Haugh: Bears keep slim hopes alive by finally playing strong complementary football

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CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- For at least a day, let the Bears enjoy this.

Let them celebrate a rare offensive explosion in a 36-7 triumph over the Texans on Sunday, a game that included them scoring 30 points in the first 30 minutes like all the cool kids in the NFL do.

Let them revel in the resilience of quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who (gasp) outplayed the quarterback he never can escape in Deshaun Watson.

Let them pound their chests over the return of their attacking but too-often-absent pass rush, which sacked Watson seven times, including once in the end zone for a safety.

Let them dance until they drop at the reopening of Club Dub – does the mayor know? – and savor the positivity that has been hard to find in this most disappointing of seasons.

They’re entitled whatever emotional response they choose, a cathartic scream or primal yell that echoes onto expressways. They earned that by dominating the Texans start to finish in every aspect of a one-sided blowout.

The Bears waited eight weeks for their sixth victory, a frustrating 56-day stretch in which the context of everything changed at Halas Hall. What they did against a bad Texans team offered more of a reprieve or relief than revelation, but it sure beat the alternative for the Bears, which was losing to Watson and reinforcing how bad general manager Ryan Pace’s worst career mistake was. What they did Sunday was save their best overall performance for the last home football date on the 2020 calendar.

“We just got sick and tired of being sick and tired,’’ running back David Montgomery said, speaking for every Bears fan from Barrington to Bridgeport.

What that ultimately is worth depends on how much value you attach to trouncing a terrible team.

Mathematically, the Bears kept their slim postseason hopes alive by improving to 6-7 in the middle of an NFC playoff race being run in the mud. Aesthetically, the Bears resembled the complete team they always wanted to be on both sides, an efficient offensive unit that moves the chains to complement a defensive bunch committed to harassing the quarterback. Realistically, the Bears did enough to change the subject this week but probably not enough yet to change minds about the need for changes next month.

This was a cortisone shot that helps the pain. Major surgery remains a real possibility.

Like the long-term solutions, the short-term fix began by the Bears controlling the line of scrimmage. They benefited from starting the same offensive line for the third straight week: tackle Charles Leno Jr. and guard Cody Whitehair on the left side, tackle Germain Ifedi and guard Alex Bars on the right with Sam Mustipher at center. They looked in sync from the first snap, when Whitehair and Leno cleared a path wide enough for a snow plow and Montgomery sped through, racing 80 yards for a touchdown to give the Bears a rare lead. Montgomery only carried 10 more times in the remaining 59 minutes – reminding everyone of coach Matt Nagy’s tendency to get too cute – but his second 100-yard rushing game in the last three represented progress. A resurgent running game produced hope.

So did the execution of Trubisky, who avoided the bad turnover that marred his last two starts. If Trubisky felt pressure in his first head-to-head game against Watson, his fellow first-round member of the 2017 draft class whom the Bears inexplicably overlooked, it didn’t show before or during the game. Trubisky showed maturity discussing the perceived mis-matchup with Watson at the microphone last week and demonstrated the same kind of growth facing the Texans.

“(The losing streak) makes you sick to your stomach,’’ Trubisky said. “I was willing to do whatever it took for the team to go out there and get a win. I just went out there today and took what the defense gave us."

Trubisky completed 24 of 33 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns without an interception for a 126.7 passer rating, but his success went beyond the numbers. He played with command too often lacking. He showed judgment too rarely seen. Nagy and play-caller Bill Lazor also helped Trubisky by calling plays accentuating his strengths -- moving pockets, play-action passes, quick routes that require minimal processing by the quarterback. Increasing the tempo, as Trubisky likes, allowed the Bears to keep the Texans from making too many adjustments based on down-and-distance or personnel.

Where has that approach been? The rhythm Trubisky developed moved the chains and built his confidence, which grew with every completion to Allen Robinson (nine catches for 123 yards) and tight end Cole Kmet (four for 41). Every receiver looked open, especially in the first half when Trubisky threw all three of his touchdown passes. Every throw was on the money, like on the series Trubisky went 8-for-8. When the Bears went into the locker room with a 30-7 lead at halftime, nothing made sense because everything had worked.

“Today was just how it looks when a team plays complementary football,’’ Robinson told reporters.

That’s the kind of football the Bears failed to play during their six-game losing streak. That’s the approach and execution that allowed the defense to finally play with a lead.

“When you get a lead, you get a chance to pin your ears back,’’ Nagy said. “The bigger lead you get, the more you see that and they become one-dimensional.’’

Watson barely had a chance to breathe behind an offensive line even more ramshackle than the Bears’ O-line, and he desperately tried buying time to make big plays. He didn’t as the Bears, for the most part, kept contain on a quarterback who gets more dangerous outside the pocket. Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano called Watson “a top two or three player” in the NFL, but he remarkably wasn’t even the best quarterback on the field because of Trubisky’s outburst and the defense’s aggressiveness. Khalil Mack registered his first sack in five games, which resulted in a safety, and recovered a fumble. Akiem Hicks tossed blockers aside like they owed him money. Bilal Nichols took another step forward. Mario Edwards Jr. continued making plays. Linebacker Roquan Smith turned in another All Pro-level effort as the defense bounced back from back-to-back embarrassments to hold the Texans to 263 total yards.

And unlike the past couple weeks, the Bears special teams – the all-important third phase – did more good than harm. Kicker Cairo Santos, the team's most quietly consistent player of the 2020 season, converted two more field goals to run his streak to 18 straight – and it’s been a long time since the Bears have felt so comfortable in that department.

This is the way Nagy always envisioned the offense, defense and special teams supporting each other.

“We’re starting to create an identity,’’ Nagy said.

But with only three games left in a season that went off the rails after a promising start, is it too little, too late for the Bears? How much credit does Nagy deserve for keeping his players’ interest after allowing them to underachieve the past six games? Should any coach be praised for sharpening a team’s focus after he let it drift?

All are fair questions that follow the end of six-game losing streaks.

For now, the Bears simply feel happy they found enough answers before the streak reached seven – something Nagy says he got an inkling of walking around Soldier Field during warmups.

“I felt the energy, felt the guys playing loose,’’ Nagy said. “I don’t know if they had a bunch of coffee or what pregame, but it worked.’’

Indeed, a winning brew provided a welcome pick-me-up for the Bears.

How long it lasts is up to them.

David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show from 5-9 a.m. weekdays on 670 The Score. Click here to listen. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh.