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Emma’s Tailgater: Bears can draw perspective, reality from Lions’ resurgence

7 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Coach Matt Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles believed they could bring the Bears a deep roster of talent and create a winning culture that would serve as their foundation. Above all, they set their sights on winning the NFC North and sustaining that place at the top. 

As it turns out, first place in the NFC North may have already been claimed for years to come. On Sunday, the Bears (3-7) will look to snap a 10-game divisional losing streak when they meet up with the leading Lions (7-2) at Ford Field.  

Once a perennial punchline, Detroit is home to one of the best teams in the NFL. Coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes have built the Lions into a formidable team that seems poised to stay at the top of the division. 

The Lions haven’t won a division title since earning the NFC Central crown in 1993 and have enjoyed just eight winning seasons since. They are the only NFC North team against which the Bears own a winning record. 

Times have changed in Detroit, which has rallied around its winning Lions. Campbell, an unconventional hire at the time, has led a remarkable turnaround that is offering Super Bowl hopes in his third year. Campbell is the fiery leader of the NFL’s upstart contenders. 

“You can see his fingerprint on that football team,” Eberflus said of Campbell. “You can see the way they fight all the way through 60 minutes and they battle all the way.” 

The Lions truly began their resurgence during a game last November at Soldier Field, overcoming a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to earn their first road victory under Campbell’s watch. Detroit has been victorious in 15 of its last 19 games. The Bears are 6-21 under the watch of Eberflus, an embattled head coach whose future faces uncertainty this offseason. 

The trajectories of these two division rivals was underscored back in March when David Montgomery, the Bears’ lead running back for the last four years, spurned a similar offer in Chicago and signed with the Lions.  

The Bears haven’t made Montgomery regret his decision. This has been a turbulent season at Halas Hall that has called this team’s direction into question. Barring a convincing turnaround from the Bears in these final seven games of the regular season, new president Kevin Warren must decide whether he will press forward with Eberflus and Poles into 2024.  

Warren must determine whether the Bears can measure up to the standard of their division. Right now, that team is the Lions.

But the Bears can at least draw inspiration from the Lions, once a lost franchise that has combined talent with culture. Campbell and Holmes have formed a style of play and identified players who fit. Their regime began 4-19-1 before marking 15-4 since early last November.  

Without the results to show, Eberflus continues to highlight how the Bears have handled their challenges this season. 

“I’m really proud of the way our guys really fought through the adversity, how they hung together the entire way,” Eberflus said. “And they’ve always been the same every single week in terms of their work ethic, in terms of their determination and their positivity, and I commend those guys for that.” 

Eberflus wasn’t exactly interested in heaping praise for Campbell and the Lions, but the Bears have looked to Detroit with an appreciation for that turnaround. Back in September after an ugly loss to the Chiefs, quarterback Justin Fields said in a cramped room inside Arrowhead Stadium that the Lions’ turnaround last season should remind of how fortunes can quickly change in this league. 

Just as a team can rapidly rise to the top in the NFL, they can fall so fast as well. Such is the parity that this league provides. It’s a reminder that the Lions’ reign of the NFC North could be fleeting if Campbell and Holmes lose grasp of what has brought their success.  

Fields is set to return this Sunday after a four-game absence with a dislocated thumb and the Bears have nearly a full complement of players for these final seven games. A grand turnaround seems quite unlikely, though so too is what the Lions have accomplished over the last calendar year. 

Eberflus and Poles remain hopeful that they still have the Bears on the rise as part of their rebuilding plan – perhaps just one year behind the Lions and ready to soon claim the division. Given their draft capital, the Bears might be closer to catching the Lions than the Packers or the Vikings.  

However, lasting success still seems so far away for the Bears. They aren’t just missing that one piece.  

To take the North and never give it back, the Bears first must solidify a deep roster and a winning culture. That’s what the Lions can claim as the top team in this division. 

Defining stretch for Fields 

Over the course of these critical seven games to come, Fields can either redefine his tenure with the Bears or reinforce the need for a change.  

Fields is set to return as the Bears’ starting quarterback following a four-game absence due to a dislocated right thumb. With that comes a lasting impression ahead of this pivotal offseason. 

Poles and his scouting brass have already begun work in assessing this promising quarterback class, traveling to see the likes of Caleb Williams (USC), Drake Maye (North Carolina) and more. The Bears are anticipating one and potentially both of the first-round picks to be near the very top of the 2024 NFL Draft.  

