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Emma’s Tailgater: Bears have emerged from rebuild with foundation set for future

2 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Brick by brick, as Tremaine Edmunds believed, the Bears could see this all built to last.

Edmunds was compelled by what the Bears had planned back in March when he was one of the top free-agent defenders available on the open market. There were opportunities for him across the NFL, though this one would be different. Edmunds felt he would face the opportunity to lead this team forward from the difficult stages of a rebuild to the opening of their competitive window.

After five years with the Bills and many wins under his belt, Edmunds believed he could help the Bears with their own turnaround. Through the struggles of 2022 to the onslaught of adversity early this season, the Bears have finally emerged from their rebuilding phase and taken their step towards success.

“I think guys are starting to feel that,” said Edmunds, a key leader and captain for the Bears this season.

The Bears (5-8) head to Cleveland on Sunday looking to win their third straight game – and vying for their fourth victory over the last five games – as they battle the Browns (8-5) along the shores of Lake Erie. It’s perhaps the toughest test left for a team that is truly believing it can still make the playoffs.

Following the Nov. 27 win over the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium, veteran safety Eddie Jackson first stated the goal of winning out to mark a 9-8 regular season – the type of record that should position the Bears for a wild-card seed in the NFC’s playoff bracket. It seemed to be a longshot at the time, and still certainly is a daunting task, though last Sunday’s win over the division-leading Lions made it ever so slightly more possible.

However, what matters most is that the Bears believe it can happen. After so many heartbreaking losses over the last several seasons, this team has closed out consecutive games against NFC North foes. The Bears have played with leads and finished off quality opponents.

“The guys in this locker room truly believe what type of team we are, and we truly believe that we can beat anybody,” said running back D’Onta Foreman. “Now, we’re just standing on that.”

A seven-year NFL veteran, Foreman signed with the Bears on a one-year deal in March with the understanding of this team’s long-term plan. He knew that this was a team that had finished 3-14 in 2022 and was still working through the infancy of a rebuild.

Foreman understood there would be challenges ahead this season. He couldn’t have imagined all that would unfold. The Bears opened with an 0-4 record, including a gut-wrenching collapse to the Broncos in early October. The team’s defensive coordinator Alan Williams and running backs coach David Walker were cast off due to violations of conduct set by human resources.

In early October, the locker next to Foreman’s at Halas Hall became empty after receiver Chase Claypool called out his coaches and was cast off from the team.

There would be more losses to come, plenty of challenges to endure and a season that tested everybody inside their facility. To their credit, the players inside of the Bears’ locker room held their heads high with hopes that there was a reward to come – veterans like Edmunds and Foreman, but also emerging leader like second-year safety Jaquan Brisker.

“It hasn’t always been great,” Brisker said. “But guys have been wanting to come in working, grinding, wanting to turn this around.”

Said veteran center Lucas Patrick: “This place deserves I think what’s coming to us.”

On a late September afternoon inside a cramped room at Arrowhead Stadium, quarterback Justin Fields pointed to the rival Lions and what they accomplished last season as hope for the Bears. Detroit opened the 2022 campaign at 1-6 but finished out with wins in eight of its final 10 contests. The Jaguars last season were 3-7 before winning six of their last seven games and winning the AFC South.

The Lions and Jaguars are both in first place this season and set up for sustained success because of how their players and coaches overcame the growing pains of their respective rebuilds. For the Bears, those aren’t just inspiring stories they’re grasping. These are shining examples of what could be unfolding.

Over the course of these final four games in the regular season, the Bears are fighting for their future. This team is now standing on the foundation of its rebuild and ready to win.

“I think everybody has the same mindset – that we can do this, we can be successful, we can beat whoever we go up against,” Foreman said. “If we continue to have that mindset, I think the sky’s the limit for the rest of this season and going into next year.”

Seeking fair treatment for Fields

As a hard-hitting safety who’s waiting to deliver a punishing blow to an opponent, Jaquan Brisker must also know where the line is within the rules. The Bears are preaching to stay disciplined defensively and avoid late hits that would draw penalty flags.

But Brisker sees the line being crossed on his own quarterback, Justin Fields. It has happened time and time again, with the 24-year-old Fields scrambling out of the pocket and utilizing his top-flight speed in the open field.

Fields knows well to get down with a slide and avoid taking a vicious hit that could knock him out of a game. But what often follows is a hit towards the helmet as he slides to the ground. On the very first play of last Sunday’s game at Soldier Field, Fields was hit towards the head while sliding as Lions linebacker Jack Campbell came in after the play.

No penalty flags were thrown from the officiating crew. As Fields took more late hits, there were still no calls made.

“I think they should just treat him fair,” Brisker said. “He is a quarterback. I know he’s 230 (pounds) and he runs a 4.3 (40-yard dash time), but it doesn’t really matter. He’s still a quarterback and we have to protect him. It’s disappointing.

“One of those hits, God forbid, could be something very bad. So, I think the league needs to get on that and notice that.”

Along the Bears’ sidelines, Matt Eberflus said he has pleaded for calls to be made when Fields takes a hit. But the mild-mannered Eberflus is not one to make a scene against the officiating crew. However, he did plan to send in those plays to the league for hopes of clarity as to why these calls are not made.

For his part, Fields is also working with the officials to get these calls. He will inform the referee prior to the game to watch for late hits, adding that he has no intentions of pulling a fake slide that deserves a hit from the opponents.

“I really can’t do anything about it,” Fields said. “So, get up and move on to the next play.

“It’s just kind of frustrating.”

Fields has rushed 89 times for 458 yards and two scores over nine games this season. In 2022, he set rushing records for a quarterback as part of a campaign in which he ran for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns.

