Chicago Bears Position Review: Offensive Line
Breaking down film from the 2019 season to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of Chicago Bears’ offensive linemen.
After their success in 2018, the Bears offensive line was looked at as one of their strongest units heading into 2019. The line regressed along with the rest of the offense, but I’m not sure if they should bear all of the responsibility. There were times when protection broke down and blocks were missed, but the underlying cause behind the entire offense’s regression was due to the scheme.
This review is broken down into three parts: pass protection, I-formation/singleback runs, and shotgun/pistol runs. After reviewing the game tape, I pulled clips to highlight players’ strengths and weaknesses throughout the year.
0:00 – Rashaad Coward is the player to focus on here. This is a pretty clean pocket, but notice how Coward’s first steps immediately open a lane to the quarterback. Coward has the athletic ability to recover, but if the defense stunts the A gap, this play is over. While it’s unfair to completely blast the former undrafted free agent defensive lineman who is transitioning to the other side of the ball, there are several areas in which he needs to improve.
0:13 – Again, take a look at Coward here. The defensive lineman is able to get his hands into Coward’s chest and shed him to the ground. Coward is a big, strong player, but improper technique allows the defensive lineman to have his way with him. Interior pressure is more difficult for a quarterback to evade than something coming off the edge, but luckily Daniels identifies the pressure and comes in to help. This is all coaching, in my opinion. Coward shows an ability to be nasty at the point of attack, but technical/assignment issues hindered him all season. James Daniels does a good enough job in getting his hands on the stunting edge rusher (Melvin Ingram) to disrupt the rush and force him to find the nearest open lane. The ball is gone before Ingram has a chance to disrupt the play, and Bobby Massie does a great job on an island against Joey Bosa. Clean pockets result in big plays, and the Bears didn’t have nearly enough of them in 2019. Realistically, you have a six-on-four matchup in favor of the offensive line. There is no reason they shouldn’t have kept the pocket clean on this play.
0:23 – The offensive line played a lot better when Cody Whitehair stepped back into the center spot. At this point in the clip, we see an example of James Daniel’s struggles at center. Again, this has to be a coaching error. At the beginning of the play, you will see that the Eagles have five defenders stacked to the left of the formation and two on the right. All three interior linemen are uncovered, but a third-and-long situation won’t allow the offense to check to a running play. At this point, it’s fair to assume that the running back and center should be looking to help the left side of the line, but James Daniels immediately sets up looking right. Trey Burton breaks for his route and takes the corner along with him, but the left side is still outnumbered by defenders (four to three) while the left side of the line has a three-on-two matchup in favor of the offense. We don’t know for sure if Daniels or Mitchell Trubisky has to make this adjustment, but the adjustment isn’t made. David Montgomery shifts to pick up vacant zone left by Daniels, and the safety then stunts the opening created by the shift. This play was over before it started. The Eagles had the perfect call dialed up on this play, and it was a race to the quarterback. Charles Leno and Bobby Massie received a lot of criticism this season, but Leno did a great job on this play. If Coward doesn’t get blown up, Massie would have handled his man. Trubisky does get credit for some of the sacks this season, but there was nothing he could have done here to avoid the sack.
0:32 – The right side of the line gets blown up on this play. Coward’s zone is instantly infiltrated, causing Trubisky to slide forward in the pocket. As he is moving up in the pocket, Whitehair passes off the stunting defensive lineman and Daniels and Whitehair are in position to take on the twisting edge rusher. If Coward doesn’t let up that initial pressure, then the passed-off defensive lineman won’t be able to bounce off Massie’s block so easily. Massie is out of position here, but asking him to make that block is damn near impossible. Then if you look at the left side, Leno is blown off of his spot and shed with ease. This gives up another inside lane, and both free players meet at the quarterback for the sack. Like the previous Eagles clip, Trubisky literally has no way of avoiding this sack. The only difference is the Lions don’t do anything crazy here. There are four rushers and five blockers, but the Bears just get beat on both sides of the line.
0:43 – One thing Leno needs to improve on is how often he gives up the inside lane. He is overly criticized, but this play will drive you nuts. He doesn’t anchor his base and his head drops on contact, which makes it easy for the edge rusher to shed him. Whitehair does a great job here, but with Leno struggling in this game, the coaching staff should have adjusted the protection to get him more help. It seems as if they leave him on an island time and time again just hoping it will get better. Luckily, Trubisky spins out of the pocket and uses his legs to get the first down.
0:55 – Another thing Leno needs to improve on is getting into his set quicker. On the previous play, I ask why wasn’t he getting help. In this play, he isn’t on an island. He gets help with the interior rush, but he doesn’t clear his feet in time and gets table-topped over James Daniel’s leg. Daniels could also anchor himself better and give up less ground, but Leno still could have avoided this. The back half of the play is on Trubisky, but that’s an entirely different story.
0:00 – It’s immediately visible that the group moves more cohesively as a whole in the I-formation. This is a simple iso play. The entire line executes on this play, but Cody Whitehair was phenomenal. The backside is sealed, but Whitehair chips the hell out of the defensive tackle, gets to the inside backer, and drives him out of the play. J.P. Holtz is playing fullback, and he cleans the hole for David Montgomery.
