Why the Bears enter their bye week feeling like they’re ‘close’ to playing winning football

Why the Bears enter their bye week feeling like they’re ‘close’ to playing winning football

NEW ORLEANS — If ever there were a crushing game, this could’ve been it. Not only did the Bears fail to engineer a game-winning drive in the dying embers of their 20-12 loss to the New Orleans Saints, but they were given a lifeline to tie the game and couldn’t do that, either.

And on top of it, Zach Miller suffered a brutal injury — the initial diagnosis is a dislocated knee — on a play that was initially ruled a touchdown but was confusingly overturned to an incomplete pass. But while the mood in the Bears’ locker room was dour about Miller, it was also optimistic about where this team is going as they enter their bye week at 3-5. At the least, this team still has plenty of self-belief.

“In this locker room, we know who we are, so when it comes to effort, we’re not surprised about anything that we do,” running back Tarik Cohen said. “We know what we’re capable of and we know, mainly, it’s ourselves that are in our way and when we cut down on our mistakes it’s going to be a lot different.”

There were a few glaring mistakes, like Kyle Fuller being caught offside on a field goal attempt and Connor Barth missing his fourth field goal in 11 tries (both being on special teams continues a trend of errors from that unit). Mitchell Trubisky made some plays — like his 46-yard run that sparked the ultimately-futile comeback — but missed a few throws, like his incompletion on fourth-and-one late in the fourth quarter that sailed high toward Kendall Wright.

“We had what we wanted, it was a good call, I missed a little bit,” Trubisky said. “I’ve made that throw hundreds of times.”

The Bears expect Trubisky to grow and be better than his line in his first game where he was forced to air it out: 14/32, 164 yards, no touchdowns (though he could’ve had one had Miller’s catch not been overturned) and one interception. He’s still very much a work in progress with a group of pass-catchers that was already struggling to find consistency before losing, perhaps, its most consistent player in Miller.

Dontrelle Inman shouldn’t be counted on to be the fix the Bears’ receiving corps needs; more likely, if that fix exists, it’ll be a collective effort between him, Tre McBride (three catches, 92 yards), Wright (two catches, 23 yards) and Markus Wheaton (when he’s able to return from a groin injury). But as long as the Bears’ defense continues playing at a high level, these offensive fixes can be sought out in close games.

Sunday was another stout defensive showing considering the following: New Orleans got its first touchdown because of Fuller’s penalty; without it, the Saints would’ve been held to three field goals and 16 points. Vic Fangio made some adjustments at halftime that kept a lid on Drew Brees and that explosive offense, which only managed six points in the final 30 minutes — three of which came on a field goal after Trubisky turned the ball over on downs late in the fourth quarter. Jonathan Bullard and Adrian Amos came up with critical strips of Mark Ingram, which afforded more opportunities back to the offense.

“Play dominant, be us,” linebacker Pernell McPhee said of the defensive effort in the third and fourth quarters. “Be the Chicago Bears defense and I think we did a great job of doing that in the second half.”

What’s clear is that as long as the Bears’ defense continues playing like it did in October, Trubisky and the offense will have opportunities to win as they grow. And that’s buoying the feeling that this team isn’t all that far off from rattling off some more wins in the second half of the season.

The Bears have 14 days until they play again; that’s a lot of time to figure out some solutions and prove this positivity right in the second half of the season.

“The defense continues to play tremendously and keep us in these games,” Trubisky said. “We’re getting closer as an offense. We just need to become more consistent. I thought we communicated great in a hostile environment. We are getting close.

“Nobody has their head down, nobody is pouting. We just continue to lean on each other and know we have each other’s back. We’re going got keep working, keep getting better and get back to winning football.”

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?


Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu
3. Joel Iyiegbuniwe

1. Roquan Smith
2. Nick Kwiatkoski
3. Jonathan Anderson

1. How good can Roquan Smith be?

Making sweeping observations from shorts-and-helmets practices in OTAs is often a fool’s errand, but Smith looked the part while running around the practice fields of Halas Hall after being drafted in April. His quickness and instinctiveness stood out — as they did at Georgia — and his football intelligence and work ethic were praised by coaches and teammates. 

