LAKE FOREST — Since they signed him in March, the Bears have been trying hard to sell Andy Dalton to the fan base, and now that a clunky and meaningless preseason is over, the veteran quarterback will finally get a fair shot to prove himself Sunday night in Los Angeles.
“There’s a lot that’s gone on since March, but all that has led to this point right here,” Dalton said Wednesday at Halas Hall. “Regardless of everything that’s gone on, we’re here at Week 1, and this is exactly what I wanted. I wanted this opportunity, and now we’re looking forward to making the most of it.”
Consider the NFL skeptical -- not just of Dalton, but the entire Bears offense.
But offensive coordinator Bill Lazor — admittedly relying on practice results over preseason results — said he has seen Dalton make a difference.
“I’ve seen his play speed affect the offense. I’ve seen his cadence affect the offense, his tempo in-and-out of the huddle affect the offense. And there’s no doubt that his confidence has affected the offense,” Lazor said. “In the walk-throughs we tend to give them really difficult things when it comes to blitzes and situations with the defense. It’s hard to put something up there that (Dalton) hasn’t faced at some point — not that we are going to have the same answer for it that he has, but there tends to be very little panic from a guy who’s faced it before and has had success. That’s just kind of what he brings to the table.”
And the Bears are hoping that Dalton’s experience in the huddle is currently worth more than Justin Fields’ electric ability, even if it’s a tough sell outside of Halas Hall.
“That gets pushed onto everybody when (Dalton) is calling the plays. Or even when something gets messed up he can say, ‘Wait a second, we can do it this way’ and he has an answer ready,” Lazor said. “He’s learned the language and the different tools we have to respond to problems and he’s ready to apply them. And a lot of it is because he had to before. So I think the guys understand that.”
Dalton was just one of many topics discussed Wednesday at Halas Hall, which is now the new “Coordinator Day” of game week. With that in mind, here’s a round-up of what we learned from Lazor, defensive coordinator Sean Desai and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor:
OC Bill Lazor
- The Bears are preparing for defensive personnel they are very familiar with (they’ve played the Rams each of the last three seasons) but are also getting ready for new wrinkles from new Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Last year under Brandon Staley, the Rams ran a scheme very similar to what the Bears are currently running under new defensive coordinator Sean Desai. That’s the defense the offense saw every day in practice during training camp.
So now it’s a question of what will be different with Morris in charge.
“I think when you change the coordinator you add the extra layer of not only how much does he maintain from the great defense he is taking over but also what might he bring from where he was before,” Lazor said. “He’ll probably go back to 1997 Cornell University, where I worked with Raheem.”
Lazor was kidding, of course, but the Bears do have tape from their win over the Atlanta Falcons last year to look at too. Morris was the defensive coordinator for the Falcons when the Bears erased a 16-point deficit in the final 6:20 with Nick Foles in Week 3 of 2020.
- At the top of the Lazor’s list of needed improvements from last year: third down, where the Bears ranked 31st.
“I’d say after the preseason, on the game field, we couldn’t say that we’ve improved that yet. I think we feel better about what we’ve done on the practice field. We’re gonna have to make it count now. I would say that was probably at the top of the list.”
- As more teams play nickel (five defensive backs) against “12” personnel (two tight ends), it could create a matchup advantage for the Bears. Both Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet have a considerable size advantage against defensive backs. That said, the Rams are a little more willing to change personnel from down-to-down than other teams.
“Believe it or not, when we went three tight ends in the game (last year) we (saw) close to 50 percent nickel,” Lazor said. “Now some of that was the teams that we played that just were stubborn to keep five DB's on the field.S o you have to plan for whichever way they go. That's just kind of the cat and mouse game and in the past this (Rams) defense has subbed defensive personnel quite a bit. We don’t know what Raheem will do.”
- Another area of emphasis for the Bears this season is in the red zone and its an area where they think Dalton’s decision-making will be a big improvement. But as far as the playbook goes, Lazor said the coaching staff did not reduce the volume of red zone plays this offseason.
