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Notes: Bears lose, but Justin Fields a winner on Monday night

The Bears lost on Monday night, but when considering their long-term outlook, they may have achieved an actually meaningful moral victory.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears exited Pittsburgh Monday night with a 29-27 loss to the Steelers, but they have plenty to be excited about going forward.

Plenty did go wrong for the Bears in their primetime loss, such as disappointing performances in coverage and the obvious penalty issues they faced on both sides of the ball. A lack of discipline was apparent throughout the evening.

That said, a certain quarterback who dons No. 1 for the navy and blue showed plenty for Chicago to be excited about in his primetime starting debut.

Here are some of the key takeaways from this week’s game.

Offense

Though he did so in defeat, Justin Fields broke out on a national scale at the NFL level on Monday night.

The first half of his performance was certainly shaky, tallying only 34 passing yards prior to the Bears’ final offensive drive of the half. They scored just 3 points in the first half, and Fields’ stat-line before the last 5 minutes of 3-for-7 with an interception certainly won’t appease most. He struggled with his speed going through his progressions early on.

That said, the Ohio State alumnus would’ve torn off the roof of Heinz Field in the second half if said stadium actually had one. Scoring 24 points in the last two quarters — with 21 of them coming in the final quarter of action — Fields and the Bears’ offense exploded late in the game. He finished the game with 291 passing yards and a touchdown, going 17-for-29 in the process. He also finished with 45 rushing yards on 8 attempts, putting his quick feet to use both to pick up yardage and to extend the play all evening.

Fields was able to stretch the field at an incredibly efficient rate, hitting receivers in stride with accurate deep balls in a way that few Bears quarterbacks have been able to do in franchise history. This graphic explains it all:

When the odds were stacked against him, Fields was able to keep the Bears in the game and make big-time throws in a hostile environment on the road. Certain traits like an inconsistent sensing of pressure hurt him sometimes, but more often than not, the rookie was accurate and was able to put together a strong performance.

Fields and the gang were able to exploit the Steelers’ zone coverage over the top very well, and the Bears’ pass-catchers deserve some credit for that, too. Cole Kmet put together a career game, catching 6 passes for 87 yards and showcasing strong hands, solid straight-line speed and the ability to make contested catches. The big guy out of Notre Dame has improved gradually over the course of the year, and Monday was definitely the best night of his career thus far.

Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney combined for 109 yards, and while many of them came on Robinson’s impressive 39-yard snag, both weapons were able to serve as reliable targets underneath and along the sideline pretty consistently, even if their stat-lines weren’t eye-opening. Marquise Goodwin contributed with a 50-yard catch that saw him adjust well to the deep ball, too.

Chicago’s run game wasn’t necessarily phenomenal, but it got the job done, all told. David Montgomery returned to action by rushing for 63 yards on 13 carries for an average of 4.8 yards per carry. He brought most of his regular traits to the table post-injury, showcasing the agility, contact balance and temperance out of the backfield that has seen him develop into a quality back for the team. Khalil Herbert saw a limited role as a result, having 13 yards on just four carries.

The Bears’ offensive line held its own in the run game for the most part, but they did struggle in pass protection. Fields was sacked three times and hit eight times, and while one of those sacks came from the rookie’s inability to recognize an unblocked T.J. Watt, the line still didn’t do a phenomenal job of keeping him safe on a down-by-down basis. The aforementioned Watt had all three sacks by himself, while Alex Highsmith and Cameron Heyward combined for five quarterback hits.

The Bears’ offense had five penalties called against them, as well. Perhaps the most influential was a penalty on James Daniels which saw a touchdown nullified and stalled the drive into resulting with a field goal. Granted, there was plenty of confusion regarding the accuracy of the call itself, but the general concept of sloppiness on offense did apply, regardless of questionable officiating.

Was it a perfect, four-quarter performance by the Bears’ offense? No, but they stepped up when it mattered most. Fields was able to prove to the league that he has the potential to be a franchise talent at the NFL level, and that bodes well for the team’s future.

