The preseason is supposed to be about warming up for the meaningful action of the regular season. The preseason is supposed to be about getting players acclimated to your systems. The preseason is the time of the NFL calendar where the end result of a game couldn’t matter less in comparison to leaving August in one piece.
So while the Bears beat the Broncos 24-23 for their first win of the 2018 preseason, one would be remiss if they thought it mattered in comparison to an intact roster. Yes, Chicago showed flashes offensively as Mitchell Trubisky was sharp. The Bears defense for the most part played relatively well against Case Keenum and company. But injuries always rear their ugly head when they happen, especially when no one will remember this game months from now.
Let’s get to the Bears winners and losers from a lengthy week in Denver.
Winner: Trey Burton
There was a lot of consternation when the Bears made Burton the eighth highest-paid tight end in the NFL in March. Burton, having been a special teamer and No. 2 for most of his career with the Eagles, had never played as the No. 1 with increased responsibilities. Yes, the 26-year-old was talented. It was nevertheless a lofty bet he’d live up to new standards he hadn’t reached in four previous seasons.
While it’s hardly an end-all, be-all judgment, Burton’s play against the Broncos should assuage concerns of the versatile tight end not being ready for the spotlight. Four receptions for 45 yards and a touchdown underscore an overall dynamic night for the veteran. It was more about how Burton got open and created space that mitigates doubts.
On one of the Bears’ first few offensive plays, Burton caught a pass from Trubisky on a well-designed tight end screen. He made a slick move past a Denver defensive tackle and hit a seam up the middle to create a third and short for Chicago. Later, with the Bears on the brink of their first first-team touchdown of the preseason, Burton slipped out effortlessly on a rollout filled with pre-snap motions and misdirections across the board. The Broncos never had a chance as he walked in for the score.
The Bears made a major bet on Burton’s upside in the off-season. What he did in Denver showed that his upside is sky high and that he’s their No. 1 tight end for a reason.
Loser: Bears health, “Tis but a scratch”
If you were to tell the Bears beforehand that two of their major players in Leonard Floyd and Adam Shaheen would leave this preseason game injured with statuses unclear, they would’ve traded away every other positive result to have these two healthy instead. That’s a sentiment that would’ve rang true for most of Chicago’s major contributors from this exhibition. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s not the roll of the dice you’re blessed with.
A hand injury for Floyd didn’t seem serious at first, but he did have a cast on his left hand in the postgame. An ankle injury for Shaheen also didn’t seem serious as first, as the tight end just had his foot caught in the field on an early five-yard checkdown. Yet when Shaheen needed carting off and was on crutches afterwards, that’s never a comfortable sign for a 6-foot-6, 270 pound man.
Needless to say, the Bears are undoubtedly hoping for the best but preparing for the worst with two of their highest draft picks in recent years.
Chicago would be more prepared in the event they didn’t have Shaheen for an extended period of time given their fantastic depth at tight end with Burton, Dion Sims, Daniel Brown, and Ben Braunecker. They can theoretically survive without Shaheen for a bit even if he is their most athletically gifted tight end.
Should Floyd be out for any games, though, that would put the Bears defense in a precarious position with no other terrifying edge rushers. There was already discussion general manager Ryan Pace could make a needed move for a veteran edge pass rushing addition before the regular season. That was with Floyd in mind. Without Floyd in the discussion, Pace is forced into desperate measures.
The Bears may have “won” their exhibition game on Saturday night. If Shaheen and Floyd especially are out for awhile, they won’t remember Saturday for anything else. Hope for the best and brace for the worst.
Winner: Mitchell Trubisky
After the hype of the past half year, we received a glimpse of the quarterback Matt Nagy and company have propped up. Trubisky wasn’t perfect, but he was mostly in complete command of the Bears offense as Chicago stayed in a consistent rhythm throughout the first half. That it came against a respected Broncos’ vaunted defense was more of an endorsement.
