The Chicago Bears handled business on a short week against a one-win Carolina Panthers team on Thursday Night Football to squeak out a 16-13 win at Soldier Field. It was far from a "good" game from either team, but Chicago finds themselves as winners in three of their last six games. The offense appears to have hit a wall with their undrafted rookie quarterback, but with any luck, they'll have Justin Fields back for Week 11. It hasn't been pretty, and there are still many issues, but the Bears will look to close out the season on a positive note and get back on track.
We'll dive into a three-point win, how Thursday night's win impacted projected draft position, and much more in this week's 10 Bears Takes.
1. The Bears' odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick drastically improved despite a win on Thursday night.
This might sound weird, but a Bears win on Thursday night somehow greatly improved their chances of landing the No. 1 overall pick, according to ESPN Analytics.
Going into Thursday night's game, I had come to the conclusion that the Bears winning the game was in the best interest of this team, both in the short and long term. My feelings have "proved" to be right, at least according to projections. With Week 10's win, the Bears move to (3-7) overall and would slot into the 5th overall pick if the season ended before the weekend's slate could be completed. The good news? A pair of two-win teams square off in a few short weeks when the New York Giants will host the New England Patriots in Week 12. Giants quarterback Tyrod Taylor will not be eligible to return from Injured Reserve, which should give the Patriots a distinct advantage in that matchup. Assuming the Bears don't find another win before their bye week (more on that in a few), they would slide up to a minimum of 4th overall due to a win by either the Giants or Patriots.
As for the Panthers, they find themselves in a tough spot with eight games remaining. They'll face a (5-3) Dallas Cowboys team that has been playing good football as of late. The early odds have not come out for that game yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Dallas favored by double-digits. Carolina's remaining schedule is far from impossible, but it's also hard to see them being favored in any of their remaining games. Although they face just three teams with winning records, the majority of their final half of games will come in the division where three teams are locked in a tight race.
All in all, the Bears appear to be in an advantageous position to land a Top 2 pick unless the Panthers string together an unlikely run of wins down the stretch. For Carolina, that trade is looking worse by the minute, at least in Year 1.
2. The Tyson Bagent story has been fun (at times), but it's time for Justin Fields to take back the reins for the team's final seven games of the season starting in Week 11.
As I noted above, it appears the Bears' offense has hit a wall over the past two games with Bagent starting at quarterback. In many ways, that was to be expected, right? No one should be arguing whether or not the undrafted rookie has exceeded expectations in Year 1. He came into Week 5's game and played relatively well, outside of a late-game interception to seal a loss against the Minnesota Vikings.
Although wins are far from a quarterback statistic, he's (2-2) as a starter. He's done more than enough to establish himself as a viable backup option moving forward, and that's a huge win for the Bears' current scouting staff. That said, it's time for Fields to take over as the team's starting quarterback as they look to close out the final seven games on a positive note.
Fields provides much more upside in multiple areas. His deep ball accuracy stands out to me as something this offense could truly use right now. Chicago has struggled to come up with big plays and push the ball down the field with Bagent at quarterback. Although the undrafted rookie has had his moments as a runner, Fields' elite athleticism and ability to create big plays with his legs should also add another dimension. Even if you're uninterested in the team's final seven games, there's no denying that this final stretch of games will go a long way in determining what direction the Bears will move in this off-season.
A decision on Fields' fifth-year option is upcoming, and even if the Bears have minimal interest in making that fully guaranteed commitment, maybe another team does. As of now, the Bears are trending toward a Top 2 pick, which could very well turn into a selection at quarterback. If that's the case, Fields will still hold important trade value. I tend to believe that Chicago is trending toward a new starting quarterback in 2024 and beyond, but these final seven games will be a part of the evaluation. Fields also should give this coaching staff the best chance to win, which could be an important factor in whether or not we are looking at another head coaching search in January.
The future of Bagent seems clear to me. He's a quality backup who should improve with more time in the NFL. The Bears still have plenty to sort through when it comes to their long-term starting quarterback, and in order to make a clear decision, Fields must start the final seven games. Let's hope that a fully healthy Fields will be ready to go in 10 days against a vastly improved Detroit Lions team.
