Hoge’s 10 Bears Things: Rest of season is about Justin Fields originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
The Bears are technically only one game behind the Vikings for the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC — with two games left to play against Minnesota.
They’re also in 14th place in the NFC with six teams between them and the Vikings. Oh, and they have a 2-4 conference record with back-to-back games against the Cardinals and Packers — currently No. 1 and No. 2 in the NFC, respectively — coming up.
Playoffs? No way. With six games to go, the rest of this season is about what it’s always been about — the development of Justin Fields.
And that’s where we start this week’s 10 Bears Things:
1. Fields (hopefully) has six more games to develop
First, Fields needs to get healthy after suffering cracked ribs nine days ago against the Baltimore Ravens. The Bears have given off a relatively optimistic vibe regarding a quick return for Fields, but we’ll get a better idea of his status on Wednesday when the first injury report comes out. He was relegated to side work in Monday’s shortened, indoor practice.
Fortunately, there’s no gray area regarding the quarterback situation right now. Bears head coach Matt Nagy has made it clear that Fields will start when healthy. Andy Dalton had a solid game in Detroit on Thanksgiving, but he also threw an end zone interception and the offense still only managed 16 points.
And that’s where we need to be clear about something: If you ever have an inkling or a thought that Dalton should remain the Bears’ starting quarterback… just stop. Stop it.
At 4-7, there’s no reason to have a veteran quarterback on a one-year deal playing over a rookie on a four-year contract. There’s limited time on these rookie deals and the Bears need to know what they have in Justin Fields as soon as possible. Each and every snap from these final six games matters for Fields — assuming he’s healthy enough to play.
While Nagy will continue to face questions about his job security over the next six weeks, the most important coach on the staff right now is probably quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. He’s done a pretty good job with Fields so far this season and everyone in the organization has to hope that the rookie continues to show progress between now and Jan. 9.
2. Players playing for Nagy
As is often the case in these scenarios, it’s not a stretch to say the locker room is no longer unanimously supportive of Nagy as the team’s head coach. That said, he might have more support than you think.
Veteran safety Eddie Jackson came to his coach’s defense Monday at Halas Hall, especially when it comes to the constant “Fire Nagy” chants that rung out at Bulls games, Blackhawks games, a wrestling event at Wintrust Arena, and even his son’s high school football game.
“All the booing and all the stuff that I see on social media, at his son's game, that type of stuff, I feel like it's gotta be tough, but for him to come in and still lead us and not show any signs of weakness or letting that affect him, that says a lot about him and his character,” Jackson said. “For us, for him to be our leader, just to fall behind what he's doing. I feel like it's tough, but he's handled this situation very well.”
When asked if he feels like he’s playing for Nagy’s job, Jackson said:
“I feel like we’re playing for each other. This is a team effort. Coach Nagy has had our backs since the first day he walked in here, so I feel we owe it to him, and I feel like a lot of players feel the same way, that we owe it to him, we owe it to Chicago to go out here and play our best ball.”
3. Makeup of roster paid off in Detroit
As ugly as things got last week, it was obvious the Bears’ makeup of the roster helped them push through and get a win against the Lions. No one is handing out trophies for beating a winless Lions team (although FOX’s Tom Rinaldi did present a silver football to Dalton) but it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Bears go through the motions on Thanksgiving Day. They didn’t.
“Some people say, ‘Well, you talk about the culture and it doesn't matter, it doesn't help you win,’ but it does certainly help in times like what we've gone through. And not just this year but any time you lose in general you want people that are going to support each other,” Nagy said on Friday. “I think it's safe to say the past several days have been a higher level of distractions. And so when you have people that trust each other and believe in one another, it starts with the relationship that Ryan (Pace) and I have, and then what we've done.”
Pace made a priority in 2015 to build a roster with good character and professionalism and, with a few exceptions, that has been the case. The problem is, the Bears still haven’t won enough games and the goal should be to have a team that doesn’t need to push through major distractions in the first place.
Nonetheless, the Bears just ended their third lengthy losing streak in three years. We’ll see how they finish the season now.
4. Roquan Smith’s status is crucial
The Bears’ defense has been decimated by injuries this season and the loss of Roquan Smith would be the worst of the bunch at this point — yes, even worse than losing Khalil Mack.
Smith is the unquestioned leader and quarterback of the defense and he’s been playing with a ferocity unmatched on the field. Lions running back DeAndre Swift learned that the hard way when he suffered an injured shoulder on Smith’s hit in Detroit. Unfortunately, Smith left with a hamstring injury after that play. He was present at Monday’s practice, but just did side work.
“I don't know if people truly understand who (Smith) is as a leader of this team. Not just the defense but the team in general,” Nagy said. “He's a big part of this thing. His true professionalism, the respect that he has from his teammates, from his coaches, it's rare. And he's only been getting better every year and this year is probably his best year.”
5. A touch of Cohen in the offense
When Jakeem Grant arrived in Chicago after an early-season trade, he made it clear he wanted to be more than just a returner. Given the complexity of Matt Nagy’s offense, he wasn’t going to be able to contribute right away until he got up to speed, but we’ve now seen his offensive snap counts rise in recent weeks.
