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Notes: Bears beat Dolphins, Justin Fields lives up to hype

The Bears came out on top in their first matchup of the 2021 preseason.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Chicago Bears Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

If all goes well, Bears fans can look at Saturday’s 20-13 win against the Dolphins as the start of something special.

Rookie quarterback Justin Fields made his long-awaited preseason debut as the Bears suited up for their first game in front of fans at Soldier Field since Dec. 22, 2019. The atmosphere was electric, and the crowd went home happy after the Bears came away with the victory.

Some things went wrong — as is to be expected for a preseason outing — but Chicago generally put forth a solid performance in their first game of the preseason. Here are some of the key takeaways from Saturday’s win:

Offense

It was always going to be the Justin Fields Show on Saturday, for better or worse. Luckily for the Bears, he showed out in his first preseason outing with the team.

Andy Dalton started the game off at quarterback for the Bears, going 2-for-4 for 18 yards in his two drives and not having much work of note. It was soon after that Fields came into the game, and he admittedly started out the game on a shaky note.

Fields started off the game 2-for-6 with a fumble, going three-and-out on his first three drives. While his receivers didn’t do him much good by struggling to get open, the quarterback did force throws into situations that looked dodgy from the start.

Soon after, though, Fields kicked it into high gear and looked the part of a franchise quarterback in the NFL. He closed out the first half with a 45-second drill that saw him complete five of his six passing attempts and travel 42 yards to put the Bears into field goal position. He would build upon that momentum in the second half, scoring touchdowns in each of his next two drives, with the first drive resulting in a rushing score and the second in a 30-yard pass to Jesse James.

Fields’ ability to bounce back after a slow start and tear it up for the remainder of the game was truly remarkable, especially for a rookie. He looked confident in and out of the pocket, evading pressure with ease and using his mobility to extend the play. His arm talent and accuracy allowed him to deliver some impressive throws on the run, and that athleticism was something the Dolphins had to respect, as made evident by his 33 rushing yards on five carries. He also proved capable of looking past his first read and going through full-field progressions, fighting against the narrative that plagued him in the pre-draft process.

All told, Fields went 14-for-20 for 142 yards and a touchdown through the air. For a preseason debut, it was just about as good as one could hope for. He wasn’t perfect, sure, but he was still really good. The optimism surrounding the youngster should only continue to build over the coming weeks.

It wasn’t just all about Fields at Soldier Field, though; plenty of other offensive players made an impact on the game. In particular, there were a handful of big gains in the run game that saw multiple players stand out, especially given the Bears’ offensive line issues as of late.

Artavis Pierce broke away with a 51-yard gain and led the team in rushing yards, and Ryan Nall churned his way for a 39-yard run in the fourth quarter. However, it may have been rookie Khalil Herbert who was the most consistent runner in the game. He finished with 38 yards on six carries, with 16 of those yards coming on one carry. The Virginia Tech alumnus looked like a true pro out there, blending impressive juice in space with very good contact balance and the ability to vary his tempo out of the backfield. He also caught three passes for 11 yards, showcasing good hands despite not having much of a chance to work after the catch.

Rodney Adams led the Bears with four catches and 57 yards, including an impressive jump-ball snag for a 25-yard gain. He did have a drop, but he generally looked to be a reliable target for Fields for much of the game. The other notable receiving performance was that of the aforementioned Jesse James, who had a nice sideline grab in addition to his touchdown.

The offensive line as a unit played better than expected. Granted, the performance wasn’t perfect, as the first-team in particular struggled against Miami’s defensive front. Chicago’s consistency in clearing out running lanes was a bit shaky, too. However, the line as a whole held up well in pass protection, giving Fields time to sit in the pocket and go through his progressions more often than not.

There are a lot of moving pieces and different circumstances that make it tough to come to concrete conclusions after just one preseason game, but the Bears’ offense was better with Fields under center than it was with Dalton or Nick Foles. Fields’ mobility and arm strength stood out from the pack and gave the offense much more versatility and juice to string together big plays. Time will tell if the rookie can prove himself worthy of becoming the QB1 sooner rather than later.

Defense

When describing the Bears’ defensive performance on Saturday, it truly is a tale of two units: the defensive line and the secondary.

