10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears won their preseason opener Saturday afternoon, rallying from a 13-point deficit to defeat the Miami Dolphins 20-13 at Soldier Field.
1. It sure looked natural for Justin Fields in his preseason debut.
The rookie first-round draft pick didn’t look jittery. If you could see through the visor he wears on his helmet, surely he didn’t have big eyes for the moment. Veteran tight end Jesse James said Fields did a good job of taking control of the huddle, not a small task for a player who didn’t use a huddle at Ohio State.
The action was fluid too. Fields pulled the ball down and moved with purpose, whether he was buying time to seek a receiver downfield or intent on running. His throws were mostly on the mark and his numbers would have been enhanced if Rodney Adams hadn’t dropped one throw across the middle. Numbers don’t tell you a ton in the preseason — Mitch Trubisky completed his first 10 passes in his 2017 preseason debut — but Fields’ were good. He went 14 of 20 for 142 yards with one touchdown (even if it came against blown coverage). He ran five times for 33 yards, picking up 21 on one dash around the left side and scoring on an 8-yard run after identifying man coverage and an opportunity to take off.
More important, Fields passed the eye test. I say that because he didn’t look like other young quarterbacks the Bears have rolled out over the last two decades. There was a different feel to it, and one thing Fields said after the game, after getting seven series in which he helped produce points on three of them, struck me.
“It was actually kind of slow to me, to be honest,” Fields said.
That’s one of the greatest adjustments for quarterbacks as they make the transition from college to the NFL. The pass rush comes at them faster. The linebackers move with the kind of speed college quarterbacks see once, maybe twice a year. There are no undersized cornerbacks that can’t run to pick on in the NFL. Safeties are much better.
“I was expecting it to be a little bit faster, but practicing, game speed, going at it with my teammates every day and of course we have a great defense, so me going against them every day, it definitely slowed the game (down) a little bit for me,” Fields said. “I felt comfortable out there. Of course I have room to grow, so I’m going to try to get better every day.”
Think about that for a minute. The Bears put Fields into a position, on the third series of the game at the start of the second quarter, in which he was perfectly comfortable. The coaching staff will go through the tape and compile a list of things to work on — and they will find mistakes to work through — but it’s evident this isn’t a long-term development project for the organization.
I suspect Fields soon will encounter a game speed that he does find more challenging. After playing with mostly second-stringers and going against second-and third-stringers, Fields will be challenged by a starting defense that isn’t holding its two top cornerbacks — Xavien Howard and Byron Jones in this case — out of the game. Dolphins coach Brian Flores was very vanilla with his defense. He didn’t throw a lot at Fields in terms of blitzes, and I can recall preseason games in which the Bears were absolutely overrun upfront by aggressive play calling — 2010 at San Diego and 2008 at Seattle come to mind. Lovie Smith quickly pulled Jay Cutler from the game against the Chargers, who were blitzing on every passing down. Fields hasn’t been tested with that, and he was going against undisciplined edge players who allowed him to easily escape the pocket by design or as he extended the play.
“He’s a good player,” Flores said. “I know he’s had a great college career, and just seeing him throughout the course of the week, I thought he did a lot of good things, obviously mobile. Somebody you’ve got to be aware of setting the edge and keeping contained and not letting him out of the pocket. I thought he threw the ball well on the run today and really this entire week. He’s a good kid.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders. If he continues to work the way I saw him work this week, I think he’ll be just fine.”
Perhaps the Buffalo Bills will be a little more aggressive Saturday when they come to Soldier Field for the second preseason game. Andy Dalton likely will get more time with the starting unit than the two series he had against the Dolphins. But as Nagy has said, the preseason is about getting Fields experience, and the first adventure in that regard went well.
2. How many different ways do you think Matt Nagy can be asked this week if Justin Fields can push to become the starting quarterback before the Sept. 12 season opener against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium?
We certainly are going to find out. Fields is competing against himself more than Andy Dalton in order to prove he’s ready to play. I don’t believe Fields crossed that threshold in the preseason opener, but if he keeps progressing — and he was excellent in red-zone drills Thursday against the Dolphins in practice at Halas Hall — he’s going to give coaches reason to think about their plans.
Dalton didn’t have enough time to really show anything, and wide receiver Allen Robinson, who was limited last week with a minor hamstring issue, didn’t play. The offensive line remains jumbled.
But seriously, the question when it comes to Fields — when will he be the starter? — is only going to gain steam through preseason if he keeps making gains.
