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Bears’ offense under the microscope vs. Lions

After last year’s regression, the Bears have a good opportunity to show improvement against a Lions team that ranked 31st in total defense in 2019. “We can do a lot of things [better],” Matt Nagy said. But will they?

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears
Bears running back David Montgomery rushed for 18 yards on six carries against the Packers on Sept. 5, 2019 in his NFL regular-season debut. The Bears rushed for 46 yards on 15 carries in a 10-3 loss.
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The Bears’ offense literally dropped the ball from the start last season.

On the opening offensive play against the Packers in Week 1 at Soldier Field, the Bears shifted out of a Wildcat formation, and quarterback Mitch Trubisky pitched the ball to running back Tarik Cohen. But the pitch was too tight as Cohen was too close to Trubisky, and the ball hit Cohen’s hands and fell to the ground.

Cohen scrambled to recover the ball for a four-yard loss. A holding penalty on Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark negated the negative play. But Cohen’s bobble — along with an early third-and-one when wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was dropped for a two-yard loss — still served as a harbinger of more difficult times in 2019.

It was a far cry from coach Matt Nagy’s first season, when he opened with the T-formation against the Packers at Lambeau Field — a nod to the Bears’ glory days under founder George Halas. Cohen gained seven yards on that opening play to start a 10-play, 86-yard touchdown drive that seemed to signal the dawn of a new era.

Instead, the Bears’ offense foundered in 2019. They dropped from 11th in offensive points to 29th and from 21st in total yards to 29th. The “fun plays” disappeared. And Nagy was forced to rebuild and retool his offense.

After an offseason marked by virtual meetings, an abbreviated training camp and no preseason games, Nagy’s offense enters Year 3 as a mystery. The Bears have a new offensive line coach in Juan Castillo. They have three new tight ends in Jimmy Graham, Cole Kmet and Demetrius Harris. The one and only proven commodity is wide receiver Allen Robinson.

From the start, Nagy probably will learn as much about his offense as everyone else. And it all starts with hanging on to the ball and avoiding those two-yard losses.

“The biggest thing that we look for is staying away from negative plays — the penalties, the sloppiness,” Nagy said when asked about indicators of improvement on offense. “It’s the way a play call comes in. What’s the tempo like in and out of the huddle? Are you playing fast? Is it choppy, where all of a sudden somebody lines up in the wrong formation, and they have to run across the field to get in the right spot?”

The Bears’ opener Sunday against the Lions at Ford Field seems like a pretty good proving ground. The Lions were 31st in total defense last season and 26th in scoring defense. They have a new defensive coordinator in Cory Undlin, the former Eagles secondary coach. And they don’t have Darius Slay, a Bears nemesis who was traded to the Eagles.

Nagy predictably would not get into specifics on what will be different offensively — especially regarding last year’s slow starts. But he’s optimistic that a combination of offensive schematics and execution will make a difference.

“We can do a lot of things, but I’m not going to get into that right now,” Nagy said. “I’m just super-proud of where we’re at right now with the coaches, the players and the mentality that we have. We know last year wasn’t good enough offensively.”

Cohen said more consistent leadership will make a difference.

“We have a lot more leaders on the offense,” Cohen said. “We have a guy in each position room that’s very leading — and we all lead in different ways. If one position group is not having a good time . . . the other position groups can keep that person up or just pick them up, boosting their play. Like if the run game isn’t going, I feel we can recover it in the pass game until the run game gets going, and vice versa.”