3. Despite the win, it's hard to imagine that many inside the building are feeling good after another lackluster start and a penalty-filled performance.
Any time a team that is regarded as "close" plays a lesser team, you expect a quality and convincing performance. That was simply not the case on Thursday night against a one-win Panthers team that appears headed for many tough decisions at the conclusion of Week 18.
The game started with a promising 16-yard screen to DJ Moore, but then the offense stalled out around mid-field. Following their next offensive drive that resulted in a single first down, Trenton Gill got off an impressive punt but appeared to out-kick his coverage. Former Bear Ihmir Smith-Marsette took the punt back 79 yards for a relatively easy touchdown. Before many could settle in for the game, the Bears found themselves down 7-0 to a struggling Carolina squad.
They followed that punt return with a field goal drive but quickly gave it right back after rookie quarterback Bryce Young was able to find former practice squad receiver Mike Strachan for a 45-yard bomb on a second and six from Carolina's 29-yard line. As a whole, the Bears' offense looked anemic in the first half, scoring just nine points off of three field goals.
Chicago opened up their first second-half drive with a quick three-and-out, gaining just two yards in three plays. All of this despite a dominant defensive effort. They finally got into the end zone after a short punt gave the Bears outstanding field position at the Panther's 40-yard line. It appeared that Chicago was poised to take full control of the game after jumping out to a 16-10 lead, but they failed to score for the rest of the game.
The Bears had multiple chances to put the game on ice against a struggling Carolina offense and could not do it. Rookie cornerback Tyrique Stevenson dropped an interception in Panthers territory, as did Jack Sanborn later in the second half. Following the team's lone touchdown of the game, they punted twice while accounting for just 33 offensive yards in three drives.
Despite their (3-3) record over their last six games, this is still not a team that is playing good football. Even more concerning is the continuing Jekyll and Hyde act the Bears seem to be stuck in on a game-to-game basis. Sure, they didn't turn the ball over, but they still accounted for seven accepted penalties and had another two that were called but not accepted. This continues to be a team that lacks discipline and too often looks unprepared. Those are not signs of an improving team and should be properly taken into context at the end of this season when evaluating job statuses, regardless of their final record.
4. It was great to see Kyler Gordon finally make his mark in a regular season NFL game.
Make no mistake, Gordon struggled far too often in his rookie year. I put a lot of that on the coaching staff when they chose to continually move him around the defense as a rookie. All off-season, expectations seemed high for the former second-round pick. He had a strong off-season and impressed many during training camp. Then came a broken hand that sidelined him for four games earlier this season. It has taken the second-year nickel some time to get his feet under him, but his performance in Week 10 was reminiscent of what many Indianapolis Colts fans have seen Kenny Moore do in his time under Matt Eberflus.
Gordon finished the game with eight tackles. Of those eight tackles, four of them went from a loss or no gain. He allowed just 16 passing yards and even had a pass breakup. Suffice it to say, he was all over the field in what ended up being one of the strongest defensive performances we've seen under Eberflus.
The Bears have plenty of promise in their secondary, but Gordon is a key cog moving forward, especially with the clouded future of Jaylon Johnson. Having him continue to grow into his role and play like this each week would be a huge boost to this defense, regardless of who is calling the plays in 2024 and beyond.
5. Speaking of defenders trending in the right direction, the acquisition of Montez Sweat is already paying huge dividends, despite not having a sack in his first two games.
Over Sweat's last two games, he has totaled 12 pressures. Although he does not have a sack with his no team yet, his impact has not been hard to see thus far.
Montez Sweat generated 8 pressures in his second game with the Bears, the most by a Bears pass rusher since Robert Quinn in Week 13, 2020.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 10, 2023
Sweat has recorded 45 pressures this season, 5th-most in the NFL.#CARvsCHI | #DaBears pic.twitter.com/T5T7szpGqC
In general manager Ryan Poles' press conference last Wednesday, he talked about Sweat being a "multiplier." Sure, sacks would be nice, and I'm sure they'll come in time, but he's freeing up pass rushers around him to make plays. A big reason for this? He's being double-teamed quite often, which is allowing the opposite edge rusher and interior linemen to get home more often. Despite no sacks in Week 9, it was clear that the pocket was being more impacted. On Thursday night, the Bears totaled three sacks, nine quarterback hits, and a double-digit pressure count.
