Haugh: Ferocious defense leads Bears to ugly win against Panthers

The Bears improved to 5-1 with a 23-16 victory against the Panthers.

(670 The Score) Start with the most obvious and important conclusion reached Sunday after the Bears beat the Panthers, 23-16, in Charlotte, N.C. to become the NFL’s least-respected 5-1 team in recent memory.

This Bears defense is elite, among the NFL’s best. That defense is back, if it ever went anywhere.

Yes, the old-fashioned Bears are back to relying on a defense as intense and intimidating lately as it was in 2018, an opportunistic and attacking force that complements quality special teams. It’s as confident as it is consistent, regaining its swagger after holding a third straight opposing offense in the teens. If the defense keeps dominating opponents and creating takeaways, the Bears can still go a long way this season and compensate for an offense going nowhere no matter who plays quarterback.

On offense, the Bears again showed they can’t block, they can’t run, they can barely pass and they have to wonder with the rest of us what coach Matt Nagy is calling on some plays. But as long as the Bears defense continues to harass quarterbacks and running backs into making mistakes, much of those concerns become moot. The fact remains, offensive flaws and all, that the Bears have a defense that makes it plausible to believe they still can beat enough teams to make the playoffs – where anything can happen and great defenses often travel well.

“I told our guys we’re fighters,’’ Nagy said. “Can we be better on offense? Absolutely. But our defense and special teams really played well …Our defense played lights-out today.’’

For the second game in a row, the Bears thwarted a final drive that could've altered the outcome. And for the second game in a row, backup safety DeAndre Houston-Carson stepped up on the last play, this time making his first career interception by picking off a Teddy Bridgewater pass with 1:28 left to ensure the Bears’ escape from Carolina. Who would have guessed that Chicago’s best closer in October would be Houston-Carson? You know a defense enjoys depth when its sixth-best defensive back comes up with the clutch play two victories in a row.

The Panthers gained 112 rushing yards – and 303 overall – but three turnovers and four sacks tell a more accurate story about this game. Bridgewater kept plays alive with his athleticism but completed only 16 of 29 passes for 216 yards without a touchdown for a 50.3 passer rating. Former Bears running back Mike Davis gained 52 yards on 18 carries but fumbled when Chicago safety Eddie Jackson forced Davis to cough it up.

For the second time this season, Jackson had an interception return for a touchdown negated by a penalty, which are signs he’s showing up around the ball more frequently. Kyle Fuller again played as physical as any cornerback in the league. Rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson emerged better for the experience of another veteran quarterback testing him by targeting D.J. Moore 11 times. Safety Tashaun Gipson picked off Bridgewater to set up the Bears’ first touchdown. Khalil Mack had another sack, which everyone expects, but how about the pass rushing contributions from Mario Edwards Jr., Bilal Nichols and James Vaughters? Akiem Hicks and Robert Quinn also disrupted up front. Linebacker Roquan Smith roamed sideline to sideline, his biggest play a second-down stop in the fourth quarter when he correctly read a screen, shed a block and made the tackle. The list of difference-makers is long.

The Panthers arrived 3-2 based on the strength and creativity of their offense. And the Bears made it look softer and simpler.

“I felt like it was a solid performance by the defense, but we can always get better,’’ said Smith, who led the Bears with seven tackles.

With three straight playoff-caliber opponents ahead for the Bears, the stakes increase and the standards get higher, starting with the Rams. And if the Bears defense looked up to the challenge, the offense didn’t. Nagy complained last week about the “freaking details” of the offense and left Charlotte having watched a complete mess. It was so inept at times that the Bears were flagged for a delay-of-game penalty after calling a timeout, sending Nagy into a snit on the sideline. That was nothing compared to the fit fans were throwing in their living rooms.

Every aspect of the Bears offense struggled in gaining a measly 261 total yards. Nick Foles was too streaky in completing 23 of 39 passes for 198 yards with a 70.2 passer rating, and he threw an inexcusable, Trubisky-like interception in the red zone. (“It was a dumb interception,’’ Foles said. “I got a little too aggressive trying to make a play.’’) Tight end Demetrius Harris dropped at least one pass. Wide receiver Anthony Miller ran himself out of a first down after making a catch. The offense peaked on the first series by taking advantage of Gipson’s interception when tight end Cole Kmet caught his first NFL touchdown pass. That was the good news. The bad news? About 56 minutes remained after Kmet’s catch and not much worth remembering offensively happened after that.

When the Bears offense struggles – a chronic problem – much of the focus rightfully centers around Nagy’s play-calling and his tendency to abandon the run. The job of Bears offensive coordinator traditionally is the most thankless in town, and Nagy earned the skepticism in 2019. In fairness, the sixth game of 2020 offered a reminder of how difficult it must be for a play-caller to establish a running game without an offensive line capable of controlling the line of scrimmage. Without left guard James Daniels, who’s out for the season, the Bears offensive line revealed itself as the team’s weakest link and perhaps the scheme’s largest impediment.

David Montgomery somehow danced for 58 yards on 19 carries despite seemingly being hit as soon as he received his handoffs. Only one team gave up more yards per carry than the Panthers heading into Week 6, but the Bears managed a mere 2.5. The pocket collapsed regularly around Foles. The pile rarely moved downhill. You can complain about Nagy or Foles or the lack of playmakers after Allen Robinson, but none of it might matter as much if the Bears had a respectable offensive line. The hard truth is they don’t.

While not excusing Nagy’s decision to throw a pass on third-and-2 at the Bears’ 46 with 1:44 left – the incompletion gave the ball back to the Panthers for a last-gasp drive – his lack of confidence in an overmatched line to get those key yards on the ground offers necessary context.

“If you get that first down, it’s game over,’’ Nagy said. “You can run the ball and possibly get it, but that’s not an aggressive approach.’’

Through six games, an aggressive approach and the Bears running game remain incompatible due to their inconsistency making holes. How much the Bears improve in that area will determine how far their defense can carry them.

“I don’t want to take away the excitement from our team that we’re 5-1,’’ Nagy said when asked about his offense. “We’re trying to find out our ‘why’ part. We’ve got to fix it.’’

Properly fixing the offensive line will require the draft and free agency. Meanwhile, a trip to California awaits the flawed 5-1 Bears, led by Foles, whose impassioned postgame Zoom conference provided the latest example of what makes him an All-Pro leader. The connection Foles made with his audience was more impressive than any completion, mixing a reference to Meek Mill with reminders of how difficult winning is in the NFL. Foles left the impression that when he talks, 52 other guys in the locker room need to listen – especially when he speaks with as much emotion as eloquence as he did in a long statement best summarized by the question he posed.

“Would you rather lose pretty or win ugly?” Foles said.

That was the easiest answer the Bears found all day.

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.