10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears rallied in the second half to open the season with a 19-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in sloppy conditions at Soldier Field.
That’s fitting after the Bears grinded out a victory in less-than-ideal conditions and on better-than-usual turf. Can you imagine what a previous surface would have looked like after a game with that much rain?
It wasn’t pretty, and the first half, at least offensively, was downright ugly. Everyone has seen more than their share of 30-minute starts in which the Bears offense was unable to reach the end zone.
The 49ers did a good job of winning the field-position battle through two quarters, but despite controlling the action, they couldn’t get a big cushion on the scoreboard. The Bears played with an uncommon level of poise for such a young roster. They had 11 rookies on the active game-day roster, one first-year player (reserve center Dieter Eiselen, who was flexed up from the practice squad) and six second-year players. That’s 18 of the 47 players in uniform, a huge number of young players.
But it was the 49ers who made the kind of mistakes you see young teams make. They committed 12 penalties for 99 yards — many of them costly mistakes in a close game — and the Bears finished plus-1 in turnover margin with free safety Eddie Jackson making his first interception since 2019 and cornerback Jaylon Johnson punching the ball out of Deebo Samuel’s clutch at the Bears 12-yard line before rookie strong safety Jaquan Brisker fell on it.
The points coach Matt Eberflus has been driving home from day one in his comments to the media and to his players were measures that his team played with.
“We always tell the guys, ‘Hey, we have mental and physical stamina for what reason?’” Eberflus said. “And it’s because of the way we practice and the way we play, and we’re able to stay focused when it is the second half, in those critical moments, and they can play and be focused in those moments. So that was really good.”
Chairman George McCaskey entered the locker room shortly after the game, which I can’t recall seeing him do in the past. Maybe it was to congratulate the general manager, Ryan Poles, and coach he hired in January. Maybe it was to take in the scene of a jubilant locker room. Maybe it was for some unrelated reason. Whatever the case, it was interesting.
So, too, were McCaskey’s comments Friday in a wide-ranging interview that included team President Ted Phillips that Tribune beat writer Colleen Kane was part of. McCaskey was asked how he will measure success for the team this season with the Bears beginning a rebuilding process.
“Wins are always a gauge of success and progress,” McCaskey said. “Beyond that, I’d like to see some of the themes that Matt has been emphasizing — discipline, smart play, hustle, swarming defense, takeaways, going for the ball. Three-and-outs. Getting the run game going. Minimizing mistakes. And learning from mistakes. He talks about getting better each week. That’s a good gauge.”
Run through that checklist — a list that makes sense — and the Bears were the better team in every phase Sunday against a quality opponent that played in the NFC championship game not long after the Bears finalized the hirings of Poles and Eberflus.
The ground game wasn’t great and the 49ers did a good job of corraling David Montgomery (17 rushes for 26 yards), but offensive coordinator Luke Getsy remained committed to it and the offensive line provided some cracks in the second half that Khalil Herbert took advantage of.
Mix in some nice runs by Justin Fields on scrambles, the busted 51-yard touchdown pass to Dante Pettis and a nice decision and throw for a touchdown on third-and-2 from the 49ers 19-yard line, and the Bears came up with a formula for victory. Niners quarterback Trey Lance was battered and looked skittish way too often, dropping his eyes in the pocket.
Eberflus talked about a 24-hour rule — and that’s in every coach’s playbook. Enjoy the victory and then be prepared to report to work Monday and turn the page to the next opponent. One thing is for sure, it’s a lot easier to coach corrections coming off a victory than it is a loss.
“We’ve got a lot of young players on our squad (and) they need to take what they have learned from this game and get better,” Eberflus said. “Good, bad or indifferent, they have to get better. And our individual (practice period) on Wednesday will reflect that. Whatever they’re working on, we’re going to have a good 15, 20 minutes of individual (time) to work on the fundamentals because that’s what wins football games. That’s going to be a big part of what we do here as coaches as we make these corrections from this game.”