For some, it might be hard to live up to his newly-signed four-year, $96 million deal, but I have a feeling that in two years, his deal will be much more "middle of the road" than it appears to be right now. So far, Sweat is doing everything the Bears had hoped, and that should only continue to improve as the team adds more talent around him. So far, the Bears have to be happy with their return, albeit just two games into a four-and-a-half-year pact.
It was also good to see second-round rookie Gervon Dexter Sr. getting more snaps on Thursday night. As a whole, this defense front did well to get after the quarterback on a consistent basis. This group is far from finalized and needs more talent added next off-season, but the fruits of Poles' labor is finally starting to shine through. Expect Sweat to continue to be at the forefront of any defensive improvements moving forward.
6. These next four games (in five weeks) will tell us a lot about the future of this franchise and what direction they plan to move in this off-season.
As I noted in last week's 10 Bears Takes, Poles' vote of confidence on Eberflus was notable, yet premature. The Bears have now matched their 2022 win total but still sit at (3-7) with a handful of embarrassing losses already accounted for. There's still plenty to learn about the future direction of this team, and their next four games will play a big hand in many off-season decisions.
Chicago's next five weeks look like this:
Week 11: At (6-2) Detroit Lions
Week 12: At (5-4) Minnesota Vikings
Week 13: Bye
Week 14: Vs (6-2) Detroit Lions
Week 15: At (5-3) Cleveland Browns
On paper, the only "winnable" game appears to be against a Vikings team without Kirk Cousins for the remainder of the year. Even so, a road game in a divisional setting is never an easy ask, especially for a team that has not won a divisional game in close to two calendar years.
Seeing the Lions twice in three games will be a tough, if not impossible task. Especially with how head coach Dan Campbell has his team playing. It's become clear that Detroit is the class of the division and, on paper, provides many matchup nightmares against the Bears.
The Browns are another team that will be a tough task. Cleveland's defense is playing at an extremely high level and has seen no issue getting after the quarterback with regularity. Rewinding back to Fields' rookie year in his first NFL start, he was sacked nine times. You could make an argument that this Browns front four is even better than it was in 2021, too.
Either way, all of those talks of improvement will be put to the ultimate test over the next five weeks. If the Bears come out (2-2), a real argument for progress can be made. If they come out of this gauntlet winless with a (3-11) record, it's going to be hard to justify avoiding another serious makeover next off-season. Judgement day is coming soon for this team, and we'll know a lot more about this team after this five-week stretch is complete.
7. The real reason QB Justin Fields and RG Nate Davis didn't go to Injured Reserve had little to do with projected time missed and more to do with an NFL rule.
Any time a player sustains a high-ankle sprain, you can rest assured that they will miss a minimum of four weeks. That's exactly the situation that Davis has found himself in, yet the team never placed him on IR. The same could be said for Fields, as he missed his fourth-straight game on Thursday night. Yet, neither played was placed on IR with a designation to return.
Thanks to Jason Lieser of the Chicago Sun Times, we now know why...
Bears QB Justin Fields & RG Nate Davis will miss their fourth game. However, IR for either wouldn't have been possible. The Bears have used all 8 return-from-IR spots.— Jason Lieser (@JasonLieser) November 8, 2023
If Fields/Davis had gone on IR, then they or 2 of Herbert/St. Brown/Blackwell would've been out for the year.
Teven Jenkins, Doug Kramer, Khalid Kareem, Kyler Gordon, Braxton Jones, Equanimeous St. Brown, Josh Blackwell, and Khalil Herbert were all placed on IR, and all eight have been designated to return. On the surface, it makes sense. Players who sustain long-term injuries but will be back later in the season will get the NFL-mandated maximum of eight return designations.
Here's my issue... With a limited amount of return designations and a team that has been known to sustain a high amount of injuries, why did the team burn two of those spots on players who are no longer on the 53-man roster? Kramer, who was claimed by the Cardinals after being cut earlier this week, and Kareem is now on the practice squad, after being cut for the trade deadline acquisition of Sweat. Kramer was placed on IR to open the year after sustaining a hand injury. There was already a roster crunch on the offensive line, and despite him losing his entire rookie season to a lisfranc injury, likely should have just been IR'd during the cut-down period. Kareem was claimed during the opening wave of claims before Week 1 and was active for two total games this season. Combined, these two played just 26 snaps on the season after being activated from IR.
