Chicago Bears Q&A: Will Matt Nagy tailor the offense for rookie QB Justin Fields? Why haven’t the tight ends been more involved? And is there a solution at nickel cornerback?
With the Chicago Bears coming off their first victory of the season and Justin Fields expected to make his first NFL start Sunday in Cleveland, there’s plenty to talk about in Brad Biggs’ weekly Bears mailbag.
How likely is Matt Nagy to modify the offense to fit his new quarterback? Lessons learned from Mitch Trubisky or same old Matt? — @bearingdowngirl
With everything pointing to Justin Fields starting Sunday against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium, yes, I expect a shift in what the Bears emphasize on offense. They need to tailor a game plan to what Fields is most comfortable with and how they believe those plays will work against the Browns’ 4-3 defense. The pass rush spearheaded by Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney hasn’t gotten rolling yet. The Browns have had difficulty maintaining rush-lane integrity, and that has led to some big plays — the kind of situations Fields could really take advantage of. Weak-side linebacker Mack Wilson has struggled in pass coverage, and that could create openings for the Bears tight ends, who have been underutilized in the passing game the first two weeks.
I imagine we’ll see more quarterback movement in terms of play action, bootlegs and rollouts for Fields. The Bears need to create simple high-low reads for Fields and find running plays they can marry to the passing game in order to balance the attack. We saw some of this in the preseason with Fields, and I’m sure the Bears will be very specific in what they ask him to do this week. Nagy said after the victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Soldier Field that the entire offense is open for the rookie, but they want to be smart in their approach and not overload him. He won’t be able to throw on the run every time and will have to operate as a pocket passer, but they can give him quick reads that allow him to get the ball out quickly.
It will be interesting to see what Nagy and his staff put together and how Fields executes. Everyone clamoring for Fields to start will get what they’ve been screaming for. With a week to practice with the first offense, Fields should be more prepared than he was against the Bengals, when there were few offensive highlights.
The Bears lost badly to a team considered to be Super Bowl contenders then largely dominated (late comeback attempt aside) a team considered to be rebuilding. Can we honestly evaluate the Bears yet? Do you think a fringe contender like Cleveland will provide that opportunity? — @bearsfanpete
There’s an adage that a team is never as good as it looks or as bad as it’s perceived to be coming out of a season opener. A close game turned into a blowout against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 1 largely because the Bears blew coverage on a handful of plays and could not create any chunk plays on offense. A lot of people had a sky-is-falling reaction, but it was just one game. The defens e played much better against the Bengals , and the Bears benefited from four takeaways (turning one into a defensive touchdown) and controlled the game almost completely from start to finish. Two games into a 17-game season, it’s premature to get a gauge on this team. We don’t know what Justin Fields’ developmental arc will look like. Does he improve rapidly in three or four games or does he have a rocky beginning as a starter? Will the defense play at a high level on a weekly basis? If the showing against the Bengals was the start of something good for Sean Desai’s unit, the Bears should be able to play lower-scoring games and keep things tight into the fourth quarter.
Will the offense be more vertical with Justin Fields running it or is the offensive line going to prevent the Bears from pushing the ball down the field? — @halas_bear
I don’t think it will be bombs away against the Browns on Sunday, but we saw the Bears make a more concerted effort to push the ball downfield against the Bengals. According to Pro Football Reference, the Bears are 31st in the league with 3.8 intended air yards per target, which measures the depth of the target whether the pass is completed or not. Only the New England Patriots are lower at 3.1. The Seattle Seahawks rank first at 10.2; Washington is right in the middle at No. 16 with a 6.9 average. The Bears average was pushed way down by the opening game against the Rams. I doubt we’ll see them take a big jump right away with Fields in the lineup, but they will call some shot plays downfield. And extended plays in which Fields creates time for receivers to break loose by moving around will lead to some deeper throws.
Alec Ogletree looks like an upgrade to Danny Trevathan. Does he hold the job when Trevathan is healthy? Any locker room fallout? — @fgrunder3
Ogletree has looked OK and certainly is moving around better than Trevathan. He has been on the field for 80 of 107 defensive snaps (74.8%) and has eight tackles with a quarterback hit that led to defensive lineman Angelo Blackson’s interception Sunday. Ogletree was a shrewd addition by the Bears pro personnel department in early August, but he’s a shell of his former self when he was one of the top players for the Rams. As a scout for another team put it to me, Ogletree will make some plays and give some up as well. It will be interesting to see how long the Bears elect to keep Trevathan on injured reserve. He’s eligible to return after this week, but the team hasn’t shared a timetable for his availability. Considering the investment in Trevathan, I would expect him back in the lineup at some point.
