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Notes: Bears start off hot, but 49ers dominate offensively

The Bears cooled off down the stretch in a tough loss to the 49ers at home.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears seemed to have the upper hand on the 49ers for much of Sunday’s action, but as the second half progressed, the momentum of the game began to take a rapid shift.

San Francisco scored 24 points in the second half — with 18 of those points coming in the fourth quarter — en route to a 33-22 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field. The Bears held their own offensively, but a late-game resurgence by the 49ers’ offense proved too much for them to overcome.

Here are some of the top takeaways from this week’s loss.

Offense

Though Sunday was a loss for the Bears this season, it was arguably a win for them in the long run.

Justin Fields finished with arguably the best performance of his young career, going 19-for-27 with 175 yards and a touchdown through the air, as well as 103 rushing yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. A late-game interception off the hands of Darnell Mooney hurt his passer rating, but it wasn’t truly reflective of the performance the rookie quarterback put together against the 49ers.

Fields looked comfortable running the offense for the Bears this week. An increase in roll-out plays and designed concepts to get the defense to respect his speed helped maximize the efficiency of the offense, and he was also accurate and intelligent with the throws he made more often than not. He did a good job of exploiting soft spots in zone coverage and hitting his receivers in stride. His athleticism was also on display more often than usual, especially on his miracle 22-yard touchdown run which saw him scramble and evade numerous defenders on fourth down.

That success in the run game carried over in flashes to designed handoffs, as well. While the interior offensive line in particular struggled with consistently generating enough space for Khalil Herbert to make a play out of the backfield, the rookie back finished with 72 yards on 23 carries. He had 6 carries go for more than 6 yards, and he also had a 15-yard reception called back due to a penalty.

Herbert had just 6 yards on 10 carries in the second half, which was due largely in part to the penetration the 49ers were able to produce up the middle. That said, he looked explosive, intelligent and tough with the ball in his hands and succeeded more often than not when given a chance to make a play.

That poor offensive line play was also apparent in pass protection, as Fields was sacked four times and hit five over the course of the afternoon. Nick Bosa had two sacks, including one rep where he powered through a holding call against Alex Bars and beat the extra offensive lineman look foolish. The individual offensive line performances would be easier to point out upon an All-22 rewatch, but at first glance, the likes of Cody Whitehair and Sam Mustipher seemed to struggle.

The Bears’ play through the air was solid overall, despite few of their weapons putting together truly impressive games. Darnell Mooney led the team with 6 catches for 64 yards, showcasing his trademark speed, agility and ability to exploit holes in zone coverage, but also struggling in tighter windows in the process. Cole Kmet had 3 catches for 24 yards, but he also got beat on a contested-catch situation in the end zone that arguably should have resulted in a touchdown. Allen Robinson was pretty quiet, as well.

All of that said, though, Fields showed significant improvement both through the air and on the ground, and that’s the most important thing the Bears should be relying on this year. This is very much a long-term process that is far from a finished product.

Defense

Very rarely has the Bears’ defense been the main reason for the team’s losses in recent years, but that was certainly the case this week.

The 49ers have long been praised as a team with an efficient run scheme, and that combination of well-designed plays and a talented rookie back in Elijah Mitchell shredded the Bears in Chicago this week. He finished with an average of 7.6 yards per carry with five carries going for more than 10 yards.

A diverse assortment of issues plagued the Bears defensively, but a major ailment seemed to be the play of their secondary. Not only did they allow consistent separation across the middle of the field in the passing game, but they also struggled significantly with tackling ball-carriers after the catch. The Bears gave up 13 plays that resulted in gains of 15 yards or more, including a total of 171 yards to Deebo Samuel through the air.

The Bears were missing Khalil Mack due to injury on Sunday, and while the All-Pro’s presence certainly hurt the play of their pass-rushing unit, it’s still not a full excuse for how the pass-rush performed against San Francisco. Not only did Chicago not sack Jimmy Garoppolo once all afternoon, but they didn’t even hit him once, either. The veteran quarterback seemingly had all day to sit in the pocket and scan the field to find the open man more often than not.

Sloppy tackling on Chicago’s end made it easier for the 49ers to march down the field and overcome the time of possession disadvantage they faced. Very few defenders stood out in a positive light, with the likes of Jaylon Johnson, Roquan Smith, Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley all appearing to have issues upon initial viewing. Smith, Danny Trevathan and Alec Ogletree struggled more than normal with shedding blocks in the run game and executing run fits, and the defensive line got pushed around quite a bit at the point of attack.

If there’s one Bears defender who deserves positive credit from Sunday, it’s Akiem Hicks. The veteran defensive lineman finished with four tackles and a tackle for a loss and displayed a red-hot motor and a willingness to chase down ball-carriers, including two noticeable tackles against Mitchell far down the field.

The overall defense struggled significantly, however, and were exposed in a way that few teams have done in recent years. Chicago clearly has some talented pieces on their defense, but execution of assignments and just an improved secondary from a personnel standpoint should be prioritized by whoever is in charge come this offseason.

Three and out

3. Though there’s plenty of time between now and the end of the 2021-22 regular season, a loss this week will likely end up hurting the Bears’ playoff chances this year.

A 3-5 start with such matchups like the Ravens, Cardinals, Packers and the Seahawks with Russell Wilson means that the Bears will need to pull off a couple of upsets in order to rise back up in the standings and become legitimate playoff contenders. That’s not even including opponents like the Steelers and Vikings, who could realistically beat them, as well. Again, their long-term outlook with a rookie quarterback is more important than their short-term results, but this loss could come back to haunt the Bears down the stretch.

2. The Bears have a talented defense, and when their players are healthy, they are a better unit than a good chunk of the defenses around the rest of the league.

However, this year — and this week especially — has exposed two notable flaws with the group: a lack of depth, and a lack of investment in the secondary. The former seemed to be inevitable, given a focus on the offensive side of the ball with draft capital that has been thin to begin with for much of Ryan Pace’s tenure as general manager for the Bears. The latter, though, goes to show the confusing process the organization has in building a roster, especially in a modern day of football that has most analysts stating that the secondary is more important than the front-seven.

This defense certainly won’t become elite again overnight, but if they are to bounce back to their old ways, addressing safety and cornerback in the near future would be a necessary action.

1. As much as losses like this are tough to take for Bears fans, I can simply just preach the importance of patience.

Though the Bears’ front office may not want to admit it out of fear for their jobs, this is a team that is a work in progress. They likely won’t be a true Super Bowl contender for another two or three years, and that’s assuming Fields is able to continue to develop and the organization surrounds him with talented, young players on both sides of the ball. To borrow a saying from the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers: trust the process.