better every single day, and I want to see him go execute that. We start everything with taking care of the football, and that’s got to be the priority.”

Getsy also will get a better look at an offensive line that has gone through many iterations already in camp. Most recently, many of the first-team reps have gone to, from left to right, Braxton Jones, Cody Whitehair, Sam Mustipher, Michael Schofield and Riley Reiff.

For Jones, a fifth-round pick out of Southern Utah this spring, it will be a “pretty big moment” but one he has prepared for over the last two weeks by battling defensive end Robert Quinn in practice.

“That has gotten me into the feeling of like, ‘OK, let’s go, we’ve got to do this,'” Jones said. “Taking those reps against big-time players has helped me a little bit to get ready for working with the ones.”

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One of the highlights of Thursday’s practice was Fields’ touchdown pass to Tajae Sharpe in the corner of the end zone. Sharpe, who made 117 catches for 1,397 yards and eight touchdowns over five NFL seasons with three teams, could get more opportunities to prove himself Saturday in the wide receivers’ race for a roster spot.

The Bears will be without N’Keal Harry (ankle), Byron Pringle (quad) and David Moore (lower leg) and also could sit Velus Jones Jr., who is day to day with an undisclosed injury. That leaves a prime opening for some of the receivers down the roster — below Darnell Mooney and Equanimeous St. Brown — to draw attention.

Will it be Sharpe, Isaiah Coulter, Dante Pettis, Nsimba Webster, Dazz Newsome, Chris Finke or Kevin Shaa who comes through? At practice Wednesday, it was Coulter making big plays.

“He’s balling out,” Mooney said of Coulter. “He’s always been doing his thing, extra after practice, and he comes to the house with me to catch jugs. … He’s a ball player for sure.”

Eberflus was encouraged with how Fields has connected with some of the backup receivers this week in practice as the Bears deal with the rash of injuries.

“His timing is getting better, and for him, that’s really good because how do you get the timing down with different receivers?” Eberflus said. “We’re excited where he is on that front, for sure.”

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Matt Nagy said he doesn’t know how he will feel when he returns to Soldier Field to coach for the first time since the Bears fired him in January after four seasons as head coach.

In a session with reporters in Missouri this week, Nagy, who is a Chiefs senior offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach for Patrick Mahomes, said he went through a “normal” grieving process after departing from the Bears with a 34-31 record, including 6 -11 in 2021, and two playoff losses. He said he had plenty of time in the offseason to examine how his tenure unfolded.

“I’d change a lot of what happened, wishing we’d won more and could have done more,” Nagy said. “But I learned a lot, and that part I wouldn’t change. I have to be able to self-reflect on where I went wrong and how I could have been better.”

Nagy said he will always value the relationships he developed during his time with the Bears, including with Virginia and George McCaskey, Ted Phillips and Ryan Pace.

“It didn’t end how we wanted it to,” Nagy said. “There was disappointment. There was discouragement. But all that said, I know I’m not defeated. I know those other players, coaches and people aren’t defeated. And so we’ve just got to be better from it.”

Now Nagy is back working with Mahomes, whom he coached in the quarterback’s rookie season on the bench in Kansas City, Mo., in 2017. Nagy said it is “so neat” to see how much Mahomes has grown as a leader since then, and he’s obviously happy to work with him again.

“This is the next journey for me,” Nagy said. “Next chapter.”

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