Bears

Bears preseason notes: Matt Nagy's starter-sitting plan, Javon Wims' roster spot and a peaking Duck

Bears preseason notes: Matt Nagy's starter-sitting plan, Javon Wims' roster spot and a peaking Duck

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Twenty-six Bears starters/key players did not play in Friday’s preseason loss to the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, ranging from guys established as among the best in the league (Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson) to players with more to prove (David Montgomery, Adam Shaheen, Mitch Trubisky). 

Of the eight players who caught a pass, only two have seemingly punched their tickets to the Bears’ 53-man roster (wide receivers Riley Ridley and Javon Wims — more on Wims later). Of the six players who had a rushing attempt, only quarterback Chase Daniel will be comfortable over cut-down weekend. 

And on defense, 25 players recorded at least one tackle but only four look like locks for the Bears’ roster (Nick Kwiatkoski, Sherrick McManis, Deon Bush, Roy Robertson-Harris). 

“My biggest thing is I’m trying to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears, and every team is different, and that’s okay,” coach Matt Nagy said. “… We love where we’re at right now in regards to our starters. We feel really good about it.”

The Bears held a mock game at Halas Hall on Wednesday, one which allowed Nagy to get his starters some situational work in a controlled setting instead of in a less-predictable preseason game. Instead, these preseason games have turned into extended tests for the large group of players fighting to make the Bears’ roster — the Bears’ second-team offense and defense went against the Giants’ first-team defense and offense for a portion of Friday’s game, which’ll be notable as the team evaluates the guys who’ll fill out the back end of their roster. 

Nagy’s preseason approach to his most important players may start catching on around the league, especially as so many teams have hired younger, offensive-minded coaches who haven’t been doing something a certain way for decades. So the next time you'll see Trubisky throw a pass in a game, barring something extremely unexpected, will be Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers. 

Even Nagy’s mentor, Andy Reid — one of most progressive, longest-tenured coaches in the NFL — still plays his starters in preseason games. That’s not to say it’s right or wrong. Nagy just doesn’t think that approach makes sense for his team. 

“Coach (Reid) has his way and I think coach Reid would be the first to tell you that if I’m not being me and if I’m not trying to do what I think is right for our team, then I’m not coach Reid,” Nagy said. “I’ve learned so much from him, but for our team and our situation I need to do what’s best for us and I just feel like that’s where it’s at.

“September 5th is an important day for us.”

The Bears lost reserve tackle Rashaad Coward to an elbow injury during Friday’s game, while longtime practice squad safety Jonathon Mincy was looked at for a concussion. Left guard Cody Whitehair, who injured his finger during Wednesday’s practice, was participating in pregame warmups with only that lone finger taped. 

See Montgomery, burns?

Nagy felt himself getting carried away praising Montgomery after the third-round pick’s impressive preseason debut last week against the Carolina Panthers, to the point he later smirked that Montgomery’s seven-yard touchdown run was just “average.” 

Still, the Bears clearly had seen enough of Montgomery after one game. All the things he put on tape at Iowa State — patience, contact balance, tackle breaking, good hands, etc. — showed up against the Panthers. So in addition to Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis, Montgomery wasn’t put into harm’s way against the Giants. The next snap he takes in a game will be Sept. 5, barring a surprise. 

“I would say he’s done a good job in practice,” Nagy said. “We like what we’ve seen.”

Spot locked up for Wims?

As promised, some thoughts on Wims, who led the Bears having caught five of six targets for 64 yards, including an impressive 29-yard snag just before halftime. It was games like this that led the Bears to feel as if they had to keep the 2018 seventh-round pick on their roster last year instead of risking him to waivers in an attempt to sneak him on to the practice squad. With another strong showing on film for the rest of the league to see, the thought here is Wims’ roster spot is all but secure. 