Running is going to be part of Fields’ game. But it’s also a risk that puts him in harm’s way. That’s why he is looking to slide as an opponent barrels down on his rushes.

The Bears have been quick to Fields’ defense when he does take these late hits.

“‘1’ is a special player, but he’s even a better person,” said Lucas Patrick. “I think people are starting to see how much this locker room has his back.”

Fields has played 36 out of a possible 47 games over the course of his three years in the NFL, missing 11 contests due to injuries. Only one of those injuries – a ribs injury as a rookie in 2021 – was related to a rushing play.

Thus far, Fields has not missed any plays or games because of a late hit. But the Bears fear that without fair protection for their quarterback, he is at heightened risk of being knocked out of a game. It’s why they’re calling for Fields to garner stronger care from the game officials.

“The league has to protect the quarterback,” Brisker said. “And we’re going to protect ours all the time.”

Bears vs. game-wrecking Garrett

Justin Fields knows well what type of threat Myles Garrett can be on Sunday.

When Fields played his first NFL start in September of 2021, he was sacked nine times by the Browns – including 4.5 times by the prolific pass rusher Garrett. The Bears suffered an embarrassing 26-6 loss that day, one in which they managed just 47 net yards of offense.

It was a disappointing day for the Bears and their prized quarterback prospect Fields, who was lucky to emerge unscathed.

“Just being back in Ohio, first start, everybody excited, and then of course getting sacked, too,” Fields recalled of that day. “Hopefully we can change that going back this weekend.”

The Bears simply didn’t have a proper plan to protect Fields, and Garrett took advantage. He faced far too many one-on-one rushing attempts and consistently blew up plays. That game was led by a different Chicago coaching staff and regime.

The Bears recognize that their opportunity to claim a win in Cleveland begins by keeping Garrett away from Fields on Sunday.

“He’s a freak,” said right guard Teven Jenkins of the All-Pro Garrett. “I mean, that’s what he is.

“His explosiveness, quickness and just overall play strength is otherworldly, really.”

Garrett has 13 sacks through 13 games this season and is on pace for his fifth Pro Bowl campaign. He is the leader of a Browns defensive identity that ranks first in the NFL in opponents’ yardage surrendered. But Cleveland is missing key lays on defense, including leading tackler Grant Delpit and pass rusher Ogbo Okoronkwo.

Fields has thrown for 609 yards and 2 touchdowns over 3 games since returning from a right thumb injury, adding 221 rushing yards and a score. He has continued to reveal growth along the way and guided the Bears to progress.

Facing the Browns brings a different type of test for Fields and the Bears, and that starts with Garrett.

“He’s the best defensive player on the field,” Fields said. “So, you’ve got to know where he is at all times – every play.”

In the hunt

Playoffs? Playoffs?

Early this season, it would’ve seemed completely inconceivable for the Bears to be playing in the postseason. But there’s still a glimmer of hope for these final four games of the regular season.

The Bears (5-8) stand technically one game behind the rival Packers (6-7) for the seventh seed in the NFC’s playoff bracket. However, there are five different teams vying for the final wild-card spot at 6-7, plus the upstart Giants (5-8) and quarterback Tommy DeVito.

The Bears own an 8% chance at making the playoffs, according to the New York Times’ metrics. Of the teams they’re competing against for a playoff spot, only the Giants (2%) have a worse mathematical projection.

But the Bears are motivated by the prospect of winning out with six consecutive victories and marking a 9-8 season. They have stacked a pair of divisional wins together and are now looking ahead to Sunday in Cleveland.

The Bears finish out with games against the Browns (8-5), Cardinals (3-10), Falcons (6-7) and Packers (6-7).

But nobody in the Bears’ locker room is looking past Sunday in Cleveland.

“I think the awesome part about the NFL is it doesn’t allow you to do that,” said Lucas Patrick.

The Bears have approached this lofty goal with the understanding that one loss would crush their postseason hopes – meaning each game must be approached as if it’s a playoff game.

At the very least, the Bears have positioned themselves with meaningful games down the stretch of this season.

No. 1 pick watch

The Bears can start making their plans in earnest for the first overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

With four weeks remaining, the Panthers (1-12) are two games worse than the Patriots and Cardinals (3-10). That means the first-round pick sent from Carolina to Chicago is slated at the top of next year’s draft order.

The Bears have a 94.9% chance of selecting with the No. 1 overall pick for a second straight year, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The selection from the Panthers is all but locked in the top five with four games remaining. The No. 5 overall slot in the draft is presently occupied by the Bears, who are one of six teams with a 5-8 record.

The Panthers take on the Falcons (6-7) on Sunday, then close out with games against the Packers (6-7), Jaguars (8-5) and Buccaneers (6-7).

Injury report

WR DJ Moore (ankle) — It’s just a precaution to have Moore rest his ankle, which was rolled up during last Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. He’ll be good to go.

S Jaquan Brisker (groin) — Brisker has dealt with a number of injuries this season, including a previous groin injury. His status for Sunday is in question.

WR Equanimeous St. Brown (pectoral) — This is a multi-week injury for St. Brown, who will not play Sunday in Cleveland.

LB Noah Sewell (knee) — This has been an injury that has tested the rookie Sewell.

Quote to note

“The guys in this locker room truly believe what type of team we are, and we truly believe that we can beat anybody.”
– D’Onta Foreman

Emma’s Prediction (9-4): Bears 24, Browns 19

The Bears are an improving football team, and their work to this point is now being rewarded with wins. So, here’s a third straight victory that bolsters the hopes of a surge towards the playoffs.

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