“He’s learning well,” Trevathan said. “He’s doing a good job of learning. He’s learning the little things that you need to learn in this defense. Now it’s all about putting on a show and going out there and rocking.”

And that’s what’s going to be fun to watch in Bourbonnais: How does Smith play with the pads on? Chances are, the answer to that question will be “well,” setting the eighth overall pick on a path to being a mainstay of this defense for years to come. 

That’s not to say Smith doesn’t have plenty on which to work during training camp. But he left Georgia as a sort of “safe bet” in the draft, and nothing he’s done to this point has changed the view of him that he’s likely going to be a good one. 

2. Can Danny Trevathan stay healthy?

In terms of size and athleticism, Trevathan and Smith profile similar to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the inside linebacking tandem that was the spine of the San Francisco 49ers defense during Fangio’s time there. But for Trevathan and Smith to reach that lofty bar — or even to come close to it — Trevathan needs to be more available than he was his first two years with the Bears.

This isn’t questioning Trevathan’s toughness — far from it. That he returned for Week 1 of the 2017 season 10 months after rupturing his patellar tending (an injury that can be a career-ender) was impressive, and that he was immediately productive upon returning was even more extraordinary. But Trevathan missed three games in November due to a strained calf, and coupled with a one-game suspension and the seven games he missed in 2016, the 28-year-old has only played in 21 of 32 games since signing with the Bears. 

Trevathan is confident he can improve his production in 2018, given he wasn’t able to participate in last year’s offseason program practices. He’s entering his third year in Fangio’s defense and feels better prepared after going through OTAs and minicamps this year. It’s just now about him staying on the field to make sure that work pays off.

“I’m more comfortable with this defense, I’m more comfortable with the guys and the calls that we make,” Trevathan said. “I take pride in being correct and working my tail off and making the defense better. And the more that I can be out there — which I plan on being out there a lot — it’s going to help us tremendously.” 

3. How big a role will Nick Kwiatkoski have?

The Bears didn’t draft Smith because they felt like they absolutely needed to upgrade over Kwiatkoski, who’s acquitted himself well in 25 games since being picked in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. But Kwiatkoski has dealt with some injury issues, and for as solid a player as he may be, the Bears’ defense needed (and still needs) more great players. Drafting Smith gave the Bears a shot at adding a great player.

It also leaves Kwiatkoski in the same spot he was in a year ago, when the Bears entered the 2017 season with Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman as their unquestioned starting inside linebackers. Smith still has to earn that starting spot, but the safe bet is he will, relegating Kwiatkoski again to reserve duties.

And that’s a positive for the overall health of this defense, having a player good enough to start ready to play if needed. But it also raises this question: What do the Bears do with Kwiatkoski if he’s one of their four best linebackers, but isn’t one of their two best inside linebackers? 

So for the purposes of watching training camp practices, seeing if Kwiatkoski gets any reps at outside linebacker will be an interesting storyline to follow. 

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

USA Today

Bears shutout in poll of NFL's best starters under 25

Maybe this is what happens when a team is coming off a 5-11 season and has won only 14 games over three years. Maybe it's just another example of the Chicago Bears being overlooked and underrated. Regardless of the 'why,' a recent poll of NFL experts has provided more fuel for the Bears in 2018.

ESPN's Field Yates asked 43 insiders and former players for their list of the top under-25-year-old starters in the NFL and not a single Chicago Bear made the cut.

No Jordan Howard. No Mitchell Trubisky. No Allen Robinson.

Not a single Bear.

The most shocking omission is Howard, who finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2016 and sixth last year despite facing defenses that focused their entire game plan on stopping him every single week. At only 23 years old, he's clearly one of the top young running backs in the NFL and warranted a spot on this list. 

Instead, the Rams' Todd Gurley, Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and Giants rookie Saquon Barkley got the nod.

Howard has more rushing yards than Gurley over the last two seasons and trails Elliott by only 179. Barkley has yet to take a snap in the NFL.

The Bears were recently named the most underrated team in the league heading into 2018 and this is just another piece of evidence justifying that claim. A winning season will change the national perception of players like Howard, who with another year of high-end production should find himself at or near the top of many of these lists next offseason.