“I think overall we did not reduce. I think we emphasized within it,” he said. “We focused on the core of what we want to do in the red zone but hopefully did a good job deciding what the periphery plays are so they’re ready when we need them.”
DC Sean Desai
- After switching between the sidelines and the coaching booth during the preseason, Desai has decided to call his defense from upstairs in his first season as defensive coordinator.
“I think they both have their strengths and weaknesses,” Desai said. “I like the fact that I can control more of the things. I can see All-22. I can see what I need to see. With the communication being, me being able to communicate with the signal-caller on the field, that makes it much easier than it was a few years back.”
During his various roles with the Bears since 2013, Desai has been both on the field and in the coaching booth, so he has experience in both areas. The booth typically gives the play caller a better view of what is happening on the field, but restricts person-to-person coaching during the game. By being upstairs, Desai will rely on his position coaches on the ground to handle the coaching on the field.
- The Rams made the first big move of the 2021 offseason by trading for Matthew Stafford before last season’s Super Bowl was even played. For the Bears, it means a familiar NFC North quarterback joining an offensive scheme they’ve played against in each of the last three seasons.
“I think the (Sean) McVay system is going to be the system and they’re going to have a lot of new wrinkles with Matt. I guess that is how they incorporate Matt into that,” Desai said. “But Matt’s a stud. He’s been one of the top quarterbacks in this league and obviously he’s going with one of the top offensive minds in the league. So I think that will be fun for them. I’m sure they’re enjoying it and we’re excited for that challenge.”
- McVay’s system is known for a lot of pre-snap motion to identify coverages, as well using tighter formations to create more open space on the perimeter. Post-snap, there’s plenty of play-action to contend with.
“They're really trying to manipulate eyes at all levels of the defense from the D-line to the LBs, OLBs, and the DBs. And they do a good job of manipulating eyes and finding some soft spots in zones and then allow their route variations or however it remains. But it's a well-thought-out plan and it's a good challenge for us and we're excited to take it on,” Desai said.
- Desai wasn’t ready to reveal who will play the nickel corner position Sunday — likely either Duke Shelley or Marqui Christian — but he didn’t minimize the importance of a position that is still a big question mark for the Bears.
“Ooof. I mean, you guys run the numbers—78% of the snaps in the league are nickel. Nickel is a critical position, not just versus Sean McVay’s offense but versus every offense.”
STC Chris Tabor
- Nsimba Webster, claimed off waivers from the 49ers last week, is Tabor’s new toy on special teams.
“He's a guy that obviously returns, but also has core value. Can cover kicks and has done it for a long time. It's always nice when a returner can do other things,” Tabor said.
- On the Rams side, the Bears will be dealing with Tutu Atwell, Los Angeles' primary kick returner, who also has the ability to return punts.
"He's fast. He's real fast. Like fast,” Tabor said.
When asked what else Atwell brings to the table, Tabor replied: “Well, he's fast. Did I say he was fast? Cause he's fast.”
- A key player to watch on the Bears’ coverage units is undrafted rookie linebacker Caleb Johnson. He’s making the jump from FCS-level Houston Baptist to the NFL and will likely be active on game day for special teams. In the preseason, he showed a knack for being the first downfield in coverage, but didn’t always make the play, leading to a couple big punt returns. The raw ability stood out, but now Johnson needs to make the plays under the lights.
“He's an athletic linebacker for us. He's played well in the preseason and he's played a lot of different positions and that's what we wanted to do with the kid because if you're going to be a linebacker, you gotta be able to play a lot of different spots,” Tabor said. “He’s still growing, but I think he has a high ceiling.”
- Wednesday was a windy day in Lake Forest, which made for challenging conditions for kicker Cairo Santos, who didn’t need them since Sunday’s game will be played at Sofi Stadium. The Rams’ new stadium is actually open air, but is built into the ground and has a roof, which pretty much minimizes all wind. Tabor said Santos would get some kicks in the Walter Payton Center to simulate Sunday’s conditions, but also pointed out that it’s important to continue kicking outdoors since the Bears play their home games at usually (very) windy Soldier Field.