Maybe the whole not playing in preseason thing actually matters after all.
After three games of utterly noncompetitive football from the Chicago Bears following a preseason in which starters played relatively few snaps, Matt Eberflus’ squad is 2-2 and, dare I say, looks… different.
The previously inept offense has now put up 28 or more points in three of its last four games, including this past weekend’s valiant outing from backup Tyson Bagent. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the offensive line has played better, particularly with guard Teven Jenkins’ return, rookie tackle Darnell Wright’s continued improvement and the running game led by Khalil Herbert and now D’Onta Foreman (120 total yards, three touchdowns in Week 7) has wrecked shop to support the quarterbacks.
And that hilariously porous defense that was handing out 3rd-and-longs like your favorite neighborhood Halloween candy cauldron? Not such a scrub anymore. After blowing a late lead against the Denver Broncos in Week 4, the Bears haven’t allowed more than 20 points in a game for three straight weeks. The defense has also held their last two opponents — the Minnesota Vikings and Las Vegas Raiders — to under 22% conversion rates on third downs.
In more advanced stats terms, how’s this for a breakdown? From Weeks 1-3, the Bears had the second-worst defense in football as measured by EPA/play. That’s 31st out of 32 teams. Since then? They’ve jumped all the way to a respectable 17th overall in EPA/play from Weeks 4-7 and seventh from Weeks 5-7 (removing the Denver Broncos collapse).
Talk about opponent quality all you want, but that’s improvement after an awful start to the year.
It’s also spoken to the Bears’ ability to just do what works, especially on defense. Once Eberflus took over defensive playcalling and realized his unit was allowed to rush more than four people, the team’s talented back seven, including linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and TJ Edwards, have begun to pop on film while Tyrique Stevenson and Jaylon Johnson have flexed their man-coverage muscles on the outside.
Offensively, the Bears currently boast the third-highest efficiency numbers running the football by EPA/play (second only to the Miami Dolphins from Weeks 4-7), proving they can control the line of scrimmage and keep opposing offenses off their field when they’re at their best. One wonders if being able to lean on the run game might have helped Chicago stay in at least the first two games of the season.
Since Week 7 of last season, D’Onta Foreman has played in 9 games with a 40%+ snap share.— SleeperNFL (@SleeperNFL) October 24, 2023
Foreman’s average workload in those 9 games:
20.3 touches per game
105.2 yards per game
17.2 PPR pts per game
It’s probably too late for the Bears to make a meaningful push for the playoffs this season (and unreasonable to hope for). But the upcoming schedule provides a chance to make things interesting.
For example, the Los Angeles Chargers should beat the Bears relatively easily on Sunday Night Football given their explosive offense led by Justin Herbert and some of the names they have up front defensively, including ex-Bear Khalil Mack. But they’re a two-win team themselves and have shown a tendency to inexplicably fall apart at key junctures in games. It’s a long shot, but it’s hardly an impossible game to win.
Chicago then travels to New Orleans to play a Saints team with a dynamic defense and a wildly suspect offense before getting the winless Carolina Panthers at home — need we say more? — and facing off against the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions, who just got exposed by the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday.
It’s not likely, but there’s a nonzero chance the Bears could find a way to come out of this stretch 4-6 — possibly even 5-5 (crazy pills, I know. I’m trying here.).
The last few weeks don’t erase the fact that the Bears are still a deeply flawed team. But you can’t wholly ignore the tangible improvements on both sides of the ball.
If they can maintain their incline down the stretch, they’ll at least be a much more competitive football team — akin to last year — than they were to start this season. And in the NFL, being competitive can sometimes be all you need to steal a game or two.