PHOENIX — Taylor Gabriel, through two games with the Bears, is playing a lot more than he did in two years with the Atlanta Falcons. His snap percentage increase — from 41 percent in 2016 to 53 percent in 2017 to 90 percent so far in 2018 — is commensurate with the four-year, $26 million pay bump the Bears gave Gabriel back in March.
While Gabriel hasn’t had an explosive play yet — though he could’ve against the Seattle Seahawks had Mitch Trubisky not overthrown him when he was open over the middle in the first quarter — he has made contributions in two important areas: Run blocking, and scrapping for yards on quick throws.
“He can take it to the house any given play, he's just so fast,” coach Matt Nagy said. “But he's learning right now how to be a full-time wide receiver, meaning he's getting a lot more reps. So when you have him in different motions and moving him around a lot, that can be tiring. But he has handled that really well.”
Gabriel made a few plays as a run blocker to help set up some of the Bears’ more successful runs in a largely unsuccessful game on the ground against Seattle. While he’s only 5-foot-8 and weighs 165 pounds, he said “cut blocking is my forte” and said the attention paid to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has helped, too.
“When (Hiestand’s) putting in the plays for running, we’re not just not paying attention or watching film of something else, we’re focusing on those little things in run blocking,” Gabriel said. “We are a big part of that.”
Gabriel, then, probably the smallest player Hiestand — a career offensive line coach who, in his previous stop, developed four first-round picks at Notre Dame — has ever coached, even indirectly. But his stature, in addition to not prohibiting him from sticking his nose in run blocking, hasn’t prevented him from gaining a critical extra yard or two when necessary.
That skill showed up on the Bears’ 11-play, 66-yard scoring drive against the Seahawks (link) on both passing and running plays. It’s all part of Gabriel’s efforts to be more than an occasionally-used deep threat.
“Playing more plays than I usually do, so just going out there and trying to be a complete wide receiver,” Gabriel said. “And that’s not just running the whole route tree, catching the ball, that blocking — run blocking. So just trying to make guys miss a little bit, get on the second level and that’s where we can help out.”
Tapping into Miller
Rookie wideout Anthony Miller said he’ll give the ball he caught for his first career touchdown to his mom, and believes it’s the first of many he’ll catch in his currently-nascent career.
“Scoring that touchdown, it just raised expectations for myself,” Miller said. “I just feel like I could contribute to this team in a big way and I think that’s what you’re going to see as this season continues to go on.”
Miller’s had that self-confident attitude ever since his rise from walk-on to star at Memphis, and it was among the reasons the Bears traded back into the second round to draft him back in April. Ever since that moment, Miller has had the mindset of an immediate contributor, not someone who would need time to develop and see the field.
“That’s why they picked me to come here,” Miller said. “They didn’t pick me to come here to be scout team, not contributing at all. They expected me to come here and play right away and make plays and do what I did in college. And that’s what I aim to do.”
The Bears head to the desert as 4 1/2-point favorites over the Arizona Cardinals, marking only the second time since Ryan Pace took over as general manager this team is favored in a road game. It’s also only the 10th time since 2015 they’ve been favored, with the previous results being:
2015 Week 13, vs. San Francisco: L, 26-20 (OT)
2015 Week 14, vs. Washington: L, 24-21
2016 Week 2, vs. Philadelphia: L, 29-14
2016 Week 6 vs. Jacksonville: L, 17-16
2016 Week 10 at Tampa Bay: L, 36-10
2017 Week 10 vs. Green Bay: L, 23-16
2017 Week 16 vs. Cleveland: W, 20-3
2018 Week 2 vs. Seattle: W, 24-17
In the John Fox era, the Bears were only favored eight times, winning just one (on Christmas Eve last year against the Cleveland Browns). The Bears being favored in back-to-back games this early into the Nagy era has plenty to do with the competition — Seattle and Arizona might wind up being two of the worst teams in the NFC in 2018 — but it also does speak to the distinct improvement in talent across the board on this team assembled in the last half-year by Pace.