“Keep stacking days like he had today and understanding that, again in this whole process and this plan as we go, what’s the ultimate goal for us as an offense,” Nagy said. “Scoring touchdowns, right? So keep leading the team down, keep getting first downs, keep getting touchdowns. Let us be able to see the whys behind everything. Why did that happen?
“And the more times you have things happen because of that player, meaning Justin or that player because of Andy or that player because of (David) Montgomery or whoever, we know that and we see that.
“It makes it hard on us, and we are going to do whatever is best in the end. Ultimately we are always going to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears. Here we are in Week 1, and we all understand that it was a great first day for Justin at that position. He did awesome. We love that. Now let’s put it together and keep working and improve it and stay consistent with it and let’s take it into the next game when you’re back out there.”
Nothing Nagy said ruled out the possibility Fields could replace Dalton before the start of the season. Will it happen? The coaches aren’t going to make depth-chart changes based on one performance. Way too much planning has been done to reach this point with them preparing for the third week of practice starting Monday morning. If Fields keeps improving, there will be more meetings, more conversations and more reasons to ask the question Nagy refers to: Why?
“Just worry about tomorrow, baby,” Nagy said. “Seriously. That’s all I want him to do.”
3. The Bears didn’t have competition for Elijah Wilkinson at the starting left tackle position until shortly after the game ended.
That’s when Vincent Taylor, the agent for 39-year-old free agent Jason Peters announced that his client has reached agreement on a one-year contract with the Bears. Wilkinson played the majority of the game but has been forthright during training camp that someone who has played primarily on the right side in his career, the adjustment to left tackle has been challenging.
Matt Nagy called Peters, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time All-Pro, competition for the position. Peters would not have agreed to sign with the Bears unless he knew he was going to be the Week 1 starter. I know this: When Peters arrives, he will be the only player on the roster who has started a regular-season game at left tackle.
“O-lines around the league are a disaster this year,” one pro personnel director told me last week. “There are a whole bunch of teams sorting through problems right now.”
My take: The addition of Peters is acknowledgment from the Bears that Teven Jenkins, the player they traded up to draft in the second round, is no longer an option at left tackle — not for the start of the season anyway. The Bears aren’t going to admit as much — they’ve said basically nothing about Jenkins for about two weeks after Nagy initially expressed optimism that the former Oklahoma State Cowboy wouldn’t be out long.
What does Peters offer? We need see him in action to truly get a feel for that. He played for offensive line coach Juan Castillo in Philadelphia, so Peters should adapt quickly to the playbook and already understand what techniques the Bears prefer.
Peters has battled injuries in recent years and played in eight games for the Eagles last season before landing on injured reserve with a toe injury that required surgery. He’s missed 20 regular-season games over the last four years.
“No chance he plays 17 games,” one pro scout said Saturday night. “He doesn’t have much left in the tank at this point but he was a freak of nature earlier in his career. An absolute freak. He’s probably a low, low-end starter at this point at left tackle. He just gets beat too often. But Peters can probably be a bridge for them. What he does is he buys them some more time to figure out what they’re going to do there or what’s happening with the young guy they have.
“He’s still really strong and wide, but what’s declined is his recovery and his agility. So athletic guys can work him on the edge and give him problems that he didn’t have when he was younger. He’s still very powerful, very strong, so he can help in the running game.”
Added one general manager via a text message: “There are just no O-linemen out there right now. Don’t know where he’s at physically right now, but if the last few seasons are an indicator, he’ll probably struggle to hold up for the long haul.”
Nagy and Castillo have praised rookie fifth-round pick Larry Borom for what he has shown in limited action at the position, but Borom has been out with a concussion since the first practice in full pads on Aug. 3. Borom could have a bright future with the Bears. He looked pretty good since the spring but was premature to suggest he potentially could be a Week 1 starter on the left side. Borom was primarily a right tackle at Missouri, and most in the pre-draft process pegged him as a guard in the NFL. He dropped a bunch of weight since the college season ended, and it certainly makes sense to evaluate him as a tackle considering the team is in good shape from guard to guard, at least when James Daniels returns from a quad injury.
It’s impossible to consider Jenkins as an option as he has yet to practice during training camp. Jenkins missed his 13th practice Thursday, and there’s almost no chance he will play Saturday against the Bills even if he is cleared to practice Monday morning when the Bears get back to work. That seems doubtful too.
The Jenkins situation is confusing because the Bears have been tight-lipped about his injury. Nagy said at the outset of camp that Jenkins was sidelined with “back tightness.” The coach indicated Jenkins was making progress at the one-week mark of camp but since has stopped giving an arrow-up indicator with Jenkins’ work off the field. It’s fair to be skeptical when considering the regime that drafted Kevin White in the first round in 2015 said shin splints were sidelining the wide receiver and before you knew it, he was out for the season. The Bears have been quiet about Jenkins, and while the start of the season is four weeks away, he soon could be running out of time to get ready.
