Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields told reporters after a 21-20 preseason victory over the Cleveland Browns that he “for sure” was thinking about his first trip to FirstEnergy Stadium last season — and how much better Saturday’s outing went.
“I was of course thinking about that,” Fields said with a smile. “I am glad 95 (Myles Garrett) wasn’t playing today. But I’m glad we came out with a (win) today for sure.”
Fields’ answer provided a good summary of how to feel about the Bears’ third straight preseason victory — satisfaction with a dose of reality.
It was a nice, confidence-building win for Fields, who threw three touchdown passes in five drives and wasn’t sacked.
But it wasn’t against the full-strength Browns defense, which sat — among others — Garrett, the monster pass rusher who had 4½ of the Browns’ nine sacks in Fields’ first career start in 2021 under previous Bears coach Matt Nagy.
With that in mind, here’s our three-phase review of Saturday’s win.
Reason for optimism: Entering Saturday, the only points the first-team offense put up in four drives against the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks was a Cairo Santos field goal.
So for Fields to lead three touchdown drives while completing 14 of 16 passes for 156 yards was a big development. After a 22-yard scoring pass to Ryan Griffin and a 12-yarder to Dante Pettis, the highlight was a 24-yarder to a wide-open Cole Kmet as Fields rolled to his right and patiently waited for the right moment.
Notably on the first scoring drive, the Bears didn’t allow themselves to get derailed by Griffin’s holding penalty, which set them back to first-and-20 at the Browns 49-yard line. Fields quickly made up the yardage, hitting Pettis for 14 yards and Kmet for 8 before the touchdown pass to Griffin.
[ [Don’t miss] ‘Turning point’ or tease? QB Justin Fields and the Bears offense gave the outside world plenty to debate. ]
Running back David Montgomery also got his first preseason action, which included a bruising finish to a 13-yard run on the second touchdown drive.
Afterward, multiple players — from Fields to Kmet to left guard Cody Whitehair — talked about how they can carry the momentum into the season.
“It is just execution on all parts,” Fields said. “The O-line did a great job protecting today. I told them that multiple times. The receivers did a great job with scramble drill, just running the right routes at the right depth and stuff like that. Just protection-wise, run the football and that will open everything up with play action and our bootlegs.”
Reason for concern: This is more of a reason for caution than concern, but the aforementioned absences on the Browns defense were noteworthy. In addition to Garrett, pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney and cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II sat out.
Garrett and Clowney combined for 25 sacks last season. So the Bears offensive line, which has been under so much scrutiny this preseason as the team tries to find the right combination, didn’t face the Browns’ most potent pass rushers.
And the first series, a three-and-out, wasn’t good. Fields had to throw the ball away under pressure on third-and-11.
“We have to come out better, faster and come out swinging,” Montgomery said. “I did not come out hot on the first drive, but we all picked it up and managed to come together and put some drives together.”
While the first-team offense didn’t have any turnovers, the second team had ball-security issues, with quarterback Trevor Siemian and running back De’Montre Tuggle each losing fumbles.
[ [Don’t miss] Who will make the 53-man roster? Brad Biggs’ 10 thoughts after the Bears’ 21-20 win in the preseason finale. ]
Worth noting: On the Bears’ second drive, Fields scrambled 9 yards for a first down and slid to get down with Browns defenders closing in. As Fields was on the ground, linebacker Jacob Phillips dived in with a hard hit to the quarterback’s head, prompting Bears offensive linemen Whitehair and Sam Mustipher to leap to Fields’ defense.
Phillips was called for unnecessary roughness, a 15-yard penalty that helped the Bears on their first touchdown drive. Fields has lamented not getting such calls in the past, including on a late hit by Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill in the first preseason game, so he was satisfied it was called Saturday.
“Hopefully it does not have to be that egregious next time for them to call it,” Fields said.
Reason for optimism: The Bears were missing five defensive starters but held the Browns to six first-half points.
