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Notes: Bears lifeless in preseason loss to Bills

The Bears struggled at the hands of a dominant Bills defense and failed to stop their passing attack.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

It’s just the preseason.

One can repeat that phrase to oneself to alleviate the disappointment that comes from the Bears losing 41-15 to the Bills on Saturday. While not quite as important as a regular season matchup, the loss still brings quite a bit to feel uncomfortable with surrounding their 2021 outlook.

From struggles in all three phases to the Mitchell Trubisky “revenge game”, here are some of the top takeaways from this week’s game.

Offense

You can express your doubts about Andy Dalton being the Bears’ starter, and you can say that Justin Fields didn’t play up to his potential on Saturday, but neither quarterback saw quality play from their offensive line.

Both quarterbacks were sacked twice each, with the Bills tallying 12 quarterback hits over the course of the game — for reference, the Dolphins didn’t have a single hit last week. The likes of Lachavious Simmons and Elijah Wilkinson appeared to struggle at tackle, and while further review will provide more clarification on which individual offensive linemen played well and which linemen played poorly, the unit as a whole struggled.

Dalton saw a substantial upgrade in reps at quarterback, going 11-for-17 with 146 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Prior to his 73-yard touchdown pass to Rodney Adams with 7:36 left in the second quarter, the Bears failed to pick up a single first down with him under center. After said touchdown, they picked up just two first downs in the first half. Dalton was tasked with multiple throws short of the sticks in key situations and, save for his completed deep shot to Adams, generally stuck to the short-to-intermediate range as a passer.

Justin Fields stepped in at quarterback for the second half of the game, and his stat-line wasn’t nearly as pretty as his numbers against the Dolphins. The rookie finished 9-for-19 for 80 yards and rushing for 46 yards on four attempts, being sacked twice. He was able to deliver some well-placed throws — whether they were caught or not — and extend plays with his feet, but he also forced some passes and was off on his touch on others. Granted, poor offensive line play hurt his performance to a major extent, but he did struggle a bit against a talented Bills defense.

Chicago’s running game wasn’t much to call home about. Fields was the team’s leading rusher, and while Damien Williams led them with five carries, he only rushed for 8 yards. Khalil Herbert picked up a 13-yard touchdown, showcasing impressive contact balance and explosiveness in said run.

The aforementioned Adams led the team with 89 receiving yards, stringing together two straight games with strong performances and highlight-worthy catches in tight windows. Jesse James caught four passes and had another big gain, catching a 32-yard pass from Fields and laying out in the process. Chris Lacy caught three passes for 26 yards, as well.

The Bears’ offensive struggles stemmed heavily from their offensive line play. There were plenty of things that went wrong from a passing perspective with both quarterbacks, but the protection played a big role in their poor play and will need improvement going forward.

Defense

When your defense gives up 34 points in a game, it’s hard to consider the performance to be a strong one.

After putting together an inconsistent outing in coverage during Week 1 of the preseason, the Bears put together a consistent outing in coverage. The problem was, they were consistently bad.

Outside of flashes from Artie Burns and Jaylon Johnson — who both had two pass deflections, but the latter of whom gave up a touchdown — the Bears struggled significantly in the secondary. The likes of Kindle Vildor, Marqui Christian and Duke Shelley saw themselves get tested and beat in coverage.

Isaiah McKenzie in particular led the charge for Buffalo, caught seven of his eight targets. Thomas Graham also showed some promise, having almost picked off a pass, but a majority of the secondary struggled to stick with their man in coverage. Eddie Jackson entered the lineup after missing Week 1, but he had issues with open-field tackling.

Mitchell Trubisky went 20-for-28 with 221 yards and a touchdown in his return to Soldier Field, and a big part of his strong stat-line was thanks in part to his receivers consistently getting open. He had an easy time moving the chains for the Bills, and while his receivers deserve a lot of credit, he also put together a solid game of his own.

The Bears deserve some credit for the play of their defensive front, though. Khyiris Tonga had two tackles and excelled as a two-gapping nose tackle, eating up gaps consistently and holding up blocks at the point of attack. He also tallied two quarterback hits, using his explosiveness to penetrate the pocket. Trevis Gipson forced a fumble and had a sack, showing off chops setting the edge against the run in the process. Mario Edwards Jr. was credited as having two sacks, showing off the pass-rushing prowess that he displayed in 2020. Undrafted free agent Sam Kamara also contributed a sack of his own, while Charles Snowden put together another strong outing with three tackles and a tackle for a loss.

Though the Bears did a good job of pressuring the quarterback later on in the game, it was their struggles in coverage that caused them to give up 34 offensive points. Their lack of investment in the secondary will make it tough to mask all of their deficiencies, but the scheming by Sean Desai will have to improve before the regular season, as well.

Three and out

3. The Bears need to make serious improvements to their special teams units.

After struggling in punt coverage against the Dolphins last week, the Bears gave up a punt return for a touchdown to Marquez Stevenson on Saturday, as well as a 35-yard return to Isaiah McKenzie. Chicago’s tackling was underwhelming throughout the course of the game, but they especially had issues covering punts.

The losses of Cordarrelle Patterson and Sherrick McManis can only be used as an excuse so much. Their play was simply unacceptable, especially considering the Bears’ inconsistencies in coverage. Giving up a significant gain on a punt return can make it much more difficult for a defense to prevent points. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor is going to need to iron out some kinks in his unit’s game before they get burned in the regular season.

2. Many fans and national media members believe the Bears should give Fields a fair shot at the starting quarterback job, but Matt Nagy’s insistence on Dalton being the Week 1 starter indicates that likely isn’t the case.

Given the promise Fields has shown and the palpable physical upside advantage he has over Dalton, it certainly seems confusing on Nagy’s end to be so adamant on starting the latter. Is the rookie a finished product? No, but the play-calling versatility and potential that Fields brings gives Chicago’s offense a much higher ceiling than it would with Dalton under center.

That’s nothing personal against Dalton, who necessarily didn’t play terribly on Saturday. However, the offensive inefficiency the Bears have experienced with him under center combined with his limited ceiling doesn’t seem to be nearly as enticing as putting Fields at the helm. That’s just the opinion of this author, but it also seems to be an opinion many outside of the organization hold.

1. The Bears are going to have to invest heavily in their offensive line going forward.

Sure, Fields’ athleticism allows him to evade pressure more consistently than most quarterbacks. As was made evident on Saturday, though, his speed can only make up for so much. While Larry Borom showed promise in his first preseason game, no other individual offensive lineman stood out in a positive manner upon first glance. Poor pass protection leads to rushed decision-making processes for quarterbacks and leaves them susceptible to getting hit.

With the uncertainty surrounding Teven Jenkins’ health, Borom being an unproven Day 3 pick and Germain Ifedi being on a one-year deal, there isn’t much stability at the offensive tackle position heading into the regular season. James Daniels is also slated to hit free agency next offseason, and Sam Mustipher has just seven starts to his name. If the Bears want to maximize Fields’ potential in future seasons, they would be wise to focus on their offensive line next year.