There’s a wrinkle to the Bears’ offense nobody’s quite seen yet in 2018. With Adam Shaheen being activated off injured reserve on Saturday, we might get a look at what it could be starting Sunday.
To make room for Shaheen on the 53-man roster, the Bears placed tight end Dion Sims on injured reserve. Sims didn't practice the last two weeks after suffering a concussion Nov. 4 against the Buffalo Bills, and has had recurring concussion issues in the past.
Shaheen, who suffered an ankle injury in a preseason game Aug. 18 against the Denver Broncos, began practicing with the Bears last week.
The aspect to Matt Nagy’s offense we haven’t seen, then, is a “Y” (in-line) tight end being a legitimate receiving threat. While opposing teams have film on Shaheen from his rookie year of 2017, they don’t have film on how Nagy could use him.
“I haven’t even though about it,” Shaheen said. “For me, I just want to get out there and play. And so, thinking about that, if they don’t see me coming and it gives me better looks, then so be it.”
While Shaheen’s usage could be limited in his first regular season game since Dec. 10, 2017, his go-up-and-get-it ability in the red zone could instantly be a factor against the Minnesota Vikings. Shaheen led the Bears with three touchdowns in 2017 despite only catching 12 passes.
From a schematic standpoint, how Nagy works Shaheen into the offense will be interesting to observe. The Bears are one of five teams to average seven or more yards per play while having three receivers on the field:
The most-ran offensive formation in the NFL this season is called “Trips”, with 3 players to one side (you get the name now) and 1 on the other side. #GoBucs #LARams #HereWeGo #KeepPounding #DaBears #GoPats #ChiefsKingdom #InBrotherhood #Texans pic.twitter.com/KEMxJqM4Y2— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) November 15, 2018
The Bears’ two most-used formations (totaling 90 plays) has had Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller and Taylor Gabriel as the three receivers, with Jordan Howard or Tarik Cohen the running back and Trey Burton the tight end. Their third most-used formation (31 plays) did feature two tight ends in Burton and Dion Sims, though the majority of those plays (18) were rushing plays.
Sims, though, wasn't a receiving threat, while Shaheen is.
“It just puts another playmaker on the field, as somebody else they have to account for,” Burton said. “We just have so many guys that can do so many different things, so it makes it really tough to guard. And so I like it because we have two tight ends in there at a time. Hopefully we can get rolling with that whenever he comes back.”
“Whenever” will be Sunday. And the larger point here may be that the Bears were able to add a playmaker into their offense instead of losing one to attrition in November.
“He’s just a mismatch problem across the board for linebackers and safeties, and when you get a corner on him as well, his size is just too much to handle,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “Getting him back will just open things up even more for this offense, and he’s another option for this offense to be even more dynamic."
1. Finish in the fourth quarter. Here’s a blind test of which team is which:
Team A: 29.9 points/game (5th), 19.4 points allowed/game (4th), 4th in DVOA
Team B: 24.6 points/game (15th), 22.7 points allowed/game (11th), 14th in DVOA
The Bears are Team A, and the Vikings are Team B. The point here being: The Bears are, on paper, a better team than the Vikings — and, actually, it’s not particularly close.
But what the Vikings have that the Bears don’t is experience winning together. While Kirk Cousins wasn’t on this team last year, the same core playmakers remain: Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph on offense; Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr (who’s questionable for Sunday’s game), Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter on defense. Those guys led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game a year ago, which included that miraculous win over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round.
Minnesota, as an offense, isn’t markedly better in the fourth quarter (5.6 yards/play) than the other three periods, but they’re not worse than their full-game average (5.8 yards/play). Their defense, on the other hand, is at its best in the final 15 minutes, allowing 4.7 yards/play, lower than the 5.3 yards/play they’ve allowed this season.
The Bears, meanwhile, have struggled in the fourth quarter on offense (4.9 yards/play, about one yard fewer than their season average) and defense (7.0 yards/play, two yards more than their season average). Matt Nagy and this team can do plenty over the first 45 minutes to make sure it’s not a one-possession game in the fourth quarter, but even if that’s the case, they’ll need to be better down the stretch to beat Minnesota.
2. Make big plays on defense. Thielen has 100 or more receiving yards in eight of his nine games this year, while Diggs has gone over 90 yards in half of his eight games. While Bryce Callahan and Kyle Fuller are playing at Pro Bowl levels and might very well be capable of shutting both receivers down, the expectation here is that Thielen and Diggs will get their yards on Sunday night. What will key the Bears’ defense, then, will be big plays: Interceptions, forced fumbles, sacks, tackles for loss, etc. The good news: Cousins has been sacked four times in four games this year, three of which the Vikings lost. Hitting home on Cousins and making him uncomfortable should result in the kind of game-shifting plays the Bears’ defense will need.
3. Stay on schedule on offense. Opposing offenses are averaging 8.6 yards-to-gain on third down against Minnesota’s defense, which is about a yard and a half better than the league average. What’s interesting about that third down yards-to-gain number is it’s actually higher than what opposing offenses average on second down (8.1) against this defense. Needing to win on third down is sort of a non-starter for the Bears’ offense, given the three teams that beat Minnesota (the Bills, Rams and Saints) converted only 11 of 34 third down tries. But picking up quick first downs, or at least generating some third-and-short downs, can mitigate that strength of Minnesota’s defense.
Prediction: Bears 27, Vikings 17. Just about every worst-to-first team has a “statement game” in which they prove they’ve arrived against a good team, or at least a team generally thought to be good. The Bears are a better team than the Vikings entering Sunday, but still have to prove — perhaps to themselves — that they’re a better team than the defending NFC North champions. Consider this a gut feeling: This is the game the Bears do just that, taking the step from being a potential playoff contender to a legit favorite to win their division.