Even though the NFL season is just five weeks young, it seems like we’re gearing up for an eventful year. That includes the Chicago Bears, as their 20-9 victory on the road over the Las Vegas Raiders has them over the .500 mark for the first time this season.
While many (including myself) didn’t expect the Bears to win, they were able to control the majority of the game. All of that was lead by yet another solid defensive effort. With the team being neck-deep in the most challenging stretch of their schedule, starting on the right foot was critical to any future success. The victory didn’t come without injuries, but all in all, the Bears have to feel pretty good as they head back home to take on the first-place Green Bay Packers this Sunday afternoon.
1. Regardless of how you cut it, this was an impressive win for the Bears
Now I’m not one for hyperbole (at least on purpose), but what the Bears were able to accomplish on Sunday was no small feat. They came in on the road and dominated a team that was previously undefeated. Yes, Vegas took a loss on Monday Night Football to a better team and is now on a two-game losing streak. But this is still a nice win for the Bears.
Even more impressive to me is that the Bears could impose their game plan better than the Raiders. That has not happened very often in recent memory under head coach Matt Nagy. The defense shut down a dangerous offense (more on that in a minute), and they controlled the ball and clock offensively without a turnover.
Despite a perceived talent gap, the Bears controlled a game they were expected to lose. This is only the second time in Nagy’s tenure that the Bears beat a team in which they were more than three-point underdogs.
2. If there’s been one constant outside of Week 1, it’s been Sean Desai’s defense
I’m sure most folks were like me after that Week 1 game against the Los Angeles Rams. I expected yet another step back from this defensive unit in 2021. They lost two of their three starting cornerbacks, and it felt like they lacked depth in most areas on the depth chart, outside of their defensive line.
So far, their defense has looked the best since early in the 2019 season, and a lot of credit needs to go to their first-year defensive coordinator. Desai’s ability to adjust has been tremendous for this unit. Especially in the secondary. On Sunday, we saw more innovation from the young coordinator. He featured plenty of three-safety looks, and he continues to be creative with the pass rush.
That has led to an NFL-high 18 sacks and a top-10 mark in takeaways. On Sunday, it led to the Raiders offense scoring nine points and being held to under 300 offensive yards for the first time this season. Considering all of the weapons the Raiders have, I’d count that as a pretty impressive feat.
The Bears are no stranger to defensive coaches rising through the ranks. Brandon Staley and Vic Fangio are the latest to land head coaching jobs. If Desai continues to outperform expectations, he could be on top of potential hiring lists quite soon.
3. Dare I say the Bears are finding an offensive identity?
Now, don’t mistake that for me saying the offense has been nearly good enough. Because, well, it hasn’t been. Even so, the Bears have decided to lean on the run, which has allowed them to put their rookie quarterback in much more favorable passing situations.
Over the past two weeks, the Bears have averaged 164 yards on the ground, while Fields has been sacked just three times. The team is also averaging 22 points per game and has controlled time of possession overall.
Again, that’s not to say that there aren’t large areas of room for improvement because there are. But it does show that the Bears appear to be establishing their offensive identity, and that should only lead to better results as the season progresses. A lot of this can be attributed to offensive coordinator (and now play-caller) Bill Lazor.
4. For as much heat as Nagy has taken, his team is responding
I still firmly believe that both Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace are on the hot seat. As we saw last year, hot and cold stretches are to be expected throughout the year. They will be tested with their next five games against the Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Baltimore Ravens.
That said, Nagy’s team has won two in a row and shown a considerable amount of fight. The first step in helping his team was giving Fields the job. The next was taking input from players and coaches while also making dramatic changes.
How things end up is anybody’s best guess, but unlike John Fox, it appears that Nagy is doing everything in his power to salvage his job. Still, there’s a long way to go.
5. Justin Fields is 2-0 since the debacle in Cleveland three games ago
As I mentioned a few points back, the Bears have put their rookie quarterback in a better position to succeed. In his last two games, Fields is averaging only 160 passing yards per game. But he only had one turnover in that time and has been sacked only three times. Considering he was sacked nine times in his first start, that’s a marked improvement.
Fields is also not being asked to throw the ball a whole lot. After 17 pass attempts the week before, he had only 20 this past Sunday. He’s not being asked to do too much, and that’s completely fine. The important thing is that Fields is making key throws when he needs to, and his development has been evident so far. His pocket presence and overall awareness have improved, as has his internal clock when getting quick throws out.