And it’s not like Wims’ good game came out of nowhere — he’s been progressing to a night like this since the start of training camp. Cornerback Prince Amukamara — who got in a tussle with Wims during Tuesday’s practice — said he’s sensed a different gear in Wims since OTAs in spring, combining improved speed with developing route-running skills and the same go-up-and-get-it ability that was all over his college tape at Georgia. 

Wims’ 29-yard reception — after which the Bears clocked the ball with one second left, leading to Eddy Pineiro hitting a short field goal (one he wished he was longer) — was probably the most impressive offensive play of the game. 

“We practice that stuff,” Nagy said. ‘So what they just did with 16 seconds is hard to do and they did it very effectively, so when you look for positives for us, that’s something that I’m going to come away from this weekend and say you guys just rocked it, you did that the right way and we just got three points off of you guys executing what we teach you,”

Marvin Hall can still make the Bears’ roster, and for the second consecutive week broke free downfield for what could’ve been a big-chunk play only to have third-string quarterback Tyler Bray overthrow him. But he had a rough punt return, running backward from his own 19-yard line and, combined with a penalty assessed to sixth-round pick Duke Shelley, dropped the Bears at their own eight-yard line. 

Peaking Duck, and other ups and downs

— Undrafted corner Clifton Duck jumped an Alex Tanney pass at the goal line and dashed 62 yards for the Bears’ most impressive defensive play of the game. Duck is undersized and may not have the speed of Shelley, but his ball skills have consistently shown up during training camp. Those haven’t come out of nowhere, either: No FBS player had more interceptions than Duck from 2016-2018. 

And it’s not just the interceptions that’ve caught Nagy’s eye. His tenacity on the field has been noted, and it’ll be interesting to see if he gets more run with the second-team defense next weekend against the Indianapolis Colts. At the least, he looks like a good practice squad candidate; at best, he could make a push for a roster spot in a crowded group of young reserve corners. 

“He’s done it in practice. I like that,” Nagy said. “I think anybody that has some ball skills, which he does, that is always playing hard, you appreciate that. And I know he makes it difficult for our quarterbacks.”

Read more about Duck here

— It wasn’t as impressive a day for the rest of that aforementioned group of young corners. Shelley missed a tackle on wide receiver Bennie Fowler, allowing the ex-Bears training camp receiver to score a touchdown on the Giants’ opening drive. Shelley also committed that penalty on Hall’s punt return. 

The Bears rotated Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph and John Franklin as their outside corners throughout the game. Franklin had wide receiver T.J. Jones blanketed to force an incompletion in the second quarter, but was then beat by the former Notre Dame receiver for a 15-yard touchdown later in the game. Franklin, the quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-cornerback, was also beat for a 37-yard gain in the third quarter, though it looked like Giants receiver Da'Mari Scott might’ve pushed off on the play. 

Joseph was beat for a 40-yard gain, though the play was more about the outstanding throw made by sixth overall pick Daniel Jones to wide receiver Cody Latimer. 

— Running back Ryan Nall had a solid 14-yard run to pick up a first down in the first quarter, which undrafted tight end Dax Raymond helped spring with a nice block on the edge. Nall started on offense over seventh-round rookie Kerrith Whyte Jr., though neither were particularly effective on the ground (Nall: seven carries, 23 yards; Whyte: six carries, 10 yards). Nall did catch four passes for 21 yards while. 

— Still, Whyte had the best non-highlight highlight of the game when he housed an Aldrick Rosas’ kickoff for a 103-yard touchdown, only to have it called back due to a holding penalty on Isaiah Irving (if you were watching the TV broadcast — Franklin was initially flagged for the penalty, but it was corrected to be assessed to Irving). While it didn’t count, it put Whyte’s breakaway speed on display. That could be an important point in his favor if the Bears’ roster comes down to keeping four running backs (with Whyte) or seven wide receivers (with Hall). 

