10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears followed a familiar path to defeat Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The offense focused on running the ball, as usual, and couldn’t come up with the plays needed with the game on the line, the defense couldn’t get a key stop at a critical juncture and special teams was good for another couple of hiccups in a 27-24 loss.
1. Just as Justin Fields reached for his left shoulder when he pulled himself off the turf in the game’s closing moments, he reached for it again 20 minutes later when the Bears put him on a cart outside the visitors locker room and took him to the X-ray room.
Fields was in some pretty serious pain after the game, bringing into question whether he potentially will miss some time — the Bears play the next two weeks before hitting their Week 14 open date. It’s unlikely coach Matt Eberflus will offer an update on the quarterback until Wednesday.
It’s obviously better that it’s Fields’ non-throwing shoulder, but even something such as a separation to his left shoulder could complicate matters. The last thing the Bears want is to put him in a position where things could be made worse.
“The pain right now is pretty bad,” Fields said when he met reporters a little more than an hour after the game. Besides the X-ray, he had gotten an IV after he was bothered by cramping in the fourth quarter.
“I’ll just take it day by day and see how it feels later in the week,” he said.
Fields was injured on the 17th of a season-high 18 runs. The previous high was 15 in the Week 9 loss to the Miami Dolphins. It was a designed keeper that the Falcons quickly sniffed out.
“I saw (Darnell) Mooney, the No. 2 receiver, he tried to crack, so I basically did crack replace,” Falcons cornerback Dee Alford said. “In that particular defense, I am the edge setter, and I was able to beat the O-lineman (left tackle Braxton Jones) with my speed and make the play on Fields.”
Alford swiped at Fields’ legs, and the quarterback landed hard at the end of a 1-yard gain.
“I was about to celebrate, but my teammate Richie Grant, he told me, ‘I think he’s down,’ so I didn’t want to celebrate and make a scene like I tried to do anything like that,” Alford said.
Fields was holding his left shoulder and grimacing when he got up, and because he required some time, the Bears were forced to use a timeout to avoid having to remove him for one play. He ran a quarterback draw on second down that went for 4 yards and collided with what appeared to be Grady Jarrett’s helmet going into the same left shoulder.
But the injury occurred during the spill along the sideline, and now the Bears are forced to wait and see if the dual-threat quarterback will be sidelined for a while at a point when the offense needs all the work it can get to improve.
What could be ahead in the six remaining games for a team that is 3-8 and has lost four consecutive games and seven of eight? Ask yourself how much improvement you thought the Bears would make in a span of four or five weeks after the woeful 12-7 loss to the Washington Commanders on Oct. 13.
A risk is in place when a quarterback is exposed to defenders so regularly in the open field. Fields carried the ball 80 times over the last seven games. Add in 22 sacks over that span and he has taken some shots.
The Bears have made major gains on offense since their “mini bye” after the Week 6 loss to the Commanders. Afterward, coordinator Luke Getsy started sprinkling in more designed quarterback runs to the offense. Combined with the big plays Fields created on scrambles, the offense took off and the Bears became a machine running the football.
The results on the scoreboard were proof. They averaged 31 points over the previous four weeks and scored 24 Sunday. Along the way, Fields has been more efficient as a passer, improving his completion percentage and throwing seven touchdown passes in the previous three games.
Some criticized Getsy for the play calls at the end of the game. Nothing the offense has done at the end of games has worked lately, so it’s all fair to be dissected. Let’s try to figure out the why here. The Bears took over on their 25-yard line and had all three timeouts with 1 minute, 47 seconds remaining. A touchdown drive would have won the game, and they needed roughly 40 yards to get in range for a tying field-goal attempt.
Fields’ run around the left side didn’t work and resulted in a yet-to-be diagnosed injury. Why did Getsy call a run? I think he was probably hoping Fields could find a crease and maybe pick up 10 yards along the sideline before getting out of bounds. I think Getsy figured the Falcons would be looking for a pass and realized what we all have seen — the Bears really struggle to throw the ball from the pocket.