Defense

It was a tale of two levels for the Bears’ defense on Monday.

Eddie Goldman stood out as a name who helped clog running lanes down the stretch for the Bears. The veteran nose tackle had four tackles, with one being for a loss and two more resulting in no gain. His ability to clog up running lanes and draw double-team blocks was apparent, and he proved to be a major factor in their limiting Najee Harris to just 2.8 yards per carry.

If the Steelers were able to get away from the Bears’ defensive line in the run game, then Roquan Smith was often able to clean up the scraps. The 2020 second-team All-Pro finished with 12 tackles, a sack, two tackles for a loss and a quarterback hit. With 93 tackles in 9 games, he appears to be on track to top his career-high of 139 tackles from last year. He has solidified himself as one of the best off-ball linebackers in the league this season.

After not having sacks in each of their previous two games, the Bears were able to bounce back with four sacks on Monday. In addition to Smith, the likes of Robert Quinn, Cassius Marsh and Bilal Nichols were able to bring Ben Roethlisberger down. The pressure may not have appeared incredibly consistent, but they were able to capitalize on the opportunities they got.

While the Bears’ front-seven saw plenty of success, the same cannot be said for their secondary. Kindle Vildor in particular struggled in coverage, giving up major completions to the likes of Chase Claypool and Pat Freiermuth while struggling in zone assignments. The safety play appeared poor from the broadcast angle, with numerous soft spots appearing down the field in zone coverage. Though Eddie Jackson has had a down year and has struggled when the ball has been thrown his way, he has been able to shut down opposing offenses and eliminate opportunities this year, and that was missed on Monday.

Jaylon Johnson and Duke Shelley seemed to hold their own for the most part — particularly Shelley — but it came heavily down to scheme and poor communication that helped the Steelers march down the field through the air. Sean Desai’s play-calling and the execution of his scheme seemed questionable in Pittsburgh.

Penalties also plagued the Bears’ defense on Monday night. 10 penalties were called on their defense, and while the validity of some of them were certainly debatable (to put it in the nicest way possible), calls like five offsides penalties were simply unacceptable and cost the team in the end.

It didn’t help that the Steelers also often faced comfortable opening field position, but the Bears certainly could have done a better job of shutting them down through the air. That said, proper investment in the secondary should be a priority for the team come this offseason.

Three and out

3. The Bears’ playoff hopes took a significant hit with their loss on Monday.

Though the NFC Wild Card race remains unpredictable and could see a 9-8 or 8-9 team sneak into the playoffs again, the Bears face an extremely uphill battle to make it into the postseason for a second straight season. With teams like the Ravens, Cardinals, Packers and a Russell Wilson-led Seahawks still on their schedule, Chicago will likely need to secure an upset or two to make it into the playoffs, along with not losing any other games. There are more important things at stake long-term for this franchise than the postseason, but for multiple members of the coaching staff and front office, it could be a point of concern.

2. Those who follow me on Twitter know I have long been skeptical of Cole Kmet as a second-round pick. While he certainly started off slow, performances like his outing on Monday have slowly but surely helped me come along to him a bit.

He’s still developing, but he made some impressive grabs against the Steelers this week. His feel against zone coverage and his flashes of top-notch physicality at the catch point helped make him a consistent target for Fields over the course of the evening. If he can continue to iron out some route-running kinks in his game, he could very well end up being a quality security blanket for this offense going forward.

1. The Bears have a lot of work they need to get done before they can even be in a conversation as a Super Bowl contender, and what the team does over the next offseason or two will have a major ripple effect going forward.

That said, Fields’ performance offers plenty to look forward to over the next few years. The rookie showcased a clutch element to his game, as well as an ability to stretch the field that few Bears quarterbacks have been able to master in the franchise’s existence. His dual-threat ability, arm strength, accuracy and toughness were all on display on one of the brightest spotlights he’s faced in his career. There are still some areas he can improve in at this stage of his NFL career, but games like this show that the sky is the limit for Fields.