Coming off a surprising 33-14 road victory over the New England Patriots, the Chicago Bears begin a short week of practice before Sunday’s Week 8 game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas.
With quarterback Justin Fields producing his most complete performance of the season, Brad Biggs’ weekly Bears mailbag opens with a question about how the play-calling factored into Fields’ night.
It seemed like the Bears called plays that finally cater to Justin Fields’ strengths. Do you think it’s a credit to the coaching staff that they were able to adjust or a mark against them that it took them this long? — @gucasliogito
The Bears executed across the board offensively, and Fields was a big part of that. He completed 13 of 21 passes for 179 yards with one touchdown and a deflected interception, and he ran for 82 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. When an offense dominates on third down (11 of 18), it sustains drives, and that’s how the Bears scored on five consecutive possessions.
I don’t believe there was as much new stuff as you imagine. More striking was the execution that clearly had been lacking. You reference playing to Fields’ strengths, and that is obviously his rare athletic ability. Well, they’ve been moving the pocket all season. They’ve been rolling him out. They’ve had bootlegs. They’ve run play action.
The pass concepts didn’t change against the Patriots. What was a little different based on the matchup is the Bears put in more man beaters because of New England’s coverage tendencies. The Patriots are very man-heavy, so in the first quarter when offensive coordinator Luke Getsy sprinted Fields out, the Bears had a pick route to get Darnell Mooney open in the flat. It resulted in a 20-yard gain. They used bootlegs to let wide receivers run from defensive backs on crossers. None of this was new.
The Bears were well-prepared. They did a really good job of scouting the Patriots and then designing a game plan based on that information. Getsy worked to create clear reads in the passing game for Fields. He has been doing that all season. The previous coaching staff did that. The Bears were playing for pressure on the wide receiver screen to Khalil Herbert for a touchdown. It was a fantastic call against the look from the Patriots, and Fields did a terrific job of delivering the ball before being sandwiched between defenders.
What the Bears introduced Monday was the designed quarterback runs. This wasn’t just a few sneaks here and there and zone read. They ran quarterback counter, QB sweep, QB draw. That created conflict for the Patriots and they didn’t respond quickly enough. The Bears hadn’t called a lot of designed runs for Fields through the first six games, so that was new — not new stuff in the playbook but stuff that Getsy finally leaned on with his call sheet.
You have to credit the coaches. They’re still learning how best to use their players in the scheme, and it’s a process. The mini-bye was super helpful. Now we’ll see how they react and respond during a short week of practice and a trip to Dallas.
Are the Bears now buyers or sellers in the trade market? — @dj_in_kc
I tend to believe they are likelier to be sellers. The thing is, I’m not sure they have a lot of assets they are willing to move that have considerable value. I addressed the possibility of a Robert Quinn trade Tuesday in 10 thoughts (No. 6).
“We’re always going to be active in terms of making phone calls or picking up the phone and just seeing if that is something that can improve our team and it makes sense for us,” general manager Ryan Poles said Monday when asked if he could be in the market for help at wide receiver. “Not only for now, because I’ve always talked about this — it’s sustaining success for a long period of time. It’s not the short fix all the time. Just blending that together is tough because it takes a lot of discipline to do. So that’s what we’re balancing.”
To me, this isn’t the season — in Year 1 of a new regime — when Poles would deem a “short fix” a good idea. I tend to doubt the Bears will be in the market for a wide receiver unless it’s a player-for-player swap. The Bears haven’t had problems acquiring No. 2 wide receivers, and a case can be made that’s what Darnell Mooney should be. I don’t think there’s a legitimate No. 1 that could be acquired, and if there were, would the cost be prohibitive?
We’ll see what shakes out before the 3 p.m. Tuesday trade deadline — and Poles clearly is willing to listen — but I don’t think his vision or plan would lead him to be a buyer.
One thing I’ve noticed this year is nobody seems to be throwing slants in short-yardage situations anymore, particularly the Bears. Why? — @carlso1
You’re right, we aren’t seeing a ton of slants from the Bears. But it’s still a staple play for a lot of teams, especially in short yardage. The Bears ran slant routes Monday night at New England. It’s never going out of style because it can defeat man and zone coverage. Against man, it’s winning the matchup at the line of scrimmage, and versus zone it’s relying on the quarterback to move a defender with his eyes to create a throwing window.
