Playoff pushing: Five things we want to see from the Bears’ offense
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Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich still isn’t sure if quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s two-game layoff affected his performance against the Rams.
“You never know,” Helfrich said. “Jared Goff is a phenomenal passer, and he missed a bunch of guys. Who knows? Doesn’t matter.
“Whether it’s the weather or the pass rush or all those things, those guys are elite, elite guys for a reason, and we have total confidence in Mitch.”
That said, Trubisky’s resolve and improvement are worth monitoring closely as the Bears close out the regular season. Here are five things we want to see from coach Matt Nagy’s offense:
Time to settle in, Mitch
The most revealing part of Trubisky’s weekly news conference Wednesday was his admission that he rushed through his footwork and the timing of plays.
He refused to use rust as an excuse and said he was “too amped up” after missing two games because of his shoulder injury.
He was “trying to make all-world plays” when he should’ve been focusing on stacking completions in his first game back.
Trubisky said something similar after the Week 1 loss to the Packers in which he struggled in the final minutes with the Bears trailing by a point.
“He’s a good critic of himself,” Helfrich said.
It’s a lesson Trubisky has to relearn, but all of his experiences matter as the leader of Nagy’s nuanced offense.
Starting Sunday against the Packers, bigger moments await Trubisky. It’s another playoff-like game with the actual postseason right around the corner.
Fewer pre-snap mistakes
On first-and-goal from the Rams’ 4, wide receiver Allen Robinson lined up in the wrong spot.
“It was the first time that I’ve had an illegal-procedure penalty,” said Robinson, who was called for an illegal block above the waist on the ensuing play.
“For me, I understand that, especially in the situation of the field that it was in, being that deep in the red [zone].”
Procedural mistakes continue to plague the offense. There have been seven illegal-formation and four illegal-shift penalties called against the Bears.
They’ve been close to more, too, but Trubisky and others often are seen correcting their teammates. The Bears have used 255 unique personnel groupings this season, 10th-most in the NFL.
“We just have to be more locked in,” Robinson said. “It is an offense that has different variables and moving pieces, but at the same time, we understand it’s an offense that’s going to lead us to our success.”
Mistakes were inevitable at first, with players still learning Nagy’s offense and the coaching staff still identifying what works best for all. But it’s Week 15.
“That’s on us coaches to get it right,” Helfrich said. “We had some guys make those mistakes the other night that have never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever happened. That’s when it gets to the point where maybe you’re like, ‘OK, maybe we are doing too much.’ It’s those types of moments.
“That’s something that those guys work long and hard [on] — they have to be right — and we have to continually work with them and coach them to do it correctly. Pre-snap penalties are ridiculous.”
Belief in the running game
It wasn’t long ago that Nagy was bemoaning his lack of confidence in the running game. But that has changed after his running backs ran for 171 yards against the Rams.
“It’s been better over the last two games,” Helfrich said. “The first half of the Giants game and last week, we were able to do some things. There’s still a ton out there that we’re leaving on the field, and we’ve got to squeeze every ounce out of that and create some big plays, create some huge impact plays.”
That newfound confidence will be tested, however.
“The way that game turned out the other night, it turned into a little bit of a grind-fest, and taking care of the ball was at a premium, time of possession was at a premium,” Helfrich said. “So that was a positive step for all those guys carrying the ball and those guys blocking, and just the confidence they have is building.”
Get Shaheen going
There is one offensive threat that Helfrich can’t wait to unleash: tight end Adam Shaheen.
“He did so many things going into the spring and training camp that we got excited about,” Helfrich said. “But it was like that present that you can’t open for a long time. And he was put back under the Christmas tree for a few more weeks.”
In his first game back from injured reserve, Shaheen suffered a concussion while making a falling catch for a two-point conversion in the Bears’ 25-20 victory against the Vikings.
Shaheen returned two weeks later against the Giants and had two catches, including a one-yard touchdown reception.
“He’s got a huge, huge ceiling on his game,” Helfrich said. “He needs to work to get better at the line of scrimmage, and he’s doing that in the protection area and then in the run game.
‘‘But route-running, going to get the ball, being a one-on-one mismatch is something that we covet.”
