Emma’s Tailgater: Evaluating where Bears stand 6 games into new regime
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Rookie general manager Ryan Poles has denied that the Bears are rebuilding during his first year leading the front office at Halas Hall. He has publicly shot back at that term, even if the process occurring privately would suggest a rebuild.
“The rebuild thing is, like, super sensitive,” Poles said back in April. “We’re constructing a very good football team. Regardless of how you use whatever term that is, we just continue to add talent.”
Poles never appreciated the notion that the Bears would prove to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season, even if he chose not to publicly fight back at those claims. He envisioned a competitive team that would be elevated by head coach Matt Eberflus and his staff while boasting hopes that second-year quarterback Justin Fields could lift the offense around him.
Privately, Poles felt the Bears would be better than this — a 2-4 record and discouraging performances through six games. Eberflus also seems perplexed by what he has witnessed during his first season as a head coach at any level.
The Bears hoped this season could serve as the foundation for a brighter future. In 6 games thus far, it seems those goals are not being met. Is this team well behind in its planned path forward?
“I think it’s harder to answer,” Eberflus said when posed with this question. “I would just say we are where we are.”
Evaluating where the Bears presently stand must start with the 23-year-old Fields, whose statistics tell the troubling story. He has completed 54.8% of his passes for 869 yards, 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in 6 games.
While it’s easy to simply point towards Fields’ poor supporting cast on offense, he has struggled with elements of timing and processing that are key in his development. Fields admitted he can become “antsy” in the pocket as he often speeds through reads in coverage and becomes overwhelmed with pressure. He has taken far too many hits but also is seeing ghosts.
Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko have reminded Fields to slow down in the pocket.
“The experience of playing the position is the only way you get that,” Getsy said.
While the Bears can point to their running game as a significant positive, the offense as a whole has struggled because of Fields and the personnel in the passing game. Top target Darnell Mooney hasn’t emerged as the No. 1 wide receiver Poles hoped he would find, catching just 17 passes for 241 yards and no touchdowns. The Bears haven’t developed a true second target for Fields.
The Bears have lacked stability on their offensive line, which has certainly played a part in Fields’ struggles. Veteran Lucas Patrick was supposed to bring stability up front. Instead, Pro Football Focus grades him as the team’s worst starting player. Perhaps the most positive performer for the Bears’ offense this season has been right guard Teven Jenkins, whom Poles seemed intent on trading during training camp.
The Bears rank 31st in scoring, 28th in total yardage, 32nd in passing yardage and went 0-for-3 in the red zone during their 12-7 loss to the Commanders at Soldier Field. They found ways to lose a winnable game.
On defense, Eberflus’ identity has required patience in installing. The Bears have forced just 8 turnovers in 6 games, failing to consistently meet their head coach’s most important goal. They rank 29th against the run and have failed to contain elite running backs.
Bears linebacker Roquan Smith hasn’t proven himself as the $100-million player he hoped to become during offseason contract negotiations. Rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon has endured major growing pains. Veteran pass rusher Robert Quinn has just 1 sack this season and has seen his trade value plummet since the offseason.
There have been challenges for the Bears as they’ve fought through this difficult first season with Poles and Eberflus. They have been told of being “close” to success and are finding it hard to believe.
“We always get told that we’re almost there, almost there,” Fields said after that gut-wrenching loss to the Commanders. “Me personally, I’m tired of being almost there. I’m tired of being this close. I feel like I’ve been hearing it for so long.”
Until there are better results on display, it’s difficult to paint a rosy picture of these Bears. They are a young football team clearly mired in a rebuilding process that will prove more challenging than anticipated.
The Bears sure don’t seem close to success through 6 games this season.
Patience will be necessary as they work to lay this new foundation.
1. Belichick’s challenge
Part of what makes Patriots coach Bill Belichick the greatest of all time is his ability to adapt his scheme. He’s a brilliant tactician who’s constantly evolving his game plan.
There are countless quarterbacks who have succumbed to Belichick’s defensive mind during his 28 years as an NFL coach and previous experience as a defensive coordinator. Belichick presents a daunting test for Fields and the Bears, who must handle the Patriots’ defensive presentation before even taking a snap.
Under Belichick’s watch, the Patriots often disguise pressures and create pre-snap headaches for young quarterbacks. For the Bears, studying for Belichick presents its own challenge.
“Really understanding which personnel is out there,” Patrick said. “He’s very good at making things seem different but they’re really the same. It’s a very complex defense in personnel usage that he has in where guys play. But you have to understand what each player might be trying to do in that defense and attack him that way.
“This is a week you really have to understand numbers, personnel, what is typically their base position — but they can flex a bunch of guys in different positions. It’s really studying personnel and understanding which package is out there for defense.”
Belichick’s game plan will almost certainly prioritize challenging the Bears’ struggling offensive line with pressure and continue to force Fields out of the rhythm of this offense.
For his part, Fields admitted that he has struggled with the timing of his progressions. The true struggle for Fields in his second season has been often feeling pressure when he has time to make a play — the natural distrust that comes with a poor offensive line.
