Making a firm declarative assessment about how an NFL team performs in the preseason is fool’s gold. That’s because the preseason is about examining how individual players are featuring, rather than a collective unit that often doesn’t play enough to warrant deep judgment.
Nowhere is this a better example than the Bears’ 30-27 preseason loss to the Bengals on Thursday night. Chicago’s first team offense looked awful, but they only had eight plays to operate. For an offense still being installed with a lot of moving parts, that’s to be expected. Eight plays and no rhythm in Week 1 of the preseason isn’t nearly enough to say Mitchell Trubisky and company are sunk costs.
This would’ve been the same takeaway if the Bears’ first team offense had looked spectacular. Making a grand assessment that they were well on their way would be misguided. In the confines of a game where most offenses see at least 60-plus plays on any given week, eight plays is one of the smallest and most inaccurate snapshots possible.
As mentioned, though, there’s select individual plays to display how far some Bears have come. You can take these plays at face value, in their proper context, and use them as the headers to solid single performances. Seeing as how most major contributors didn’t play in the Hall of Fame Game against the Ravens, Thursday night was the first glimpse we had of a lot of featured Bears in 2018.
In the first of a new ongoing series here at Windy City Gridiron, I’m going to pause, replay, and highlight plays from each game, good and bad. I’ll break down how they happened and work them into the overall assessment of how the specified Bear looked that day.
This is “The Bear Pause” and let’s jump right into the film from Paul Brown Stadium.
Of every Bear that played against Cincinnati, rookie center James Daniels was by far the most impressive. Daniels played in the middle for the first time in his NFL career after only roughly a week of practice at the position, and he didn’t miss a beat.
Yes, Daniels was playing against the Bengals’ second team defense so there are disclaimers. But he looked absolutely dominant against inferior competition. That’s the best sign of a 20-year-old ready to make the jump to the No. 1 unit, provided he can maintain this progression. A stellar and athletic college center looking like a natural, who would’ve thought?
Daniels’ best play of the night was creating a hole by himself on the goal line on Taquan Mizzell’s touchdown run early in the second quarter.
Look at Daniels pile driving Cincinnati’s interior defensive line by himself as Mizzell scampers on a nice cutback. Look at Daniels undaunted by the prospect of brusing short yardage.
The cardinal rule all offensive linemen are taught from Pop Warner to the NFL on is to keep your feet moving. If you lose your hand placement, technique, and are pushed back, don’t let your feet stop. That’s important because it keeps your momentum forward and power going without a hitch. It allows you to win the tug of war up front.
Daniels initially loses ground against his man as he’s pushed back, but he doesn’t let his feet halt. It’s that which allows him to reverse course and clear a massive hole for Mizzell. When in doubt, don’t lose your fundamentals and you’ll be fine more times than not. When in doubt, play with an edge. With these type of plays, it’s only a matter of time until Daniels is taking No. 1 snaps.
Heading to the Bengals’ first touchdown drive on their opening possession of the game, you would’ve liked to see better tackling from the Bears’ Pro Football Focus and Madden All-Star Adrian Amos.
Cincinnati was driving on a haphazard possession for Chicago’s defense and a man of Amos’ hyped stature has to make this play. There’s nothing fancy about it. There’s no excuse. You can excuse play design being all over the place in the preseason. You can’t excuse routine tackles in the open field as the last line of defense.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton hits running back Joe Mixon on what should be a routine checkdown. Amos gets there quickly after Mixon makes John Timu miss. Amos breaks down perfectly and has Mixon dead to rights. Then, curiously, Amos lets him get the smallest lane back to the middle of the field, (it’s a defensive cardinal rule not to) like a bull charging through red.
Yes, great players are allowed blunders occasionally. But supposed great players also don’t make blunders with their primary skillset on what are routine plays. Amos did everything well as far as technique, except finishing. If Amos isn’t going to force an abundance of turnovers, like he hasn’t in his career to this point, he can’t fail at his tackling calling card. Especially if he wants a contract extension from Chicago.
