The Chicago Bears dropped a heartbreaker on Sunday afternoon by a score of 35-32. While their record dropped to (3-6) on the year, the arrow is pointed up in many different areas. Losses can be tough, especially when the officiating crew misses key calls down the stretch. Even so, it was another thrilling game and another game that the Bears simply had no business being in at the end. Considering this is Year 1 of an extensive rebuild, Bears fans should feel pretty good about where this team is heading into the final half of the season. We'll dive into all of the happenings of Week 9 and much more in our weekly installment of 10 takes.
1. Justin Fields' accelerated development is happening right before our very eyes. Here's why Sunday's historic performance was the best of his career and why fans should embrace what appears to be a bright future.
Every week that passes (lately), the more optimistic this fanbase should be feeling about their second-year quarterback. The Miami Dolphins' defense has struggled this year coming into Sunday. Week 9's performance was no different, even if Fields' passing yardage doesn't appear impressive on paper. The former Ohio State product finished the game 17 of 28 (61%) for 123 passing yards and three passing touchdowns. Those numbers were good for a career-high (95.4) QBR and an impressive 106.7 passer rating. His growth in the red zone and his overall touchdown-to-turnover ratio have improved drastically since their mini-bye week.
The most impressive part of his performance was on the ground, though. Fields set a new NFL regular season record on Sunday with 178 rushing yards. Since 1990, only the 2006 Atlanta Falcons and the 2019 Baltimore Ravens have more rushing yards through their first nine games. Considering the caliber of each quarterback on those teams, Fields is in very good company.
Now, let's be honest here. The Bears are somewhat re-writing the book on what a successful modern-day NFL offense looks like. They've tied the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers for the most consecutive 225-plus yard rushing performances. They average less than 200 yards per game through the air. Yet, their young quarterback is developing at a rapid rate, and he's got the entire NFL world buzzing. All of this while having (arguably) one of the worst supporting casts in the NFL.
Fields is far from a finished product, but this is the third week in a row where he has strung together impressive performances. Development at the quarterback position is never linear, but as of late, Fields is ascending at a pace that seemed impossible after the first few weeks of the season.
2. The Bears might lack talent, but they make up for their flaws with never-ending grit. That's a trait of a well-coached team.
I'll be the first to say I was skeptical of the Matt Eberflus hire. There's still much to learn about this coaching staff, and sustaining success (assuming they get there) is even harder than building from the ground up. That said, the influence this coaching staff's philosophy has had on a rebuilding roster is undeniable.
It seems like the Bears follow the same script almost every week. They look overmatched in the first half, many question whether or not it's worth watching the rest of the game, and then somehow, they find themselves in a close game in the final minutes. Considering the clear lack of talent, these performances are a testament to this coaching staff. Yes, Eberflus still needs to improve in-game. Yes, the defense is struggling, and Alan Williams has his work cut out for him. Even Luke Getsy has moments where it's easy to question his offensive playcalling. Even so, this team has been in almost every game this year and with a few lucky breaks, could easily be close to .500 or over through nine games. That alone is worth praising.
3. The deadline-day acquisition of Chase Claypool and Sunday's post-game comments confirm that this regime is all in on Fields.
Ask yourself this. If Fields' struggles had continued into the past few games, does general manager Ryan Poles send a (likely) 2023 Top 40 pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for Claypool? I can't imagine they do. The belief in Fields is clear even if many questioned it after Poles' first off-season.
If the move for Claypool wasn't enough, Eberflus' post-game comments were a clear and direct endorsement of their young quarterback. "A huge step for Justin Fields and the franchise today." what more can you ask for? Eberflus expanded on those comments later, "We're building our football team. We have a young football team. We're building upon that, and the centerpiece of that is the quarterback. It's the way it is in the NFL. Talk about toughness and grit and the ability to persevere."
Couple those post-game comments with Poles' words of support for Fields a few weeks ago in a pop-up pre-game presser, and it appears that this regime is fully behind their young quarterback, and that should excite fans. The hardest part of any rebuild is finding the quarterback. If the Bears have that, the rest will quickly fall into place.
4. The Bears traded away three key defenders over the last eight months. All of them resided on what was once a dominant front seven. Now it has become clear that they might not have a long-term starter there.
When you think of the Chicago Bears, you think of dominant defenses and Hall of Fame running backs. Right now, the Bears have neither, and at some point, one of those will have to change. For as much talk as the offense has received lately (and justifiably so), this defense needs a lot of help in the coming months. Especially on the defensive line.
Gone are the days of Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack, and Roquan Smith. Now, this new regime must figure out how to rebuild the trenches on the defensive side of the ball. The bad news? The free agent market at edge rusher looks... Bleak. The path to an elite edge rusher is rarely easy and never cheap. Poles will have his work cut out for him there. The good news? There should be plenty of interior defensive line talent in both free agency and the draft.
If you're a college football fan or a draft fanatic, you're probably aware of names like Jalen Carter (Georgia), Will Anderson (Alabama), and even less sexy names that could land in the Top 10 like Myles Murphy (Clemson), Bryan Bresee (Clemson) or even the fast-rising Tyree Wilson (Texas Tech). If you're not a draft fan, you might want to be. The Bears are very likely to have a Top 10 pick and could push as high as the Top 5. That means they're going to have some blue-chip talent to choose from. Don't be surprised if that first-rounder comes in the form of an elite defender.