Poles could be facing the chance to select his own quarterback to lead the Bears forward. What Fields still has left is the chance to prove his place – although he isn’t making those intentions public. 

“Just go out there and win games,” Fields said. “I’m not here to prove anything to anybody. I’m playing for my teammates, playing for the coaches and that’s it. Everything else will take care of itself.” 

Fields was selected by the Bears with the 11th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, tabbed by former general manager Ryan Pace and his brass with hopes of becoming a franchise quarterback. These three years for Fields have been marked by instability, inconsistency and now injury.  

There have been flashes of brilliance and glimmers of hopes, but nothing to leave a lasting impression. 

“I think seven (games) is enough time to show consistency and being the high performer that we expect him to be,” his coach Matt Eberflus said. 

The 24-year-old Fields has completed 60.1% of his career passes for 5,313 yards, 35 touchdowns and 27 interceptions over 33 games. This season, he has completed 61.7% of his passes for 1,201 yards, 11 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. His 2023 campaign is highlighted by a two-game stretch in early October during which he threw for 617 yards and 8 touchdowns. 

Over the last month since Fields was first sidelined with the thumb injury, there have been calls for backup Tyson Bagent – the undrafted rookie out of Division-II Shepherd – to take over as the Bears’ new starter. 

Fields once heard the boos for Andy Dalton as he was waiting in the wings as a rookie two years ago. Now, he is listening to pleas for Bagent to replace him. 

“That’s the world we live in nowadays,” Fields said. “Everybody wants to cause a stir, cause media attention, boom, boom, boom, comments, stories. That’s just what comes with it. But I knew that was going to happen from the get-go. So, it came to me as no surprise.” 

If the regular season ended last week, the Bears would be set with the first overall pick in the draft (plus the No. 5 overall slot). They would be casting their sights on Williams or Maye and preparing to start anew at quarterback. Fields would likely be traded away by March. 

There is nothing guaranteed for Fields beyond these seven games left in the regular season. It’s perhaps his last opportunity for a future as the Bears’ franchise quarterback. 

Cornering towards success 

Rookie Tyrique Stevenson was selected by the Bears in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft with the belief that he could become a shutdown cornerback. His first season has been a struggle at times. 

Stevenson has surrendered 49 completions for 513 yards and 7 touchdowns over 10 games. That means his opposing targets would rank among the top receivers in the NFL. 

Despite the highs and lows of this first year, Stevenson hasn’t lost confidence in himself. 

“I can play,” Stevenson said. “I can play. I’m one of the best in the nation or I wouldn’t be here. Just learning that I can play in the league. I got the talent and the opportunity enough to be one of the best players in the league.” 

The Bears haven’t lost confidence in Stevenson. They trusted him in a starting role early in training camp and have put him out there for all 10 games thus far. 

These are learning experiences for Stevenson, who was targeted 17 times by the Raiders during the Oct. 22 game at Soldier Field. All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams was shifted to Stevenson’s side of the field, where he allowed eight receptions. One week later, the Chargers posted 12 catches on 13 targets against Stevenson. In the following game, the Saints connected on all four targets against Stevenson. 

Stevenson allowed just two receptions on six targets during the victory over the Panthers, adding to his six pass break-ups on the season. 

“You can see him progressing,” said Bears cornerbacks coach Jon Hoke. “Yes, he’s going to get targeted because he’s a rookie and yes, he’s going to get targeted because Jaylon Johnson is playing at such a high level on the other side. All those things factor in. At the end of the day, he’s going to learn from all of it. As any football player in the National Football League that plays a long time, you’re going to have good and bad. As long as you continue to learn from that, you will improve.” 

What the Bears know Stevenson has for his side is an immense self-belief, which is vastly important in playing cornerback in the NFL. It’s especially critical when there have been such ups and downs as a rookie. 

Stevenson and the Bears believe this is all part of his growth towards becoming a stifling cornerback. 

“I’m one of the best rookies in the league right now despite everything that’s going on,” Stevenson said. “Then I just feel like I have some flashes of what’s there to come. I feel like eventually, I’m going to be one of the best corners in the league.” 

Tough hand for Whitehair 

When Cody Whitehair made his first NFL snap as a rookie back in 2016, Jay Cutler was the Bears’ starting quarterback and John Fox was the head coach.  

Whitehair is now on his third head coach and the Bears have started a dozen more quarterbacks since Cutler. He has been asked to switch positions multiple times over and experienced just one winning season through eight years in the NFL. 

