Chicago Bears players have the weekend off to regroup between Thursday’s loss to the Washington Commanders and their Oct. 24 trip to play the New England Patriots on “Monday Night Football.”
As coaches and players reflect on the first six games of the season, our team of writers dig into four key topics surrounding the 2-4 Bears.
1. The biggest problem with the Bears offense is ________.
Brad Biggs: Layered, which makes a solution problematic.
The passing game is as bad as it gets in the NFL. The Bears are last in the league in completion percentage and last in net passing yards despite playing one more game than 30 teams. Justin Fields hasn’t played well enough. The offensive line hasn’t done a good enough job protecting him. The wide receivers are undermanned and have not played well enough.
I would liken this to a chicken-or-egg discussion, but the problem is there are three causes to the passing game’s ineffectiveness and none of them offers simple in-season fixes. Fields is struggling to operate efficiently in the pocket when there is time to go through his progressions or space to climb the pocket and make a play. He’s dropping his eyes too often and in the 12-7 loss to the Washington Commanders on Thursday night, too often the best play was for Fields to make one read, pull the ball down and take off. That’s not a sustainable offensive approach.
Rookie fifth-round pick Braxton Jones has had a difficult time when not given chip help at left tackle. That’s not overly surprising and it complicates things, especially with veteran left guard Cody Whitehair sidelined with a right knee injury. Darnell Mooney is the only wide receiver Fields seems to have a connection with and he’s not getting enough chances to make plays, although he was targeted 12 times against the Commanders. With a chance to win the game in the closing moments, he bobbled a pass at the goal line. It doesn’t appear that there is an effective plan to involve tight end Cole Kmet, who has been targeted 15 times (2.5 per game) after having 93 targets (5.5) per game in 2021. Where to start for the coaching staff during a mini-bye week? Everywhere.
Colleen Kane: Everything, except for maybe the running backs.
The Bears are averaging 15.5 points and 293.7 yards per game, both ranked 29th in the NFL. An offense doesn’t get off to a start like that with only one thing wrong. There has been so much arguing on social media among the Bears fan base about the root cause of the struggles. Guess what: multiple things can be true.
Justin Fields has at times played indecisive and anxious in the passing game. Coaches Matt Eberflus and Luke Getsy at times haven’t helped Fields enough. The offensive line has failed to protect Fields well enough. The wide receivers have dropped balls and made mental errors. The last two are a reflection of general manager Ryan Poles’ roster decisions to rely on a young offensive line and a group of mostly unproven receivers. There are a lot of problems. But at least David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert have been strong.
Dan Wiederer: Everything. Absolutely everything.
Offensive line instability: check. A lack of playmaking pass catchers: check. Quarterback inconsistency: check. Missed opportunities: quadruple check. The Bears have a top-three rushing attack and have done some wonderful things on the ground through six games. Still, they have a bottom-five scoring offense and are one of four teams that hasn’t reached 24 points in a game this season. In a word: ugly. U-G-L-Y. The Bears haven’t topped 200 net passing yards and have been held below 160 net passing yards five times. Justin Fields has been sacked 23 times and has a passer rating of 72.7. (That ranks 31st.) Their leading receiver, Darnell Mooney, has 241 yards — which ranked 48th in the NFL heading into Sunday even with the Bears having played one more game than 30 teams. With a gap between Thursday’s loss and a Monday night game at New England in Week 7, Bears coaches must intensify their troubleshooting efforts.
2. To take a true step forward, Justin Fields must ________.
Biggs: Start hitting on the easy throws and short completions.
That will put the offense in better down-and-distance situations and keep drives alive. Fields began making some of the “cheap completions” as offensive coordinator Luke Getsy termed them in the Week 5 loss at Minnesota but there weren’t a lot against the Commanders when he completed 14 of 27 attempts. Wipe out four screen passes and his completion percentage on balls thrown beyond the line of scrimmage was unacceptable. He missed wide-open tight end Ryan Griffin off a beautiful play fake in the end zone, and on the final possession Mooney was open for a walk-in touchdown on second down if Fields would have lofted the pass over the defender. His 54.7 completion percentage is unacceptably low and the easiest way to improve it is to start choosing the easy throws and passing on a few downfield shots. It requires better presnap recognition of what coverage the defense is in and where the open man is going to be.
Kane: Make incremental improvements in multiple areas.
Fields needs to show poise in the pocket and not pull the ball down and run too quickly. He needs to execute in the red zone. He needs to not wildly miss open receivers, and that includes making adjustments if those receivers are not in the exact spot he expects them to be. There’s a lot to work on, but I am not at all of the camp that is ready to count out Fields after just 16 career starts, even though he has completed 57.7% of his passes with 11 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and 59 sacks in his career. I’m also not of the group that is going to write off Getsy after six games.
Everyone came into this season knowing it would be a rebuilding one, but some people panicked when the Bears actually looked like a rebuilding team. It’s hard to do in the middle of the highs and lows of the season, but I’d suggest saving the panic until the end of the season. If Fields doesn’t show any progress by then, maybe it’s time to talk about what the Bears do next.
Wiederer: Continue to work on his pocket poise.
If the yoga breathing techniques Fields recently adopted aren’t enough, he must find something — anything! — to increase his calm in the pocket. That’s easier said than done with the protection not consistently reliable. But Fields looks uncomfortable, has been hesitant to pull the trigger at times and is too often tucking the ball and scrambling without looking to first make plays as a passer. The path to becoming a true standout NFL quarterback requires top-notch feel in the pocket — when it’s clean and when it’s cluttered. Bears coaches believe experience will help Fields in that regard. But he has to start showing more consistent composure while giving the Bears’ needy passing attack some rhythm.