At this point, that’s all you can want. When you look around the league at the other four first-round rookies, none of them are lighting the world on fire. Mac Jones remains the most consistent, but none of these guys are on pace to have a Justin Herbert-like rookie campaign.
6. If there’s one thing Fields need to get better at, it’s protecting himself
Fields has been getting banged up in other ways despite taking just three sacks in the past two games. While he can’t control some of the hits he is taking inside the pocket; he can control the hits he’s taking outside of the pocket.
Fields said he “retired” the spin move that has hurt him in the past, but it’s clear he still has not through the start of this year. A hit by Jonathan Abrams was the first of a few that put a damper on Fields’ health in Sunday’s game. The other big play that stood out to me was when he rolled out, missed his check-down, and gave the defender too much time to catch him. It led to a knee hyperextension, and he missed a few plays because of it. Again, I understand he’s a rookie, but much like Joe Burrow in Cincinnati, Fields needs to do a better job of protecting himself moving forward.
7. Sunday’s performance had to feel good for Khalil Mack
Rewinding to Week 4 of the 2019 season, Mack faced his former team for the first time. The Bears lost 24-21 in a game where backup quarterback Chase Daniels had to start. The overall result was what it was, but the Bears didn’t have a single sack on quarterback Derek Carr. Meanwhile, Mack had just four tackles, and one quarterback hit.
This time around, Mack was all over the field. He finished the game with eight tackles (one for a loss), multiple pressures, a quarterback hit, and one registered sack. He also had another sack on a crucial two-point conversion attempt that kept the Raiders from being in the range of tying the game with a field goal.
Mack is currently tied for fifth in the NFL with five sacks, and he’s come on over the past few weeks. That is an extremely welcomed sight, but I’m sure Sunday’s game meant a little bit more.
8. It’s about time we start giving Ryan Pace more credit for his past two drafts
Considering Pace had just one first-round pick and no third-round picks over the past two drafts, I’d say he’s done an excellent job putting producers on the field. Fields is a prominent name, but Jaylon Johnson is another that has shown quite a bit. Then there’s Darnell Mooney, Cole Kmet, Kindle Vildor, and even Trevis Gipson has factored in.
One of the true surprises from Sunday? Sixth-round rookie running back Khalil Herbert. He led the team in both rushing attempts (18) and rushing yards (75). He was also reliable in short-yardage situations and displayed impressive vision as a zone runner.
It’s going to take players like this to fill out a roster over the next few years. Cheap producers can go a long way in establishing a team’s relevancy in a playoff race.
9. Cairo Santos’s resurgence continues to be one of the team’s best storylines
If you watched any other games around the league in Week 5, you probably saw multiple missed kicks. Some in crucial moments. The Packers vs. Bengals game was home to numerous missed kicks, including multiple potential game-winners.
Then you look at the Bears, where this is the first time they’ve seen any stability at the position in a long time. Most (including myself) weren’t overly thrilled when Santos “won” the job last year due to Eddy Pineiro’s injury. Ever since Santos has gone on an unbelievable streak of made kicks and currently holds the franchise record with 34 in a row. He also holds the longest active NFL streak, as well.
Simply put: Santos has been worth every penny.
10. Looking ahead to Week 6, this will be an actual litmus test to see where the Bears are currently at
A tough test awaits the Bears at home this Sunday against their division rival. At least on paper, the Packers are the better team. But they haven’t played great football exactly, and they are missing multiple key players on both sides of the ball.
It took a missed kick in overtime to win against the Bengals, and while they are playing quality football, they aren’t playing at nearly the level they were when the Bears saw them twice last year.
What does that mean for the Bears? It means they must find a way to keep the game close and get a win. Even with all the Packers’ injuries, it’s going to be a difficult matchup. Aaron Rodgers is still their quarterback, and they know the Bears well. It’ll be fascinating to see what Sean Desai can scheme up against the future Hall of Fame quarterback. It’ll also be intriguing to see if the Bears can stick to their offensive game plan and run the ball successfully against an improving defense.
In the past, when a coach’s job has been on the line, these kinds of games have been a leading factor in deciding his future. A win at home on Sunday would not only give the Bears the division lead (due to an early head-to-head tiebreaker), but it could also cool this regime’s seat down.