It’s easy to blame the play caller for a play that didn’t work, but let’s examine why — out of everything on the sheet — it was selected. The thing that has produced explosive plays consistently for the offense this season has been Fields pulling the ball down and running. They couldn’t effectively run play action there, and a bootleg only would cut the field in half.
Why run the quarterback draw on second down? At that point, I don’t think coaches figured Fields was potentially injured. They were in the flow of the game, and Getsy probably hoped Fields could find a lane on the inside with the Falcons trying to pin him in the pocket. It didn’t work and he took another hit on the shoulder. I have no doubt Getsy would like both calls back. If he doesn’t, he should, but it’s more productive to discuss the reasoning behind the play calls than the ineffectiveness of the plays.
On third down, Fields was in the pocket and threw much too high for David Montgomery. It went off the running back’s hands, and safety Jaylinn Hawkins intercepted the throw to end the game. Some thought Fields, who jumped a little as he threw, was trying to connect with Mooney, who was behind Montgomery, but he confirmed the running back was his intended target.
“We were in a disguised look,” Hawkins said of the interception. “Did my job and read the quarterback’s eyes. Saw the ball in the air and just made a play. I don’t know who it was, but it was tipped. I took advantage of that. We got the rush to keep him in there, and everyone on the back end did their job.
“He can make something out of nothing. Great player. Great arm talent. He’s a good quarterback. The goal is to keep him in the pocket as much as we could, but he still did his thing out there.”
I’m sure some who were upset with the play calls at the end of the game were ecstatic when Fields ran for 178 yards against the Dolphins and just as thrilled when he ran through the Detroit Lions for 147 yards last week.
“Run him that many times and he’s a running back when he does that,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said.
And he gets exposed to the kind of hits running backs deal with. Now the Bears need to wait and see if he will be available for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.
2. Justin Fields made a couple of pretty nice throws.
I’ll start with the 24-yard shot to tight end Cole Kmet down the seam. The ball was out on time and put in a spot where Fields gave his guy a chance to make a play. And, boy, did Kmet deliver.
“Four vertical concepts,” Kmet said, describing the play. “It was a switch release, EQ (Equanimeous St. Brown) was on the through (route) taking the middle of the field and we had Khari (Blasingame) coming in motion, kind of takes the eyes of the defense to him a little bit. I am just up the numbers.
“So different levels there. Justin was kind of squeezed in that pocket and he got it over the backer there, the defender, and I was able to make a good play on the ball.”
Kmet made a dynamite play, and it stands out because that’s an athletic finish, not a situation in which he was schemed open with the play call and the Bears beat the opponent in the X’s and O’s game. The Bears need to do more of this — give their guys chances to make plays on the ball.
Another opportunity came on the 32-yard shot to Montgomery down the sideline. Fields, who moved to his right to buy some time, made a fantastic throw. He absolutely threaded the needle as linebacker Lorenzo Carter was step-for-step in coverage.
Before that throw, I saw Mooney with man-to-man coverage going deep. I wonder if when the Bears review the play they will point out that’s where the ball could have gone. To me, Fields would be better off taking a one-on-one shot to Mooney than a running back, but for some reason Fields didn’t cut it loose there and bought some time before a really accurate throw to Montgomery.
Until the Fields starts ripping it downfield more frequently, seeing and trusting what is there, he will keep putting up numbers similar to Sunday — 14 of 21 for 153 yards. That came against the NFL’s 28th-ranked pass defense. He has been between 123 and 179 yards in each of the last five games with 13, 17, 17, 12 and 14 completions.
You have to throw to win in the NFL, and that’s one reason the Bears are losing. It’s not the reason, but it’s a factor. And that’s why you can’t underestimate the importance of the remaining games on the schedule, especially as you take note of how Fields has developed some rhythm with Kmet and you want to see more from Mooney and newcomer Chase Claypool.
You can’t push that aside and say Fields and his receivers can get together at the beach and work on timing. That doesn’t do much in comparison with how they can grow in practices and games and maybe if they get another opportunity late in the fourth quarter.
“We just need to do it once,” Kmet said. “We need to execute there at the end. There was a ton of plays throughout the game that we didn’t execute properly. I had a couple I was frustrated with when I came to the sideline and saw some things, specifically in the run game.