Any chance the refs get some direction midseason on dialing back the taunting calls? A lot of these just seem stupid. — @jazz_trpt
Eleven taunting penalties were handed out in the first two weeks, and the referees are only following through on a mandate the league gave them. I think you will see players begin to understand that their post-play reactions could lead to a 15-yard penalty and start to curb some of their behavior. History also tells us with rules the league emphasizes that things begin to move back to normal as the season progresses. I agree some of the calls have been unnecessary, and it appeared Bears quarterback Andy Dalton got one to go against the Bengals after some lobbying with an official. I don’t think we’ll be talking about this much in the final third of the season.
Seems to be good that the O-line was not the focal point this week, no? Conversely, the quarterback talk overshadows the Duke Shelley debacle. — @mogreenelv
The offensive line did a pretty nice job against the Bengals. The Bears feel like they left some yardage on the field in terms of the running game, but pass protection held up pretty well and left tackle Jason Peters made it through the entire game . You’re right that the primary storyline this week centers around Justin Fields and what is expected to be his first career start. You’re also correct that a weak spot for this defense is the nickel position, something that was easy to forecast. Cooper Kupp got loose against the Bears in the opener as he caught four passes for 83 yards going against Marqui Christian. Shelley replaced Christian against the Bengals, and they completed six of seven passes targeting Shelley for 72 yards and a 109.5 rating. According to Pro Football Reference, opponents had a 118.1 rating throwing against Shelley last season.
The Bears brought in three cornerbacks for a tryout last week, including veteran D.J. Hayden. I spoke to a scout with another team who said Hayden might be the best nickel available. Hayden visited the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this week, and durability has always been a question with him. The scout listed ex-Bear Buster Skrine and Nevin Lawson as other options on the street who could potentially help a team.
I’m not a doctor but how do you get a bone bruise on your knee when you were never hit? — Phil S.
That is a good question and one that a few folks had this week. As everyone saw during the broadcast, Dalton pulled up limping at the end of his 14-yard scramble against the Bengals. He was not contacted on the play. Dr. David Chao ( @profootballdoc ) is a great resource for injury news. He’s a former team doctor for the Chargers and dispenses information on his website, profootballdoc.com .
“He’s been reported to have a bone bruise,” Chao said in a video on his website. “I said in-game there was worry for an ACL tear mechanism where his knee shifts. The kind of bone bruise Andy Dalton got is not where he gets tackled or hit. It’s not like where someone punches you in the arm and you have a bruise. It’s when the two ends of the bone — the end of the femur with cartilage against the end of the tibia with cartilage — smash against each other.
“So instead of tearing the ACL by shifting the knee, the knee got jammed together and thus the bone bruise. This is a noncontact bone bruise and is common. It’s really good news for Andy Dalton. This means his ACL is spared, but it doesn’t mean he’s playing this week. This is why I have been saying it’s Justin Fields’ time. The articulate cartilage is precious. When it’s jammed together like that, there is usually several weeks of rest. Late October is probably his best timeline for return.”
I’ve always assumed teams often delay disclosing the extent of injuries to players as long as possible to disrupt game planning by opposing teams. For example, the Browns game plan for containing Justin Fields is likely much different than for Andy Dalton. Even if the Browns have a plan for both quarterbacks, it splits the amount of time they can focus on one player. Is my assumption correct and is that what the Bears are doing with Andy Dalton? — Jim A., Plymouth, Minn.
You are thinking along the right lines, but I believe this is largely overblown. NFL teams usually have a good idea on Wednesdays of which players will and won’t be available, and by Friday during a normal game week, they have a really good idea. Coaches believe that the smallest pieces of information potentially can provide them with an edge on Sundays, so they try to keep everything under wraps. You’re right, a plan to defend Fields will differ from one to defend Dalton, but it’s not like Fields is the first quarterback the Browns have faced who can move around and make plays with his legs.
It does not seem that the tight ends have been very involved in the passing game thus far, unless you regard blocking as part of the passing game. Am I missing something? What is your assessment of their role and performance in the first two games? — Norm G., Sedona, Ariz.