The Bears have had some bad injury luck with highly drafted offensive tackles over the last two decades. Chris Williams was selected in the first round in 2008 and lasted two practices before a back injury led to disk surgery. Williams had a preexisting condition that he revealed to me and WSCR-670 AM reporter Zach Zaidman. The team went to the unusual length of making athletic trainer Tim Bream available in a conference call to explain the situation — that the team was aware of Williams’ health and the issue suffered in training camp was a new injury to the same herniated disc. Gabe Carimi was a first-round pick in 2011 and made 16 starts for the Bears at right tackle in two seasons, hobbled by a knee injury suffered after he was drafted. Marc Colombo was a first-round pick in 2002, and a severe knee injury, again suffered after he was drafted, limited him to seven starts (six at left tackle) in three seasons before he landed with the Dallas Cowboys. He went on to have a solid career as a right tackle.
Whoever lines up as the left tackle against the Rams at SoFi Stadium in the opener will be the 16th player the Bears have used at the position since 2000. Charles Leno made 93 starts — the most since the end of Jimbo Covert’s Hall of Fame career — and he was released in May after the trade up to draft Jenkins.
Here is a list of those starters with the number of regular-season starts made since the start of the 2000 season (and the round they were selected in if drafted by the Bears):
- Charles Leno: 93 starts (2014 seventh-round pick)
- John Tait: 44
- Jermon Bushrod: 33
- J’Marcus Webb: 32 (2010 seventh-round pick)
- Blake Brockermeyer: 30
- Mike Gandy: 21 (2001 third-round pick)
- John St. Clair: 20
- Qasim Mitchell: 16
- Frank Omiyale: 14
- Orlando Pace: 11
- Chris Williams: 7 (2008 first-round pick)
- Marc Colombo: 6 (2002 first-round pick)
- Bernard Robertson: 5 (2001 fifth-round pick)
- Jimmy Herndon: 2
- Michael Ola: 2
The Bears have considered some extreme options over the years while largely trying out late-round picks and occasionally dipping into free agency for guys such as Tait, Bushrod, Brockermeyer and Pace. In 2002, the idea was kicked around, at least briefly, to move Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz to left tackle. It never happened, but that’s just one small example of what a scramble it has been. The team started that season with Bernard Robertson at left tackle. Robertson had a poor preseason, was beaten badly on multiple occasions by a then-unknown edge rusher for the Dolphins by the name of Adewale Ogunleye, and things weren’t much better in the regular season. Robertson lasted five games as the starter before he was replaced by Mike Gandy, who was drafted as a guard in 2001.
Some in the organization were hopeful the Bears would find a way to make a move for Peters in 2009. But the Bears traded for quarterback Jay Cutler and signed a clearly declining Pace to play left tackle. The Bills wound up trading Peters to the Eagles for first-, fourth- and sixth-round picks. Peters became a mainstay on the Eagles line and is a future Hall of Famer.
4. One personnel man I spoke with last week reminded me of a good point to keep in mind when considering roster construction and the formation of an offensive line.
General manager Ryan Pace and his top personnel executive, Josh Lucas, came from New Orleans, where the philosophy was to ensure the line could create a good pocket for undersized and super talented quarterback Drew Brees. Brees needed clear throwing windows, and the Saints worked to be outstanding from guard to guard to ensure space for Brees.
The Bears have invested in the interior of their line under Pace. They’ve used second-round draft picks on Cody Whitehair and James Daniels. They extended the contract of 2013 first-round pick Kyle Long. They acted quickly to scoop up Josh Sitton after he was a surprising cut by the Green Bay Packers. The Bears have been modest investors when it comes to the tackle position, making a solid free-agent buy on Bobby Massie to play right tackle. Considering what he was paid and how he performed, that move worked out. They took advantage of a shrewd seventh-round pick of Charles Leno by former GM Phil Emery.
It doesn’t explain why the Bears got into the bidding for Trent Williams before he re-signed with the San Francisco 49ers in March as the highest-paid left tackle in NFL history, but the point the personnel man made is valid and certainly helps explain the thinking that has been behind moves on the offensive line over the years. The Bears feel pretty good about how they align from guard to guard, especially when Daniels returns from his quad injury. Keep in mind that before Daniels went out last season with a torn pectoral muscle, the running game was probably having its greatest success. The ascension of center Sam Mustipher has been a great story for the Bears, and while he had one botched low snap in the game Saturday, he should be better this season. He proved late last year he could effectively handle calls for the line.
