CHICAGO — On a warm and sunny afternoon at Soldier Field, fans got the chance to catch their first glimpse of the 2023 Chicago Bears.
In many ways, it was only a quick look, since the starters that will likely face the Packers on September 10 for the regular season opener had only a few moments to take the field in the preseason opener against the Titans.
Like every year, it’s important to guard against overreaction, since so much will change over the coming weeks with the team. But there are a few things that stood out about the first 60 minutes of football this season.
All for the “YAC”
One of a few categories that the Bears finished last in the NFL in 2023 was yards after catch (or YAC), where they had an NFL-low 1,147.
In two drives, the Bears showed their intent to change that on Saturday in just their first two drives.
On the first drive, quarterback Justin Fields threw a screen to DJ Moore, who then proceeded to run through the Tennessee defense for a 62-yard touchdown for the Bears’ opening touchdown.
Later in the first quarter, Khalil Herbert did the same thing, taking a short pass from Fields, racing up the field for a 56-yard score to end the first unit’s day.
“Like I said before, just any time you have those playmakers where you can throw the ball five-yards on a slant and he can take it 60-yards, that makes my job easier, it makes the O-Lines’ job easier,” said Fields of the yards after catch gains. “After a period of time where you’re dipping and ducking those short passes, the defensive coordinator gets impatient and starts blitzing more, pressuring more, playing more man-coverage, and that’s when those deep shots just naturally happen.
“I think it’s going to be a good thing for us this year. Like I said, we’re
just going to continue to work and continue to get better. It should be fun.”
Eight was plenty
Another area where the Bears’ struggled saw a nice boost in the first preseason game: The pass rush.
Against the Titans, the Bears racked up eight sacks with 11 quarterback hits with Terrell Lewis leading the way with two while rookie Jalen Harris got 1 1/2 sacks. Trevis Gipson, who had a slow 2022 season, showed his eagerness to keep his spot on the Bears with a sack along with three quarterback hits.
The defense also forced four turnovers in what was mostly a positive day.
“I thought we attacked the football well. I thought we rushed the passer better than we had, so you can see some improvements there so we are excited about that,” said head coach Matt Eberflus of the defense. “Then getting the young guys in there, the young guys that needed the reps. Our first three picks were in there working and it was really good to see those guys, I thought they operated well.”
A great debut for the cornerback
A player getting plenty of chatter this offseason is cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, the second round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft.
He backed up the reports of a strong training camp with a team-high seven tackles including one for loss with a pass deflection in his first action with the Bears on Saturday.
“At the end of the day, I realized that everybody was telling me that it’s just the game of football, so I went out there with the confidence I always keep,” said Stevenson of his first NFL game. “The game pretty much went fast. I had a couple of mistakes I should clean up, but other than that, I was out there, pretty much felt comfortable.”
Another tough moment on special teams for Jones
One thing that Eberflus didn’t want to see was the ball getting put on the ground by one of the team’s punt returners.
After fumbling three punts during the 2022 season, two of which had a major impact on defeats, Velus Jones Jr. muffed a return to start the second quarter. It came after he had a return of seven yards on his first punt catch of the game which also hit the ground.
“Those were two short punts. Like I said, the nose was up so they come down pretty fast, so you’ve got two of the more difficult ones back-to-back. (Tennessee punter Ryan Stonehouse) is a really good punter,” said Eberflus when asked about the returns. “He can really boom them, so we were seeing back a little bit because he can really bomb them in the part of the field he was in, so he had to come up more than he usually would. He just has to use fundamental technique and read the ball before it gets too high, then get underneath it.”
Next Up: Colts
The Bears completed a workout Monday at Halas Hall and then have Tuesday off as they travel to the Indianapolis area for two joint practices with the Colts on Wednesday and Thursday.
On Saturday, the teams will play an exhibition game at Lucas Oil Stadium, with a 6 p.m. central time kickoff.