After playing eight offensive snaps against the Ravens, he received 19 against the Lions and delivered two catches for 25 yards. He also received a carry in each of the last two games, which has given the offense a similar type of weapon that they used to have in Tarik Cohen before he suffered a torn ACL last season.
“There’s a little of that. I could see that. That’s a good comparison,” Nagy said. “Jakeem is somebody that for his size and his stature, he’s super-tough, being able to run back on kickoffs and punts. And now we’re able to move him around and do different things. You know, when was here with Miami in the (training camp practices), you could see there’s some really good clips of him running some great routes on the outside. But when you get him on the inside and you put him at the running back position, you get him mismatched on the safety or a linebacker. You can do different things. They gotta know where he’s at … I think that’s a good comparison.”
It’s possible that Grant’s usage in the offense is just a trickle-down effect of Allen Robinson not playing in the last two games, but it’s not a stretch to say the Bears have missed Cohen as an “adjustor” that creates mismatches and helps identify man or zone coverages at the line of scrimmage. At this point it would be surprising if Cohen returns this season, but Grant is showing flashes of filling the void.
6. Making sense of Cairo Santos’ recent misses
It’s not necessarily a cause for panic, but kicker Cairo Santos has now missed a kick in four straight games. One of those — the shortsighted 65-yard attempt in Pittsburgh —shouldn’t factor into the equation, but he missed an extra point against the 49ers, a 40-yard field goal against the Ravens and then surprisingly came up short on a 53-yarder indoors in Detroit.
“I chunked it,” Santos said after the Lions game. “It was kind of like the last thing I had in my mind that it was gonna be short, especially indoors, so I kind of chunked it, the turf there. It was dead straight. I just didn’t get the juice, so it was just dumb.”
For his part, Santos didn’t blame the ill-fated 65-yard attempt in Pittsburgh — which ended a streak of 40-straight made fields goals — for getting him out of his groove, and he still made three other field goals against the Lions, including the game-winning 28-yarder at the buzzer to win.
“Especially with me going through the last couple of weeks, this week was an important week to just kind of everybody coming together and just believing in each other,” Santos said. “Me just keep going though myself and kind of get some of the dumb misses out of the way and just kind of catch fire again.”
Still, as the weather turns colder and windier at Halas Hall, Santos’ consistency is something to monitor.
7. The Double Defer
You know the Double Doink. Now there’s the Double Defer.
We should have known the Bears-Lions game would be a weird one as soon as we witnessed the coin toss. Christian Jones represented the Bears as their special teams captain as he returned to Detroit, where he played the last three seasons. If nothing else, Jones provided us with a humorous moment in a game that featured two teams with a combined 3-16-1 record at kickoff.
I know it’s a coin toss I won’t ever forget.
8. A crazy rule explained
Continuing with the Thanksgiving wackiness, the game featured an odd moment in the first quarter when a Lions punt bounced off the helmet of cornerback Bobby Price and bounced an additional 21 yards downfield before officially being downed by Detroit at the 26-yard-line.
The initial touch of the football by Price is considered “first touching” and typically gives the return team a free chance to return the ball with no consequences. That’s why you might have noticed that Bears returner Jakeem Grant ran after the ball after it hit Price’s helmet. Had Grant picked it up and been tackled — or even fumbled the ball — the ball simply would have gone back to the spot of “first touching.”
That’s why it was extremely confusing when the officials called the Bears for holding and marked the penalty from the spot where the football was downed instead of the spot of the first touching. With the penalty, the punt from Lions punter Jack Fox flipped the field position 80 yards.
Both Nagy and Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor needed an explanation from the officials and once they heard it, they didn’t argue. That’s because the rule is written like this:
In other words, the penalty trumps the “first touching,” because first touching isn’t technically a penalty. And it seems like an odd loophole because of the way the ball bounced an additional 21 yards. Typically the punt would still be downed in the neighborhood of the first touching.
But one important thing to point out: there still wasn’t a risk for Grant chasing down the football after it hit Price’s helmet. Had he turned the ball over, the Lions would have had to decline the holding penalty for the turnover to count and by declining the penalty, “first touching” would still be enforced, which would then return the football back to the Bears.
Got all that?
Yes, it’s extremely convoluted. And it makes you appreciate all the nuances of the rules that officials have to know. No wonder they get so many calls wrong.
9. Peanut punches show up
One thing that was good to see against the Lions? The Bears punching the football out. Both Jaylon Johnson and Robert Quinn forced fumbles with textbook “Peanut Punches,” made famous by former Bears cornerback Charles Tillman.
The Bears jumped on both loose footballs, but only one counted as a turnover because safety Tashaun Gipson was out of bounds when he scooped up the first loose ball.
10. Opponent look ahead
The Bears haven’t had it easy with their schedule this season and they blew the big opportunity they had to face the Ravens without Lamar Jackson. The next two weeks look especially tough and it starts with the Cardinals on Sunday at Soldier Field.
Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Monday that he’s “hopeful” quarterback Kyler Murray (ankle) and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) return this week. Both missed the last three games, but had the benefit of the bye week to rest up before this game against the Bears.
The Bears will wear their orange alternate uniforms Sunday. And no, I don’t know why they didn’t wear them on Halloween when they hosted the 49ers.