It should be noted that while the Saints have invested a lot over the years from guard to guard, they’ve done well drafting tackles in middle and late rounds, getting guys such as Jermon Bushrod, Zach Strief and Terron Armstead. They also drafted right tackle Ryan Ramczyk in the first round in 2017, and he has been an excellent right tackle.
5. Alec Ogletree, signed earlier this month after injuries wiped out the inside linebackers group, performed well.
Ogletree made an immediate impact in practice with six interceptions in the first four days. But a greater premium is going to be placed on preseason tape, and he was solid with four tackles, including one for a loss, and a pass deflection. Ogletree looked like a starter and has a great opportunity to make this roster even if he can’t be much help on special teams. If he can play at this level, he could push Danny Trevathan for a starting job. Trevathan has been out with a sore knee, and Ogletree has a little more juice.
It wasn’t that way for the 2013 first-round pick of the St. Louis Rams who was traded to the New York Giants. He got heavy when he was playing there, and it reflected in his play. On the FOX-32 broadcast, they said Ogletree was about 20 pounds lighter when he came in for his most recent visit with the team than he was in an initial trip to Halas Hall. Ogletree, who turns 30 next month, was on the New York Jets’ 53-man roster for only two games last season.
At a minimum, defensive coordinator Sean Desai could find ways to use Ogletree in certain personnel groupings when the Bears want to have two linebackers on the field, and Ogletree could replace Trevathan.
6. Charles Snowden had a sack and two quarterback hits against the bottom of the Dolphins depth chart.
The outside linebacker was an interesting prospect out of Virginia, an undrafted rookie who is 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds — the kind of length that jumps out at you for an edge rusher. Snowden suffered a season-ending ankle injury last fall that limited him in preparing for the draft. He was a second-team All-ACC selection last year after posting six sacks, four which came in an upset of North Carolina.
If nothing else, Snowden is an intriguing developmental project at a position in which the Bears are in need of some cheap reserves who can fill in for depth. Along those lines, Trevis Gipson, the fourth-round pick from 2020, had some quality rushes off the edge as starters Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn made only brief appearances at the start of the game.
“The one thing about Charles, and this is a little bit different than Trevis, coming out of college, Charles was an outside linebacker, so he didn’t have to make a position change,” said outside linebackers coach Bill Shuey, noting that Gipson was a defensive end at Tulsa. “What I’m seeing with Charles is he’s a smart guy and he has some of those experiences. It’s really about building confidence and helping him connect the dots on some of the things we’re doing here so he can play fast.
“We sat down and watched some of the tape from 2019 and early 2020 at Virginia and looked at how he was able to catch an edge and the burst and the speed, and as he came in here and he started going and he’s thinking, didn’t see that the same way. And he was well aware of that, and he was the first one to admit that. And so now … we’re starting to see some improvement from him as the confidence is growing and he’s playing. … He’s a tall guy with good length, and he’s using that to his advantage now.”
Snowden’s height also can be a disadvantage when it comes to needing to bend the corner at the top of his rush and defeat the tackle en route to the quarterback. It’s much easier for edge rushers who are 6-2 or 6-3 to sink their hips and turn the corner.
“It’s a good point,” Shuey said. “The length can be a strength or a weakness, and it’s up to him to make sure that as he’s working these drills and he’s developing that he plays with good knee bend and those types of things so it becomes a leverage to his positive as opposed to him standing up and down and that leverage works against him and that height works against him.
“But the other part is, with the length in terms of the edge and the rush that can be an advantage for him also and then in coverage, in open space, sometimes you get some smaller guys out there and they might have some good change of direction, not that Charles doesn’t, but just the length. If you catch a ball in front of him at 6-7 and with long arms, it’s hard to just run around that guy. … We’re trying to make sure that length is more consistently to the plus side than used against him.”
7. Tarik Cohen is missed, especially in the punt return game.
Cohen remains on the physically unable to perform list nearly 11 months removed from suffering a torn ACL in his right knee in the Week 3 road victory against the Atlanta Falcons last season. Nagy suggested on Aug. 3 that Cohen was “weeks” away from being ready and later that week tried to walk that comment back, but Cohen still hasn’t been cleared to practice.
Nagy has said repeatedly that Cohen is busting his butt in rehabilitation to get back into action and is at practice every day. From my vantage point, is it doesn’t look as if Cohen is walking with a normal gait. Could that be because he’s reaching the practice field shortly after working in the weight room to improve the knee and the muscles around it? Perhaps. I only can go off of what I see daily at practice, and Cohen hasn’t been made available to media.
