Over the past two weeks the Chicago Bears have relied on veteran backup Chase Daniel as their starting quarterback recovers from a lingering shoulder injury.
The Bears have split those two contests, and while many will simply point to 1-1 as the be all and end all of the argument, it is worth looking at Daniel’s time under center to see what we can learn about this offense, this backup and this head coach.
We will delve into this more in a moment, but one aspect of Daniel’s play the past two weeks has been the play-calling from head coach Matt Nagy. More specifically, the almost imperceptible difference between how Nagy called plays for Mitchell Trubisky, and how he called plays for his backup. Nagy’s offense has maintained a level of aggression seen during Trubisky’s starts, has remained focused on the passing game and some of the concepts and elements seen with Trubisky have continued to be a part of the game plan under Daniel.
The execution, however, has not been the same. Some missed opportunities in the passing game have occurred the past two weeks.
In Daniel’s first start, against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day, the Bears came out pretty aggressive on their opening drive. Daniel attempted a pass on each of Chicago’s first three plays of the game, and on the second, the backup quarterback had a chance to deliver an early jolt of adrenaline to the offense:
The Bears run a slot-fade design, and Daniel (#4) takes a deep shot to Anthony Miller (#17) toward the right sideline. Chicago catches the Lions’ defense in Cover 1, and Miller gets separation on his vertical route by using a stutter-step at the line of scrimmage to beat a potential jam from the defender. But Daniel’s throw is just a few steps too far in front of the receiver, and the pass falls harmlessly incomplete to the turf.
Later in the second quarter of this game, the Bears face a third-and-9 just outside the red zone, at the Lions’ 22-yard line. Chicago lines up with Daniel in the shotgun and with Tarik Cohen (#29) in the backfield next to the quarterback. Cohen runs an out-and-up route to the right side:
Cohen gets matched up with Quandre Diggs (#28), a Lions’ safety. The shifty RB gets wide open on the vertical portion of his route, but Daniel, again, misses the throw:
Again, the pass is just a step or two too far in front of the receiver, but missed opportunities like this, especially near the goal-line, force offenses to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. That is usually a recipe for a loss.
Daniel opened his game last week against the New York Giants with a pick-six. Granted, the conditions in New York were rainy and wet, and on the pick-six Alec Ogletree simply made a great play. It would not be the only great play the linebacker made on the day. Early in the second quarter the Bears faced a first-and-10 just outside the red zone, on the Giants’ 23-yard line. Nagy calls for a very creative four verticals design:
This is an extremely clever variation of four verticals. The Bears use Orbit motion, sending Miller in motion deep into the backfield prior to the snap, working from right to left. What that does is overload the offense, giving the Bears four eligible receivers on the left side of the offensive formation. Chicago catches the Giants in a single-high man coverage scheme, and the overload puts safety Landon Collins (#21) in a bind. As he is deciding between covering Miller in the flat or Cohen on his seam route out of the backfield, the RB gets a step. But Ogletree makes another incredible play here:
The issue here is the trajectory of the throw. Daniel is, rightfully, concerned about the free safety lurking in the middle of the field, and if he puts too much touch on this throw the FS can rotate over and make a play on the ball or the body. So Daniel tries to put this in on a bit of a line, but he can’t put it high enough over the LB. Just a few more inches higher, and the bears are likely in the end zone.
Nagy Being Nagy
Despite these missed opportunities in the passing game, Nagy has stayed true to the notation on his play-call sheet which reads “Be You.” The head coach has stayed aggressive, both in terms of a run/pass balance and in terms of the plays he is calling for Daniel in the passing game. We have previously outlined how Nagy returned to previous playcalls that Trubisky had missed, as a way of demonstrating confidence in his young quarterback.
The rookie head coach has done the same with his veteran backup.
In the previous section we highlighted the miss to Cohen on the out-and-up out of the backfield. This play (and one slight variation) was a huge part of Chicago’s comeback against the Giants, as the Bears turned to this design for three huge plays in the fourth quarter. Early in the fourth quarter the Bears faced a first-and-10 in their own territory, trailing by 10. Daniel aligns in the shotgun with the backfield empty, and Cohen aligns in a slot to the left. He will run a wheel route:
Cohen gets separation along the left side due to a combination of the rub element of the passing design and his pure speed. Daniel takes his shot deep:
One might be inclined to put this throw in the “Missed Opportunities” category, and I would not quibble too harshly with that description. Daniel’s pass is left a bit short, forcing Cohen to make an adjustment to the inside. The placement may indeed prevent this from being a touchdown, but it is still an example of Nagy returning to a design that his quarterback has missed, and generating a big play.
While this was a variation of the route Daniel missed against Detroit, Nagy turned to that specific design twice in the closing minutes for huge plays. With 1:36 left in regulation, the Bears faced a second-and-2 at the Giants’ 48-yard line. The Bears lined up with Cohen in the backfield next to Daniel, standing to the right of the quarterback. Cohen runs the out-and-up to the right side of the formation:
Cohen runs a great route down the sideline, and Daniel makes a very impressive throw under duress:
The long throw and catch, plus the roughing-the-passer penalty that gets tacked on the end, gives the Bears a huge gain, setting them up with a first-and-goal on the Giants’ 8-yard line.
After settling for a field goal on that possession and recovering the ensuing onside kick, the Bears had one more chance to force regulation. But before the Cohen to Miller touchdown pass that tied the game, Chicago faced a do-or-die fourth-and-3.
Cue the RB out-and-up once more:
This play, as with the previous one, comes out of the Y-Iso formation, with tight end Trey Burton (#80) alone on the right side, and with Cohen in the backfield shaded to Burton’s side of the formation. Again, this is arguably Chicago’s most dangerous formation, as it puts two true matchup nightmare players in Burton and Cohen on the same side of the formation, putting the defense in a bit of a bind. Once more, Cohen gets open on his route and Daniel drops in a perfect throw in a “must have it” moment.
There have been missed opportunities during Daniel’s time under center the past few weeks. One could easily make the case that with Trubisky in the lineup, he would have delivered on a few of these throws better than Daniel, perhaps the first deep route to Cohen against the Giants for example, putting the Bears in a better position to ultimately win that game in New York. That is a perfectly valid case.
But looking at things big picture I think the lessons of the past two weeks are two-fold.
First, the Bears are lucky to have a veteran backup in Daniel who can run the entire system and is well-versed in Nagy’s offensive system. In today’s NFL each and every team needs a viable Plan B at the quarterback position, and teams without a solid backup can face a lost season if their starter goes down. Second, we are learning more about Nagy as a play-caller and head coach. He is going to remain aggressive and creative, even with the backup quarterback in the game. He is going to follow that advice on his call sheet and remain himself.
During a week that saw Chicago’s rivals fire their head coach, in part because of the blandness and staleness of his offense, it is an important lesson to remember.
Of course, that raises questions about the run/pass balance and whether the team should rely more on the ground game whether Daniel is under center or not. So far this season the Bears are throwing the football on 55.7 percent of their passing plays. While this number ticked up the past two weeks to 58.4 percent against the Lions and 58.1 percent against the Giants, these numbers are still pretty low league-wide.
The Bears throw the football more (in terms of percentage) than just seven NFL teams, and they are just behind two pretty successful teams, the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots, in terms of passing play percentage. It is a passing league, after all, and given that it is better to see Nagy staying aggressive, than getting overly conservative.