SOLDIER FIELD — The Bears’ rebuilding effort under general manager Ryan Pace has been a long, painstaking process with few highlights and plenty of losses.
But that seems to be changing, at least on one side of the ball.
By beating the Carolina Panthers 17-3 Sunday at Soldier Field, the Bears won back-to-back games for the first time since 2015 and continued a dominant defensive trend that has the organization pointed upward. Over the last two weeks, the Bears’ defense has allowed zero touchdowns and scored three of their own, bringing back memories of a decade ago.
Hoge & Jahns, Episode 124: Bears-Panthers Postgame Episode
“We’re definitely trying to change the culture,” second-year edge rusher Leonard Floyd said. “We’re trying to wake the city up, bring the city back to loving the Chicago Bears.”
That has been a big challenge, as evidenced by the 6,855 no-shows at Soldier Field Sunday. Not even a dominant defense and an exciting young quarterback can completely convince the faithful that the Bears are back to relevance. And perhaps that’s fair, considering the exciting young quarterback only threw the ball seven times Sunday.
“We’re just finding ways to win games,” Mitch Trubisky said. “We have more pass plays called, I was just pulling them down, being conservative and taking sacks. I was just trying to play smart, protect the football and get out of here with a win.”
It might not be pretty, but the Bears have won two games in a row with a grand total of 24 pass attempts. Trubisky completed four of his seven attempts Sunday for 107 yards, 75 of which came on one completion to rookie running back Tarik Cohen.
“I thought I played really poor,” Trubisky said, being way too hard on himself.
Realistically, the rookie only had one bad throw, a pass that sailed on tight end Zach Miller and was nearly picked off. He also took a bad sack that pushed the Bears out of comfortable field goal range and Connor Barth’s 52-yard field goal fell short after getting partially deflected.
But the Bears’ offensive issues hardly seem to be Trubisky’s fault and it’s difficult to criticize the quarterback for not raising the level of play of his teammates when he’s not even getting the chance to do so.
It would be too easy to say John Fox’s strategy of boring his opponent to death is working. The Bears have jumped out to leads the last two weeks and nearly shut down their entire offense to avoid disaster, but that’s at least partially a result of not trusting the offense. The lack of wide receivers is glaring and the offensive line can only do so much against nine-man boxes.
“The defense held it down for us and we know that in the future we’re going to have be better offensively,” Miller said.
That’s an understatement. In the last two games, the Bears’ defense has three touchdowns. The offense has two. That’s a formula that cannot be sustained going forward.
But it’s a tricky situation. At some point Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains have to allow Trubisky to force defenses out of stacked boxes at the line of scrimmage, but can he do so when his receivers aren’t getting open? It appears as long as the Bears have a lead, they don’t want to find out the answer to that question.
Eventually they will have to. Eventually the Bears won’t have a lead because of defensive touchdowns. Eventually Trubisky is going to be behind and have to throw the football.
“Obviously he wants to play elite,” Miller said about his rookie quarterback. “I don’t think he ever wants to throw the ball seven times in one game.”
Trubisky almost seemed embarrassed that his defense had to carry so much of the load.
“We didn’t score as an offense and the defense carried us so we kind of felt salty that we couldn’t help out more than we did,” he said.
Asked if he had ever won a game with just four completions, Trubisky said: “First time. So it feels good.”
The answer was as convincing as a John Fox injury report. Clearly Trubisky wasn’t satisfied with the win.
“We just have to get better in the pass game, and that falls on me,” he said. “I’ll be on the receivers and tight ends this week to continue to perfect our timing and routes. However, it mostly falls on me, so I just have to get better.”
The good news is that real progress is being shown up and down the depth chart. A pair of fourth-round draft picks made huge plays as safety Eddie Jackson scored both defensive touchdowns while running back Tarik Cohen hauled in a 75-yard pass from Trubisky. Pace was widely criticized for his draft class back in the spring, but the reality is the Bears would not have won Sunday without their rookies.
And for that, Pace deserves a lot of credit.
On the other hand, he also deserves criticism for leaving the wide receiver room so empty with talent. Even before Kevin White and Cam Meredith got hurt, it wasn’t a very impressive group. But with a cupboard as bare as Pace inherited, it wasn’t realistic to expect him to stock up every position with depth in just two talent-acquisition cycles.
Now in season No. 3, we’re seeing real progress from the defense and this unit is going to give the Bears a chance to win almost every single week going forward. Not many thought this team would be 3-4 after seven games and it doesn’t seem like they are that far away.
Sunday’s game felt like a pivotal point in the rebuilding effort. It was a winnable game against a good team and the Bears delivered, even if it wasn’t pretty. If Floyd wants to “wake the city up” from its Bears hibernation, the defense is at least doing its part. At some point the offense is going to have to catch up, but seven weeks into the 2017 season, the rebuild appears to be headed in the right direction.