The first time Bears coach Matt Nagy faced the Rams, in December 2018, he ran 3,292 pounds worth of players onto the field, had Mitch Trubisky fake a handoff to defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and throw a two-yard touchdown pass to tackle Bradley Sowell. The Bears called the play, which featured six offensive linemen and four defensive linemen, “Santa’s Sleigh.”
The last time Nagy faced the Rams, there was no flair. Or fun. Quarterback Andy Dalton tried only two passes all Sunday night that traveled 10-plus yards in the air. One fell incomplete. The other was intercepted. The Bears lost 34-14.
What happened to the head coach that set up “Santa’s Sleigh” with a Hicks touchdown run — a William “Refrigerator” Perry tribute — the week before? The one that had Trubisky throw 54 passes against the Saints in 2019? The one that called a reverse pass that flew 49 yards in the air — before being dropped — in the wild-card playoff game in January?
The Bears didn’t run their offense in the season opener. Depending on how your mind works, they either leaned hard into an opponent-specific gameplan — or turtled against the NFL’s best defense.
Nagy took no joy in designing a conservative, short-pass game plan, but he felt it’s what the Bears had to do to neutralize Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
“I’m not into all that,” he said. “But we did it.”
Sunday, he won’t. The Bengals game should show what Nagy had in mind when he snatched back play-calling and spent the offseason designing the offense. In that sense, it will be far more telling — and predictive for the rest of the season — than Week 1.
A good showing would buy Nagy some much-needed goodwill from a fan base flummoxed by his handling of rookie quarterback Justin Fields, who figures to play in staccato bursts again this week.
A poor one would be the second step in a long slog toward January, with speculation about Nagy’s job status starting before the leaves turn.
The pressure’s on for Nagy to show progress.
The coach isn’t buying into the stakes of Sunday for his team, though, even with the rest of the division alongside the Bears at 0-1.
“I feel like it’s early right now,” he said. “But at the same point and time the week is a lot different when you come to work after a win … We want to make sure we get back to that ‘W’ side.”
To do that, the Bears’ pass chart needs to look different than the one produced by NFL NextGen Stats on Sunday. All but two of the Bears’ attempts were bunched together like toddlers playing soccer.
Allen Robinson saw the graphic on social media, and said he “wasn’t too taken aback after seeing it.” Fellow receiver Marquise Goodwin openly questioned the wisdom of throwing short toward all-world cornerback Jalen Ramsey, saying the Bears “fell right into his hands.”
That discontent will only get louder if the Bears can’t go deep — well, deeper — against the Bengals. It would be hard not to.
The Bears wanted to throw short against the Rams, who, per NextGen Stats, have allowed four touchdowns of more than 10 air yards dating to the start of 2020. The second-place team in the NFL have 10.
The Bengals take the opposite tack, playing press man defense with a single-high safety. The Bears will attack it with more down-the-field throws.
“You’re going to have to win your one-on-one matchups and create these windows for yourself,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “Unlike last week, which was a lot of zone, a lot of guys sitting on stuff, just ready to crash down.”
Sunday will show us who the Bears are, schematically.
“You’ve got to definitely be able to stretch a defense vertically,” Nagy said. “You can’t just dink and dunk your whole way.”