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Things didn’t go exactly as planned for the Chicago Bears on their season-opening trip last weekend. A 34-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams left Matt Nagy’s team reeling, particularly after an uncharacteristic defensive meltdown. Now the Bears must try to steady themselves and take advantage of being home favorites against the Cincinnati Bengals. Sunday’s game at Soldier Field feels like it carries a lot more “must win” ramifications than a Week 2 game should. As kickoff closes in, here’s the inside slant on three notable storylines.
Are we there yet?
Justin Fields spent the first practice week of the NFL regular season running the Bears scout team. True to form, he did so with enthusiasm and an unmistakable competitive edge.
“I was just trying to do my best,” Fields said, “and pretty much torch our defense every time I was out there. … I’m definitely taking every rep seriously and trying to get better every play.”
Bears coach Matt Nagy watched Fields throughout the week and remained impressed with how dialed in he was. At times Fields made jaw-dropping throws, providing added evidence of his arm talent. And while Nagy noticed the concentration Fields showed working on his footwork and mechanics in the practice setting, there was something else that became noticeable too.
“He’s also working on the mental side of (things),” Nagy said, “knowing he is going out to try to rip people’s hearts out in practice.”
If you’re a Bears fan, you have to love that imagery, the thought of Fields torching the first-team defense and, per Nagy’s directive, trying “to rip people’s hearts out.” This is what Chicago has waited for forever, a truly legitimate quarterback who blends elite athleticism with an assassin’s mentality.
Alas, fans will have to wait a little longer for Fields to become the headliner of the show. And that, if you haven’t been paying attention, is creating a good deal of confusion and impatience.
The Bears, of course, installed a red-zone package for Fields for last week’s season opener. In that 34-14 loss to the Rams, Nagy turned Fields loose for five plays. The rookie completed both of his pass attempts, the first a run-pass option (RPO) throw to Marquise Goodwin for 9 yards and later a 1-yard shovel pass to Allen Robinson. Fields also turned a third-quarter zone-read run into a 3-yard touchdown, again triggering attention-grabbing praise from teammates.
“J-Fields is special,” running back David Montgomery said after the game. “He already has a natural aura to him that changes the flow of how things go.”
So where will the Bears flow from here with Fields, who remains their backup quarterback but has made a strong case to have a larger role in every game? After five snaps of regular-season work, it’s clear the Bears have enough confidence in Fields to let him play at least a little, utilize his gifts as a runner and a passer and take advantage of his worth on the chess board.
Logically, you’d guess that Fields will be given at least as much responsibility for Sunday’s game against the Bengals as he had Sunday against the Rams.
Nagy was asked Thursday morning what goes into the discussions between the Bears coaching staff in determining how exactly to use Fields and how frequently. The Bears’ scheme, Nagy said, takes precedence, with the coaching staff brainstorming to find roles that accentuate his greatest talents.
“The nice thing about Justin is you’ve got somebody who is special with making throws too,” Nagy said. “So many times you’ll see guys that come in (the game) and sometimes they’re just running quarterbacks. But he can become a weapon (as a passer) too.”
Pretty nice luxury.
On Wednesday, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was presented with a direct question: If Fields is ready and capable to run five plays — one at a time — against one of the best defenses in the NFL, shouldn’t the Bears trust him next to take on a full series?
And if he can handle a full series, wouldn’t the logical next step be to make him the full-time starter?
Responded Lazor: “I would have said after the preseason that he’s moving quickly and ready for whatever’s thrown at him. So I don’t think anything’s changed.”
That’s where the Bears’ master plan for Fields creates a sense of puzzlement for the masses. If Fields is ready for whatever’s thrown at him, why not throw more at him?
To that question, Nagy has remained vague about how he weighs Fields’ obvious and continued growth against his original plan to keep the rookie in an understudy role behind Andy Dalton for as long as possible.
“Justin has done a really good job advancing with his knowledge of this offense,” Nagy said. “Better than I thought. Which is good. Last week he had a great week of practice.”
With a very small sample size, Fields played well too. His arrival as the Bears starter has to be closer than the original forecast, right?
“Of course we know he’s the future of this team. We understand that,” Nagy said. “Every snap he gets, it helps him for the future.”
Still, Nagy seems intent on holding the future off for a while, convinced that Dalton’s experience, command and understanding of NFL defenses is ultimately better in the present for the offense and the Bears’ chances of winning on a regular basis.
The best news for everyone is that Fields’ development is progressing on schedule, even a bit ahead. The Bears aren’t leaving him entirely on the shelf and almost certainly will treat their home crowd to something from Fields on Sunday against the Bengals.