The Bears don’t have a proven punt returner on the roster, and Jordan Lucas and Jon’Vea Johnson each had a muff in the game. On Wednesday, during a particularly windy practice, the players being rolled out by special teams coordinator Chris Tabor had difficulty fielding kicks from left-footed Dolphins punter Michael Palardy.
The Bears had a revolving door of punt returners last season after Cohen’s injury. A couple free agents are available, including Dwayne Harris, who was with the Bears last season for a bit. Unless Cohen returns soon, keep an eye on this position for a potential roster move.
8. Duke Shelley is the front-runner for the nickel position.
Shelley started there and then transitioned to the outside at left cornerback later in the game, getting a lot of playing time. Shelley took advantage of his opportunities with a team-high six tackles and one pass breakup.
He’ll face a greater test from Bills quarterback Josh Allen on Saturday than he got from the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, but the Bears believe defensive coordinator Sean Desai’s background coaching the position will help the team navigate through some speed bumps at the position.
9. It’s great that high school football is back for this fall.
Maybe it’s not completely normal with COVID-19 still a real issue, but it’s great for young athletes to have the opportunity again. So many high school coaches make lasting impressions on teenage athletes, and most NFL players can tell heartfelt stories about coaches who made a real imprint on their careers and lives.
It’s great that a good number of former NFL players choose to get involved as prep coaches. Philip Rivers is coaching high school football in Alabama a year after retiring from the NFL. Former Bears fullback Jason McKie is the coach at Carmel High School in Mundelein. Former Bears safety Todd Johnson was a coach in Sarasota, Fla. Others help out as volunteers.
Bears special teams ace DeAndre Houston-Carson can speak to the impact of his high school coach at Massaponax High School in Fredericksburg, Va. Eric Ludden is one of 32 nominees for the 2021 Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award.
“I talked to Coach Ludden to this day, and that is one thing he does a good job of as well as his staff as far as letting you know they care about you as a person and not just a football player,” Houston-Carson said. “That’s why they have had so much success. Just doing things the right way. He always says team before me, things along those lines, and that’s the kind of thing I’ve taken with me to my NFL career.
“He deserves it. He’s one of the best coaches I have ever been around.”
Houston-Carson, who had an interception against the Dolphins on Saturday, was a wide receiver, running back and defensive back in high school before moving on to William & Mary, where he played in the secondary. He’s the second NFL player Ludden coached.
Charlie Garner was an All-State running back and defensive back at J.E.B. Stuart High School when Ludden was the school’s offensive coordinator. Garner went on to a Pro Bowl career in the NFL. Ludden has a 213-147 career record, ranking tied for 34th in Virginia for all-time victories. He’s 182-98 at Massaponax since 1998.
10. Scouts are back on the road in greater numbers this season after COVID-19 greatly reduced travel in 2020, including wiping out the preseason.
Scouts from the Ravens, Bills, Las Vegas Raiders, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers were at the game.
10a. It will be interesting to see if the Bears find any players on the Dolphins roster they like when cuts are processed before the start of the regular season. Two joint practices gave the coaches and the front office and extended opportunity to evaluate fringe players on Miami’s roster.
Remember in 2016 the Bears claimed cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc off waivers from the New England Patriots following a preseason game and joint practices with the team in Foxborough, Mass. LeBlanc turned into a pretty solid nickel cornerback for the Bears, went on to win a Super Bowl ring in Philadelphia and now he’s with the Dolphins after signing a contract late last month.
10b. Punt coverage was not good in the game. The Bears gave up 104 yards on seven returns by the Dolphins, and that is definitely an area the team will want to clean up. It’s really difficult to simulate live special teams action in practice but I’d expect the team to devote meeting time and drills on the field this week to shore up some of the breakdowns they had.
10c. Rough game for wide receiver Javon Wims with a bad false start penalty when the offense was backed up deep in its own end. He didn’t have any catches. Riley Ridley, another former draft pick fighting for a job, made one reception for 17 yards.
10d. Nagy surely wants more plays for his offense next week. The Bears had only 51 snaps as seven of their 12 possessions went three-and-punt, including the first five. The more reps they get, the more film there is for evaluation.
10e. Undrafted rookie free agent kicker Brian Johnson has next to no shot to unseat Cairo Santos, but he’s been steady through training camp and he nailed a 43-yarder in the preseason game. He could be a candidate to stick around on he practice squad, especially with COVID-19 concerns.
10f. It was great to see fans back in the stands at Soldier Field. The energy was real. Stay safe, everyone.