LAKE FOREST – Most of the expensive vehicles with tinted windows had exited the small parking lot in front of the Walter Payton Center on Wednesday afternoon.
A pickup truck with Idaho license plates lingered in its spot.
Inside the Bears’ practice bubble, the truck’s owner worked late on the day before Thanksgiving. Second-year defensive end Shea McClellin and a few of his teammates practiced plays at one-quarter speed.
On one play, McClellin lined up at left defensive end and offered a slow-motion pursuit on a run to the opposite side. On another play, McClellin stayed outside and wrapped up a would-be quarterback who bootlegged in his direction.
“It helps you get your eyes better,” McClellin said. “It helps you see things easier than at full speed. That way, once you do go full speed, you’re able to do your job.”
When it comes to defensive end, sharp eyes are at least as important as quick feet or strong hands. It’s what McClellin said he needed to improve the most in his game, particularly after missing two weeks because of a hamstring injury.
“Definitely, right now, it’s my eyes,” said McClellin, who was the Bears’ first-round draft pick in 2012. “They’re definitely a little rusty coming back. It’s good that we did that work after practice because I needed to get that work in.”
Perhaps all of us need to challenge our eyes.
I know I do.
I say this because my eyes told me McClellin was to blame for a 65-yard touchdown run by St. Louis Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin on the third play from scrimmage Sunday. The play set the tone in a 42-21 win by the Rams, who rushed for 258 yards against a Bears defense that delivered a powerful tribute to Swiss cheese.
It turns out that Austin’s long run was not McClellin’s fault, at least not the way he and teammate David Bass explain it.
Long story short: Mike McNeill, a blocking tight end, lined up to the left in the Rams backfield, and Austin went in motion from right to left. Quarterback Kellen Clemens took the snap and pitched the ball to Austin as he ran to the left.
At that point, McClellin’s first job was to defend against a dive by Austin.
To the surprise of everyone on the Bears’ defense – McClellin included – Austin wheeled 180 degrees and sprinted toward the right sideline.
“I’ve never seen something like that before, a fake sweep,” McClellin said. “And then they had a guy [McNeill] coming back. That’s not the D-end’s play, but we can help out on that a little bit. We’ve just got to see the guy’s depth coming back at us. If he’s coming to block us, then we’ve got to be inside of him.”
Fellow defensive end David Bass shook his head at the blame game that followed.
“I actually had one of my friends call me, and they were like, ‘Yo, why didn’t Shea make that play?’ ” Bass said. “I’m like, ‘That’s not his play.’
“It makes me mad when you’ve got people from the outside looking in, and it looks easy to them on TV. It looks slower. But when you’re on the field, it’s high speed.
“He did his job. He initially closed. He took dive, made sure it wasn’t a dive. And then he reacted to the pitch, and that’s what he was supposed to do. And then we have a corner setting the edge, we have safety coming up, fitting, [and] linebackers coming over the top.
“So, Shea initially did his job. But if you’re a spectator, you don’t know our scheme, our responsibility. You’re not going to always know whose play it is.”
Consider the Bears’ defensive assignments as one of your Facebook friends.
Relationship status: It’s complicated.
Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker spoke in his customary clichés Wednesday, emphasizing the need to correct mistakes without naming names. If he was thinking about anybody in particular – say, rookie linebackers Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene, or embattled safety Chris Conte – he disguised his thoughts well.
“In order to play great defense, especially run defense, everyone needs to be exactly where they need to be on every play,” Tucker said. “It only takes one breakdown to cause a big play.”
For his part, McClellin understood why critics howled after Austin’s touchdown run. Most of us never make it past high school football, if that. We are not invited to sit in during the Bears’ defensive meetings. We do not know everyone’s job on every play.
So we guess. And we blame the most obvious target.
On outside runs, right or wrong, that blame happens to fall on the defensive end.
“That’s just life as a D-end,” McClellin said.
Instead of festering, McClellin worked late. He would finish soon enough.
At the end of his work day, he hopped into his pickup truck. He will practice again Thursday before returning home to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with his wife and his teenage brother, who is visiting from Idaho while his high school is on break.
Maybe then, he’ll be able to avoid outside scrutiny for a few quiet hours.
“Sometimes, it may look like we’re doing something totally wrong and we should have made the play,” Bass said. “But in reality, we did our job. That’s what we’re coached to do.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.