This might sound like straight coachspeak and come across as a little monotonous, but it’s something Eberflus has referenced before and it’s worth explaining here. He is willing to sacrifice snaps in team periods — 11-on-11 football — to make sure his players are dialed in on technique. It’s something that Eberflus believes in and that the Bears will stick with weekly.
Before we get into the 51-yard touchdown pass to Dante Pettis, it’s important to note the defense did its part. The 49ers led 7-0 when they got the ball to start the third quarter. Jauan Jennings got free behind rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon for a 44-yard gain on third-and-6, and pretty soon they had first-and-goal at the 5-yard line.
A touchdown there would have created what looked like an insurmountable lead given the way the first half went on offense. Roquan Smith stopped Jeff Wilson for a 3-yard gain on first down. Jaquan Brisker dropped Wilson for a 2-yard loss on the next play, and Smith and rookie defensive end Dominique Robinson — more on him in a bit — combined to sack Trey Lance on third down, forcing a 25-yard Robbie Gould field goal.
The Bears got some nice breaks on the ensuing possession that led to the Pettis score. First, 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw was penalized 15 yards for a facemask infraction after a run for no gain by David Montgomery on third-and-4. That’s a punt there without the penalty.
On the next snap, former Bears safety Tashaun Gipson dropped a potential interception on a pass to the boundary to Equanimeous St. Brown. Montgomery ran for no gain, and it was third-and-10 from the Bears 49-yard line with the Niners in Cover-3.
Pettis was running an in-breaking route on the back side and Darnell Mooney was attempting to clear the middle of the field by running a seam route. Fields had a check-down to tight end Cole Kmet early in the play. It’s a decision Fields could have made — get Kmet the ball and see if he can break a tackle to move the chains.
Fields’ eyes were downfield when he felt pressure. Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead ran a twist/stunt from a tilted front designed to create one-on-ones. Bosa slanted inside and Armstead went upfield. Left tackle Braxton Jones eventually dropped his head, and Bosa did a quick arm-over to apply pressure. That’s when Fields spun out.
“I honestly didn’t see where (Fields) was when I turned around,” Pettis said. “I saw everybody flowing that way so I figured he was over there, but I couldn’t see what was going on. All of a sudden it kind of opened up a little bit and I saw him stand up to throw.”
By then, the underneath curl defender, Greenlaw, had vacated the space. He had no idea Pettis was behind him and when he saw Montgomery move to the middle of the field, he pursued Montgomery. There was no one left for the 49ers as cornerback Charvarius Ward left to take Mooney on the seam route. Safety Talanoa Hufanga came down as a hook defender and was just running around.
There was no one within 30 yards of Pettis, and if the Niners are going to blame anyone, it’s probably Greenlaw. He has to find someone to plaster and realize there could be a player behind him.
“Normally, no one throws it back across the field like that,” Pettis said. “I think everyone just flowed with Justin when he rolled out, completely just forgot about me and left me alone, disregarded (me). Whatever it was.”
Pettis waved his arms as if he were stranded on a beach and wanted to get the attention of a plane flying overhead.
“I couldn’t believe (how open I was),” he said. “I literally looked around for a second and I was like, ‘I really am this open.’ Normally there is someone behind you.”
Pettis said there are basic rules to follow on broken plays when it turns into backyard football. Nothing sophisticated. See if you can find an open space where the quarterback can get you the ball.
“It’s more like guidelines,” Pettis said. “Every team has them. They’re like general scramble rules. If you’re the low receiver, you go high. If you’re the high receiver, you go low. Or if you are low, you push up a couple yards and break back down. You normally don’t try to work back across the field to the quarterback.
“Those are just generic rules that everybody basically goes by. I don’t know if it was from playing basketball or something, (but) being able to find spaces is relatively easy for me. Being able to feel that space.”
St. Brown was able to make a key block as Pettis neared the end zone, and it turned into a huge play for an offense that had mustered only 74 yards on its first 33 snaps.
“Even after that play we’re still up and we’ve got full control,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said. “We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot with bad penalties. What was it — 100 yards (actually 99) in penalties? That’s not winning football. We were minus-1 in turnovers. Those things will always hold up forever in ball.”