Even though starting cornerback Jaylon Johnson was out, Bears corners made several key plays to stifle the Browns and quarterback Jacoby Brissett, including on back-to-back plays in the second quarter.
On second-and-1, Kindle Vildor tackled D’Ernest Johnson for a 3-yard loss. On the next play, rookie Kyler Gordon, playing in his second game, dived to break up a pass to David Njoku and force the Browns to punt.
[ [Don’t miss] Teven Jenkins has been through a wild month with the Bears — ‘a roller coaster and a mix of emotions.’ Now he might win a starting role. ]
On the Browns’ next drive, Greg Stroman Jr., who has been trying to earn a roster spot, intercepted Brissett’s pass to Anthony Schwartz.
Vildor later broke up a deep third-and-11 pass to former Bears wide receiver Javon Wims, while Stroman knocked down a pass to Wims on a two-point conversion attempt that would have given the Browns the lead in the fourth quarter.
Reason for concern: Saturday’s game was supposed to be weak-side linebacker Roquan Smith’s preseason debut after he missed 3½ weeks of training camp while conducting a “hold-in” waiting for a new contract that never materialized. But Bears coach Matt Eberflus said Smith experienced “tightness” before the game.
Smith’s absence wasn’t ideal as the Bears hoped to get him some game experience at his new position next to middle linebacker Nicholas Morrow. But as long as Smith gets healthy in the next two weeks for the season opener — and general manager Ryan Poles told the broadcast team he thought everything would be all right — the Bears don’t seem too concerned about him not playing in the preseason.
“This guy is a good player — a really good player — and he’s played a lot of football,” Eberflus said. “He’s got a lot of snaps under his belt. Just like (Robert Quinn), they have a lot of snaps and they’ll be ready to go.”
The Bears sat a healthy Quinn because they didn’t see a need to play the veteran. Eberflus was vague on the absences of Johnson and safety Eddie Jackson. The Bears won’t release an injury report until next week, so it’s worth watching who practices this week.
[ [Don’t miss] Column: Is the Bears offense as bad as the 0-16 Lions of 2008? Mike Martz says QB Justin Fields has little chance. ]
Worth noting: As NFL cutdown day approaches Tuesday, several fringe defensive players were working for final roster spots.
Stroman and Lamar Jackson were among those looking to make one final impression as backup cornerbacks. Stroman had the interception, two passes defended and four tackles. Jackson, who received the start in place of Johnson, had five tackles and a pass defended.
Defensive lineman Trevon Coley, who has played four seasons in the NFL, joined the Bears at the beginning of August and finished the preseason with a team-high three sacks and six quarterback hits along with two passes defended. He had two of the Bears’ three quarterback hits Saturday.
Will any of those performances be enough to make it past cuts Tuesday?
Reason for optimism: After the Bears’ first drive stalled at their 19-yard line after three plays, rookie Trenton Gill punted 58 yards and the Bears got the Browns down at the Cleveland 32.
Gill averaged 48.6 yards on five punts with a net average of 42.6 and one inside the 20. He also rotated kickoff duties with Santos.
Reason for concern: Santos was perfect in his first two preseason games on four field goals and four extra points.
But his only field-goal attempt Saturday — a 48-yarder in the fourth quarter — hit the left upright. He made three extra points before that.
Worth noting: With Velus Jones Jr. out with an injury and Dazz Newsome cut, Pettis had two punt returns for 17 yards. It will be interesting to see whether the Bears’ trust in him as a returner — coupled with a solid showing on offense Saturday — will earn him a roster spot in a wide receivers room that has many injuries.
Pettis had three catches for 37 yards, and Fields praised him for his play on his touchdown catch.
“Pretty much one-on-one, little bit of inside leverage, so just stayed patient on his route and of course he ran a good route,” Fields said. “He is a great route runner, probably one of the best ones we have on the team. He executed the route perfectly and I threw the ball to him.”