The Bears and Bengals butted heads on Thursday night, and the close yet sloppy contest – as you would expect from week one of the preseason – resulted in a 30-27 Bengals victory.
However, that doesn’t matter. I’m not about to break down why the Bengals won or why the Bears lost because it’s exhibition football and at the end of the day it means nothing who ended up with a victory.
This rudimentary fact did not stop me from watching the game, or at least every offensive play for the Bears, a second time, though. And after I did that, I came away with some important observations that I might not have seen viewing the game live – some impressive on the Bears’ part,not-so-impressive, and a few goofy errors, one of which will be featured in this piece. Most importantly, I saw some things that could directly impact the success of the Bears in the 2018 season.
Here is what I learned breaking down game tape of the Bears’ offense against Cincinnati.
Adam Shaheen‘s blocking – a mixed bag
I’m not about to go into a detailed description of Bears tight end Adam Shaheen‘s impressive showing as a pass catcher on Thursday night. Anybody who tuned into 2017 regular season games against the Lions and these very Bengals could see that Shaheen is can turn into a deadly weapon in the passing game who was criminally underutilized by the John Fox regime. And he does look like he’s slimmed down and become more nimble, but that was never the most important thing he needed to develop.
What matters much more in this preseason for Shaheen is his ability to block. If he can do that on a consistent basis, it gets him on the field much more often with Trey Burton and the Bears’ other receiving weapons. This would make Dion Sims essentially obsolete and open up a lot of the playbook so the Bears don’t have to use a roster spot and a lot of playing time on an exclusively blocking tight end.
So how did that go in Cincinnati? Some good, some bad. Many plays involved a bit of both, like this one:
Shaheen is too high, first of all, which is a recurring issue for him. At 6’7″ it can be easy to not get low enough and thus lose leverage against your man, which is crucial. If a blocker’s helmet is at a higher level than his opponent, then it’s impossible to drive him back. That being said, Shaheen does a nice job winning the positioning battle, flipping his hips and walling Michael Johnson off and out of the play, so this is a net positive for him.
Also a net positive, and in fact, an excellent play for Shaheen, was a down block on this run play late in the first quarter. Ignore the result of the play, that was #71 Earl Watford‘s fault for failing to locate the back side linebacker. For reference, down blocks are designed blocks where a lineman or tight end on the play side (on the back side it’s a back block) takes on a linebacker or lineman at an angle away from the play.
Watch Shaheen now lower his pad level at the point of attack against the play side backer, and really give him a pop to wipe him out of range of making a tackle. The linebacker begins the battle inside the hash marks at the 42 yard line and winds up outside the hash at the 43 with his back turned to the play. This is an excellent block and if Watford does his job this would have been a nice gain for the Bears.
This one was is an example of Shaheen getting beaten and causing a loss of yardage near the goal line. Before I explain what Shaheen did wrong, I should note that running back Taquan Mizzell cut the play back into traffic that Shaheen did not cause and even if Shaheen did his job, it would have been a failure. Either Mizzel screwed up or a guard on the left side was supposed to pull towards a kick out for outside linebacker and didn’t.
Back to the Bears’ young tight end. His technique on this play was, to put it simply, terrible.
Once again, he is too high and as he tries to engage his man he’s almost standing straight up. As he fights for leverage to counter his mistake in pad level, he runs into an even bigger problem. Watch Shaheen’s right arm – it’s outside the frame of his opponent, who has both his hands locked into the Ashland alum’s chest.
At this point, Shaheen has lost. #75 on the Bengals, Jordan Willis, has complete control of his blocker and is free to do whatever he wants with him, which in this scenario is throw Shaheen to the side and make the tackle for loss on Mizzel. Shaheen only had two options there, either accept defeat for a loss of one or hold Willis for a loss of 10.
Shaheen has lots of time to improve his blocking over the course of the preseason but his technique needs to be better. He has the tools to be an excellent run blocker and flashed some semblance of skill in that area on Thursday night, but mistakes like the one against Willis cannot happen and that will get him a stern talking to, at the very least, in the film room this week.
James Daniels had a near-flawless night
Nearly every Bears writer has produced some sort of content related to or mentioning rookie center James Daniels in the past three days. This includes TLS’s Andrew Link, who did an entire piece on him making the (100% correct) case that he deserves to be the starting center.
This is for very good reason, and no article breaking down the Bears’ offense against the Bengals would be complete without a thorough analysis of the Iowa product, because he was Chicago’s best offensive player on Thursday night. What is more impressive is that Daniels does not win with size and strength – he wins with technique, grit, and football IQ.
Let’s start off with a good old fashioned combo block executed to perfection. Credit here also goes to Watford, who held firm after Daniels engaged the second level defender for a nice gain for the Bears.
One of the more difficult things to do as an offensive lineman is figuring out when to come off of a double team and onto the linebacker that you’re combo-ing to. Come off to early and it can make way for the defensive lineman to stop the play, but come off too late and the linebacker goes unblocked.