Nevertheless, while the Bears defense did flash at times like on Kyle Fuller’s pick-six, Amos’ effort above was emblematic of a unit that had far too many lapses considering their touted continuity.
That brings us a nice segway to Chicago’s fateful and now tentative third boundary cornerback, Marcus Cooper. With abuse on the field like he experienced, Cooper’s going to find himself on the chopping block soon.
Objectively, A.J. Green is one of the NFL’s best receivers. When the Bengals are down for the count, they can count on him winning a contested one-on-one against the most elite of shutdown cornerbacks. The seven-time Pro Bowler has made a career of humiliating the league.
This is a fact that Cooper, who received the start, knows fully well. While lining up across from him, Cooper also knows that Dalton and the Bengals see the mismatch between he and Green. It’s in this instance where he knows he absolutely cannot let Green win his outside shoulder. Cooper has to press Green by getting a hand on him and disrupt the timing quickly.
So why does he let Green win the outside leverage from the very top of the play? The end result of a 22-yard dime is predictable.
Green’s objective on this route was to clear out space and take Cooper for a ride before he came back to the ball on the back shoulder throw. Getting the quick release and positioning on Cooper was like taking candy from a baby. Cooper loses as soon as he doesn’t get a hand on Green on his release, making the eventual completion a foregone conclusion.
To be fair, Green does this to much higher caliber cornerbacks on a regular basis. So it’s no shame in losing to him. It’s more that Cooper is likely fighting for a Bears roster spot, has Green’s scouting report of almost a decade of elite production, and doesn’t do everything possible to take Green’s lane away. If there was impending doom for any Bear playing against the Bengals, it’s Cooper. Three tackles and poor technique doesn’t move the needle.
Finally, in a net positive, Adam Shaheen picked up where he left off from his last 2017 season action: ironically also against the Bengals and as one of the Bears’ bright, young weapons downfield.
Who knew a 6-foot-6, 270 pound freak with an NFL off-season program under his belt would look better going into his second season? More importantly, who knew Shaheen liked playing the Bengals so much?
Shaheen had three receptions for 53 yards against the Bengals. If he had played a full game with what he displayed, there’s no telling how much better that statistical line would’ve looked. Perhaps Shaheen and this obvious tight end play script should’ve started with Trubisky and the No. 1’s.
One of the primary developmental steps Shaheen had to make in his second year was not only route running, but downfield awareness. It’s not enough to run more refined and polished routes. You also have to diagnose defensive coverages pre-snap and on the fly. You have to accurately predict where the defense will leave an opening for you as run your routes.
Making the play for a physical freak then is easy. It’s getting to that open stage that was often difficult for Shaheen in 2017, as it is with a lot of young tight ends.
Difficult it is, no more.
Watch Shaheen on this crucial crossing route on a third down. It’s an effortless 29 yards for a guy that’s grown up.
At the start of the play, Shaheen recognizes that the Bengals are in man coverage and bringing a blitz. He now knows that he’s going to have a one-on-one matchup on his designed crosser to exploit, and he just has to get to his spot as Cincinnati vacates the left side of the field.
The subtlety of Shaheen’s pre-snap awareness combined with savvy route running and positioning can’t be ignored. It’s textbook receiving technique.
It’s Shaheen’s subtle breakdown once he gets to his man, combined with a undeniable quickness and second sprint to break past the outside shoulder, and working towards the sideline where he knows he’s going to have room that make this play. It’s Chase Daniel’s trust that the young tight end is going to be in the vacated area that dials this huge completion up. Bengals linebacker No. 56 Hardy Nickerson never had a chance, and the Bears have their own offensive mismatch in Shaheen to deploy at will.
A work in progress: that’s the summary of the Bears’ overall preseason game against the Bengals. At this time of year in early August, it’s also the expectation. Still, there was plenty to build on for some Bears like Daniels and Shaheen shining. And there was plenty to forget, such as some pieces of the Bears secondary’s efforts.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer for Windy City Gridiron, The Rock River Times, The Athletic Chicago, and other fine places. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.