Belichick knows well how he can make Fields uncomfortable and create a defensive game plan that will truly test the Bears.
This has been the hallmark of Belichick’s Hall of Fame football run.
“He’s able to do what he’s done over the course of the length of his career,” Eberflus said. “Take away a guy’s strength and make him play left-handed. That’s his whole motto of what he’s been able to do. We’ve seen it in the Super Bowls and seen him in playoff games do it. Even when he was D-coordinator of the Giants, you saw him do it there. It’s been a stellar career and he’s been able to do that over the long haul.”
2. ‘Need to be better’
It’s not clear how the Bears could realign their starting offensive line, this after the mini-bye break allowed for some re-evaluations. But as blame is being cast on that group, the veteran Patrick is pointing as his own performance.
“I personally need to be better for this team,” said Patrick, who signed a two-year deal with the Bears in March. “What I was brought in here to do and perform, I have not been playing to my standard, point blank. Just trying to work at it. I do commend this offense for how we work day in and day out, week in and week out. There’s a ton of juice and practice and so much want-to. There’s a lot of things we’re doing right. Sometimes, breaks don’t come your way.
“It’s a different approach, but there’s no excuses in this game. If I’m in there playing, the guy I’m going against doesn’t care. Whether I’ve had 1,000 snaps, one snap, playing left, right, whatever, I have to perform. I’m going to work at performing at a higher level.”
Patrick served as the Bears’ starting center during the offseason program before suffering an injury to his right hand. He began the season at right guard, working in a rotation with Jenkins. He moved to left guard when Cody Whitehair suffered a knee injury during the Oct. 2 game at MetLife Stadium.
Patrick could now shift back to center, with Sam Mustipher moving out of the starting lineup. It’s part of the Bears’ hopes to better protect Fields.
“If we keep him clean or we give him a rush lane to sneak out, he’s a very special player,” Patrick said of Fields. “We have to live up to the standard that we have in our room and really help him become the elite player that he is. You can’t change my mind that that guy is not a future stud in this league. The way he throws it, the way he’s consistent, the way he’s run, just his positive personality.
“We just got to be better for him because he deserves it.”
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3. N’Keal vs. New England
There’s a cruel bit of reality that must first be acknowledged with wide receiver N’Keal Harry, whom the Bears acquired from the Patriots in July for a seventh-round pick.
Belichick is typically not proven wrong when he parts ways with a player. He knows culture better than any coach in the NFL — and when a player is cast aside from the Patriots, there’s typically good reason for that. So, the arrival of Harry to the Bears certainly deserves skepticism.
A first-round pick to the Patriots in 2019, Harry had just 57 receptions for 598 yards and 4 touchdowns over 33 games in New England. He never caught on as Belichick had hoped, and was dealt for the minimal cost of a seventh-round selection. But the Bears believe in the 24-year-old Harry, who cried tears of joy upon learning in July that he was receiving a fresh start in Chicago.
After returning from injured reserve following an August ankle injury, Harry is expected to make his debut with the Bears on Monday night against his former team in New England.
“I’m trying not to get too caught up in it being the Patriots and it being my former team,” Harry said. “I’m obviously excited.
“I’m worried about right now going forward and helping this team win.”
With the Bears struggling on offense, they hope Harry can add an important presence at wide receiver. He’s an imposing figure at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds who can provide a mismatch in coverage against smaller defensive backs.
“He’s looking good,” Eberflus said. “He’s really worked well. We’re excited where he is, physically.
“He gives you that big body receiver that has a big catch radius that does a nice job on the perimeter too.”
4. ‘Phenomenal’ DHC
There are few players — if any — inside the Bears’ locker room who command the level of respect that veteran DeAndre Houston-Carson does.
Houston-Carson — a reserve defensive back and core special-teams player — will serve as an honorary captain for the Bears on Monday night in New England, a recognition his coaches feel is richly deserved.
“He’s done a lot for the Chicago Bears over the years,” Eberflus said. “He’s been a consummate pro over the years. And man, he works every day. He’s everything we stand for in terms of work ethic, being a good teammate and we’re excited for his opportunity to do that.”
Houston-Carson has been with the Bears since he was drafted in the sixth round back in 2016, playing 1,629 special-teams snaps for Chicago.
“DHC is phenomenal,” Bears special-teams coordinator Richard Hightower said. “You want to put a helmet on a guy and say this is a Bear? That’s DHC. His work ethic is phenomenal. He’s smart. Very intelligent player.
“He’s like having an extra coach, honestly.”
Quote to note
“We’ve all heard that we’re moving in the right direction, but we really got to find a way to stop the bleeding.”
—Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson
QB Justin Fields — While there were no players formally listed on the Bears’ injury report, it’s worth noting Fields was dealing with some pain following that loss to the Commanders last week. He checked out medically and practiced in full. Now, the Bears have to keep him healthy.
Emma’s Prediction (5-1): Patriots 28, Bears 16
There’s no greater mastermind in the NFL than Belichick, who is ready to present challenges for Fields and the Bears. This is such a difficult matchup and it’s hard to imagine a victory for Chicago.