Haugh: Opportunistic defense saves the day for Bears in shaky home debut for Justin Fields


CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- You’re Bears coach Matt Nagy and it's third-and-7 on your own 23-yard line with 3 minutes, 50 seconds left in a game your team leads 20-10.

Your defense is dominating, and your rookie quarterback is struggling.

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Your precious play sheet destined one day to wallpaper a room in your house offers a reminder before every snap to “BE YOU’’ – aggressive, innovative and bold. Except this was no time in an NFL game for individuality, no place for aggression, innovation or boldness. This moment called for smart, safe and boring.

Your job as a head coach is to decrease the degree of difficulty for your team, not increase it. Your goal is to minimize drama, not maximize it. Your obligation is to put the Bears in the best position to win and go by the book instead of your gut. You should realize the need to protect Fields from himself, execute the four-minute offense, run the ball and make the Bengals burn their timeouts as the seconds tick away.

You don’t call a pass. You don’t ask Fields to make a play in the pocket where he clearly struggled in his shaky home debut.

Nagy called a pass anyway – and it gave the Bengals hope where little existed.

Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson intercepted that pass badly telegraphed by Fields, returned it to the 7-yard line and, one play later, receiver Tee Higgins scored a touchdown that made the final 3:43 more harrowing than necessary.

The Bears survived 20-17 on Sunday at Soldier Field, a victory satisfying to some but exasperating to others and the latest reason to wonder whether Nagy the play-caller ultimately will limit the success of Nagy the head coach.

“We’re going to try to stay more on the aggressive side in that situation,’’ Nagy answered when I asked him postgame about his thought process on third-and-7. “That’s our mindset.”

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Good thing for Nagy that the Bears defense rediscovered its mentality to bail out his offense yet again.

For the second game in a row, the defense deserved to be a bigger story than the team’s quarterback controversy. The only difference was this time, they welcomed the attention – and created their opportunities.

Linebacker Roquan Smith’s 53-yard interception return for a fourth-quarter touchdown punctuated a lunch pail kind of afternoon, the first game on the lakefront in front of fans since Dec. 22, 2019. An edgy crowd of 60,840 was treated to a complete, convincing effort by a unit that lacked energy and discipline in a season-opening blowout loss to the Rams. Deservingly so, they heard all week around Chicago about how unprepared and overpaid the Bears defense was and responded by taking out their frustration on the Bengals.

At one point in a dominant fourth quarter, the Bears intercepted three straight Joe Burrow passes out of four Bengals snaps. After Smith’s highlight-reel touchdown return elicited memories of Lance Briggs, cornerback Jaylon Johnson picked off Burrow. Then defensive tackle Angelo Blackson plucked the ball out of the air after linebacker Alec Ogletree’s pass rush forced Burrow into another mistake.

“They were pissed off,’’ Nagy said of his defensive players. “When good football players get pissed off usually they come back and play pretty well.”

Added Smith: ”Last week wasn’t to our standard.’’

Playing the Bengals helped the Bears raise the bar back to a more familiar level in these parts.

This was the brand of defense that Chicagoans bank on seeing every season, the type of attitude and aggressiveness that have become trademarks of the franchise but lately too hard to spot. This was a committee holding the NFL’s leading rusher in Joe Mixon to 69 yards, a group of big, angry men rushing the passer into forced errors and a proud bunch prying the spotlight away from Fields back to where it belonged. This was shades of 2018 when the results of the Bears defense matched its reputation – and, yes, this also was against the Bengals before anybody starts getting too carried away, but you have to start somewhere.

Starting with a chip on their shoulders after getting embarrassed in L.A. sure helped.

“I think that sat tough for everybody and everybody wanted to come out and play their best game," defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said. “With respect to (the Bengals), I think that we imposed our will.’’

On the field, Bears defenders swarmed, creating four turnovers and holding the Bengals to 248 total yards. In the booth, defensive coordinator Sean Desai made second-half adjustments that appeared to confuse Burrow at times and contribute to the interceptions. As much as safeties Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson – who conspired on a fumble recovery – redeemed themselves for their Week 1 errors, perhaps nobody on the defense showed more growth from Week 1 to Week 2 as Desai.

Sure, a late 42-yard touchdown pass from Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase and two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on Robert Quinn and Gipson will keep Desai or anyone from getting too cocky. But the rookie defensive coordinator shrewdly disguised coverages and offered fresh looks, such as Khalil Mack and Quinn – who both had sacks – lining up on the same side. Cornerback Kindle Vildor will learn from his ups and downs. Nickel back Duke Shelley represented an upgrade. Ogletree flashed, and Hicks flew around. And for all the hype surrounding Fields, his fellow first-round draft pick in Smith did his best to remind everyone that he’s closer than any Bears player of becoming an NFL star.

“Man, best linebacker in the game,’’ Gipson called Smith.

It helped that the Bengals called the first half conservatively enough to wonder if they thought Andy Dalton was still their quarterback. It helped that Nagy did his best – up until the 3:50 mark of the fourth quarter – to play complementary football by calling 24 passes compared to 34 runs, with David Montgomery grinding out 61 yards on 20 carries. It helped most that the Bears flew around like a team with something to prove – and a unit that now puts more pressure on the offense to keep up.

“When you have a defense doing what they did today, we have to do more,’’ Nagy said.

Oddly, that starts with Fields. Objectively, Fields looked like a quarterback who was taking his first consecutive snaps in the NFL. He was flagged for two false start penalties and a delay of game, symptoms of inexperience. He held onto the ball too long at times. He displayed his immense arm talent on several throws, and his 10-yard scamper on third-and-9 on the final series underscored his athleticism, but his inexperience surfaced too. Overall, Fields’ performance provided a glimpse of why Nagy has preferred a more deliberate ascension than many fans and media members have been cheering for since training camp. Sticking with Nagy’s comparison of Fields to a chess piece last week, too often the quarterback put himself in check.

The fourth-quarter interception when he locked in on his receiver provided one example, a third-quarter fumble on a strip-sack was another. Overall, Fields was 6-of-13 for 60 yards, one interception and a 27.7 quarterback rating – numbers bad enough to underscore why Nagy should have played it safe on third-and-7 from his own 23-yard line with 3:50 to go.

“I know it’s not going to happen overnight, so I’m just going to keep grinding,’’ Fields said. “I know I’m meant for this, meant to be here. I’m definitely excited for the future."

That future remains unclear with fears over Dalton’s knee injury serious enough that Nagy was asked if it involved his ACL. Dr. Nagy said he didn’t think so, but an MRI and X-rays should provide better clarity for how much the Bears need Fields against the Browns next Sunday in a football state he knows well. For his part, Dalton played his role well enough to earn another start if healthy, completing 9 of 11 passes for 56 yards and a touchdown and running for 25 more. It was after a scramble and a sack in the second quarter that Dalton left the game and took the offensive continuity with him.

Dalton never returned.

But in a more significant development Sunday, the real Bears defense did.

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.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images