— Receiver/running back Taquan Mizzell lost two fumbles in the span of four offensive plays. The most notable part of it: The Metlife Stadium PA system blasting Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" after the first one, and then playing Britney Spears' "Oops...I Did It Again" after the second. Ouch. 

— It didn’t feel like a particularly good game for the Bears’ reserve tight ends. Bradley Sowell was whistled for a false start with the Bears at their own eight-yard line, and he was burned by Giants linebacker Markus Golden for a sack. While Raymond had a good block on Nall’s run, neither he nor fellow undrafted rookie Ian Bunting were noticeable. Neither player was targeted — in fact, not a single Bears tight end received a target on Friday. 

— Two other splash plays on defense: McManis with a perfectly-executed Peanut Punch to force a fumble, and outside linebacker James Vaughters’ strip/sack/recovery, which he returned eight yards to the Giants’ 12-yard line. 

That McManis has been working with the third-team safety pairing shouldn’t be taken as a sign he’s on the roster bubble — he’s a veteran core special teamer who acquitted himself well enough as a slot corner following Bryce Callahan’s season-ending injury last year. 

And Vaughters’ play was notable if only because the Bears’ reserve outside linebackers — him, Irving, Kylie Fitts, Mathieu Betts, Chuck Harris — haven’t flashed much during both practices and games so far this preseason. The Bears may only wind up carrying four outside linebackers (Mack, Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch, TBD — though Irving has the inside track) if general manager Ryan Pace sticks to the “best 53” approach he’s said he’s taking. 

(Too) Bold Predictions: Leonard Floyd scores the 1st Bears touchdown of the season

(Too) Bold Predictions: Leonard Floyd scores the 1st Bears touchdown of the season

(Too) Bold Predictions aims to take nuanced, well-researched information and use it to make wildly improbable predictions. Analysis! 

J.J. Stankevitz: 
1. The Bears' first touchdown of 2019 will be scored by...Leonard Floyd.
The thought here: Denver's offense is not designed to get the ball out quick, and Joe Flacco is generally immobile in the pocket. As long as the Bears' downfield coverage is as good as it was last week (save for one play-action bomb Aaron Rodgers hit), Floyd and Khalil Mack will have plenty of chances to tee off on Flacco. So one of those chances will lead to a strip-sack deep in Broncos territory, with Floyd scooping it up and jogging into the end zone. 

2. Mitch Trubisky will have a passer rating of 95.4.
That was Trubisky's passer rating in 2018...which was 33.3 points higher than his rating in Week 1. Generally speaking, it's hard to imagine Trubisky being significantly worse in 2019 than he was in 2018, even in light of how bad things were against the Packers. So even against a Vic Fangio defense, Trubisky will put up numbers close to or matching his per-game averages in 2018: 66.6 completion percentage, one touchdown, one interception, 230 yards, two sacks. And that'll be good enough for the Bears to win. 

Cam Ellis
1. The Bears will double their season touchdown total in the 1st quarter
This is, admittedly, just a round-about way of saying the Bears will actually get into the end zone this week, which would typically not be very bold. And yet, here we are. After 10 days of having to hear about the run game issues in Week 1, the bet here is that Nagy goes to David Montgomery early and often. Even with Vic Fangio at the helm, the Broncos' defense doesn't yet look like the intimidating sides he's been synonymous with. Let's say Montgomery gets in first from 10-15 and then Trubisky hits Anthony Miller for the 2nd. 

2. Eddy Pineiro will hit his first NFL field goal from 50+ yards
This game has Pineiro's name all over it. Consider: 

a. The way the offense played in Week 1 
b. The thin air
c. How frequently Nagy's decision to not try Pineiro from distance in Week 1 was questioned. 

The Bears spent all summer talking about the 'leg talent' Pineiro had, and while that alone didn't win him the job, it certainly didn't hurt (*Elliot Fry nods sadly*). They also frequently talk about getting Pineiro in a rhythm, and what better place to let him rip some than Denver in September? Since (Too) Bold Predictions are really just thinly-veiled optimism, let's say he sneaks one in from 53.

