Chicago Bears Coach’s Corner: Hall of Fame Game
Welcome to the Coach’s Corner. This week we’ll look at Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game. This game didn’t give us much in the way of specifics as to how the Chicago Bears will operate as a team this year, but it did give us some clues as to what we can expect. Here are some coach’s notes from Thursday’s game action.
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The Offense on Thursday was about as vanilla as it gets, but that doesn’t mean that we didn’t learn anything at all about what to expect this season. Between all of the basic zone blocking in the running game and the quick short routes in the passing game, a few lines of synergy emerged:
- The shotgun formation, grossly under utilized by the Fox regime, will be a main staple of this team’s offense. This, of course, should surprise no one since both Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich have a history of using this formation as a main stay of their offenses. In fact, Helfrich ran the formation in one form or another constantly as part of his offense while serving as the Offensive Coordinator and Head Coach of the Oregon Ducks.
- Another thing that will clearly continue is the zone blocking scheme in the running game. This system has clearly highlighted the skill sets of both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, and should continue to do so moving forward. This will be aided by the addition of the shotgun formation, out of which Howard has proven to the top producing back in the league on yards per attempt from the formation. This will really help the offense.
- Speaking of the zone blocking scheme, the outside zone run game will continue to be a staple of the offense. This should be even more effective this season with the defense spread out and the defenders having a much harder time rallying to the ball. As long as Eric Kush and Kyle Long continue to play well in space and get outside with their pull quickly, we should see a much bigger bang for the buck with these outside runs.
- The West Coast Offense (WCO) was on full display Thursday. Students of the style immediately recognized the “check down or touchdown” mentality that is the main part of this offense. Unfortunately, some freak accidents (like a ball bouncing off of Jordan Morgan’s helmet), and a handful of bad decisions, prevented the offense from doing what it’s supposed to do (limit turnovers). Yet don’t let that fool you. You will see some very efficient offensive play this season that should lead to long productive drives. All of the elements were there and were working. With the starters I believe that you’ll see a much more polished product.
- Another byproduct of that offensive stability will be the ability of the defense to stay off of the field and to rest in between drives. It will also help in the hidden yardage (field position) battle, and will help to keep the clock on our side (ball control). I’ve saw some fans getting irritated with the lack of longer routes, particularly early in the game, but that is what this offense is predicated upon. Look at your deep route first, and if it’s not WIDE open, then check down through your progression. The key is to sustain drives, that’s what’s important, and that’s what it looks like we’ll be focusing on.
The defense looked fast and aggressive on Thursday. Most of the players have experience in the system and it showed. With the talent levels being comparable, the defense did well, particularly since they were put in a bad spot more than once.
- Vic Fangio appears ready to unleash his players. Whether you believe that John Fox neutered the defense last year or not, one thing became apparent on Thursday, you will see this defense attack the quarterback. They’re going to go back to what the 3-4 defense does best, and that disguising the pass rushers and sending more than the offense can handle at the point of attack. For the first time since Fangio came to the Bears, he looked like the old ball coach from San Francisco. This shows in the 8 sacks that the team was able to put up in the game. I really don’t care if this change came because of less coaching interference or a because of a epiphany that he had, but the fact is that this change means good things are coming for the team and the defense this season.
- The battle between Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris is heating up and will be a big story line the rest of this pre-season. Both had some flashes in this game, and both made strong statements in the backfield. If they continue to push each other, they could end up being a monster rotation opposite Akiem Hicks and force offenses to pick their poison on who they will leave against only one blocker. This is a situation well worth monitoring, particularly with the pass rush being an issue heading into the season.
- Speaking of pass rush, sixth round pick Kylie Fitts had a stand out play that came after a rookie mistake. Such is the up and down nature of being a rookie in the NFL. What is encouraging, however, is that mistakes should slow down for Fitts moving forward while the big plays should only grow. The fact that he’s flashing now is a very positive sign for the team. Hopefully he can stay healthy and live up to the “second round talent” label that many experts gave him in the draft.
- The pass defense was solid overall. Holding the Ravens to 128 passing yards with 105 net passing yards shows that the players are playing the scheme well and tackling the ball in front of them. The two interceptions show that the increased focus on turnovers could pay dividends for the team in the regular season. We will, of course, have to monitor this with the starters vs. better competition, but since all we can truly judge at this point is the scheme, I’m cautiously optimistic with regards to how well the defensive backfield is playing together.
Chris Tabor looked every bit the Dave Toub disciple that he is on Thursday. While Cody Parkey has yet to be truly tested, most of the special teams units did well enough on Thursday to generate a bit of buzz around the units.
- The kick return unit averaged 20 yards per return on the two returns, but the key is that Taquan Mizzell was able to gain 24 yards on his return. When the primary return men get going (Cohen and Benny Cunningham according to the current depth chart), they will be able to exploit those holes in ways that Mizzell and Garrett Johnson couldn’t. It looks like the days of the Bears being special teams aces could be returning to Da Windy City.
- Demarcus Ayers averaged 12.5 yards per return on six punt returns. While not spectacular, there again were a lot of lanes that a faster and more experienced player would have been able to exploit. Opponents are going to have to be on guard this season with Cohen returning kicks if the blocking can continue to open lanes for the returners.
- Pat O’Donnell had a great night overall. He blew away his career average of 44.75 yards per punt with a whopping 57 yard average. He even booted a game long punt 59 yards. He got one inside the twenty, and came close on another. He missed the coffin corner at least once from what it looked like, but he’s just getting back into the swing of game action. If his leg strength is indeed improved this season, and he retains the same accuracy that he showed last season, there is no reason why he wouldn’t continue to hold the punting job for the team.
- The kickoff coverage unit looked rough. It was mostly filled with players who won’t make an NFL roster, even as special teams players, but it’s something that Tabor and his staff are going to have to work on and improve. The Bears gave up 23.5 yards per kickoff and that means that if a team gets the ball outside of the endzone, they cane make up the extra yardage that they would have gotten from a touchback. This negates the strategy of kicking the ball at the goalline in order to try to stop them at or before the 20 yard line.
- The punt coverage unit was a little better. They gave up 7.7 yards per punt return overall, but gave up an average of 12.5 to the starter on two punts. In order to win the field position battle, not only will O’Donnell have to keep the ball high and boot it long, but they coverage teams will have to do a better job of capitalizing on his kicks. These two units are the only ones that really should cause any mild ajita to the team or the fans.
For a meaningless pre-season game, this game gave Bears fans something that they have been wanting for, a first time look at a real NFL offense, even if they were only looking at the frame and not the finished car. There still is a lot of work to do, but the foundation is there upon which to build, and I would expect the Bears to use this film to help refine their plan of attack. Coaches will use this film to help drill in the fundamentals and base concepts of the offense which will only speed the learning process for the team.
Defensively the team has a lot to be excited about. If Fangio continues to bring the heat he might be able to disguise the fact that the Bears are generally devoid of game changing talent across from Leonard Floyd. The defensive backfield, in fact, may be helping with that as well. If they continue to play well and close windows, it’s also possible that the Bears get a boost from their coverage sack total. This coupled with a Defensive Line that should be one of the better overall units in the conference means that we should expect to see an increase in opportunity plays this season (sacks, interceptions, and fumble recoveries).
As a fan, I’m cautiously optimistic, but at least I am optimistic for the first time since the first year of the John Fox hire. I think the Bears stock is rising and now is the time to buy.
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