It seems odd for the proverbial arrow to point upwards on the Bears after three straight losses and falling to a 3-7 record. That’s where we’re at in Chicago right now.
The Bears fell in a brutal 31-30 loss to the Lions, a team who had no business beating them at Soldier Field. For those who have the mindset of putting together quality offensive performances in valiant losses to improve draft positioning, though, this game was a win.
It’s clear the Bears have a lot of work to do if they’re going to be competitive as a playoff team in 2023 and beyond. The rest of this season might be tough to watch for fans of stout or even competent defenses, but the explosiveness the team has displayed on offense brings room for encouragement.
Here are some of my takeaways from Sunday’s loss.
It was the Justin Fields show once again for the Bears’ offense on Sunday.
The second-year quarterback finished the game 12-for-20 through the air, throwing for 167 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception. As a passer, he made a handful of solid throws, including a dime on the move to Darnell Mooney along the sideline in a tight window. More often than not, he made good decisions with the football. Save for his questionable interception — he should have thrown the ball away instead of trying to connect with Cole Kmet as he was getting hit — Fields showed confidence and determination as a passer.
His passing stat line isn’t sexy, and some may be worried because he isn’t throwing for 300 yards or leading the league in passing yards. To that, I offer two things in rebuttal: the Bears are a run-first team whose offensive output comes predominantly on designed runs, so Fields doesn’t have nearly the quantity of passing attempts to place him among the league’s leaders. Also, it isn’t like Fields isn’t producing in general, because his output running the ball is surreal.
Fields finished Sunday’s game with 147 rushing yards on 13 carries with two touchdowns on the ground. He now has the most rushing yards for a quarterback over a 5-game span, and he has tied Bobby Douglass for the most 100-yard rushing performances by a quarterback in Bears history. He exploded for a 67-yard touchdown that aided his production, but he was dominant even before that run. The Lions had very little in the way of an answer to even slow down Fields’ running ability, let alone neutralize it.
Khalil Herbert was the lead running back for the Bears in terms of production, out-carrying David Montgomery 10 attempts to 9 and running for 57 yards, compared to Montgomery’s 37. Herbert had a solid outing, generating solid drive through contact and exploding for a handful of efficient runs. He also had a 50-yard kick return in the first quarter that marks their biggest return on special teams of the season.
Cole Kmet continued his hot streak of production, catching 4 passes for a season-high 74 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was the Bears’ most productive pass-catcher on Sunday, with Darnell Mooney’s 4 catches for 57 yards being the only other stat line to come considerably close. Both receivers played well and served as reliable targets for Chicago’s passing attack. Chase Claypool was quiet in his second game with the team, catching one of his two targets for 8 yards. Though Claypool’s production may come off as concerning to this point, his being new in the offense means it might take some time for him to truly immerse himself into the scheme.
The offensive line seemed to be a bit of an issue for the Bears, as did a lack of consistent separation from the weapons downfield. However, the unit was solid blocking for the run game, especially considering they were missing their top lineman Teven Jenkins. Later reviews will tell where the issues fell through in pass protection.
Back-to-back outings with 30 or more points is an encouraging development for the Bears, and as long as they keep producing on that side of the ball, the long-term view of this team will be bright, both locally and nationally. They still have room to improve, but the pieces are in place.
The Bears had solid play at the linebacker position on Sunday, but the rest of the defense failed to hold up their end of the bargain.
Undrafted rookie Jack Sanborn dominated against the run, and he proved to be a force to be reckoned with rushing the passer. He led the Bears with 12 tackles, with two of them being sacks — the only sacks Chicago had against a strong Lions offensive line. His aggressiveness, precision in pursuit and physicality at the point of contact stood out all afternoon, boding well for his potential as a piece to keep an eye on going forward. Nicholas Morrow also made some major plays at the linebacker position, notching 6 tackles and 3 tackles for a loss. Joe Thomas only contributed two tackles, but he also deflected two passes in coverage.
That said, the rest of the Bears’ defense failed to show up on a consistent basis on Sunday. Save for an occasional splash play from Justin Jones and onr stuff against the run from Armon Watts, the defensive line failed to make a positive impact. Jones was the only Bears defender outside of Sanborn’s sacks to hit Jared Goff all afternoon, and he did so once. The lack of pressure — both off the edge and along the interior — was evident all game.
The defensive line giving Goff a clean pocket proved to be a disaster for the Bears’ secondary, as they got eaten up pretty consistently in coverage. Jaylon Johnson played injured and played like it, as he struggled quite a bit in coverage. Kyler Gordon seems to have some issues, as well. Amon-Ra St. Brown in particular torched the Bears for 10 receptions and 119 yards.
Chicago’s zone-heavy approach in coverage hurt them in the end. There was often confusion amongst defensive backs regarding assignments, and cornerbacks and safeties alike struggled with being a split second too late to diagnose route concepts. Though Detroit wasn’t especially dominant in the run game, it was their ability to throw the ball down the field that helped them carve up a young Bears secondary.
Going forward, the Bears will have to tie up some loose ends in ensuring their defensive backs know what their responsibilities are in zone coverage. That might be their best bet to improving their defensive play, as their pass-rushing unit has generally been devoid of upside.
Three and out
3. It’s a small sample size, but the performance of Jack Sanborn significantly aids the narrative that off-ball linebackers are often not worth paying big money to.
Sanborn arguably made an impact equivalent to Roquan Smith in some of his matchups, at least against the run and rushing the passer. The fact that the Bears were able to get such strong production out of an undrafted rookie at linebacker generally says a lot about the linebacker position. There’s no denying Smith is a great player, but is the difference between him and Sanborn really large enough to warrant paying Smith $20 million over Sanborn’s AAV of less than $1 million? The early returns indicate Ryan Poles might’ve made the right choice.
2. Cole Kmet’s development over the last few weeks has been remarkable.
Watching Kmet on tape, he looks more explosive this year than he has in the past. He isn’t the type of tight end to separate super well against man coverage, but he has been notably better in the eye test of getting open against zone. Luke Getsy and the Bears’ coaching staff have a done a good job of maximizing his strengths and negating his weaknesses. Kmet thrives in an in-line role running routes across the middle of the field, and that’s where the Bears have gotten the most return out of him. It’s crazy how much better your players can be when you as a coaching staff are able to put them in good situations to succeed.
1. I have four words for the Bears this offseason: build in the trenches.
They could still use another wide receiver, and they should certainly look to invest in weapons around Justin Fields. It has been made clear, though, that the team’s biggest issues are along their offensive and defensive lines. I feel like I’m repeating myself each week, but they have a young quarterback who is playing good football, the most cap space in the NFL, and a presumably early first-round pick. They have no excuses to not make significant additions this offseason.