The Chicago Bears missed out on a golden opportunity to beat the New Orleans Saints Sunday at Soldier Field and (somehow) improve to 6-2 on the season.
No, not because they dropped two passes and two interceptions in overtime.
Their missed opportunity happened because they should have been up 17-3 at halftime before getting the ball to start the third quarter. Instead, a disastrous, inexcusable sequence played out before and after halftime, as the Bears allowed the Saints to score 20 unanswered points before ultimately losing 26-23 in overtime.
A good team would have put away its opponent before and after the half. A struggling team does what the Bears did Sunday.
“The start of that third quarter I didn’t like, I don’t like, and it’s been a theme,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said. “Trust me, we’re looking at it. We’ve done different things in how to adjust that and it’s weird that it just keeps happening.”
Good luck trying to isolating the Bears’ problems. It’s an “all-of-the-above” type of answer – yes, including the defense. The playcaller makes questionable decisions. The quarterback makes questionable decisions. And overall, the team just isn’t disciplined enough, frequently committing too many unforced errors.
All of those things proved to be true over the course of a brutal stretch of football that began before halftime and continued well into the third quarter.
It started on a 3rd-and-7 at the Saints’ 11-yard-line with 1:52 left in the second quarter. Red zone specialist Jimmy Graham was split out wide to the left and if the 1-on-1 coverage wasn’t apparent pre-snap, it was obvious almost immediately post-snap. Instead, Nick Foles didn’t see it and threw underneath to David Montgomery – short of the sticks.
“We feel like in the red zone, we have players that can be good threats and put it together,” Nagy said.
Instead of building an improbable 17-3 lead, Cairo Santos hit one of his three field goals on the day to go up 13-3.
Moments later, it was 13-10.
The Bears quickly got the Saints in a 2nd-and-18 hole after Khalil Mack forced a sack/fumble, but defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano consistently chose to play soft coverage against Drew Brees, who is still a surgeon underneath even though his vertical passing game is limited at 41 years old. After picking up five yards on 2nd down, Nagy called timeout with 58 seconds left, assuming his defense could get a stop. Instead, Brees hit Kamara for 12 yards, allowing the Saints to go for it on 4th-and-1. They picked up seven.
Yes, the referees called a phantom pass interference on cornerback Kyle Fuller a few plays later, but the secondary then left tight end Jared Cook virtually uncovered in the end zone on back-to-back plays, the second of which was a touchdown.
It was a textbook sequence on how to turn a possible 17-3 lead into a just a 13-10 lead.
And as has been typical for the Bears this season, it got even worse in the third quarter. The quarterback play was poor. There was more pre-snap confusion, which at one point even resulted in left tackle Charles Leno Jr. yelling backwards at Foles to hurry up. There was a pre-snap special teams penalty and poor punt coverage.
And then there was the inexcusable decision by wide receiver Javon Wims to sucker punch Saints defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson multiple times, which nearly led to a full-out brawl. Wims was rightly ejected and should face further discipline.
“I am really, really bothered by that third-quarter incident,” Nagy said. “That bothers me. I'm being completely honest with you guys. It bothers me.”
Just to top it all off, Foles threw an easy interception to Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. When the carnage was over, the Bears had failed to score in the third quarter for the seventh time this season and the Saints scored 20 straight points.
During that stretch, the Bears’ offense accumulated 14 net yards.
When asked after the game about the unforced errors and lack of discipline, Nagy seemed particularly frustrated with the pre-snap confusion.
“That's what bothers me and that's what pisses me off is that there is still that issue going on,” Nagy said. “And excuse my French. We're reading it from a wrist band, so, you know, I'm struggling with that right now. It's getting you into a hole so that has to change.”
The question asked even referenced the communication device in Foles’ helmet going out at one point, but Nagy didn’t use that as an excuse. Mentioning the wristband was particularly interesting. Considering Foles’ history with Nagy and this offense, the communication issues and need for a wristband are surprising, but the quarterback explained it like this:
“The wrist band is basically for unique plays that maybe there are different tags that become little stories of themselves to where it’s just easier to have it on the wristband to make sure,” Foles said. “I like it because it allows me more time at the line of scrimmage to see things instead of waiting, so there is a purpose for it. I believe in the wristband. I’ve done it for several (years), a lot of my career.”
There’s nothing wrong with using a wristband if it helps the quarterback, but it is concerning that pre-snap communication continues to be an issue.
“Great teams communicate well and that is something we’re working toward,” Foles said. “Once again, there are a lot of new pieces here. We’re in the fire right now. We’re going through it and we’re going to keep getting better, we’re going to continue to lean on each other and believe in one another.”
The Bears keep saying the right things, but too often they are doing the wrong things on the field. Sunday against the Saints, they nearly covered up their ongoing issues with another come-from-behind victory. Could they have won in overtime? Sure. But the real problems – the ones that keep persisting during this underwhelming 5-3 start – occurred over a prolonged stretch in the middle of the game.
That’s when they lost the game.