The 49ers might have felt like they remained in total control with a 10-7 lead, but that slipped quickly. At the end of the third quarter, the Bears started a possession on their 16 and Fields immediately hooked up with Byron Pringle for a 22-yard pass along the sideline. The 49ers would have gotten off the field after stopping Fields on a third-and-9 run that gained 5 yards, but Ward was called for holding, another costly penalty.
A second roughing call against Fields, this one on linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, gave the Bears another 15 yards, and pretty soon Fields hit St. Brown for an 18-yard touchdown when the Niners blew coverage on St. Brown and Pringle, leaving both wide open. With 12:45 to play, the Bears led 14-10 and the momentum the Niners had for the majority of the game was gone.
“We always talk about doing right longer,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Today was the exact opposite. Looking at the amount of penalties we had compared to them, the turnovers compared to them and then the timing of those penalties were crucial. We’re real disappointed.”
But there is a roster full of young players and their improvement is essential for the organization to take the next step. General manager Ryan Poles and his staff have a host of questions at a lot of positions, and the more that can be answered this season, the better positioned the roster will be.
Credit rookie left tackle Braxton Jones with a solid first outing. Yes, he surrendered a sack to Nick Bosa — who spent more time lining up over the right side than he did over Jones — but Bosa is the kind of talent who will get his wins against the best linemen.
“It didn’t feel incredibly different,” Jones said of his regular-season debut. “Obviously a lot better players when you’re playing the starters. It might have felt faster, but at the end of the day it felt normal for me.
“I’ve got to clean up some stuff. We came out with a win. Fought through some adversity. A tough first half obviously. I am just glad we came out with the win and got a team victory.”
Bosa got into Jones pretty quickly on the sack and then converted speed to power, and the play was over soon as Fields went down.
“It was a very normal rush for Nick Bosa, I would say,” Jones said. “It was a very bad rep on my part. I felt like I was a little bit late, whereas he was right on time. It was a bad set. I let him get in my chest and it was kind of over from there. The biggest thing on that, the thing I took to heart, was don’t let one turn into two or three. Just come back and keep on grinding.”
Jones glanced up at the video board after Fields got off the ground to confirm what went wrong.
“It was just bad technique,” he said. “That’s not me. Coach told me to just go out there and trust your training. That’s what I started to do. Still a lot to clean up, but I was getting a good feel for it.”
As the second half unfolded and the Bears were able to find modest success running the ball with Khalil Herbert, Jones gained a little bit of confidence, too, in mushy conditions that probably negated some of the pass rush.
“That’s what we want to do,” Jones said. “That’s our identity. We want to ground and pound. What I said to myself was it wasn’t going to be won in the first, second, third quarters. It’s going to be won in all four, so just keep grinding them and I knew they were going to whimper down before they would come out on top. We just kept grinding on them, and as you could see toward the end, they couldn’t take much more.”
He was out of practice after the preseason finale in Cleveland with a minor right knee injury but returned last week. He played 29 snaps by my unofficial count and made the most of them with 1½ sacks.
Excluding the strike portion of the 1987 season — the Bears had an 11-sack game in a 35-3 victory over Buddy Ryan and the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 4 of that year — it’s the most sacks in a season opener for a Bears rookie. Six other rookies had one sack in their debut, most recently Roquan Smith in 2018 in Green Bay.
Robinson picked up his first sack in the first quarter when the Niners had third-and-7 on the Bears 29-yard line, meaning they were in range for a Robbie Gould field goal. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey overset slightly, opening an inside path to the backfield.
Robinson used a violent swipe with his hands to defeat McGlinchey and then a quick inside move. McGlinchey held him, too, though officials didn’t make the call. Then Robinson took down the 6-foot-4, 224-pound Trey Lance with one arm.
“I took my two steps up the field and he was past my eyes,” Robinson said. “I went inside and made a play. I knew at some point something was going to open up, whether it would be on the outside or inside.”