0:10 – This play is a work of art. There’s beauty in its simplicity. The defense is stacked to the strong side of the formation, and the play is run to the weak side. The entire unit moves in unison to the left. The backside is sealed, and Coward does a great job of taking care of the backside linebacker. Holtz cut blocks the safety coming down the alley, but notice Charles Leno. Joey Bosa is over him, and Leno blows him off the ball and passes him off to Whitehair, eventually sealing the play-side linebacker nine yards downfield. Toward the end of the clip, you’ll see Javon Wims pop onto your screen. He is just driving the cornerback 20 yards downfield. Georgia wide receivers always have to block.
0:16 – This play had a chance to be a huge one. Everything is perfectly set up. Unfortunately, Rashaad Coward is having trouble here, and the play gets blown up. Coward’s first step narrows his base before contact. This allows the defensive lineman to move Coward off his spot, which doesn’t allow Holtz to get to the inside linebacker. All five lineman need to execute on this play for it to go for a big gain.
0:28 – There is a miscommunication between Burton and Whitehair on this play. Either Burton is responsible for sealing the edge, or he passes him off and Whitehair blocks the wrong person. It could go either way. The unblocked player is who slows down the play, allowing the rest of the defense to get there. If Whitehair is the one who made the mistake, at least he did it burying somebody.
0:00 – In shotgun and pistol formations, you’ll start seeing more zone plays. Coward does a nice job of chipping, but he doesn’t disengage and get to the inside linebacker. This play wasn’t horrible, but it’s also why Nagy would evade the run so quickly early in the season. The play was there, but it wasn’t executed properly.
0:09 – The first play was in pistol and this play is in shotgun, but you’ll see why the Bears eventually switched back to Ted Larsen. He doesn’t possess the athletic ability or physical traits that Coward does, but his experience makes him a better player. Larsen doesn’t do anything special here. He just knows where the play is going and what the cutback lanes are. All Larsen had to do was get his body in front of the inside linebacker to allow Montgomery to pick up an extra ten yards.
0:17 – One thing I can’t understand and never will accept is how often Matt Nagy uses the defense’s best player as a read man. This play exemplifies a major flaw in Nagy’s offense. The Packers only have six players in the box, but the Bears got two yards on this play. When you leave a player like Za’Darius Smith unblocked, the play is usually over before it starts. Smith notices he is the read man and sits pretty. This forces Trubisky to hand the ball off, and Smith is still in good position to make a backside play. Take away the Smith element and you still have two double teams with no one looking to peel off to grab an inside linebacker. Sheesh.
0:30 – I understand what Nagy was trying to do here. The offensive line is better with Whitehair at center, but he is also great at pulling and burying guys. Schematically, this had the potential to be a big play. Unfortunately, James Daniels gets beat by Kenny Clark and that was all she wrote. Again, notice how much power is lost when Daniels narrows his base. Everyone else does their job. Charles Leno seals Za’Darius Smith and the backside is clean.
0:37 – This is what Nagy envisions with his run game. Allen Robinson motions right, and he and Burton create the alley. The freeze-frame shows the beginning of a big play. The backside is sealed. Massie and Coward are executing the double team, and Whitehair is ready to eat the inside linebacker. Eventually, Massie peels off and takes care of the blindside linebacker and it’s off to the races. David Montgomery doesn’t have to make one cut on this play. It would have been nice if Montgomery took this one all the way to the house, as it was there for him.
Each player has strengths and weaknesses that can be utilized. Realistically, Rashaad Coward will need to be replaced. He has shown flashes of ability and he plays with tenacity, but he is better suited to play swing tackle. He isn’t seasoned enough and the Bears can’t head into training camp without a more polished option.
As a left tackle, Charles Leno is a much better run blocker than pass protector. In my opinion, he is overly criticized, but he does have his limitations pass protecting on an island. The Bears need to find ways to help him against elite edge rushers. Additionally, he needs to cut down on the penalties.
Bobby Massie didn’t stick out for any horrible play, but he also didn’t do anything over the top. His contract is average at the position and it matches his level of play. He isn’t a liability by any means.
I understand why everyone says James Daniels has the potential to be an All-Pro center. He is fast and he usually puts himself in a position to win. Daniels’ biggest issue is his power at the point of attack. You saw that pop up more as he was playing guard, but he also needs to understand protection more before he gets moved back to center. Daniels is only 22, so you have to assume he will get all of the mental aspects sorted out. If he could be ready by 2020, that would be ideal for Cody Whitehair.
Whitehair plays at a high level no matter the circumstances, but he is a dominant guard. His ability to chip and get to the second level is far above average. Whitehair is also a force as a pulling guard. He finds his target, engages, and finishes.
The offensive line had its fair share of issues in 2019. With the exception of James Daniels, this offensive line was built under John Fox and Dowell Loggins. It’s easy to understand why the line executed at a higher level in the I-formation. They all understood their assignments better, and it made for fewer mental errors. They were more comfortable. Everyone knew it. Fans called for more of it all season long. The Bears hired Juan Castillo because they want to run their offense. Nagy said that he wasn’t brought here to run the I-formation, and all of his offseason hires imply he won’t be stuck in that position.