The Bears are officially off the schneid. And on a rather quick turnaround, no less.
Led by the trademark dominance of Khalil Mack, along with a settled rhythm from Nick Foles, the Bears inched past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 20-19, on Thursday night. With the victory, the Bears are 4-1 and I don’t think anyone knows if they’re a good team, but it doesn’t matter, so whatever. That 4-1 start is the first for Chicago since Lovie Smith was head coach in 2012. The Bears, of course, also have their first-ever win over Tom Brady for those keeping count of victories over all-time greats. One day, Brady will be able to figure out how to overcome Foles.
Most importantly, the Bears keep pace with the undefeated Packers in the NFC North after losing ground last week.
In the afterglow of victory, here’s a variety of recap musings from Thursday night’s triumph.
Same old, same old?
A slow start by the Bears’ offense is tradition. As the Buccaneers built an early 13-0 lead, a dreadful feeling of deja vu set in for those rooting for Chicago. The anointment of Nick Foles appeared to continue to make little difference for the Bears, who were unable to threaten Tampa Bay’s promising defensive front for most of the first half Thursday night. Missed throws to a wide open Allen Robinson short, and to a completely clear Darnell Mooney deep for what would looked like a sure touchdown, stacked on the growing frustration.
A Mack Truck
The Bears’ talisman, Khalil Mack, hasn’t played poorly to start this season. Far from it. If anything, one could make the argument for him (unsurprisingly) showing out as the NFL’s premier edge defender. But the familiar box score statistics (sacks, forced fumbles) weren’t there for the perennial All-Pro in September. That was no longer an issue against Tampa Bay. The 29-year-old superstar had two sacks (with another wiped out by a questionable roughing-the-passer), two tackles-for-loss, and was seemingly bringing Tom Brady down every other play. Thanks to Mack, it came to the point where Brady could not help but vent his frustrations on camera with regularity during the second half of the contest.
To put it lightly, Buccaneers right tackle, Tristan Wirfs, could not have been more outmatched. Which makes one wonder why Tampa Bay didn’t start giving Wirfs more help until late in the second half. Oh well.
Bruce Arians’ bunch re-learned a hard but familiar lesson: Underestimate and overlook Mack at your own risk.
Full of Fuller
I have no source for this, and it’s entirely subjective, but it feels like Kyle Fuller is having the quietest All-Pro season in recent Bears memory. Fuller has been a lockdown, lightning rod for Chicago as their top cornerback. In the prime of his career, he’s effectively taking away other teams’ No. 1 receiving options with minimal trouble while also flashing again and again in run support. Fuller’s general physicality is what finished off the Bears’ late first half barrage. A well-timed booming hit of Tampa Bay running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn ended up being called a fumble that afforded the Bears a short field. A few plays later, Foles would then find 85-year-old Jimmy Graham in the back of the end zone on a spectacular catch to make it 14-13.
None of those offensive acrobatics happen without Fuller, who also made Mike Evans a general non-factor (five receptions, 41 yards, one score). Ho-hum. The quiet but confident cornerback run reigns on.
Foles settles in, makes Nagy, Chicago, smile
Nick Foles is not a great or even particularly talented quarterback. There’s a reason he has a reputation for being a premier pinch-hitter off the bench and not much else. But what he does well, once he has an opportunity to settle in, is find a comfortable rhythm.
You saw that on Thursday night. The Bears’ slow offensive start, while agonizing for most to watch, was washed away once Foles took control of his orchestra with a plethora of quick-timing passes and possession plays for his receivers. It’s not explosive. It’s not sexy. Sometimes it’s not going to be pretty at all. But it can get the job done against a staunch Tampa Bay defense while the Bears’ defense is simultaneously flexing its muscles.
That is the stark difference between Foles and Mitchell Trubisky. Where Foles lacks the athletic ability Trubisky possesses, he makes up for it in on-field processing and pre-snap diagnosis. He has a mental understanding of the game that the Bears can use and implement into their scheme, whereas Trubisky primarily thrives on random broken plays a team can’t rely on. Some of this comes with experience, but most of it is either something a quarterback can do or can’t. Foles can, Trubisky can’t, and Foles is the starter for that reason.
But what was most striking to me about Foles on Thursday night was not his play. It was how he constructively confronted Matt Nagy, his play-caller, with feedback on the sideline. With the game coming down to the wire, cameras caught Foles having an animated but productive dialogue with Nagy that the coach seemed to respond to well. The results certainly showed as much with Foles’ game-winning drive in the final two minutes.
The quarterback-head coach dynamic is the most important relationship in football. If Foles is already pushing Nagy’s correct buttons (and vice versa) in his second start, the Bears may have found their elixir of success for the 2020 season. In case it needed to be said for a team that will likely be in a playoff chase come December, that’s a big deal.