“I have said it for the past two, three weeks now: I want these opportunities to do this again, so hopefully we get this chance again next week. We’ve just got to do it once. Once we’re able to do it, it will be a thing that … we just have to learn how to do it.”
3. The Bears have done two things consistently on offense.
They’ve run the ball well and consistently scored late in the second quarter. They suffered a series of mishaps just before halftime Sunday, allowing the Falcons to carry momentum into the locker room.
Fields gained 17 yards on a designed run on third-and-2 to reach the 50-yard line with about three minutes remaining in the half. The Bears were trying to answer Cordarrelle Patterson’s 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and were in good shape. That’s why I was surprised the Falcons called timeout after Trestan Ebner lost 1 yard on the next snap. Why potentially give the Bears more time?
On third-and-8, Fields scrambled again to move the chains, gaining 9 yards to the Falcons 39. Right guard Michael Schofield was called for holding on the next play, which basically did in the drive. The next third-down play wound up being a sidearm attempt from Fields that went off of Schofield’s helmet, which brought on Cairo Santos for a 56-yard field-goal attempt.
Santos entered the game 4-for-4 from 50-plus yards but didn’t hit this ball perfectly, and it fluttered and fell short, hitting the crossbar and bouncing into the end zone. He said his range in pregame was 58 yards, “but everything has to be perfect” from 56, and obviously it wasn’t.
That gave the Falcons the ball on their 46, and the big play in the ensuing sequence came on third-and-6 from the 50. The Bears brought pressure from the second level and dropped some defensive linemen, and former Bears wide receiver Damiere Byrd was wide open for a 19-yard gain.
Yes, defensive coordinator Alan Williams has been more aggressive of late. No, it doesn’t work every time — and this was a prime example. That put the Falcons in position to get a 40-yard field goal from Younghoe Koo as time expired in the second quarter.
That sums up the season to this point. Offense, defense and special teams all combined to make some blunders or failed to deliver key plays at critical moments.
4. The plan, according to Cairo Santos, was to get a kickoff with good hang time so the Bears would be able to cover Cordarrelle Patterson.
The game’s opening kickoff was far enough to Patterson’s right in the end zone that he allowed it to land for a touchback. He returned the next two kickoffs 20 and 24 yards — the Bears covered well. The last kick Patterson got his hands on? It didn’t go so well for the Bears. He motored through the middle, Troy Anderson put a nice block on Bears linebacker Sterling Weatherford and Keith Smith blocked linebacker Matt Adams. Once Patterson cleared Adams, he had safety Elijah Hicks and Santos to beat. Hicks nearly tripped him up just before the goal line and was able to gain ground.
“I was telling some guys on the sideline, like, ‘Who was this guy?’ ” Patterson said of Hicks. “He was like 10 yards back, this little (guy) is fast. I’m glad he didn’t get me, man. He did a good job trying to get me. The rest is history, man.”
It was the ninth kickoff return for a touchdown in Patterson’s career, giving the former Bears returner sole possession of the NFL record after being tied with Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington.
Like some other things on special teams for the Bears of late, it needed to be a little better. Better kick. Better coverage. Santos’ goal was to get good hang time to improve the coverage team’s chances. It’s not as simple as trying to bang the kick out of the back of the end zone. A mishit or line drive that Patterson can could field in the end zone is potentially a big problem.
“He’s taken kicks out from 9-yards deep,” Santos said.
With the bad came some good on special teams. Velus Jones Jr., a healthy scratch the previous two games, took over kickoff return duties with running back Khalil Herbert (hip) on injured reserve and busted off a 55-yard return in the first quarter, setting up the Bears’ first touchdown, a 16-yard pass from Justin Fields to Darnell Mooney.
“I was trying to crib that one,” Jones said. “If I would have had a more vertical cut, I would have been able to outrun them, but they had a tough angle. It’s all good. Good return. Saw (some traffic in) the middle of the field open so I knew back side was open.”
Jones, teammates and coaches said the rookie remained confident after muffing two punt returns in the first six games to lose that job. With a limited role on offense, he was on the outside looking in for two weeks.