Here, Daniels does it at the perfect moment. After shocking the tackle into Watford’s lap, which is necessary because he was lined up in the A gap where it would have been a difficult block for the guard, he recognizes that Watford has control and peels off towards the linebacker so that he can’t make a play. This results in a very solid first down run for the Bears’ second string unit, gaining about five yards and setting the tone for the rest of the drive.
This next play is the kind of thing that offensive line coaches dream about. It’s a textbook example of what I mentioned earlier: winning with grit instead of strength. Daniels is disadvantaged at the point of attack because his opponent’s get-off was quick and low. You can see his back straighten a bit as a result.
From that point on, the Bengals’ D-lineman made two mistake. The first was hand positioning. Remember when Jordan Willis beat Shaheen because he got his hands into his chest? In this case, that didn’t happen. The second mistake was his downfall – literally. Daniels simply won a battle of effort and physical exertion, because he kept his feet driving and his man didn’t. Eventually, Daniels overpowers him, ending in a pancake block and another great first down carry for Taquon Mizzel.
That’s how you make up for not being the biggest lineman – you work harder than the guy across from you.
On this play, Daniels displays his intelligence and awareness. This is a blocking scheme in which the center and the left guard are assigned to the two linebackers closest to the play, through pulling. They each have to take the first one they see.
The guard falls down early in the process of pulling, so the Bears got lucky on this one that Daniels made the right play and the backside linebacker didn’t flow fast enough to make the tackle anywhere near the line of scrimmage. The other backer, however, blitzes through the play side B gap and is in perfect position to make the play… until Daniels turns around and walls him off, giving tailback Ryan Nall open space for an excellent gain and a first down.
A lot of guards and centers would have continued on their path and not notice the blitzing linebacker. Not Daniels, who has the awareness to pick up his man and the lightning quick hips to turn around on a moment’s notice.
Should Daniels be starting at center, with Cody Whitehair moved to guard? Based on the tape, absolutely. Will it happen? My guess is some time in the next two weeks.
Analyzing of the Bears’ longest play of the game
For those of us who stayed glued to our TVs for the second half, we saw Ryan Nall break off a 69-yard scamper to put the Bears in the red zone in an instant.
This play happened for three reasons. The one I’ll mention first, but is not the most significant, is the play by Nall, getting around to the outside and using speed that I did not think he had in order to outrun Bengals defenders for as long as he did. It was a nice run by Nall, who should have eyes on him for the rest of the preseason because he had a good game and Mizzel did not.
Secondly, this was some terrible defense by Cincinnati. Either Willis, at left end, or #45 rookie linebacker Malik Jefferson had contain responsibilities and completely abandoned them. I’m all for giving credit to Nall and the Bears, but this play doesn’t happen if either of those two recognize what’s going on.
Finally, and this is most important, Nagy’s play design. Nobody is split out wide to the right for a specific reason: to get the cornerbacks out of there. This is man coverage from the Bengals, and the Bears know it. No cornerback means that there is significantly more chance of the play being broken to the outside, which should always be accounted for in a play design like this – a designed bounce-out to the boundary.
It may not seem like much to the eye of most football fans, but I immediately became much more confident in Matt Nagy after watching this play. Offensive coordinators and head coaches should know to account for every single detail and attack specific defenses in specific ways. In this example, the thought process was “they’re running man defense? Let’s set up our formation to exploit that.” If this is consistently the train of thought with the new coaching staff, we as Bear fans are in for a treat.
High point: Shaheen’s catch and run
I said very early in this piece that Shaheen’s blocking was more important than his receiving in this preseason, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t make the play that should get Bear fans excited the most. This is a simple crossing route in which Shaheen’s task was to beat the linebacker with speed and a little shake in the middle of his pathway and to break free into open space.
He did both, made the catch, and kept running. Shaheen showed that agility that made him so coveted by the Bears in the 2017 draft despite coming from a tiny school like Ashland, along with his massive frame. If he can do this often in the regular season, we have ourselves a weapon.
Low point: Massie whiffs
What on earth is this pathetic excuse for a reach block?
Instead of taking a vertical angle towards his opponent, Carlos Dunlap, Massie’s first step actually loses ground instead of gaining it. As a result, Dunlap crosses his face quickly and makes an incredibly easy tackle for loss. This is a technique that would get a high schooler benched. Just awful.
Funny: Ref points the wrong direction
As literally, everybody who has ever talked about sports has said, it’s preseason for the refs too. New head referee Alex Kemp (whose crew did a good job in my eyes throughout the course of the contest) had a slight blunder while attempting to award the Bears a first down on a fourth and one.
After a successful Chase Daniel QB sneak, Kemp accidentally gave the ball to the Bengals, delighting their fans and confusing the Bears on the field, who felt it was clear that they had picked up the yardage they needed. They did, and Kemp quickly corrected himself, but not before a humorous moment for all at the game.
That’s all for this week, except for when Nick Petrusevski breaks down the defense. Check back next week after the Bears take on the Broncos in Denver.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @JS_92_ –Feature Photo Credit: Gary Landers/AP