A Bears offense that has been largely inert for far too much of the 2016 came alive late in Sunday’s 27-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Matt Barkley in his first NFL start nearly brought the Bears back from a 24-7 deficit, with two passes dropped in the Tennessee end zone on the final possession that would have produced the go-ahead score inside of 1 minute to play.
That almost sounds good, doesn’t it?
The fact is, however, that the Bears offense had only itself to blame for being in that hole in the first half. Bears receivers and backs dropped an unofficial total of 10 passes, while Barkley threw 54 passes, three for touchdowns, but two for interceptions with the football at the Tennessee 16 and 5 at the ends of drives that had successfully covered 50-plus yards to reach scoring position.
“We had a couple of picks…that took points off the board,” said coach John Fox.
For the fourth time in 11 games the Bears out-gained an opponent – and lost. The reasons were everywhere, because the chances for scores were everywhere.
“When there were opportunities in the red zone that didn’t go our way,” Barkley said, “those ones hurt because you’ve rep’ed those plays and things don’t go right and you’ve just got to eat those.”
How to evaluate Matt Barkley’s first NFL start? The near-rescue of the game with two fourth-quarter TD drives, and almost a game-winning third? Or two red-zone interceptions with points virtually in hand that ultimately would have put the game within field-goal reach at the end? Or a generally solid game despite unofficially 10 dropped passes? Probably all of those elements.
Barkley’s performance was nothing if not interesting, but in the end, not entirely positive, either. “He was better late than early [in the game],” said coach John Fox. “All-in-all, I think for the guy’s first start with us, it was pretty good.”
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Barkley came into this game with zero TD passes and six interceptions thrown for his career, and gave an example of why when he squandered a scoring opportunity to start the second half, underthrowing a double-covered Cam Meredith in the end zone with a lob pass which both defenders had better chances of catching than Meredith did. The interception wasted a recovered onside kick and was a chance the offense and team in general desperately needed.
Barkley was done no favors by his receivers, with devastating first-half drops by Jordan Howard and Meredith, the latter costing a third-down conversion the offense needed in the first half. Marquess Wilson had a well-thrown deep ball go off his outstretched hands in the fourth quarter and Meredith failed to come up with catchable balls on consecutive attempts later in the quarter.
Worst of all came on the Bears’ final possession when Barkley threw a perfect ball to Josh Bellamy in the end zone and had Bellamy simply let the ball bounce off his body. Three snaps later Deonte Thompson could not hold onto a low pass in the back of the end zone.
“I think just moving on from here, knowing that we can win, that we have guys on this team that can win games,” Barkley said. “Just making sure that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot, I think that’s the goal from here on out.”
Running back: B-
Jordan Howard was again solid on the ground with 84 yards on 18 carries (4.7 ypc.) and he was able to turn well-designed conservative plays into bigger yardage. Howard turned a third-and-long screen pass into something with excellent use of his blockers to net 23 yards in the first quarter, and he followed that with 22 yards on a sweep behind a perfect seal block by fullback Paul Lasike that got the edge for Howard.
Howard’s pass receiving continues to be a glaring issue, with yet another drop of an easy throw in a game where the Bears could ill afford any missed opportunities and Jeremy Langford failed to catch either of the passes directed to him.
The dropped passes were a major determinant of the game’s outcome. The errors cost the Bears touchdowns, third-down conversions and were the difference between a possible double-digit win and a six-point loss. And they were committed by virtually every wide receiver, more than one in fact. The drops denied the Bears gains that would have altered play calling. “I don’t think the design for the day was to have [Matt Barkley] throw the ball 54 times,” said coach John Fox.
Tight end Daniel Brown caught his first career TD pass, a seven-yard completion to end the first drive.
Marquess Wilson drew a 33-yard interference call on the game’s first pass try, and led all receivers with eight catches out of the 11 balls thrown to him, for 125 total yards and a touchdown. But Wilson had multiple drops, the most flagrant being on a perfect Barkley pass into the left end zone that Wilson simply let go through his hands.
Cam Meredith had a speckled day. He had multiple catchable balls go off his hands and he was flagged for a false start in the fourth quarter and the offense driving. Meredith caught just two of his nine targets.
Deonte Thompson had a career day with four catches for 44 yards. Josh Bellamy caught four for 41 yards. But both dropped catchable balls on the Bears’ final possession, two potential game-winners.
“It was a tough day for our group,” Thompson said. “But we’re just going to keep battling and keep fighting and keep coming every day with our ‘A’ game.”
Offensive line: A-
Again being without Pro Bowl guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton, the Bears performed creditably up front, with Eric Kush filling in at left guard with good mobility and efforts getting to the second level. Ted Larsen started at right guard and was solid in pass sets and excellent at getting out on screen blocking.
Cody Whitehair had a lowpoint with a shotgun snap over Barkley’s head, turning a third-and-short into a third-and-long that forced a punt from deep in the Chicago end. He also was flagged for holding to nullify a first-down pickup on a fourth-quarter drive.
But Barkley was not sacked in 54 dropbacks, including 33 in the fourth quarter alone when the called just two runs and the Titans were able to rush without concern that the Bears would run the football.
“I had all the time in the world, it felt like,” Barkley said.
Several notables within the game pointed to significant coaching positives. One was the overall fire with which all three phases played, with players clearly playing hard despite being down by as much as three scores in the second half. Coaches made aggressive calls in all areas and players remained in a clear attack mindset.
Going with a deep throw on the game’s first play made something of a statement and netted a 33-yard gain via penalty. But a fourth-and-inches call of a pass with lightly used tight ends and off a rollout to Matt Barkley’s left was head-scratching. But coordinator Dowell Loggains was aggressive and yet controlled with Matt Barkley starting his first NFL game, using screens and short throws to increase percentages for positive plays.
Special teams sounded a similarly aggressive mindset with an onside kick to start the second half and the Bears trailing 21-7. The ball was recovered by the Bears and although the offense eventually threw an interception in the Tennessee red zone, the tenor was set for what was a rally after a poor first half.
Coordinator Vic Fangio brought blitzes into the second half as the defense disrupted the Tennessee offense and forced the Titans to settle for field goals twice inside the Chicago 20.