“My confidence is out of the roof,” he said. “Just to continue to show these coaches I am the man for the job. Just keep improving and getting better each and every week. That’s all you can do — control what you can control.”
We’ll see if the Bears give Jones another shot at punt returns. Patterson has strictly been a kickoff returner, and some players don’t double-dip in the return game.
“I talked to (Patterson) after the game,” Jones said. “Back in high school, watching that guy, he is dynamic. He’s a playmaker in every phase of the game and he can turn the game around, as you have seen. Hopefully in the offseason, (I’ll) pick his brain. He can probably give me some knowledge in the return game. We’re both Vols (Tennessee Volunteers). Little does he know I was like 100 yards away from breaking his all-purpose record at Tennessee.”
Add in a takeaway on punt coverage — DeAndre Houston-Carson knocked the ball out from the clutch of Avery Williams, and Jack Sanborn recovered — and coordinator Richard Hightower had some definite positives. The Bears just had too many minuses to go along.
5. At the start of training camp, GM Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus were needing the previous regime’s last first-round pick — Justin Fields — to pan out to reboot the franchise sooner rather than later.
Bears fans were banking on former GM Ryan Pace and ex-coach Matt Nagy being right about Fields while blaming them for being wrong about nearly everything else. Along the way, Pace and Nagy probably would be discredited for some things that worked out as well, but hey, that’s how it goes, and we don’t need a history lesson on why change occurred.
It’s a bit of an odd way to think about it, though, with the team and fan base holding out hope the last big move of the former regime would work out. There is no doubt in my mind that when Pace made the move to trade up and draft Fields, he figured it would buy him at least two years to see how the quarterback panned out.
I am sure Pace, who I am told is in the Falcons coaches box for at least home games as a senior personnel member, is happy Fields has shown growth this season. It reinforces the decision to make an expensive trade. It’s not as if the Bears picked Fields from the entire group of quarterbacks in the class. Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars), Zach Wilson (New York Jets) and Trey Lance (San Francisco 49ers) went 1-2-3. Pace held the 20th pick, and it would have cost way too much for him to move into the top three. But with the way Fields has performed, Pace deserves credit for pulling the trigger on a move to get to No. 11 in a deal with the New York Giants. That is where the Bears essentially chose Fields over Mac Jones, who went four picks later to the New England Patriots.
The Falcons were one of eight teams that you can make a case passed on Fields:
- 1. Jaguars
- 2. Jets
- 3. 49ers
- 4. Falcons
- 7. Detroit Lions
- 8. Carolina Panthers
- 9. Denver Broncos
- 11. Giants
The three teams that had a quarterback were the Cincinnati Bengals (5), Miami Dolphins (6) and Philadelphia Eagles (10).
We will see how things pan out for Fields over the remaining six games — and the status of his left shoulder — but the better the Bears perform offensively and with the remaining players Pace supplied, the less Poles will have to do — and he has a LOT to do. The team has 27 touchdowns this season, 22 were scored by players Pace acquired Pace. Wide receivers Dante Pettis (two), Equaniemous St. Brown (one), N’Keal Harry (one) and Velus Jones (one) have the others.
Some players on the offensive line could prove to be part of the future. The only new full-time starter is rookie left tackle Braxton Jones. If the Bears can get extended use out of right guard Teven Jenkins — and he has looked really good when he has been on the field — and Larry Borom, it will be a considerable bonus. Cody Whitehair and Sam Mustipher have figured in. Tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Darnell Mooney could be targets for potential contract extensions after the season.
If in the long run many of the teams on the list wind up regretting the decision to pass on Fields, that would mean Pace made the right decision.
6. I don’t know that I ever have heard the explanation Matt Eberflus gave postgame for why Teven Jenkins was in uniform but didn’t start.
Jenkins went on the injury report a week ago with a hip issue. He was held out of practice Wednesday and Thursday before being listed as a full participant Friday and was listed as questionable for the game.