Strong finish from Miller
Receivers coach Mike Furrey reminds rookie Anthony Miller to be patient nearly every day.
“There are times when it almost gets overwhelming,” Furrey said recently. “He wants to make the play. He wants to get open. He wants to be that guy.
“Sometimes you’re just not that read, but you still have to do what we’re asking you to do. You can’t just run and get open.”
Furrey pointed to the Bears’ 30-27 overtime loss to the Giants. He didn’t like how his receivers ran their routes that game. Miller had one catch for two yards, then was only targeted once against the Rams.
“It’s going to continue to be a process,” said Furrey, who wants Miller to learn from Robinson. “Obviously, there will be a huge transition from this year to next year once we can kind of sit down, go through everything and settle down.”
Next in line
Anthony Miller, step on up. You’re the Bears’ next kick returner after the struggles of running backs Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell. The rookie wide receiver returned the opening kickoff against the Rams for a 20-yard gain.
“It’s something, obviously, we’ve been working with him the whole time,” special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor said. “We wanted to put him in there and see if something could happen.”
Not much did. Seeing Miller at returner, Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein used a squib kick.
“Unfortunately for his first kick, he gets a bad kick that comes to him,” Tabor said. “But he’s doing a nice job. The jury’s still out on him, but he has playmaking ability, so you like that.”
With Miller only returning six kickoffs in college, Tabor expects to see some “growing pains,” especially when it comes to his decision-making. He didn’t like how Miller held the ball away from his body on his only return.
“Not a big fan of that,” Tabor said. “So we’re going to continue to work on that.”
But the Bears’ decision to feature Miller on kickoffs is similar to featuring Tarik Cohen on punt returns.
“He’s a good football player,” Tabor said. “And it’s another opportunity [for] a good football player to get the ball in his hands.”
Hello, Kevin White
If the Bears are installing plays for reserve lineman Bradley Sowell, they’re surely brainstorming ideas for wide receiver Kevin White. And if Josh Bellamy can be targeted, so can White, even though he doesn’t appear to have much of a future with the team that made him the seventh overall pick in 2015.
“He understands his role,” receivers coach Mike Furrey said. “Go into ‘X’ or whatever it is, and he rolls in there. We’re past trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. He’s kind of accepted that role. And I think he’s gained from that.”
What exactly is that role?
“It was just the fact that you got three or four guys in front of you,” Furrey said. “It’s that kind of stuff. That’s where he’s at.”
What would be the No. 1 position the Bears go after in free agency? #BearDown — @dabayrz
A: While re-signing right tackle Bobby Massie, slot cornerback Bryce Callahan and strong safety Adrian Amos is a starting point in free agency, it’s also important to understand their market and value, then compare them to other players. The Bears always will explore potential upgrades in free agency. Don’t forget that the Bears signed veteran Quintin Demps last year to essentially replace Amos. They also looked at offensive tackle Rick Wagner in free agency, but he signed with the Lions. If I’m the Bears, I start by re-signing Massie. He has played well this season, and he wants to be here. After that, you can retool an already-stacked defense. The Bears are projected to have more than $20 million in salary-cap space for 2019.
What do you think is the weakest part of the defense? [The] screen game has killed them at times. — @Jaker125
A: Good question. In my opinion, it’s still the inexperience of rookie linebacker Roquan Smith and free safety Eddie Jackson. As good as they’ve been this season — Jackson is an All Pro — they’ve also made mistakes that have resulted in big gains and touchdowns for opponents. For Smith, it’s getting better in coverage. That will happen in time. For Jackson, it’s improving as a tackler and knowing when to take risks in coverage. But that will happen in time, too. They’re the future of the Bears.
If Vic Fangio leaves, who would replace him? Would we promote Ed Donatell? — @MoeyJungo
A: Donatell, the Bears’ secondary coach, makes sense. He was previously the defensive coordinator for the Packers (2000-03), Falcons (2004-06) and Redskins (2008). But he also has been Fangio’s right-hand man since 2011 with the 49ers. If Fangio leaves to be a head coach, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Donatell, 61, go with him. That said, there could be some intriguing defensive-coordinator candidates available after this season. Jets coach Todd Bowles and — dare I say — Vikings coach Mike Zimmer could be looking for work. Nagy will have options if Fangio leaves.