Again, some of this might be a hindsight move on my part, but this is why it's always risky to designate role players to return instead of biting the bullet, especially with two players who had no clear path to playing time. Now, the Bears are stuck carrying a pair of long-term injuries on their roster. Both of which will hopefully return soon. Assuming Poles is still in charge in 2024, let's hope this was a quality learning lesson for the young, second-year general manager.
8. It is past time to talk about a Cairo Santos extension.
Make no mistake, the Bears have plenty of cap room to spend in 2024 and, thus far, have been doing a good job of spending it to retain their own impending free agents. With Sweat and Andrew Billings locked up for the foreseeable future, the team's focus should turn to Jaylon Johnson and Santos. Johnson's negotiations will be much more complicated, and they do have the franchise/transition tag at their disposal. Because of that, I don't see many scenarios where a deal gets worked out any time soon.
Santos, though, should be another priority player that should be kept with another top-of-the-market deal before he hits free agency in March. It continues to amaze me how much of a career turnaround the veteran kicker has seen in his second stint with the Bears. Since taking over as the primary kicker, he's 92-of-101 (91%), and his leg strength has drastically improved. He's a career-best 4-for-4 in kicks over 50 yards and has only missed three kicks in two years. At just 32 years old, Santos should still have a long and successful career ahead of him. Not having to worry about a kicker is something any team should value, including the Bears. The push to extend Santos should be a top priority before the end of the year for Poles.
9. A shift in defensive line snaps has been a welcomed sight, but why hasn't the team put more of a priority on developing rookie running back Roschon Johnson following a return from his concussion?
After playing just 14 snaps in Week 9, second-round rookie Gervon Dexter Sr. upped his snap count in a big way on Thursday night playing in 48% of the team's defensive snaps (29 snaps overall). That was a welcomed sight for most Bears fans and something Eberflus said they were going to try and be more mindful of. Interestingly enough, Dexter actually played more snaps than nose tackle Andrew Billings. Dexter finished the game with two quarterback pressures and, overall, might have had his best game of the season.
On the other hand, the team's fourth-round rookie running back played just 42% of the team's offensive snaps and did not get as many chances on third down as I would have hoped. Johnson had just five carries for 18 yards, while also adding four catches for 14 yards. Compared to D'Onta Foreman's 23 touches, it's somewhat disappointing.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not discounting Foreman's value as a runner in the least. He's picked up the slack and then some, with Khalil Herbert missing the last five games. It would just be nice to see the Bears featuring one of their rookies a little bit more in-game plans, especially when a player like Foreman is on a one-year deal. Development from young players should be the key right now, and it's hard to imagine how Johnson sees an uptick in snaps with Herbert expected back next week. The good news? The Bears have three quality starting options at the running back position for a fraction of the price it would have cost to keep David Montgomery (who is also having a nice season in Detroit). Hopefully, this coaching staff will continue to put more value in development down the stretch over the final seven games of the season.
10. Week 11 look ahead: The NFC North leading Detroit Lions on the road.
A full disclaimer with this being written before the majority of Week 10's games are played needs to be noted here.
The Lions are the class of the NFC North and will look to move to (7-2) on Sunday when they face a streaking Los Angeles Chargers team that has won two in a row. Detroit appears to be getting healthier, but this will be their first real test since their blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens back in Week 7.
As for these two teams' matchup in Week 11, this does not appear to be a favorable one for the Bears. Detroit's offense has been impressive once again this year, but the big story has been the big strides they've taken defensively. The Lions have 21 sacks in eight games and have 10 takeaways on the season. Detroit currently ranks 8th in defensive DVOA heading into their ninth game of the season this weekend.
As noted above, Week 11 starts a critical four-game stretch for the Bears in which they need to show progress and a much better fight against top competition. A win on the road would go a long way in changing the current perception of this coaching staff and the overall direction of the team. Until then, enjoy the extended "mini bye week," and we'll see you again in 10 days.