“So, Teven before the game said, ‘Hey, I’m still a little bit hurt, right? But I’m able to be there as a backup if needed in case of emergency,’ ” Eberflus said. “So that’s where he was today. That’s why he didn’t rotate. If he was a little bit better, we would have rotated him in there. But he wasn’t at that point.”
Why the medical staff would sign off on Jenkins being physically able to play but he wouldn’t is curious to me. That stands out, especially for an offensive lineman. He’s talented and has really taken well to the right guard position this season. He has excelled as a run blocker and really can move opponents off the ball. He can continue to get better in pass protection. Toughness can be measured in playing through the whistle while blocking your man, just as it can be gauged by being available for teammates when not 100%.
Fill-in right guard Michael Schofield had holding and false-start penalties, and I am sure the Bears want to see Jenkins back in the lineup soon. Jenkins recently said he has been dealing with the hip issue since before Week 1. Is Jenkins the full-time right guard when he’s ready, or will he have to split time with Schofield or someone else? I don’t know.
7. Some movement up front could come for the offensive line soon.
Lucas Patrick is eligible to come off injured reserve after sitting out for the minimum four weeks. I don’t know that he’s fully recovered from his toe injury suffered in the Oct. 24 victory at New England.
The other player I remain curious about is Alex Leatherwood. At some point, the Bears have to give him a shot — and more than just a game or two, right? My hunch is he could be slotted in at right tackle, but anything is possible and the Bears have hinted at some positional versatility.
“In practice, we really like where he is,” Matt Eberflus said last week. “He’s really starting to feel his way into that role, playing inside or outside, whatever that is, he’s understanding the offense. And you can really see his confidence start to build. The guys are getting comfortable. He’s starting to take some big steps.”
Offensive line coach Chris Morgan hit some similar notes when talking about Leatherwood.
“He’s starting to get a little more comfortable in the offense, little more comfortable with the calls, and he’s showing some versatility and we’re moving around a little bit,” Morgan said Thursday. “We’re excited (with) where he’s at.”
The Bears have used seven starting combinations on the line and don’t need change for the sake of change. But a chance to see if Leatherwood should be in position to nail down or compete for a starting job in 2023 makes sense to me. It looked as if right tackle Riley Reiff wasn’t moving as well Sunday as as he had the last couple of weeks. Keep an eye out for Leatherwood — failing to evaluate him this season would be a mistake.
8. Bears offensive linemen got a treat Saturday night before their meeting at the team hotel.
Line coach Chris Morgan had friend Jim Stancil serve dinner to the players. On the menu were ribs — a light fare of barbecue, all things considered. Stancil runs Bare Knuckles BBQ out of Covington, Ga., about 35 miles east of Atlanta, and he’s accomplished on the barbecue circuit across the country.
Morgan got to know Stancil when he joined the Falcons as their line coach in 2015, and they quickly hit it off. Big Jim as he’s known — Stancil stands about 6-foot-9 — has a personality to match his stature.
“He cooked for the guys all the time,” Morgan said of his time in Atlanta. “He would literally come in the line room and bring the stuff every Friday, chop it up and we’d eat.”
Stancil has made extensive contacts through football, cooking for the Tennessee Titans, University of Alabama and University of Texas. And he cooked for the Bears for the first time back in the spring during OTAs when Morgan hosted a cookout for linemen at his north suburban home. Stancil had a mass delivery of Big Green Eggs sent to the residence, and Royal Oak shipped a pallet of lump charcoal for the festivities.
On the menu? Just about anything you can think of. Stancil cooked tomahawk steaks “cave man-style,” holding them over the coals. Morgan pulled out his cellphone to show dozens of pictures and video from the event.
“He just bangs the tomahawks in the charcoal,” Morgan beamed. “We got down.”
Said center Sam Mustipher: “There were smokers everywhere. It was electric. Pork belly. Chicken was falling off the bone. Ribs. Tomahawk steaks. Brisket. Coach’s wife made a bunch of sides. There were a few soda pops. Coach does it out of the kindness of his heart.”
Added right tackle Larry Borom: “Some of the best barbecue I have ever had. Legit.”
The Bears ate well the night before the game and can figure Morgan, who dabbles with his own smoker and funds the cookouts, will have more elaborate spreads for his players in the future, maybe even before the linemen cookout in the spring.
