Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Luke Inman contributed to this story.
Losing Mitch Trubisky to a shoulder injury on the game’s first drive wasn’t enough to faze the Chicago Bears on Sunday as they rolled to a 16-6 victory behind backup Chase Daniel.
The veteran journeyman posted a career high completion percentage for games with 20 or more pass attempts, finishing 73.3% on 22 of 30 passing for 195 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Particularly in the first half, Daniel was efficient in converting three third downs and two fourth downs to produce 10 first-half points, which proved to be enough for the stout Bears defense to hang on. The Bears moved the ball 164 yards over the three clock-draining drives Daniel engineered before halftime, winning the time-of-possession and field-position battles handily.
So how did Daniel, a lifetime backup, enter unexpectedly and complete some big passes against the Vikings’ defense?
“We weren’t tight enough on the receivers early in the game,” Zimmer explained afterward. “The second half was a lot better than the first. We made some adjustments like we always do. But the first half, I didn’t feel like we were up on the guys tight enough. And so they had some completions to guys that were short routes that kept the drives going.”
It appeared like Minnesota was daring Daniel to manufacture 10-plus play drives in order to score by instructing defensive backs to play off coverage to keep the ball in front of them, and the chains. In the first half — and at times in the second half — Daniel called their bluff, converting short throws early in series to avoid troublesome third downs where the Vikings defense often feasts.
Mike Hughes told Zone Coverage that the corners were instructed to play seven yards deep. You can find several cases where the corners are lining up eight or nine yards away, but this, of course, comes with the caveat that coaches may instruct different depths in specific cases.
Ironically, Daniel actually fared better converting longer third downs when given the chance. He converted a 3rd and 7 and two 3rd and 9s in the first half and missed on a 3rd and 3, 3rd and 2 and 3rd and 1. While one of those longer conversions came on a checkdown to a running back, two of them occurred when pass catchers beat press coverage, so it’s not as if the Vikings were giving the Bears any short pass they wanted.
But by throwing earlier in series, when presumably the Vikings might’ve expected more running plays, Daniel got into an early rhythm that kept the Vikings defense on the field.
Hughes explained the Vikings’ defensive mindset going in, saying that defensive backs were anticipating making plays on certain throws they’d studied on tape.
“They ran a lot of short routes on film, and they kind of wanted us to sit on those routes,” Hughes told Zone Coverage. “The field conditions were a little bad, so I think we were getting out of our pedals a little too fast, so coach wanted us to kind of sit on the short routes that they were running, and that was really the big thing that he was emphasizing.”
But Daniel kept connecting underneath the Vikings’ coverage. It’s possible the switch from Trubisky to Daniel may have simplified the Bears’ gameplan enough to where the Vikings’ gameplan became obsolete and required adjustments, as Zimmer alluded. Daniel only completed two passes more than 12 yards downfield, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Zimmer may also have been irritated with the Vikings’ inability to stop the Bears on short yardage when they should’ve been defending the first-down line. No plays stand out more than this 4th and 3 where Mackensie Alexander got caught backpedaling at the snap and gave up an underneath completion to Anthony Miller that extended the drive. In an evaluation of Alexander’s play, Zimmer said that the nickel corner needed to play tighter on receivers.
Xavier Rhodes, who gave up seven receptions for 45 yards, according to Pro Football Focus, also got blocked out of play while playing off as Trubisky scrambled to Rhodes’ side and converted a first down. Earlier in the game, Rhodes allowed a completion on 2nd and 3 as Allen Robinson beat him on a comeback.
It’s hard to over-criticize a unit that allowed just 16 points, but the Bears’ ability to create positive plays and move the chains led to a 10-plus minute discrepancy in time of possession (35:27 vs 24:33) and a 10-yard differential in drive start (32- vs 22-yard line). While the Vikings were primarily doing as they were told, Zimmer said after the game that sometimes players make their own choices about playing off receivers.
“Sometimes it’s a call, sometimes it’s them,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes it’s because of what we tell them to do.”
In all likelihood, the Vikings’ gameplan was thrown off initially by the quarterback switch and didn’t get adjusted quickly enough. On many occasions, though, the Vikings have given up yards in the middle of the field only to tighten up in the red zone, basically inviting the opposing quarterback to make the first mistake. Daniel never served up that mistake, while the Vikings offense never did enough to force Daniel into riskier throws.
Credit the Bears’ backup for taking what the Vikings gave him.