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

Coach Matt Nagy called a play for James Daniels at an important time, and the rookie guard had to finish it in order for the Bears to finish off a victory.

“I saw the yard marker and knew how far we had to go,” Daniels said. “I missed my block. I was on the corner, then he slipped off of me. So that was the only thing that I could think of doing.”

In this case, it involved holding onto running back Tarik Cohen and rolling forward for the first down. It’s how the Bears finished off the Lions for a 23-16 win on Thanksgiving.

On third-and-9 in the final minute, Daniels pulled to his right and was Cohen’s primary lead blocker. He drove Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay back five yards before Slay escaped and cut off Cohen.

The play call, though, was meaningful. It signified Nagy’s growing confidence in Daniels, the 39th overall selection this year.

“He’s a good learner,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. “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 that he’s been getting.”

But facing Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the reigning defensive player of the year, will be an experience unlike any other Daniels has had this season. It’s significantly different than pulling and blocking Slay.

Donald currently the NFL with 16 ½ sacks. He moves around but a bulk of his sacks have come against left guards. It includes Donald’s two strip sacks on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in Week 11, two takedowns of the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers in Week 8 and two more on the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins in Week 4.

“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. As quarterback Mitch Trubisky said, a game plan full of quick throws, play action and changing launch points can help.

But if the Bears are going to provide right guard Bryan Witzmann with 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 Trubisky clean in first game back from his shoulder injury.

On five of Donald’s six total sacks against the Chiefs, Packers and Vikings, Donald was essentially one on one against Cam Irving (33 career starts), Lane Taylor (45) and Tom Compton (25), respectively.

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

“Yeah, I 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 confidence in Daniels, who began the season as a backup, 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 happening it 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.”

But a true test of Daniels’ growth arrives this weekend.

His name is Aaron Donald.

“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.”


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