It was glorious, and then it wasn’t. But hey, that’s better than what it has been so far this year for the Chicago Bears, right?
For most of Chicago’s Sunday matchup against the Denver Broncos, Justin Fields flipped the script many loud mouths have written about him so far this season, accounting for more touchdown passes than incompletions for almost the entire game, and proving he has never been the central liability when it comes to this team’s sporadic offense.
The defense played complimentary football too!
Chicago’s defense forced four straight punts as the Bears built a 28-7 lead, giving up just 45 yards across 15 plays spanning the entire second quarter into the second half.
Then suddenly, the rug was pulled out from under Chicago fandom, and Bears faithful were sent crashing back to the painful reality of what their team has been to watch all year.
Painful. Awful. Stinky.
Russell Wilson led back-to-back touchdown drives to make it a one possession game before Fields promptly coughed up the ball on a sack with just under seven minutes to go in the fourth, which spiraled into a 35-yard scoop-and-score for the Broncos’ Jonathon Cooper, and a tie ballgame, 28-28.
Luke Getsy kept the sad times rolling for the Bad News Bears on their following possession, when he chose to run Khalil Herbert — instead of his 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound lightning quick quarterback — on fourth-and-one with 2:52 to go. Herbert was promptly stuffed, and Chicago turned it over on downs.
Next, Wilson cooked again, and led Denver on a go-ahead scoring drive — a 51-yard field goal courtesy of Will Lutz’s leg with 1:08 remaining — and the ball was back in Fields’ hands to lead the Bears to a game-tying field goal, or a game-winning touchdown.
Seven plays later, Chicago was near midfield with 32 seconds to go when Fields completed a pass downfield to Kareem Jackson. Problem is, Jackson plays corner for the Broncos, and the game was over.
Chicago is now 0-4 and we’re back to watching the sky fall on what has been one of the National Football League’s most disappointing teams.
Or are we?
Last week, I compared the Bears to head coach Matt Eberflus’s 2018 Indianapolis Colts, who went from 1-5, to 10-6 and a playoff win in the wild card round on the winds of a fiery players-only meeting that helped turn their fortunes around.
This week, I’d like to take a look at a team they shared a division with last year – the 2022 Detroit Lions – as a source of comparison for where this team needs to go in order to break into the win column, and turn things around.
Similarities and Positives
Much like Chicago this year and Indianapolis in 2018, Detroit also started off slow last season, losing six of their first seven games.
The 2022 Lions — also like the Bears this year — were known for their running game.
Detroit gained an average of 136.6 yards-per-game on the ground over their first seven games last year behind the running back duo of D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, while the Bears have averaged 119 rushing yards-per-game so far this season, using the pair of Herbert and Roschon Johnson in tandem with designed runs from Fields mixed in, although designed runs from Fields have come few and farther between than this time a year ago.
One thing that Chicago sports fans can hang their hat on that’s been better for this year’s Bears team than the Lions of last season is that their squad has been slightly better in terms of yardage given up on defense.
Over their first seven games last year, Detroit gave up – on average – 421.3 yards per game, with 266.4 through the air, and 154.9 on the ground.
Through four games this season, the Bears are giving up an average of 383.3 yards per game, with 267.8 coming through the air, and another 115.5 on the ground.
Differences and Negatives
That’s where the positives end though. Chicago is giving up more points-per-game (34.3 – 32.1), collecting fewer sacks-per-game (0.5 – 1.6), and generating fewer turnovers-per-game (0.5 – 0.7) than the Lions did through their first seven on defense a year ago.
Detroit’s offense was also more efficient. The Lions averaged nearly 90 more total yards per game (394.9 – 305.3), most of which is because Detroit averaged a wide margin better passing the ball (258.3 – 186.3)
Where the Lions’ improvements came
The difference between the 1-6 Lions and the 8-2 Detroit squad that finished the year was their improvement on defense and transcendent quarterback play.
The Lions went from giving up 32.1 points-per-game over their first seven, to 20.2 points-per-game over their final ten.
Detroit starting quarterback Jared Goff also threw for 1,904 yards and 12 touchdowns to go with nine total turnovers in the Lions’ first seven games of 2022.
Over his final ten games of the season, Goff threw for 2,534 yards and 17 touchdowns, while throwing only one interception and losing one fumble.
What the Bears need to do
Reading the writing on the wall, the Bears need to slow down opposing passers — aka generate pressures and turnovers on defense — and Justin Fields needs to make the leap in Chicago’s offense if they want to emulate the same level of success seen from Detroit at the end of last year.
The Bears brought in Yannick Ngakoue to be their premium pass rusher, but he has one of Chicago’s only two sacks through four games, the other being split between rookie defensive tackle Zacch Pickens and second-year EDGE rusher Dominique Robinson during their loss to the Buccaneers in week two.
Detroit’s Aidan Hutchinson blossomed into their best pass rusher as a rookie, leading the team with 9.5 sacks by season’s end, while another rookie – James Houston – burst onto the scene as the Robin to Hutchinson’s Batman, and added another eight sacks of his own. Overall, the Lions finished tied for 18th in sacks as a team (39.0) in 2022.
Ngakoue needs to be the premium pass rusher the Bears signed him to be — akin to Hutchinson’s production last year — but where do the reinforcements come from after that?
The Bears finished dead last in team sacks a year ago (20.0). Rookie safety Jaquan Brisker (4.0) led the team in sacks in 2022, and Chicago did little to address their biggest deficiency opposite of their offense.
General Manager Ryan Poles added defensive end DeMarcus Walker as a free agent, a now seven-year veteran who came over from the Tennessee Titans, and drafted two interior defensive linemen in South Carolina’s Zacch Pickens and Florida’s Gervon Dexter.
Walker notched his career high in sacks last season with seven, while Pickens and Dexter — across seven seasons in the SEC — tallied a combined 12.5 sacks.
Hypothetically speaking, let’s say Ngakoue gives the Bears 9.5 sacks like Hutchinson did for the Lions last year, while Walker matches his career high of 7.0, then Brisker, Pickens and Dexter notch 4.0, 2.0 and 2.0 a piece.
Those five players would account for 24.5 sacks, with an opportunity for others to step up along the Bears defensive line, but where the remaining 14.5 sacks to bring them in line with Detroit’s total from a year ago come from — your guess is as good as mine.
Fields also needs to develop a consistent rhythm and confidence in the Bears’ passing game to go with his ability to run the ball. The good news here is that Fields flashed just that – and more – against the Broncos Sunday.
I’m not saying he needs to commit just two turnovers for the remainder of the season and statistically become one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL over a 13 week span — he doesn’t even need to throw for 300-plus yards and four touchdowns a game (though Bears fans would certainly take it) — but he needs to be able to keep defenses honest enough that safeties don’t drift into the box to offer support against the run.
Less defenders in the box means better matchups for Chicago’s run game — the true foundation of their identity on offense — and with better matchups against the run, come more yards on the ground, better time of possession in the long run, a better rested defense when they’re on the field, and less time for the opposing offense to put up points and yards against them.
If the Bears can do that, maybe we’re on the verge of watching something special happen from Halas Hall to Soldier Field, but until then, I’ll conclude with a quote from Detroit’s Bob Seger.
“Mediocrity’s easy, the good things take time, the great need commitment.”
This piece is a weekly column that will be published following each Bears game for the rest of the NFL season. For more on the Bears and other Chicago sports from WGN News, you can follow Eli Ong, Larry Hawley and Jarrett Payton on X.