For the most part, the Bears were impressive in their defensive performance up front. Excluding three quarterback scrambles, the Dolphins averaged just 3.4 yards per carry in the run game. Chicago tallied seven tackles for a loss over the course of the game and proved to be a force in the backfield that Miami’s offensive line struggled to overcome.

The likes of Charles Snowden, Mike Pennel and Daniel Archibong all had sacks for the Bears; Snowden in particular shined, adding two quarterback hits in the process. Defensive linemen like Pennel, Archibong, Angelo Blackson and Khyiris Tonga were not only space-eaters, but also penetrators of the Dolphins’ backfield. Trevis Gipson looked explosive off the edge as a pass-rushing threat, while LaCale London and Jeremiah Attaochu showed promise, as well.

Though the Bears excelled up front, their secondary was a bit more hit-or-miss. Duke Shelley showed plenty of promise, looking physical in man coverage and being as willing to engage in contact at the top of a route as he was in run support. DeAndre Houston-Carson came away with an interception, and Tre Roberson complemented his two pass deflections with some quality play as a tackler.

It wasn’t all pretty from Chicago’s secondary, however. Xavier Crawford got beat by Mack Hollins on a 14-yard gain that saw the defender fail to make a play on the ball in reasonable position. Lynn Bowden Jr. was able to get open pretty consistently, catching four passes for 47 yards for the Dolphins. Miami was able to get the ball out to running backs and tight ends efficiently, too. While secondary play is tougher to digest until one has All-22 tape to go off of and review, the safety play seems pedestrian for the most part to the naked eye, and the coverage in the first half especially seemed somewhat softer.

The Bears did see solid play at the linebacker position from Alec Ogletree and Caleb Johnson, though. The former had four tackles, a tackle for a loss and a pass deflection, with said tackle for a loss resulting in the Dolphins being pushed back at Chicago’s goal line. He got beat in trail coverage by Mike Gesicki across the middle of the field, but he generally played well as a tackler in the run game. The same can be said for Johnson, who also got beat in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Jacoby Brissett to Salvon Ahmed but bounced back with five tackles, two tackles for a loss and a pass deflection.

Chicago played a “bend, but don’t break” style of defense that saw them lose the time of possession game, but they stepped up when it mattered most, generated pressure up front and improved in the secondary later in the game. It will be intriguing to see how they fare next week against the Bills.

Three and out

3. If there’s one under-the-radar area the Bears could stand to improve in, it’s their special teams.

Without stalwarts from last year like Cordarrelle Patterson and Sherrick McManis, their punt coverage in particular looked brutal. The Dolphins had three punt returns result in gains of more than 20 yards, with Chicago’s lackluster coverage and inconsistent tackling playing a big role in that production. Of the three scoring drives Miami had, two of them came after receiving favorable field position after a punt return.

The Bears didn’t have the same luck returning, though; Jon’Vea Johnson muffed a punt return, and Rodney Adams fielded a return deep into his own end zone that only got out to the 18-yard line. With Tarik Cohen out, it’s hard to feel confident in a generally unproven group of returners based solely off of Saturday’s game.

2. Just after the game, the Bears signed nine-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jason Peters in free agency.

The move for an offensive lineman is hardly a surprising one, given the Bears’ injury concerns up front and their general lack of depth. Peters is 39 years old and isn’t the Hall of Fame-caliber player he was earlier in his career, but he is still a decent blocker who started eight games for the Eagles in 2020 and filled in fairly well at left tackle.

Peters is expected to compete for the starting left tackle job while Teven Jenkins is out with a back injury. The Bears’ starting offensive line struggled a bit against the Dolphins, so if Peters — who played under Juan Castillo in Philadelphia in 2009 and 2010 — can grasp the playbook, he stands a good chance of taking on a starting role.

1. Having attended the game live at Soldier Field, I would just like to throw in a little anecdote about how great it was to have fans back at Bears games and to be a part of that atmosphere.

Especially when Fields was in the game, the crowd was exciting to experience and to hear cheering on the team again. After having an empty stadium for all of the 2020 season, it’s nice to be able to have fans again.