Three keys and prediction: Bears at Broncos

Three keys and prediction: Bears at Broncos

1. Let David Montgomery eat. Before the season, one of the narratives surrounding the Bears' offense was turning over 75 percent of the running back personnel from 2018 to 2019 would allow Matt Nagy's run scheme to flourish, which in turn would help Mitch Trubisky be a better quarterback. Having Trubisky pass 45 times with only 12 rushing plays to a player in the backfield in Week 1, then, hardly fit that narrative. 

A better run-pass balance will only help Trubisky be more comfortable going through his reads in the pocket, which should lead to him being more efficient. It has to happen this week, too, given the looming specter of Broncos edge rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb 10 days after the Packers generated a ton of pressure and five sacks on the pass-happy Bears. It’ll be a lot easier for Miller and Chubb to get after Trubisky if they can reasonably know a pass play is coming. 

So this brings us to the main point here: The Bears need to get Montgomery going. They didn’t trade up within the third round, sacrificing a 2020 fourth-round pick, to draft a running back who only gets seven touches. Yes, Montgomery will share time with Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen (assuming Cohen doesn’t line up out wide or in the slot on nearly every snap he takes again), but committing to a better run-pass balance — with Montgomery leading it — will work wonders for the Bears’ offense. 

The Oakland Raiders did this in Week 1, with rookie Josh Jacobs rushing 23 times for 85 yards (3.7 yards/carry)…while Derek Carr completed 22 of 26 passes in a 24-16 win. 

2. Don’t let Joe Flacco push the ball downfield. Flacco completed seven of 11 passes that traveled at least 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in Denver’s season opener, but only one of those traveled 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The Broncos’ offense isn’t totally designed to get the ball out quick and scheme out edge rushers, but it might have to with big-ticket free agent right tackle Ja’Wuan James out (though the team trusts backup Elijah Wilkinson). The Bears’ defense should be good enough to make the necessary tackles and plays on those short throws to keep Denver out of the end zone. 

The goal, then, will be to not let Flacco hit a deep shot to Courtland Sutton or Emanuel Sanders, be it on play action or a straight drop-back. The good news is the Bears paired their coverage and pass rush well against Green Bay in Week 1, with cornerbacks and safeties generally not letting things develop downfield while Leonard Floyd/Khalil Mack/Roy Robertson-Harris/Akiem Hicks/etc. got after Aaron Rodgers. Do the same and Denver’s offense will have a tough time getting on the scoreboard. 

3. Win on first down. The best way for the Bears’ defense to deal with the attitude and heat facing them Sunday will be to not allow positive plays on first down. Denver’s offense wasn’t totally inefficient in Week 1, and reached Raiders territory on six of its eight possessions — yet didn’t score a touchdown until its last drive of the game. The Bears would do well to keep the Broncos from having the kind of extended drives they had on Monday (7.6 plays per drive) given the conditions Sunday.

The worry here is if Denver is able to extend drives, the Bears’ defense will get gassed quickly and might be more prone to allowing those drives to end in points than a Raiders defense high on inspiration but middling on talent was. So this means getting a good pass rush if Flacco drops back on first down, or having Akiem Hicks boss the interior while Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan get downhill to stop the run. Do that, and Denver’s offense likely won’t be good enough to overcome second- and third-and-long downs. 

Prediction: Bears 19, Broncos 16. The Broncos haven’t lost at home in Week 2 since 1979, and have a 12-game winning streak in Week 1 or Week 2 home games. Beneath those numbers are two things: First, the Broncos have been one of the NFL’s best franchises over the last 40 years; and second, it’s often difficult to play on the road at altitude early in the season, when players aren’t quite in peak football shape yet. 

The altitude will, of course, be present on Sunday. A good Broncos team will not. This game will nonetheless be close, but the team with the better roster will win. And that team is the Bears.