Bears

The biggest non-story of the 2019 Bears offseason

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USA Today

The biggest non-story of the 2019 Bears offseason

It was potentially one of the biggest storylines – changes at two of the five positions on the offensive line – hanging over a Chicago Bears offense needing to grow as a group and with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

The “news,” as this offseason, camp and preseason have unfolded, is that there’s no story, no news.

The story involved moving a 2018 Pro Bowl and 2016 all-rookie center – Cody Whitehair – out of the position he’d anchored on the Bears line for three years, and moving a relatively unproven (10 NFL starts) young O-lineman – James Daniels – from left guard and into Whitehair’s spot, with the latter going back to left guard after three years in the middle.

At stake was the risk of disruption of one of the NFL’s best emerging offensive lines, which tied for third-fewest sacks (33) and was top-10 in sack percentage in the league last season.

The result:

Nothing to see here.

No mishandled snaps. No questions about shotgun-snap issues. No compatibility issues with Trubisky.

“We like that just because whenever you have a switch like that, or a change, it means they're doing something right,” said coach Matt Nagy, “because it's not a point of emphasis for us.”

Daniels and Whitehair share more than a position-group meeting room. Both were second-round picks by Bears GM Ryan Pace, Whitehair in 2016, Daniels in 2018. Both earned starting jobs as rookies, once unusual for offensive linemen, now not so rare, at least for the Bears over much of this decade (Daniels, Whitehair, Kyle Long, Hroiss Grasu, Jordan Mills).

They are also part of an extremely close group. When Daniels’ turn came last year for the tradition of a rookie picking up the tab for the weekly offensive-line dinner, the tab topped $5,000, “but some of the guys helped me out with that, too, so I can’t complain,” Daniels said, more than a little appreciatively. “We lift together, eat together, do so much stuff together. We do things with other teammates, but this group is special.”

Whitehair nods: “We have such a good group, pretty close, respect each other and work for each other. And that’s what it’s all about, everybody working to make each other better, and that’s what we’re doing.”

It is also an overall situation with fascinating upside potential at the highest levels for the Bears.

Middle’ing thoughts

While NFL lore exalts middle linebacker and running back in Bears history, few positions have been staffed by as many greats as center for the Chicago Bears. George Trafton was selected to the 1920’s All-Decade Team. Bulldog Turner is one of only nine centers elected to the Hall of Fame. Olin Kreutz shared All-Decade-Team honors with Kevin Mawae for the 2000’s. Kreutz and Jay Hilgenberg have been nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And Kreutz is unequivocal about Daniels: “When I watch James Daniels, he does things at an elite level at a young age. I really think you’re looking at a kid who could be the best center in the NFL for a while,” Kreutz said during an appearance with “Mully and Haugh” on WSCR-AM.

Daniels grasps history as well as defenses. He became familiar with Hilgenberg at Iowa, where photos of Hilgenberg were around the football offices, and he has met Hilgenberg since joining the Bears.

He has availed himself of Kreutz’s insights, Kreutz having played for current O-line coach Harry Hiestand when the latter was coaching the Bears linemen through the Super Bowl time in the mid-1990’s. Kreutz, who played for six different offensive-line coaches during his career, deepened Daniels’ understanding of Hiestand’s principles and style, Daniels said.

“Harry teaches that everyone should know what everyone has to do on each play,” Daniels said. “So the adjustment hasn’t been hard. I would say that it could have been difficult, but all the other players – Kyle, Charles [Leno], Cody, Bobby [Massie] – they’ve all been helpful and always helped me. Somebody’ll get the call out. If I’m having trouble with this or that, they’re always there helping me.”

And Daniels appreciated what he now had to his immediate left on the line.

“I told Cody, because he is just so good, that if I make a wrong call, to correct me,” Daniels said. “So Cody playing center for the past three years, he’s been very helpful for me. If I come up and make the wrong call he’ll just say, ‘No, no, it’s [this],’ and he knows exactly where I’m looking on each play and he knows what I’m seeing.”

Anchoring the anchor

For Whitehair, the one constant in his NFL career has been change. He is on his third offensive line coach in four NFL seasons; his first, Dave Magazu, maintained that Whitehair was drafted to play center, before Whitehair went to left guard and then back to center, all before the first game of 2016, when the Bears signed veteran Josh Sitton. Whitehair stayed put through coach Jeremiah Washburn, and then a regime change from John Fox to Nagy and, with him, Hiestand.

Some “changes” are harder than others. He may be a guard again but he still breaks the huddle and looks to ID the “Mike” linebacker the way he did for the last three years at center.

“I kind of do,” he said, laughing. “You kind of read the defense because that’s your job as a center, so I do find myself doing a little bit of that at the line of scrimmage. But James has done an outstanding job, getting us all on the same page and communicating with us. That’s his thing now and he’s doing a great job.”

“Homecomings”

The switch has been anything but disruptive. Indeed, veteran NFL observers felt last season that Daniels, with his Iowa history at the position and playing style, in fact belonged at center and Whitehair, one of the most physical members of the Bears line, at the power position of guard.

“[Guard] is a position that I have a little more experience with throughout my background,” Whitehair said. “So it’s a little rusty, but like riding a bike, you knock the rust off and you’re back to yourself.”

For Daniels, “I knew that whatever position they had me play at, I’m going to be at ‘home.’ Last year it was at guard, this year at center, and I’ve been practicing all offseason so it’s feeling pretty good.”

Both live the O-line mantra: Wherever you need me… .

“It’s really been a motto of mine ever since I started playing football – wherever I can help the line, wherever I can help the team, no matter where it is, I’m all for it,” Whitehair said.

“Another thing, too, is that our line is so athletic, we can do many things. As the season gets on and you have to maybe do another position, you’re able to do it without any trouble. It also helps to only suit seven or eight guys on game day, helps with the roster.”

(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.