On three of four possessions, the Bears offense entered opposition territory. On two of those drives, they reached the red zone with only one of them not resulting in any points due to a holding penalty by Charles Leno Jr. and eventual Cody Parkey missed field goal. Thanks to the orchestration of a collected Trubisky settled in - who completed 9/14 passes with a touchdown and interception - it was rare to find the Bears offense behind the eight-ball. This was the quarterback the organization has reliably devoted itself to. This was the passer to rally around.
Chicago has one more major preseason test against the Chiefs for their face of the franchise in Trubisky with aspects to clean up (like catching snaps). At this stage of his progression, Trubisky only needs a little more fine tuning before Week 1 in September.
Loser: Tarik Cohen
Where Trubisky shined, one of the Bears’ top dynamic weapons in Cohen left a lot to be desired. Cohen didn’t feature much offensively with no rushing attempts and only three pass targets against the Broncos. That meant he had to try extra hard to be as major of a lowlight as he was.
On a 3rd and 11 late in the second quarter, Trubisky hit Cohen on a screen and the diminutive back had a seam to convert past the first down marker and much more. Curiously, with blockers going to the outside, Cohen cut inside and was stopped short of the sticks. The Bears would eventually convert on a fourth down play, but they shouldn’t have had to. One of the rare occasions where “Chicken Salad” instead made, well ... you know.
Later on the same possession, with the Bears now in Broncos territory, Cohen had another more costly brain fart. On an angle route, the second-year gadget back again stopped short where Trubisky thought he would keep running on a timing and trust connection. That led to an easy undercutting interception for Denver safety Justin Simmons, who merely had to read his defensive keys. In the context of these kinds of timing and trust plays, the receiver and quarterback always have to be on the same page. Judging by a less-than-pleased reaction by Trubisky afterwards, this turnover was more on Cohen than the quarterback.
There are high expectations for the flashy Cohen in 2018. Whenever he’s in the game, the Bears can’t afford these lapses from the 23-year-old non-full-time weapon. He has to maximize every opportunity.
Winner: Anthony Miller
In the midst of the Bears’ starting offense showing life, it was the rookie Miller acting as one of the catalysts. Miller caught three passes for 33 yards on Saturday and that was enough to showcase special playmaking ability.
The highlight of the night came on Chicago’s lone first half touchdown drive. With the Bears on the move, Trubisky rolled left and fired a dime to a well-covered Miller where only he could get it. Miller high-pointed the ball on a stellar catch in between two defenders for a 19-yard gain. Chemistry between the young quarterback and receiver has grown this summer. This was the latest example.
If there’s one player that’s lived up to the praise in the past few months, it’s Miller. He has a ways to go as a complete player, but efforts like this show why he’ll be one of the most impactful rookies in the NFL in 2018.
Loser: Player comparisons
This isn’t a Bears team criticism per say, as much as it is of their media mantra.
The Bears’ preseason broadcast team made a major upgrade with the addition of an ESPN rising star in Adam Amin as play-by-play this year. No one denies that fact. But while it is a local and inherently biased Bears broadcast on the “Chicago Bears Network” on FOX, the level to which Amin and company decided to occasionally lay compliments on thick for Chicago players is cringeworthy. Take into account that is the preseason for a largely unproven roster, and the praise is more awkward.
For example, during the Bears-Broncos broadcast when Trubisky let that highlight ball to Miller fly, Amin said in a paraphrase, “I’m not making the comparison, but that throw reminds you of Aaron Rodgers.”
So, you are making the comparison then. And you’re comparing Trubisky to the best player in the NFL. Off of one play ... in an exhibition.
Later, Amin had an anecdote about a conversation with Akiem Hicks and comparisons the star defensive end had for second-year former undrafted free agent Isaiah Irving. Paraphrased again, “It’s not making a comparison, but that first step he has reminds you of Von Miller’s.”
So, you are making the comparison then. And you’re comparing a former undrafted free agent to arguably the best defensive player in football. This time, off of no actual play.
I get it. The Bears are trying to sell their team and they’ll use their broadcasters to be as effusive in lauding their franchise as possible. At some point you have to draw the line before completely misleading dialed-in viewers, though. Such as before you say you’re not making a comparison, but end up making the comparison anyway.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer for Windy City Gridiron, The Rock River Times, The Athletic Chicago, and other fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.