Little by little, the proclaimed quarterback of the future is making his way up the ladder. His time is coming. And likely soon.
The first touchdown of Ja’Marr Chase’s NFL career was as schoolyard as it gets, a go-route up the right sideline against man coverage. Chase, with elite speed, left Minnesota Vikings cornerback Bashaud Breeland in his wake and ran under a perfect bomb from Joe Burrow.
Fifty yards. Pay dirt.
“It did feel like old times to be honest,” Chase said. “It did.”
Old times, you say?
It didn’t take the sleuths on social media long to find a near-identical Burrow-to-Chase touchdown. It came from the last game the two played together at LSU, a national championship stomping of Clemson in January 2020. In the second quarter of that game, Chase blew past Tigers defensive back A.J. Terrell, and Burrow put his pass on the money for a 52-yard score.
That was punctuation on a 15-win championship season for the tandem at LSU. Burrow won the Heisman Trophy, propelling himself to become the No. 1 pick in the following spring’s draft. Chase aided the effort that season, catching 84 passed for 1,780 yards with 20 touchdowns.
No wonder the Bengals felt so drawn to reunite Chase and Burrow in Cincinnati, snagging the talented receiver with the No. 5 pick in April.
“One of the best receivers I’ve ever evaluated in the draft,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said on draft weekend.
At the time, the Bengals were widely questioned and criticized for not selecting standout offensive tackle Penie Sewell to solidify the wall in front of Burrow, who was sacked 32 times in 10 starts as a rookie and wound up suffering a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear in November.
A need to protect Burrow better remains a priority. But it’s becoming rapidly apparent just how strong the Burrow-to-Chase chemistry truly is and how valuable it might be for the Bengals passing attack in 2021 and well beyond.
On Sunday afternoon, after a bumpy preseason filled with drops, Chase made five catches for 101 yards, providing a huge spark in the Bengals’ 27-24 overtime win. It was a brilliant debut. So much for all that anxiety about the rookie’s August yips and the four passes he couldn’t hold on to during the preseason.
Said Burrow after the game: “I had a couple guys come up to me and say, ‘I hope Ja’Marr comes ready to play today.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s Sunday. It’s game day. He’s going to come ready to play.’ ”
Consider that a warning to the Bears defense.
After allowing Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford to average 12.3 yards per pass attempt in Sunday’s 34-14 season-opening loss, the Bears return home with the chore of slowing a dangerous Bengals passing attack.
Burrow has weapons all over. In addition to Chase, Tee Higgins had four catches, 58 yards and a 2-yard touchdown catch against the Vikings. Higgins, as a rookie in 2020, recorded 67 receptions, 908 yards and six touchdowns.
Tyler Boyd, meanwhile, might be the most underrated of the Bengals receivers. Bears quarterback Andy Dalton played with Boyd for four years in Cincinnati, including a two-season stretch in 2018 and 2019, during which the receiver had 166 catches, 2,074 yards and 12 touchdowns. Dalton lit up this week when asked about Boyd.
“Tyler’s got a great personality and a great feel for the game of football,” Dalton said. “He has a ton of fun playing. … (Just) a great route runner. And he’s always in the right spot.”
Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai understands just how well-rounded and potentially explosive the Bengals receiving corps is. Chase, in particular, has his attention as a crisp route runner with game-changing speed.
“He’s setting himself up to be a marquee receiver in this league,” Desai said. “And he’s earned that right.”
Matt Nagy said he watched a decent amount of film on Chase during the predraft process but knew very early on that the talented receiver would be long gone before the Bears had a chance to pick him. All around the league, Nagy said, the predraft buzz on Chase was notable.
“Just a playmaker,” Nagy said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”
As for Sunday’s 50-yard touchdown grab in the final minute before halftime? Burrow sensed the Vikings defense might become a little more aggressive near midfield in an attempt to stop a field-goal try. The young quarterback saw a matchup he liked with Chase against Breeland and wondered if the Vikings corner might try to sit on a short route.
Lo and behold …
Breeland sat. Chase ran right by. Burrow fired deep.
“Ja’Marr came to the sideline and told me he was glad I didn’t overthrow him,” Burrow said. “And I said, ‘How many times have we done this, man? Like, c’mon. You’ve seen that over and over again.’ ”
What’s at stake?
Not long before kickoff of the “Sunday Night Football” game, the full panel of NBC analysts went one by one with their predictions.
