Bears

What will Matt Nagy's passing offense look like with the Bears?

What will Matt Nagy's passing offense look like with the Bears?

First of two parts.

Looking ahead to training camp and what everyone will be looking at – it will help to have even a cursory idea of the offensive elements that coach Matt Nagy is incorporating, particularly in the passing game — because the when, where and how the Bears will be throwing the football is changing. NBC Sports Chicago focuses on a selection of specifics and their origins within that part of the offense that fans will notice, first in Bourbonnais and then in the 2018 season.

Bears coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich have initiated a monumental makeover of the Bears’ offense, some effects of which should be evident sooner rather than later, if for no other reason than the quarterback and receiver group project to be noticeably better than the tools at the disposal of John Fox and Dowell Loggains.

But the changes run deeper than personnel.

“We’re going to continue to do some of the things that we did in Kansas City,” Nagy said not long after his hiring, “but we’re also going to grow. We’re going to create our own identity.”

Nothing should suggest that the 2018 Bears will ascend to the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive heights (multiple top-10 statistical rankings, including points (No. 6) and yards (No. 5) per game) in the short term. However, if it takes five years for the Bears to reach those levels, as it did for the Chiefs to do so under Andy Reid, the prospects of Nagy and GM Ryan Pace still being around to see it are problematic. Meaning: Changes will be noticeable immediately.

The complexities of the Nagy/Helfrich iteration of the time-honored West Coast offense are too much to chronicle in one analysis, and they won’t be immediately apparent to the naked eye. For one thing, if civilians could pick it up that easily, it wouldn’t have survived the decades of distinguished defensive coordinators assailing it. Also, if it were that simple, Mitch Trubisky wouldn’t have needed to work as hard at it as he has for some months now. A prime directive in all of this is precisely that the offense is NOT easy to figure out.

For another reason, regardless of how many years he apprenticed under Reid in Philadelphia and Kansas City, Nagy’s offense will be uniquely his, not merely a Reid clone. Reid did not simply run the Bill Walsh playbook; he authored his own edition. Similarly, not all of the clues to the Nagy offense can be found looking at 2017 Chiefs film. Nagy brings a different and expanded offensive scheme to the Bears, with Helfrich in a complementary role.

But the past is often prologue. Nagy’s NFL experience has all been within the parameters of Reid’s framework, and Helfrich has never coached against an NFL defense. So a reasonable expectation is that Nagy and Helfrich build out from a Reid foundation, but customizing it with personal preferences and with an eye toward molding it to the collective skillset of Trubisky and the rest of the offensive components.

To gain a preliminary, superficial understanding of what Nagy’s offense is about, look to Nagy’s past, the West Coast roots that Nagy incorporates in his work.

With his own modifications. As in:

“I think if you compare the old-school West Coast offense, where the three-step [dropback-passing] game was the extension of the run, and they’re looking for the yards after the catch, the ‘YAC’ yards,” Nagy said, “now you look at our offense which is more of the RPO [run-pass-option] stuff. You’re sort of getting the same thing, but now you’re mixing in run and pass on the same play.”

The Walsh influences

At its core, the West Coast offense uses the pass to set up the run, and uses the pass as a device for ball control – something of a departure from recent Bears offenses, although Marc Trestman based much of his scheme around that premise.

Actually the West Coast offense is misnamed and should’ve gone into NFL lore as the “Ohio River offense,” or something reflective of the fact that Bill Walsh formulated many of the concepts while an assistant with the expansion Cincinnati Bengals 50 years ago. Walsh came from the vertical passing game espoused by the Oakland Raiders, his first NFL employer, but was forced in Cincinnati to adapt to the arm limitations of Virgil Carter, who stepped in as starter when strong-armed Greg Cook suffered what was effectively a career-ending arm injury. Walsh exploited the defense horizontally, not simply vertically.

With Trubisky, Nagy won’t be constrained by arm limitations. Trubisky has the deep arm and has speed with Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Kevin White.