The Bears don’t have a lot of personnel that would make them top-tier. Fields hasn’t been reading the action and delivering the ball as fast as he needs to at all times, and GM Ryan Poles discussed that a little bit Monday. That might be a small issue here. You have to pull the trigger right away on a slant route. And the Bears are deficient at wide receiver. They don’t have electric athletes at the line of scrimmage with the exception of Darnell Mooney. They probably want him running other routes. They don’t have that big-bodied wide receiver who can create space with his frame and be a great target. Think about former Bears such as Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
What has been the greatest surprise about the Bears season to date? — Luke, Moline
The rushing offense has been the greatest development, and that’s a credit to the coaching staff — especially offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and offensive line coach Chris Morgan — the running backs, quarterback Justin Fields, the tight ends and don’t forget the wide receivers, who have been doing a fine job blocking on the edges. The Bears have a dominant rushing attack and are playing a physical brand of ball. They lead the NFL in rushing through seven weeks, averaging 181 yards.
You have to go back to 2012 to find the last time the Bears finished in the top 10 in rushing. They were 10th that year at 123.1 yards per game. The last time they led the league in rushing was 1986, when they averaged 168.8 yards with Walter Payton leading the way in his second-to-last season. With David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert sharing the load and Fields tops among quarterbacks in rushing (364 yards), the Bears have been getting it done behind an offensive line that has made huge gains in terms of run blocking.
You expected the Bears to be more committed to the run this season. I don’t think anyone expected them to be quite this successful at it.
What’s more likely: Addressing center before the offseason via a trade or a free agent or a Round 1-2 draft pick? — @schmidtshow14
As I stated above, I would be surprised if the Bears are a buyer at the trade deadline. There’s no pressing need for GM Ryan Poles to make a move at this point. He established a plan when he arrived, and I don’t see anything in Week 8, with the team 3-4, that dictates he should deviate from that plan. What kind of center would be available? What would the price be? How much control would the team have with the player moving forward? I firmly believe Poles wants to maintain his draft capital looking ahead to April.
I don’t think there is a center on the street that the Bears view as a clear upgrade, and I say that without knowing the prognosis for Lucas Patrick, who was carted off the field in the first quarter Monday with a toe injury. The early hunch is Patrick could miss significant time. Sam Mustipher stepped in and played well, and despite what the masses say, he has had some solid games this season.
I’d be even more surprised if the Bears used a first-round pick on a center, and my hunch is that would be a rather unpopular position choice. Since 2000, only 11 centers have been taken in Round 1. There are more instances of centers selected in Round 2, but if the Bears want to fill that position, they likely could get a good one in Round 3. I’d lean heavily on positional value unless there’s a prospect who evaluators believe has the chance to be elite.
Where does the Bears’ upset over the Patriots rank with other unexpected wins during your time covering the team? — @rradulski
It was a really good win for a young team that had been struggling and entered with a three-game losing streak. The Bears didn’t just win the game. They dominated in all phases. I’m not going to minimize the effort, but let’s not pretend like this victory came with Tom Brady at quarterback. The Patriots started second-year pro Mac Jones and used him for three series before switching to rookie fourth-round pick Bailey Zappe.
In my opinion, the most impressive upset victories by the Bears in the last 22 seasons came against teams with elite quarterbacks. Monday’s game was the Bears’ 10th victory when they were an underdog of eight points or more since the beginning of the 2001 season. Nine of those 10 wins came on the road. I will highlight three that stand out to me:
- Sept. 19, 2004, at Lambeau Field: Bears 21, Packers 10.
Point spread: Packers by 9.
Defensive backs Mike Green and Bobby Gray intercepted Brett Favre and free safety Mike Brown returned a fumble 95 yards for a touchdown, while running back Thomas Jones led the offense with 152 rushing yards and a touchdown as first-year coach Lovie Smith won his first visit to Green Bay. It snapped a seven-game winning streak in the series for Favre.
- Sept. 7, 2008, at Lucas Oil Stadium: Bears 29, Colts 13.
Point spread: Colts by 10.
The Bears opened the season with an impressive road victory as rookie running back Matt Forte had a terrific debut, rushing for 123 yards and a touchdown. Lance Briggs returned a fumble for a touchdown and Adewale Ogunleye tackled Colts running back Joseph Addai in the end zone for a safety. The Bears did a a heck of a job against Peyton Manning.
- Nov. 26, 2015, at Lambeau Field: Bears 17, Packers 13.
Point spread: Packers by 8½.
Cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted Aaron Rodgers late in the fourth quarter, and the defense made a stand in the closing moments to win coach John Fox’s first trip to Lambeau with the Bears. Jay Cutler threw for 200 yards and a touchdown and took care of the ball after combining for 12 interceptions in his previous four trips to Lambeau. Before Monday, this was the last game the Bears won as an underdog of eight points or more.
