Matt Nagy made a rare appeal to respect what the Chicago Bears defense has done. Pity he can’t call a game to do that as his offense continues to struggle.
The beauty of what the Bears have done, improving to 5-1 after Sunday’s 23-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., is they’ve moved into first place in the NFC North without support from the offense, except for some brief fourth-quarter spurts.
The win keeps the Bears a perfect 5-0 against NFC foes, important to consider when looking ahead, and they’re 3-0 on the road. The defense was outstanding in creating three takeaways — including a game-sealing interception by DeAndre Houston-Carson — getting four sacks, clamping down on suddenly explosive running back Mike Davis and standing tall in the red zone once again.
The defense is playing at a high level and the special teams have been solid, providing the offense time to settle in and find its footing. The midpoint of the season is approaching, and the Bears either will turn the corner on offense and become a force to be reckoned with in December and January — if the NFL continues to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic — or will remain a flawed team that eventually gets exposed as one-dimensional.
“What’s unfortunate here is that what I hate talking about all this time is that our defense played lights out,” Nagy said. “I understand we want to look at all the negatives and stuff. But really, guys, what’s pretty cool is that our defense played lights out today. They played awesome against a good offense. I just want to be careful of getting too much (focus on the offense’s struggles). I’m pretty excited right now. We’re 5-1.”
Nagy was appropriately amped after the Bears defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 8. The next day he was peeved, though, when discussing the inconsistencies on offense and lamenting how a lack of execution of the “freakin’ details” were preventing more production.
The defense came out firing Sunday as rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson broke up a pass for Robby Anderson that Tashaun Gipson intercepted on the third play from scrimmage, setting up the offense on the Panthers 7-yard line.
The first play was puzzling as Nick Foles threw to tight end Jimmy Graham, who doesn’t run well, in the flat. Predictably, he didn’t get far on a 1-yard gain. David Montgomery gained 2 yards on second down, and then chaos ensued.
Nagy wound up calling a timeout to sort out what they wanted to do, and the Bears went from that to a delay-of-game penalty. Foles cleaned it up with a beautiful throw on third-and-goal from the 9 to rookie tight end Cole Kmet for a touchdown. He threaded the pass between safeties Jeremy Chinn and Juston Burris for an early 7-0 lead.
The Bears managed to score in the third quarter for the first time this season as Foles plunged into the end zone on a 1-yard sneak.
“Y’all aren’t going to ask me anymore about that third quarter,” Nagy joked. “It’s off my back.”
The offense converted 7 of 14 third downs, and that was a positive. Foles found a rhythm with a no-huddle attack that wasn’t necessarily up-tempo but seemed to put him in advantageous situations pre- and post-snap.
But beyond that, it was a slog, the same one witnessed through the majority of the previous five games. The Panthers defense entered 25th against the run and 31st in opponents’ yards per carry, and they lost their best defensive tackle, Kawann Short, to a season-ending shoulder injury last week.
Remove three kneel-downs by Foles at the end of the game, and the Bears rushed for only 66 yards on 22 carries, including 58 on 19 attempts by Montgomery.
Foles completed 23 of 39 passes for 198 yards with the Kmet touchdown and a terrible interception when he was pressured and tossed the ball up for grabs. There was only one play for more than 20 yards, a nice shot to Allen Robinson for 23 yards on third-and-9 in the fourth quarter that set up one of Cairo Santos’ three field goals.
With two chances to close out the game late, the Bears failed. They ran only 2 minutes, 22 seconds off the clock before punting midway through the fourth quarter with a seven-point lead.
After getting the ball back when D.J. Moore dropped a fourth-down pass, only 15 seconds came off the clock before Pat O’Donnell punted again. Montgomery ran for 7 yards on first down, but the Panthers used two timeouts and on third-and-2, Foles threw incomplete for Robinson when a running play at least would have forced the Panthers to burn their final timeout.
For the second week in a row, when he needed to run out the clock, Nagy told you he had no faith in the ground game to do it.
Through 3½ games, Foles has shown an ability to get on some heaters, but it doesn’t last. The running game continues to be a concern, and if the Bears couldn’t get rolling against the Panthers, is there any reason to believe they will at any point this season? The “why” Nagy talks about might wind up having an answer he doesn’t like.
“At some point we have to figure out what those answers are,” he said. “I know in these type of games, I guess the one thing is I don’t want to take away the excitement from our team that we’re 5-1. Sometimes in this world it’s really easy to say, ‘Man, we’re just looking for 50 points a game and get the run game going,’ and we need to, trust me.
“It’s hard right now and we’re trying to figure out that ‘why’ part. With that said, I’ll never question our guys on offense — coaches and players — in regards to their effort and what they’re trying to do, never. We’ve got to fix it and we’ve just got to keep working.”
Foles became animated when asked about the offense’s ongoing struggles. He seems to believe team chemistry will trump all at some point and is a believer in the power of what people can do when they believe in those they’re with.
“We want to improve,” Foles said. “We want to get better. We want to have rhythm. But ultimately in the NFL, it’s about winning games. It doesn’t matter how you do it, it just matters that you get it done. If you put up 50 points and you lose a game, those 50 points don’t mean anything.
“So right now we’re winning games, we’re playing together as a team. We can improve. That is exciting. If we were winning these games and playing perfect and they were this tight and we’re playing perfect, what do you do? Where do you improve? I mean, then we’re sitting here and I guess when we play those teams, it’s just not going to happen.
“Right now we have a lot of areas to improve offensively, but we are figuring out ways to score and get points and move the ball and do those things. We can fix what we’re doing. It doesn’t happen overnight. Offenses don’t get fixed overnight and sometimes they don’t get fixed throughout the course of years. You see that in the NFL. There have been teams that have been bad offensively for a very long time.
“We’re not one of those teams. We’re a team that is young offensively, we’re growing, we’re getting to know each other, we’re figuring out who we are and we’re doing it at the right time and as a team we’re winning these games.”
Some would argue the Bears have been mediocre offensively for an extended period, but Foles is new to these parts. He has only three starts under his belt, and he and Nagy are working to make the Bears more potent as quickly as they can.
A 5-1 start speaks to the dominance of the defense and the ability to make key plays at timely moments each week. It’s the “why” part for the offense that remains so damn confounding.
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