The 31-year-old Whitehair has been a model of consistency for the Bears, missing just seven games of a possible 124. He has started all 117 games for which he was healthy, a run that is expected to end Sunday. 

With the return of Nate Davis, the Bears are planning to reshuffle their offensive line with Davis reclaiming his place at right guard and Teven Jenkins shifting back to left guard. Lucas Patrick has asserted himself well as the starting center. That leaves Whitehair as the odd man out – forced into a reserve role for the first time in his career. 

Given his contract structure, Whitehair is a candidate to be released this offseason. It’s a difficult part of this game that’s impacting one of the Bears’ most beloved players. 

“He’s been having a big impact on how I carry myself and became a pro,” said Jenkins. 

The Bears haven’t ruled out a possible rotation at right guard as Davis reacclimates to his role following this month-long absence. That could offer an opportunity for Whitehair, who would also be the first reserve up for an interior role. 

With Whitehair stepping back from a starting role, the Bears feel for a trusted veteran who has been counted upon for eight years. 

“Cody has been a true pro,” Eberflus said. “Obviously, a captain here for many years. (He has) had a great long career and is still going to continue to help us as we go.” 

All-Pro aspirations 

Jaylon Johnson isn’t willing to settle.  

Johnson is still working towards his hope of being awarded a lucrative long-term contract extension and striving for his goal of being recognized as an All-Pro cornerback. 

He feels like that respect is coming. 

“I know I’m playing the game at a high level,” Johnson said. “That’s it.” 

The 24-year-old Johnson is enjoying a career year, with a pair of interceptions – including a pick-six during an Oct. 22 win over the Raiders. He has surrendered just 8.8 yards per completion and 5.4 yards per target. Quarterbacks have just a 64.5 rating against Johnson. All of those marks are the best he has posted over four years in the NFL. 

Representatives for Johnson met with the Bears late last month in October with hopes of striking a contract agreement. One day later – on the eve of the NFL’s trade deadline – Johnson formally requested a trade.  

That deal never came to fruition as the Bears sought a first- or high second-round pick in exchange for Johnson. 

Johnson is playing out the final year of his contract with hopes of proving himself as an All-Pro cornerback – and not just showing it to the Bears. 

“I mean, all 32 (teams),” he said. “At the end of the day, man, I still got goals before any of this contract stuff came up. I dreamed as a kid to be an All-Pro. I play this game, I train, I put myself through hell during the offseason to be an All-Pro. It’s not just, ‘Oh, I want to do it just because.’ Nah, I’m a man and I compete and play the game at a high level and that’s what it’s about. I know it’s going to come with that when I do get it and that’s that.” 

No. 1 pick watch 

For a second straight year, the Bears could boast claim to the first overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. 

The Cardinals (2-8) vacated that position with a 25-23 win over the Falcons last Sunday, this after the Bears beat the Panthers (1-8) on Thursday night at Soldier Field.  

The Panthers are a half-game ahead of the Giants, Patriots and Cardinals, who would select in that order thanks to descending strength of schedule. However, Carolina has one fewer game in hand than those three teams. 

The Bears would also own the fifth overall pick, though they have one more game in hand than the Packers, Rams and Titans, each 3-6 on the season. 

According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears presently own a 44% chance of landing the first overall pick in next year’s draft. 

Injury report 

QB Justin Fields (right thumb) — Barring a setback, Fields will make his return from a four-game absence. 

RG Nate Davis (ankle) — After missing four games with a high ankle sprain, Davis is ready to return. The Bears are intent on him starting at right guard Sunday. 

LB Tremaine Edmunds (knee) — Edmunds was running and testing out his mobility this week for the Bears’ training staff. He’s progressing towards a return. 

RB Khalil Herbert (knee/shin) — Following a five-game absence with a high ankle sprain, Herbert is expected to return Sunday. 

RB D’Onta Foreman (ankle) — Foreman suffered an ankle injury during last Thursday night’s game, but was able to play through it. He’s still nursing the injury this week. 

Quote to note 

“I don’t know if I can lie about that. It is. But it’s cool to see, honestly – to see a team, how it’s transformed itself over the past couple of years.” 

–Bears tight end (and lifelong Bears fan) Cole Kmet, on whether it’s weird to see the Lions in first place after their years of struggles. 

Emma’s Prediction (7-3): Lions 28, Bears 19 

There’s a path to victory for the Bears if they can win the turnover margin and avoid self-inflicted woes. But the Lions are the better team here and will pull through for a victory at Ford Field. 

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