Jac Collinsworth: RAMS
Rodney Harrison: RAMS
Mike Florio: RAMS
Maria Taylor: RAMS
Chris Simms: RAMS
Tony Dungy: RAMS
Mike Tirico: RAMS
Drew Brees: RAMS
It was unanimous.
Nobody thought the Bears were going to pull off a road upset of an obviously superior opponent.
In a similar vein, a consensus has built across the football world since late spring with most experts believing the Bears will again be a team that hovers around .500 for most of this season. (Heading into Week 1, oddsmakers had the team’s win total at 7.5.)
This, folks, is the middle of the road. A heavy helping of ordinary. The definition of stuck.
Through clear eyes, the Bears appear easy to decode, identified as a team good enough to handle its business against other average teams but subject to be humiliated by true Super Bowl contenders.
So why then did Sunday’s 34-14 loss to the Rams at SoFi stadium feel so unnerving for so many Bears fans? Was it the result itself, a defeat that sent the Bears stumbling into Week 2 at 0-1 for the seventh time in the last eight years? That couldn’t be it. Almost no one projected the Bears to stun the Rams.
So was it the way the Bears lost that felt so unsettling and so familiar, with an unproductive offense, an underperforming defense and an overmatched coaching staff exposed on a big stage?
Or was it the frustration and embarrassment of so many fans who suddenly realized they willingly had jumped back in line to ride a roller coaster that always seems to leave them nauseous, dizzy and in need of a medic?
In reaction alone, this hasn’t felt like your typical Week 1 stumble. The levels of ire and vitriol have seemed alarmingly elevated across the Chicago area.
Andy Dalton’s a bum!
Matt Nagy’s gotta go!
The defense is in decline!
This whole damn franchise is lost!
Such aggravation, of course, is justified. After all, Tom Brady has won 20 playoff games and three Super Bowls since the Bears last enjoyed a postseason victory. So the constant impatience in Chicago is fully understandable. And right now, there are few signs that the Bears are in the process of becoming a championship team again.
Coming off a division title in 2018, the Bears believed a window was opening to solidify their place as annual Super Bowl contenders for a lengthy stretch. Then they posted consecutive 8-8 seasons, each one seemingly carrying three times as much irritation as exhilaration.
Sunday’s loss to the Rams felt like a continuation of all that. And suddenly, after just one game of an expanded 17-game season, the Bears seem to be staring at an absolute must-win home opener Sunday against the Bengals.
Nagy stressed Thursday that it was far too early to start attaching such ramifications to a game in mid-September. But veteran Jimmy Graham later acknowledged the heightened urgency at Halas Hall to make sure 0-1 doesn’t become 0-2 with a possible 0-3 trip to Cleveland on the itinerary next.
“This is the one league where you have to perform quickly,” Graham said. “We’re all very aware of that and excited to come home. … (It’s) not pressure. But we understand what’s at hand here and how important this week is to getting some momentum and getting in the win column.”
The degree of difficulty will be reduced in Week 2. Against a Bengals defense that will offer a heavy diet of man coverage, the Bears offense should have its chance to unlock the vertical passing game and show progress. The defense, meanwhile, must dust off its “Takeaway Bucket” and drop a few footballs in it to prove it is not an aging, disjointed unit in decline. (Last week’s one-sack, zero-takeaway effort was unacceptable.)
The tenor should be markedly different around Chicago next week if the Bears can handle their business and play up to their potential. The opportunity to show meaningful progress is there. But that’s hardly a given. And there’s every reason to view Sunday’s contest as a losable game.
After all, the offense has yet to show signs that it can be relied on to score north of 20 points. And the Bears’ usually reliable defense went into a total meltdown after halftime last weekend, allowing the Rams to march for three consecutive 75-yard touchdown drives.
“I do think we could’ve played with a lot more energy than we did,” linebacker Alec Ogletree noted this week.
Add that to the defense’s Week 1 rap sheet. Blown coverages. Missed tackles. Lack of energy.
The Rams’ second-half drive chart? Touchdown. Touchdown. Touchdown. “Victory formation.”
Can the Bears really make significant progress if their defense falls apart? And how can the offense really get rolling when its designated “quarterback of the future” is still second on the depth chart and left to capitalize on only a handful of snaps each week?
At this point, Bears fans aren’t sure where the real excitement with this team is to quell their anxiety. For a passionate and scarred football city, this whole vicious cycle has gotten old. Really, really old.
Soldier Field will be packed Sunday for the first time December 2019. The home crowd will be energized at kickoff. But a sense of displeasure and aggravation will be right beneath the surface.