Believe it or not, there were as many questions about the tight ends this week as there were about Justin Fields. No joke. A lot of people wanted to know why Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham, among others, haven’t been more involved in the passing game. Tight ends were targeted only once in the win over the Bengals, with Kmet catching a pass for no gain. He was targeted seven times with five catches for 42 yards the week before against the Rams. Graham has two targets, one catch and 11 yards — all in the Rams game — and Jesse James and J.P. Holtz have yet to be targeted.
“Not enough targets (Sunday) and they need to be more involved,” Matt Nagy said Monday. “I’m well aware of that. That’s my fault for that. I don’t want to say never going to happen again, but that’s not enough.”
It doesn’t mean the Bears haven’t called more plays with the tight end as the first read in the progression. Sometimes that happens and the defense takes the play away or forces the quarterback to look elsewhere.
“Within this offense you won’t always see one guy all the time,” Nagy said. “So there might be a play that we called for a tight end, they took it away. I can think of a couple specifically that they’ve done that for. They don’t get the target, but the play was called for them.”
I wouldn’t expect this to lead to a huge day for the tight ends Sunday, but you can bet on them being in the game plan early and I believe the Bears will make a concerted effort to get Graham going considering the investment in him. He’s certainly valuable in the red zone.
Matt Nagy seems to be so preoccupied with calling plays that he doesn’t really fulfill his role as head coach. Example, in the first half when David Montgomery appeared to get a first down on third-and-short, the offense rushed to the line and got stopped on fourth down. Why didn’t Nagy ask for a measurement? Or a review? Those are things a head coach should do, but since he was preoccupied with making the next call, he missed out on an important game situation to make the right call. What do you think? — Keith L., Wichita, Kan.
I hear what you’re saying and I think the real culprit was probably Justin Fields on the quarterback sneak. He wasn’t very decisive with it and got stacked up at the line of scrimmage. There is an art to running a QB sneak, and it’s obviously something at which he can get a lot better. It doesn’t require speed or quickness either. Tom Brady might be the best all time at running QB sneaks. He has a feel for it, picks his spot and lunges forward. Asking for an official review would have been risky. Coaches almost always lose challenges when they ask for the spot to be reviewed. Hurrying up in that situation provided the Bears with a chance to catch the Bengals defense off guard, so I don’t have a problem with that either. The real issue was execution.
In 2019, Matt Nagy, in a game against the Chargers, made the decision to not run any plays and to kneel down at the end of the game. Eddy Pineiro then missed a 41-yard field goal. Nagy’s explanation for having Mitch Trubisky kneel down at the time was that it was dangerous to run any plays. In his opinion, he felt the Bears could fumble or lose yardage. The decision resulted in a Bears loss. Fast-forward to last Sunday and on third-and-7 with a 10-point lead, Nagy elected to let his rookie quarterback Justin Fields throw the ball. The result: an interception which led to a touchdown. Nagy’s explanation was he wanted to remain aggressive. What exactly is his philosophy? These two decisions are complete opposite. On Sunday, the defense was dominant. Why not run the ball, force Cincinnati to take a timeout, punt and let the dominating defense take over? Just wondered your thoughts? — Doug E.
I thought a running play in that situation would have been the best move. The defense, with the exception of the 42-yard touchdown reception by Ja’Marr Chase, had dominated throughout the game. As you pointed out, the Bears had a 10-point lead at the time. While running the ball would have given the offense a low-percentage chance of gaining the first down, it would have forced Bengals coach Zac Taylor to use his second timeout. Pat O’Donnell would have flipped the field for the Bears, and the Bengals probably would have started somewhere around their 35-yard line. That would have been a no-brainer to me. Nagy wanted to show confidence in Fields and give him a chance to run the four-minute offense. Naturally, he defended the play call after the game, which is what most coaches do. They make a decision and stand by it. I wonder, if he had it to do over again, if he would have handed the ball off to David Montgomery. As far as the comparison with the Pineiro situation, that’s a little bit apples to oranges. They were in a spot to win the game and felt they were in a good range for Pineiro. Would 2 or 3 more yards have made a difference? I don’t know.
What is the chance that Nick Foles will be traded now that so many QBs are down with injuries? — @huecodreams
Slim. Very slim. Foles is earning $4 million in base salary this season and has $5 million guaranteed in 2022, with $1 million of his $4 million base salary guaranteed along with another $4 million guaranteed roster bonus. It’s highly unlikely a team wants to take on Foles’ salary for this season and the future commitment to pay him. Basically, the Bears are stuck with Foles.