Not all upsets are judged equally. The Bears’ first victory at New England was a big one for first-year coach Matt Eberflus. I rate these upsets higher because of the quarterbacks the Bears defeated.
Considering the Bears’ current record and outlook for the rest of this year, would it make sense to trade a star player like Roquan Smith to get the draft capital they have traded away? What type of draft-pick package could they realistically get? — Brian K., Cicero
This question has popped up multiple times the last few weeks. I go back to GM Ryan Poles’ reaction in early August when Smith — through NFL Network — made it known he wanted to be traded to a team that would sign him to the kind of contract extension he was seeking. Poles was adamant at the time he was not interested in dealing Smith.
What has changed since then? Did you expect the Bears record to be significantly different? Was the outlook for the season different during training camp than it is now? From my perspective, not much has changed. Those who held great optimism for this season during camp were viewing the roster and a first-year coaching staff with navy-and-orange sunglasses. Now those folks are excited again after a thorough dismantling of the Patriots.
Smith had a stat-stuffer game Monday with a game-high 12 tackles, a third-down sack and an interception. The Bears can control him for the 2023 season by using the franchise tag. They also could use the tag as a mechanism to create more time to negotiate a multiyear contract. If Poles thinks there’s a possibility he wants to keep Smith as a foundational piece for the defense, trading him wouldn’t make sense.
I don’t think the Bears would get nearly as much as some might expect in a trade. For starters, you’re talking about a rental player for a little more than half a season. You’re also talking about an off-the-ball linebacker, and in terms of positional value, that doesn’t rank too high. The only way a team would have significant interest is if an injury created a major hole in the middle of its defense.
The Bears also don’t have a clear replacement for Smith whom you would view as a potential starter moving forward. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think there has been a lot more talk about the possibility of trading Smith than is worthwhile.
I have a question about fair catches on punts. I remember seeing this done in a Bears preseason game and wondering if this rule was still in the books. Papa Bear George Halas was the coach and the player making the fair catch was Andy Livingston. After the fair catch, the coach decided the next play would be a free place kick for a field goal. The opposing team was not allowed to rush the kicker and had to stay 10 yards back. My thought is with kickers booming 60-yard field goals, why would somebody not try this on a short punt? — Jerry Z., Eastman Wis.
The fair-catch kick or free kick is a seldom-used tactic but remains legal. After a kickoff or punt is fielded by a fair catch, the offensive team has the option of attempting a kick from the line of scrimmage (there is no snap) that’s worth three points, the same as a field goal.
While I don’t have research available on preseason games from the Halas era, I can tell you the last time the Bears successfully used a fair-catch kick was to defeat the Packers 13-10 on Nov. 3, 1968. Cecil Turner fielded a punt with a fair catch on the Packers 43-yard line, and at the time the goal posts were on the goal line. Coach Jim Dooley sent out Mac Percival to attempt a free kick, and he nailed it with 26 seconds remaining, one of the strangest endings to a Bears-Packers game.
“I swear, I don’t think any of us knew the rule at the time,” Percival told the Tribune’s Fred Mitchell during a 2011 interview. “And Abe Gibron (then a Bears assistant coach) was the one who told Cecil Turner, ‘Make sure you fair catch on the punt from Donny (Anderson).’ So he did, and they said, ‘OK, let’s go out there and free kick.’
“Well, we had no idea what he was talking about. In fact, he had to tell us, ‘Well, you line up like you’re going to do a kickoff.’ Then (holder) Richie Petitbon had his leg out like he always does to hold it. An official came up and said: ‘No, you’re offsides. Pull your leg back so you won’t be offsides when you hold the ball.’ Then they told me to try to kick it, which was fairly easy because there was no rush and no hurry. It was kind of like just being out at practice. It was quite exciting.”
The last time a free kick was attempted in an NFL game was on Oct. 13, 2019, when the Carolina Panthers’ Joey Slye missed wide right from 60 yards at the end of the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during a game in London. The last successful free kick was on Nov. 21, 1976, when Ray Wersching of the San Diego Chargers connected from 45 yards at the end of the first half against the Buffalo Bills.
There have been some extreme efforts too. In 1979, Washington’s Mark Moseley was short on a 74-yard try with 54 seconds remaining. The New York Giants led 14-6 at the time, and Washington needed two scores in an era when there was no 2-point conversion. The next year, Fred Steinfort of the Denver Broncos was short from 73 yards at the end of the first half of a game at New England.
Why don’t you see this strategy more often? It’s really viable only at the end of a half. A team won’t fair catch a punt near midfield and elect for a 3-point try because that would mean giving up a short-field opportunity for a touchdown or a shorter, higher-percentage field goal.