But like any coach or assistant, Walsh wanted ball control but approached it through the pass, not the run, as explained in his “Controlling the ball with the pass” written in 1979. “To do that.” Walsh wrote, “we have to have versatility – versatility in the action and types of passes thrown by the quarterback.” Nagy subscribes to the notion of ball control using the pass, not solely the run.

Walsh espoused three passing concepts:

• drop-back passes, typically with short drops and quick releases;

• play-action passes, which in Nagy’s scheme can take the form of run-pass-option plays besides the conventional fake handoff on the way to a drop-back;

• and what Walsh termed the “action pass” where the quarterback moves outside to negate a rush, change the trajectory of a throw or shorten the throw to a targeted receiver.

Ex-quarterback Nagy has a full grasp of and appreciation for all three, particularly the action pass, and it begins with his own awareness of history. Within even a brief conversation about his offensive tenets, Nagy brings up one of the great plays in NFL history, one Walsh built into the San Francisco 49ers scheme, one that may have looked like a broken play, but was anything but.

“’The Catch’” was a movement play, ‘Q-8,’” Nagy said, recalling the Joe Montana pass to the late Dwight Clark against the Dallas Cowboys to win the 1981 NFC Championship game. “Montana sprinted out. That’s an old-school West Coast play, and we have that play. That’s a movement play. We do have movements; we don’t live in that world but we want to have that.”

Next: The misunderstood centerpiece position of West Coast offenses, and how all things “timing” are changing.

 

Postcard from Camp: Adam Shaheen's ankle injury puts a halt on the solid growth he's made this preseason

camp_postcard.jpg
.

Postcard from Camp: Adam Shaheen's ankle injury puts a halt on the solid growth he's made this preseason

Bears coach Matt Nagy wasn’t sure on Monday if Adam Shaheen’s right ankle sprain would keep him from playing Week 1 in Green Bay. If it does, though, it would represent the fourth consecutive regular season game the second-year tight end would miss dating back to last year. 

In a coincidental connection, too, it would mark the second straight year Shaheen wouldn’t be able to immediately build off a strong showing against the Cincinnati Bengals. Last December, Shaheen caught four of five targets for 44 yards with a touchdown in the Bears’ 33-7 win in Cincinnati; he caught all three of his targets for 53 yards against the Bengals in Aug. 9’s preseason game. 

Shaheen suffered a chest injury during that Bengals game last December and was inactive for the Bears’ final three games of the season. Coincidences aside, Shaheen’s ankle injury represents another speed bump in his developmental path, depending on the severity of it. 

But the good news, perhaps, is that Shaheen has made strides this training camp and preseason. We’ll look at one specific play against the Bengals that stands out below. 

To set it up: Earlier this month, Shaheen talked about how he’s improved at reading coverages and how that’s helped him improve as a route runner. That’s something that has come with experience as he enters Year 2 in the NFL. 

“It’s a big part of this offense as a receiver, recognize the coverage and where you need to be,” Shaheen said. “How you get there is everything.

“… There’s a little more not-so-much focus on, like, a perfect square cut. It’s more, like I said earlier, against this coverage you need to be in that hole at the right time. You might just be in that hole just pulling a defender another way to open up your teammate. That’s a big part.”

That growing savviness was on display in Cincinnati on Aug. 9. Specifically, this play:

Shaheen runs a drag over the middle on third-and-four but encounters linebacker Hardy Nickerson (red circle) standing in his way.

Instead of keeping strictly to the route and trying to run through or beneath Nickerson (yellow arrow), Shaheen faced up to the Bengals’ linebacker, did an inside-out juke move and goes to Nickerson's outside shoulder (blue arrow).

Shaheen is then able to use his strength and athleticism to gain leverage on Nickerson and work his way into the open field. 

The whole play took all of two seconds to develop, and by the time Chase Daniel releases the ball, Shaheen has a step on Nickerson. The result is not just a first down, but a 29-yard completion. 