“I really do this for my guys,” he said. “It’s easy to me.”
9. The Senior Bowl is quickly adding players for the 2023 game, and 3 Illinois defensive backs have accepted invites to play.
It’s interesting that the Illini have three defensive backs headed to the game because most folks I’ve chatted with believe the strength of their defense is in the trenches — and that is with respect to some pretty good players in the secondary. That proves how good Illinois is on that side of the ball.
Safeties Sydney Brown and Jartavius Martin and cornerback Devon Witherspoon have accepted invites, as has Northwestern defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore.
Of the four invitees from Illinois schools, one scout predicted Witherspoon would be the highest drafted. It’s possible he could have his name called in Round 2. Multiple scouts have said he needs to add a little weight to his frame, which the school lists at 6-foot, 180 pounds.
Martin could be the next off the board of the group, followed by Brown and then Adebawore, who goes by “Tommy.”
“Tweener size (6-2, 280),” a scout said of Adebawore. “Style and skill set are more interior, but he plays the edge and inside. People are going to wonder what to do with him a bit because of his size. but he’s a good player.”
The scout said Illinois running back Chase Brown, Sydney’s brother, also has received a Senior Bowl invite. The game will be played Feb. 4 in Mobile, Ala.
10. The Los Angeles Rams signed rookie guard Zach Thomas off the Bears practice squad Friday.
A personnel man with another team texted and wondered about the Bears losing the sixth-round draft pick before they really got a look at him, but I wondered if the move made sense for Thomas.
He was one of four linemen drafted between the fifth and seventh rounds, and if the Bears have anything, it’s a surplus of young linemen. How many will pan out moving forward? We’ll have to wait and see. Practice squad players are considered free agents. They can terminate their contract at any time, and it’s possible Thomas viewed the Rams as a better situation.
The Bears obviously like Ja’Tyre Carter, a seventh-round pick, a little more. Carter was a left tackle at Southern, but the Bears have shifted him inside and view him as a potentially athletic guard. They are starting rookie fifth-round pick Braxton Jones at left tackle. Rookie center Doug Kramer, a sixth-round pick, is on injured reserve. The team also has three second-year linemen in right guard Teven Jenkins, tackle Larry Borom (who can play inside) and Alex Leatherwood.
That collection of young linemen might have made the Rams a more attractive spot to compete for a job for Thomas. Plus it’s an immediate spot on their 53-man roster.
10a. As for Doug Kramer, offensive line coach Chris Morgan heaped some praise on him when chatting with reporters Thursday.
“Doug does everything for us,” Morgan said. “Remember ‘The Big Lewbowski’ and the rug that kind of ties the room together? Doug is the glue in that room and has a lot of jobs. He does a lot of reports for us and he does a really nice job of knowing his role. He’s a big part of what we do every day.
“Sometimes in other places that I’ve been, guys go down the rehab route and they’re gone and they’re not part of it. These guys here? No. Doug has been all-in. He’s been in every meeting. He’s done an excellent job. Lot of growth.”
Kramer looked undersized for the NFL to me when he was on the field in training camp but has a lot of time to bulk up and compete for a job beginning in the offseason.
10b. If the draft were based on current standings, the Bears (3-8) would hold the No. 3 pick behind only the Houston Texans (1-8-1) and Carolina Panthers, who also are 3-8. There is plenty of time for a lot of movement, and six teams are at 3-7.
10c. Arthur Smith said he hopes the Falcons know more about tight end Kyle Pitts’ right knee in the next day or so. He will require testing after he was chopped down by free safety Eddie Jackson on a hit to the knee in the open field. The Falcons shared their displeasure with Jackson after the play.
“They were jawing at me like it was a dirty hit,” Jackson said. “I’m not trying to hurt him. I’m like, ‘What you want me do to? Hit him in the head?’ He was crouching and I just didn’t want to hit him in the head.”
Jackson knows going high could have led to him being run over too. Unfortunate play. Hardly malicious.
10d. The New York Jets opened as a 4-point favorite over the Bears at Westgate SuperBook.