3. Over his first six games as Bears head coach, Matt Eberflus has shown ________.
Biggs: Consistency in his messaging and that is the kind of thing players respond to.
I think one of the things Eberflus sold general manager Ryan Poles on was the role of the coach and his staff as teachers, a theme Eberflus has touched on a few times, including on Friday.
“We need to look at each individual guy,” Eberflus said. “We’re spending time during this mini-bye to evaluate each guy first. We come up with three things they’re doing well right now and three things they need to improve on. And the plan for each guy fundamentally to improve on that. That’s a very important piece for us to grow as a football team.”
Does that mean there will be significant improvement against New England? Not necessarily, but it’s something Eberflus and his assistants are routinely focused on. And in the long haul, player development will be a big thing for a roster that was eighth-youngest in the league on kickoff weekend.
Kane: A businesslike approach and an ability to get his players to work hard and play with grit.
The work hard part is obviously expected of a professional team, but we’ve seen the coaches’ commitment to the hustle and intensity part of the HITS principle show up late in games. The Bears have been within striking distance late in three of their four losses and have shown an ability to make comebacks from rough starts, a credit in part to coaches’ in-game adjustments. Of course, finishing in the fourth quarter has been elusive at times. As the season wears on, the big task for Eberflus is to maintain those standards and the buy-in from players. The Bears have a lot of tough games remaining on their schedule, including the Oct. 30 road trip to Dallas and back-to-back December home games against the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills. If the losses get really ugly, can Eberflus keep this team motivated?
Wiederer: He wants to have a team full of tough-minded and resilient grinders.
And even in a 2-4 start, the Bears have shown a level of grit and fight that’s admirable. Aside from the Packers loss in Week 2, the Bears have fought through adversity and been in every game to the end. But now Eberflus faces his biggest challenge. With a three-game losing streak and the idea of returning to .500 at any point this season seeming far-fetched, Eberflus and his staff are going to have to work to retain players’ attention and buy-in. As the losses and injuries add up, that challenge will only get more difficult.
4. The biggest surprise has been
Biggs: The resurgence of free safety Eddie Jackson.
It’s not often a player has declined over a long period of time — it’s fair to say Jackson’s performance in 2020 and 2021 wasn’t to the standard he set in his first three seasons — and rebounds to a high level. Jackson has become the guy he was in the secondary under former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and that is a credit to how he’s taken to coaching under new coordinator Alan Williams. Jackson embraced the idea of a fresh start, and his attitude off the field has been better and that’s an important piece when considering how young the rest of the secondary is. The Bears hoped a clean slate would be a springboard to improved play for Jackson and it has. Usually, veteran players who begin to fall off continue a downward trend of inconsistency and he bounced back in a big way. Kudos to Jackson and the defensive coaches.
Kane: Eddie Jackson on the positive side and Robert Quinn on the negative side.
Since we’ve already talked so much about the offensive struggles — and it’s surprising to me that the offense has been this bad — I’ll go defense with this one. Jackson’s resurgence, which has included three interceptions, two forced fumbles and 43 tackles, has been a pleasant development after he and coaches billed his sixth season as a fresh start. But Quinn’s lack of impact plays after a 2021 season in which he had 18½ sacks is head-scratching. He has one sack, two quarterback hits and seven tackles, not the follow-up to his franchise record-setting season that I expected. The Bears could really use some game-changing plays from Quinn.
Wiederer: Khalil Herbert.
Credit the second-year running back for taking advantage of his opportunities. Once again Thursday night, Herbert turned one opening into a huge gain, a season-best 64-yard run that pushed the Bears inside the Commanders 10-yard line. Herbert leads the team in rushing, is averaging 6.4 yards per attempt and is on pace for an 1,100-yard, eight-touchdown season. With a nod to Eddie Jackson on defense as well, Herbert has been steady and impressive.
Biggs: The resurgence of free safety Eddie Jackson. It’s not often a player has declined over a long period of time — it’s fair to say Jackson’s performance in 2020 and 2021 wasn’t to the standard he set in his first three seasons — and rebounds to a high level. Jackson has become the guy he was in the secondary under former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and that is a credit to how he’s taken to coaching under new coordinator Alan Williams. Jackson embraced the idea of a fresh start, and his attitude off the field has been better and that’s an important piece when considering how young the rest of the secondary is. The Bears hoped a clean slate would be a springboard to improved play for Jackson and it has. Usually, veteran players who begin to fall off continue a downward trend of inconsistency and he bounced back in a big way. Kudos to Jackson and the defensive coaches. Kane: Eddie Jackson on the positive side and Robert Quinn on the negative side. Since we’ve already talked so much about the offensive struggles — and it’s surprising to me that the offense has been this bad — I’ll go defense with this one. Jackson’s resurgence, which has included three interceptions, two forced fumbles and 43 tackles, has been a pleasant development after he and coaches billed his sixth season as a fresh start. But Quinn’s lack of impact plays after a 2021 season in which he had 18½ sacks is head-scratching. He has one sack, two quarterback hits and seven tackles, not the follow-up to his franchise record-setting season that I expected. The Bears could really MNG-TribPub Wire ()