5. Speaking of the defensive front, don't put too much stock into the secondary's performance if they can't get to the quarterback.
The secondary has had its fair share of struggles over the past two weeks, and some of that is on the players. The issue? It's tough to evaluate a young secondary when their defensive front cannot muster an ounce of pressure on quality quarterbacks. That's the situation that the Bears continue to find themselves in.
Over the past two weeks, the Bears have just one sack (that came from safety Jaquan Brisker) and just four total hits on the quarterback. Going into Week 9, they had the second-worst pressure rate in all of football. Regardless of how good this secondary is (or could be), it's almost impossible to evaluate them with the lack of quality play on the defensive line. Again, I'd expect plenty of resources to be poured into this group during the upcoming off-season.
6. Roster development is the single biggest key for the remainder of the year, but don't discount the use of veterans on the offensive side of the ball.
This isn't to say that we should want to see young, unproven players getting every opportunity to carve out a long-term role on this roster. Names like Jack Sanborn, Treston Ebner, and others come to mind. With that being said, using veteran players like Riley Reiff and Dante Pettis also brings some stability to the development of Fields. The two have to make sense when weighing development versus projection. That's the battle they are currently fighting with multiple spots on the offensive depth chart.
Larry Borom has shown more than enough to be the team's swing tackle moving forward. You can also make an argument that Reiff's presence at right tackle provides a stabilizing factor and is well worth the extra $4.5 million he'll ultimately get due to playing time incentives. The same could be said for a player like Pettis. Yes, he's not overly good, at best is depth, but he's still a professional route runner and has proven to be more consistent as a pass catcher. Expect these types of decisions to persist, but until younger players can prove they will help the development of Fields and not hurt it, this coaching staff is smart to play it safe with more experienced veterans.
7. The healthy scratch of third-round rookie Velus Jones Jr. may very well signal the team's plans at receiver this coming off-season.
Sunday's inactives were a sobering reality of where the Bears currently stand with their 2022 third-round receiver. It's not good, but it's also a situation that can improve over time. They opted to designate Jones Jr. as a healthy scratch. The biggest reason is he lacks special teams value, on top of a minimal role on offense.
I'm sure Poles had much bigger plans for the speedster, but the reality is quite simple. He's a poor route runner and is not a pure hands catcher. His special teams' value has been severely damaged by his inability to cleanly field punts. If you put all of that together, you get a player with speed that doesn't bring much value to an unsettled depth chart at receiver.
Again, it's not too late for Jones Jr. to carve a more long-term role out for himself. But it's also a sobering reality that he may not be the player they had hoped he would be. More importantly, it's very unlikely that Jones Jr. stands in the way of them spending another high-value resource at receiver this off-season.
8. Speaking of the off-season, I hope everyone is geared up for one of the most active periods in quite some time for this franchise.
This is the first 10 takes we've done since the trade deadline. Needless to say, plenty has happened over the past week. That includes sending Roquan Smith away and trading for Claypool. It also means that this team will have even more resources than originally expected heading into the off-season.
As of now, Over The Cap has the Bears projected with $105.86 million in "effective cap space." That accounts for the first 51 players, even though their current roster sits at 33 heading into the off-season. That's also not counting any 2022 rollover (likely around $9-$10 million) or Reiff's expected performance incentives (roughly $4.5 million).
No matter how you cut it, the Bears will be sitting anywhere from $105-$110 million in effective cap space. That's not counting their eight draft picks, including five picks in the first four rounds. Buckle up because this roster is again going to look very different and with some luck, it'll also be much improved heading into the 2023 season.
9. The 2022 NFL regular season has been home to some big surprises this year. Through nine weeks of the season, I'm still not sure there are many, if any, elite teams.
Just when you think you're finally weeding out the contenders from the pretenders, Week 9 happens. The Buffalo Bills and Tennesee Titans both lost. The Seattle Seahawks fully control the NFC West at (6-3). The Minnesota Vikings are running away with the NFC North at (7-1). Yet, the biggest surprise might be the (8-0) Philadelphia Eagles. Much of that has been helped by an MVP-like start from quarterback Jalen Hurts. It's been pure chaos.
If you had told me the Bears would have the same amount of wins as the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, or Denver Broncos, I would fully assume the Bears were on their way to the playoffs. Yet, all teams currently sit at three wins and the Packers, especially, are in a full-on free-fall. Buckle up, the final 9 weeks of the season are going to get even crazier.
10. Week 10 look ahead: The Detroit Lions and the league's worst defense.
If you're looking for some good news, the Bears are facing their second of three bottom-seven NFL passing defenses. The Lions have struggled almost all year. Weirdly enough, they held Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to nine total points while picking him off three separate times. Whether that's more of an indictment on a Green Bay offense averaging (17.1) points-per-game or not remains to be seen.
The Bears, on the other hand, are averaging (31.33) points-per-game over their past three contests. That has included facing two of the better defenses in the league. On paper, this should be another great matchup for an improving offense. The best part? Last place (and quite possibly second place) will be on the line Sunday. Expect another high-scoring game.