“Some routes are locked in, and other ones we’ve got a little wiggle room to work,” Shaheen said. “Those ones are obviously very good to see a linebacker over there because you know you can really have an opportunity to get the ball and work him.”

Those little things will continue to grow Shaheen’s game with more experience. The potential is there for Shaheen to play a significant role in the Bears’ offense in 2018 — provided he’s healthy for the start of it. 

Construction and nature of Bears pass rush adds to potential impact of Leonard Floyd hand injury

Construction and nature of Bears pass rush adds to potential impact of Leonard Floyd hand injury

Measuring the impact and domino effect of Leonard Floyd’s fractured right hand suffered in the weekend win over the Denver Broncos is next to impossible at this juncture simply because what Floyd’s effectiveness will be in a cast isn’t remotely clear. Coach Matt Nagy noted Monday that players have functioned with a “club” for a hand but the Bears need more than Floyd just playing.

The injury, which required surgery, affects Floyd’s fingers, and irrespective of the specific injury, those requiring casting and club-like encasement have dramatically affected effectiveness in even the game’s top pass rushers: Clay Matthews in Green Bay (2013); Jason Pierre-Paul with the Giants (2015); J.J. Watt in Houston (2016).

Nagy used the word “relief” in talking about Floyd’s situation; good word choice. Because the Bears have lost elite linebackers to season-ending thumb or wrist injuries (Bryan Cox, 1996; Brian Urlacher 2009).

But any diminishing of Floyd’s effectiveness projects to a potential catastrophe for a Bears defense wanting to start fast and help an offense that will be learning to stand fully upright through its first season under Nagy. Pass rushers, particularly speed rushers, need their hands. And fingers.

The reason is more than simply Floyd. It’s the construction of the Bears defense and its rush options. Because in the Bears’ case, numbers can obscure the true nature – and degree of vulnerability – of the Bears’ pass rush.

The defense posted 42 sacks in 2017, ranking an eminently respectable tied for seventh despite being without a single defender with more than Akiem Hicks’ 8-1/2, and better than Arizona (17th) with Chandler Jones (17 sacks), for example.

That is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that a top-10 defense was not based on one individual rush terror – a Matthews, Watt, Von Miller. Consider it a rush-by-committee, with Floyd, Hicks, Sam Acho, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young or any of more than a half-dozen threats capable of delivering one of the single most devastating defensive plays other than a takeaway.

But that is also the bad news. Because the Bears lost McPhee, Young, Lamarr Houston and the players who produced more than one-third (14-1/2) of the 42 sacks.

This is more than a simple headcount issue; it’s an integrated-whole problem. The Bears had so many potential impact rushers, their scheme was able to bring pressure from different places and players. The rush may not have had one elite pocket disruptor, but it did have quantity to the point where double-teaming any one created opportunities that non-elite rushers exploited.

Acho benefitted from Young benefitted from McPhee benefitted from Hicks benefitted from Floyd benefitted from... You get the idea.

The point is that no Bears rusher was, or now, is, capable of exerting consistent dominance by himself, as great pass rushers do. Dan Hampton benefitted from Richard Dent, but Hampton was a Pro Bowl rush threat before Dent arrived. Watt had 20 1/2 sacks in 2012, before the Texans drafted Jadeveon Clowney, and 20 1/2 in 2014 when Clowney only played four games.

The Bears situation is not necessarily a crisis; the whole being greater than the sum of the parts is by definition the antithesis of crisis. But the Bears lost a significant number of those parts. Liken it to the Bears having a great offensive line and losing a couple of starters: The remaining starters could the better members of the “great” group, but unless the lost players are replaced with talent equal to or greater than the losses, the chances of the group achieving anywhere near what it was when it had all its components are slim.

Hicks is coming off a career year. But the Bears did little to replace Houston, McPhee and Young, who contributed both to Floyd’s development and his production. Now the pass rusher drafted to be a linchpin of the Bears defense has a significant impairment.

So does the entire defense.