On the combo sack of Lance, which Robinson shared with Smith, he didn’t even know he got partial credit.
It has to be good for the Bears to see the traits that attracted them to Robinson — a raw pass rusher whom Miami (Ohio) really used only in sub packages last season — showing up at the outset of the season. He’s a converted college wide receiver and originally arrived at college as a quarterback, the position he played in high school.
“I’ve been bouncing around my whole life,” Robinson said. “I started as a running back. I played running back and safety.”
Robinson has a lot of improving to do to become a well-rounded defensive end. The Bears will play to his strengths for now and see where it takes him.
“He’s a talented player and you see the shiftiness and quickness to him,” defensive end Robert Quinn said. “When he’s out there, he’s making plays. As he grows and understands the game more and becomes more confident — and I don’t want to speak for him — he is going to set his own ceiling. As everyone saw today, he’s got some playmaking ability.”
He would admit he hasn’t been at his best the last two seasons. But the coaching staff has offered him a clean slate with no preconceived notions.
Jackson seems to have adopted a fresh attitude too — not just something that shows up in a news conference but a genuine realization that this is a big opportunity for him. He has a lucrative contract and needs to perform to maintain it.
His interception of Trey Lance in the fourth quarter pretty much put the game away. The 49ers were nearing midfield on third-and-5 from their 41-yard line, and the Bears were in Cover-1 robber. They added a low hole dropper, having a defensive tackle drop out with only a three-man rush. They had two inside defenders to take away in-breaking routes — what you want to do in that situation against the 49ers, who often look for tight end George Kittle (who missed the game with a groin injury).
Jackson rotated down as a robber and put his eyes on Lance. That took him right to the play, which was intended for wide receiver Jauan Jennings. Credit to Jackson for seeing it, recognizing the play and getting a jump on the pass, but an inexperienced quarterback took him there as well.
“Just trying to give him different looks,” Jackson said. “That’s really just a young quarterback. Year 2, didn’t play a lot last year, so just trying to get him to do something different that he’s not comfortable with, trying to get him to drop back and throw the ball and go through his reads.
“We knew that when they get in those stacks, they like to (run) a two-option play. So we saw tight end and just played (Lance’s) eyes.”
Just like that, Jackson had his first interception since the season finale of 2019. Think about that. A lot happened in the world between those interceptions. Jackson returned the pick 26 yards to the San Francisco 21-yard line to set up the final touchdown.
Khalil Herbert went for 10 yards on first down on a simple inside zone play. Tight end Cole Kmet blocked down on defensive end Nick Bosa. He missed Bosa with his cut block but slowed him a little, and a really nice combination block by right tackle Larry Borom and right guard Teven Jenkins made the play happen.
Left guard Cody Whitehair took care of a defensive tackle, allowing center Sam Mustipher to climb to the second level, but it was the initial combo by Borom and Jenkins at the point of attack that made the play happen.
Herbert is a good fit for what the Bears want to do offensively. He’s decisive, he gets north and south immediately and he’s a physical runner. Right now, he’s a little more urgent than David Montgomery in terms of getting his pads downhill and going. Will this affect playing time moving forward? We’re talking about a very small sample size, but it’s something to think about in the weeks ahead.
Even modest success for the offensive line should be a nice boost for a group that has faced a lot of questions.
“They stuck with it,” Mustipher said. “They kept trusting us. We didn’t get into a drop-back fest. That last takeaway the defense got for us put us in good position, and it was like, ‘We’re going to run it.’ Here’s our opportunity to make something happen, which is awesome. There are some plays we want back, some ones that got stuffed. They trusted us, which is really cool.
“San Francisco’s front seven is arguably one of the best in the league. That was a good deal.”
He brought a large towel from the sideline to mop up the large puddle where he planned to put the ball down for a 47-yard field-goal attempt by Cairo Santos at the end of the second quarter.
The Bears drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty as rules prohibit the use of a foreign object — basically anything that isn’t part of the uniform — to do a little groundskeeping in the driving rain.
