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Keeping Mitch clean: Bears rookie James Daniels braces for test in Aaron Donald

Coach Matt Nagy called a play for rookie left guard James Daniels at an important time — a play he had to finish in order for the Bears to finish off the Lions on Thanksgiving.

On third-and-nine in the final minute, Daniels pulled to his right to be running back Tarik Cohen’s primary blocker. He drove Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay back five yards before Slay escaped and cut off Cohen.

“He slipped off of me,” Daniels said. “So that was the only thing that I could think of doing.”

“That” was holding onto Cohen and rolling forward for a first down.

The Bears drafted left guard James Daniels with the 39th overall pick in this year's draft. | Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

The Bears drafted left guard James Daniels with the 39th overall pick in this year's draft. | Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

The Bears won 23-16, with that play signifying the coaches’ growing confidence in Daniels, this year’s 39th overall draft pick.

“He’s a good learner,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “He’s a smart kid, so when he makes a mistake, instead of [getting] that blank look, like ‘I don’t know what just happened,’ he knows now because of the experience he’s been getting.”

This Sunday night, Daniels will get an experience unlike any other he has had. He’ll be looking across at Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the 2017 defensive player of the year, which is significantly different than pulling and blocking Slay.

Donald leads the NFL with 16½ sacks, and while he moves around, a bulk of his sacks have come against left guards. They include two strip sacks against Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in Week 11, two sacks of the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers in Week 8 and two more against the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins in Week 4. On five of those six sacks, Donald was essentially one-on-one against Cam Irving (33 career starts), Lane Taylor (45) and Tom Compton (25), respectively.

“He’s a player that when you turn on the tape and you go through with your guys each week who the game-changers are, you put like three circles around him,” Nagy said Wednesday. “He’s a game-changer times three.”

The Bears will try to limit the impact of Donald and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. A game plan full of quick throws, play action and changing launch points can help.

But if the Bears are going to give right guard Bryan Witzmann help, the onus is on Daniels to handle the majority of his one-on-one matchups in pass protection, particularly against Donald. He’ll have to keep quarterback Mitch Trubisky clean in Trubisky’s first game back from a shoulder injury.

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According to Pro Football Focus, Daniels, who will be making his seventh start, has yet to allow a sack on 295 pass-blocking snaps.

“Yeah, I’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” Nagy said. “No matter who we’re playing, we’re always going to respect you, but we’re never going to back down. That’s just who we are. I know our guys feel that way.”

Hiestand’s faith in Daniels, who began the season as a backup to Eric Kush, is rooted in Daniels’ ability to learn and adjust in games. He doesn’t need to see the photos of his mistakes on the sideline.

“He’s able to go, ‘OK, I didn’t get my head across’ or ‘I had a bad first step’ or ‘I ducked my head,’ ” Hiestand said. “He can self-correct. So in the middle of a drive, instead of it happening to you two or three times, it happens once, and then it doesn’t happen again. That part really has helped him grow as a player.”

Donald will be the true test of that growth.

“A lot sticks out about him,” Daniels said. “I just want to prove that I can help my team. Whatever that is in any game, that’s the only thing I’m trying to prove — that my teammates can trust me.”