“You cannot bring what we consider a foreign object — this was not a towel that would go on a uniform — out to alter the playing surface,” referee Clay Martin said in a press release. “We felt that provided an unfair advantage, using the towel to wipe down the area where the ball was going to be placed.
“If he used it to wipe his hands and had thrown it away, we would have been OK with it. To put it on the ground and alter the playing surface where we were going to spot the ball, that’s why we called a penalty.”
Gill said he wasn’t aware of the rule.
“I know never to do it again,” he said. “I had never done it before. But I’ve never played in a game before when it’s been rain the whole time, a couple inches on the field. There was about 2 inches of water on the field, so it was definitely a hard thing to do.”
The standing water gave problems to Santos as well. He missed two extra points.
“Every time I planted, my foot was sinking in standing water,” Santos said. “So it was challenging. It’s my job to execute and I didn’t do that. I am disappointed in how my kicks went. It’s not how I envisioned it based on how the warm-ups went. I thought I handled that good. Sometimes it’s like that and I’ve got to bounce back.
“The quality of the grass is great. I was really happy to see that. Getting a lot of rain just made it hard. Kicking on standing water. I didn’t handle that like I thought I would based on the pregame warm-ups. I’ve just got to bounce back.”
If you’re looking for a reason to believe the Bears could have a young player who might turn into something, you have to go beyond the fact Leatherwood was highly drafted. The Raiders reached by selecting him with the 17th pick in 2021.
The Bears feel like they have quality scouting reports on Leatherwood. Assistant offensive line coach Austin King was the Raiders tight ends coach last season. Defensive line coach Travis Smith was the Raiders assistant defensive line coach. So the Bears had two assistants to turn to for an evaluation of what Leatherwood was like on the practice field and inside the facility.
The tape? It wasn’t good. In fact, it was bad. Leatherwood started all 17 regular-season games last season. He struggled mightily at right tackle in the first four games and was moved inside to guard with the hope he wouldn’t be as exposed there. Guards Richie Incognito and Denzelle Good suffered injuries, so as much as the Raiders wanted to, they couldn’t remove Leatherwood from the lineup.
“The thing that was hard to explain is how a player that is such a good athlete could wind up in such a bad position so regularly,” said one source with knowledge of Leatherwood’s rookie season. “It’s like he struggled instinctively. I don’t know how else to explain it, but this kid went through 17 games and didn’t get any better.”
The other factor to consider here is offensive line coach Chris Morgan considers Tom Cable, the Raiders offensive line coach last season, one of his two biggest mentors in the NFL. So it’s fair to assume Morgan did due diligence with Cable when the Bears discussed the possibility of claiming Leatherwood and inheriting a rookie contract that carries through the 2024 season and includes $5.9 million in guarantees.
If Leatherwood turns into a player — even a rank-and-file starter — for the Bears at some point, it will be a modest investment. And with the Bears having a ton of salary-cap room looking ahead to 2023, it’s not like the risk of taking on the contract of a player who really struggled as a rookie would set the team back. Sure, the Bears could have decided not to claim Leatherwood and then attempted to sign him as a free agent, but there might have been competition for him at that point.
The Bears have been working Leatherwood at right tackle with the reserves, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. They’re getting him up to speed with the playbook. Maybe they will seriously look at him as a right tackle in the future. Perhaps they’ll decide he would be better inside at guard, or it’s possible factors with existing linemen dictate where he goes. For the time being, they’re getting him adjusted to the playbook and how they want to practice, and that can be a challenge as teams are allowed to practice with full pads only once per week during the regular season.
Leatherwood has spoken to reporters once since he arrived and said he’s not really concerned about what went wrong in Las Vegas.
“I’m more concerned with the future and the things that I’ve got going on here now,” he said.
Leatherwood and the Bears should be concerned about what didn’t go right a year ago so both parties can avoid those pitfalls. If he had shown improvement in the spring and summer, I don’t think a new regime for the Raiders would have looked to trade him so quickly and then cut him. Learning from past mistakes is the best way to avoid repeating them.
There’s no timeline to get him on the field. This is a long play with him being under contract for two more years after this season. Maybe he’ll get to the point this season where he’s ready for action, and perhaps that would coincide with a need on the line. There’s no way of telling.
“Alex has done a great job so far with us,” Morgan said. “He’s working really hard. He’s done a heck of a job connecting with the guys. We’re glad to have him. ‘Embrace everything and let’s roll.’ It’s really an easy message (for him).”
It will be interesting to see how things unfold on the line over the course of the season. Teven Jenkins and Lucas Patrick rotated at right guard throughout Sunday’s game. How that position will be handled next week remains to be seen. At some point do the Bears want to evaluate Leatherwood?
The Bears drafted four offensive linemen in April. Doug Kramer was placed on season-ending injured reserve. There are three second-year players in Jenkins, Larry Borom and Leatherwood. How many of these young guys will the coaching staff feel it has a good handle on by the end of the year?
Trey Lance’s performance was pretty brutal as he completed 13 of 28 passes for 164 yards with the Eddie Jackson interception. He’s athletic but he didn’t hurt the Bears pulling the ball down and running like Justin Fields did to the 49ers.
Lance has a very bad habit of dropping his eye level when he feels pressure or believes he feels pressure. It’s a young quarterback’s response to defenses. As his eyes drop, he’s not reading down the field and the instinct is to turn into an athlete and a runner when plays are there to be made downfield if you keep your eyes up, move and reset your throwing window inside the pocket. It was only Lance’s third career start, but he looked an awful lot like Mitch Trubisky did early in his career when he would drop his eyes in the face of pressure.
I won’t pretend to know the dynamics in play for the 49ers, but this was a team that was arguably a dropped interception from reaching the Super Bowl last year. No one says Garoppolo is the long-term answer for the franchise, but he has to be better than Lance right now and if Lance continues to struggle, I have to think it would be a quick hook for the quarterback the Niners mortgaged too much for to move up and draft in 2021.
The sides agreed to a four-year, $80 million extension that reportedly includes $60 million guaranteed and resets the market for interior offensive linemen. This is worth mentioning because Nelson was a member of the 2018 draft class that produced linebacker Roquan Smith. The Bears would have loved a chance to draft Nelson, the Notre Dame product who was selected at No. 6, two spots before Smith. Remember, Nelson’s college position coach, Harry Hiestand, was on the Bears staff at the time.
Nelson is the 10th player selected in the top 24 picks in 2018 to sign a contract extension, following Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward (No. 4 pick), Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (No. 7), Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (No. 11, acquired from the Miami Dolphins via trade), Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Vita Vea (No. 12), Raiders left tackle Kolton Miller (No. 15), Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James (No. 17), Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander (No. 18), Detroit Lions center Frank Ragnow (No. 20) and Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (No. 24).
10b. Four state schools have players on the Senior Bowl watch list, a preliminary group being evaluated for invitations to the all-star game. There are a whopping 484 names on the list, and that doesn’t include specialists. Here are the players from Illinois schools plus Notre Dame:
- Illinois (4): RB Chase Brown, S Sydney Brown, TE Luke Ford, CB Devon Witherspoon
- Northern Illinois (2): QB Rocky Lombardi, OL Nolan Potter
- Northwestern (1): DL Adetomiwa Adebawore
- Notre Dame (3): WR Braden Lenzy, OL Josh Lugg, OL Jarrett Patterson
- Southern Illinois (1): FB Javon Williams Jr.
10c. You probably didn’t hear it, but Matt Eberflus thanked head groundskeeper Ken Mrock last week for his work and Mrock probably should be commended for how the surface at Soldier Field held up during Sunday’s game. Maybe the new Bermuda grass surface didn’t drain as well as anyone would have liked, but there weren’t divots and chunks of turf flying up.
Everyone who was bent out of shape with the condition of the field during the preseason can rest a little easier if this new surface holds up. So kudos to Mrock and the park district staff.
10d. The Packers opened as nine-point favorites over the Bears for Sunday night’s game at Lambeau Field (7:20 p.m., NBC-5).