Haugh: Late fumble prevents resilient Bears from beating 1st-place Vikings on day Justin Fields, Matt Eberflus show progress

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(670 The Score) Around 3 p.m. Sunday, Bears fans all over the country started Googling the guy many blamed for ruining their afternoons.

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His name is Ihmir Smith-Marsette, No. 17 in your program and at the top of the list of scapegoats in the Bears' 29-22 loss to the Vikings on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The Bears signed Smith-Marsette off the waiver wire on Sept. 1 after the Vikings cut him, but Oct. 9, 2022 might go down as his most impactful day as an NFL wide receiver. He only hopes one day he can forget it.

With the Bears on a potential game-tying drive with 1:12 left, Vikings cornerback Cameron Dantzler Sr. ripped the ball out of Smith-Marsette’s grip after a reception to create the game-clinching turnover. Instead of running out of bounds to stop the clock at a point in which every second mattered, Smith-Marsette turned back toward the field where he would only find regret and ignominy.

“Those situations, you’ve got to be smart as a player," Smith-Marsette told reporters in the locker room in an impressive show of accountability. “I should’ve gone out of bounds."

Bears coach Matt Eberflus wholeheartedly agreed – as did every self-respecting, half-aware football aficionado watching in Chicago.

“We tell the players when they’re on the numbers or wider to get out of bounds," Eberflus said. “That’s a simple function of two-minute mechanics."

Incidentally, it was Smith-Marsette who was flagged for an illegal block earlier in the fourth quarter that negated quarterback Justin Fields’ fabulous would-be 52-yard touchdown run. Smith-Marsette scored two touchdowns in eight games as a Vikings rookie in 2021, yet it’s hard to imagine he contributed any more to a Minnesota victory than he did Sunday.

One week after third-round draft pick Velus Jones Jr.'s muffed punt against the Giants hurt the Bears, another young wide receiver committed a mistake that cost his team. Jones enjoys the draft pick status that Smith-Marsette doesn’t, so you wonder how tolerant the Bears will be. Ultimately, you get what you pay for: The Bears rank dead last in the league with $4.6 million in position spending on wide receivers, according to Spotrac.

Nobody ever will know whether the Bears would've scored the potential game-tying touchdown had Smith-Marsette not fumbled, but that’s beside the point. They had scored 19 unanswered points on the road against the best team in the division and deserved better than to be deprived a chance to steal the game. They had shown a resilience that's quickly becoming the Bears’ identity under Eberflus, an intangible much easier to notice than quantify. They checked all the boxes of Eberflus’ HITS principle – hustle, intensity, takeaways and smarts – except for the final one because Smith-Marsette recklessly tried to do too much.

Unfortunately, they also blew perhaps Fields’ most encouraging effort of the season.

Fields started slow but finished strong, looking like a different quarterback in the second half. After Darnell Mooney made a leaping, did-you-see-that, one-handed catch for 39 yards near the end of the first half, Fields fed off that momentum and appeared to exhale. On the opening drive of the second half, Fields threw with more authority and accuracy on completions to Equanimeous St. Brown and Cole Kmet. He spun out of possible sacks and used his legs to move the chains, as he did in gaining seven on fourth-and-4 to keep a scoring drive alive. The confidence and competence that Fields displayed after halftime was a far cry from what we saw in the first half.

Early on, the Bears offense looked incompetent and in for an ugly day, from a delay-of-game penalty on the first play to a shotgun snap that Fields didn’t expect. The offense’s first-half showing was even more embarrassing than David Montgomery taking the field pregame with his name misspelled on the back of his white jersey: “MONTOGOMERY”.

Someone fixed the jersey, and eventually everyone in the offensive huddle solved the unit's biggest problems. Fields regrouped and regained his composure. He recovered well enough to complete 15 of 21 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown and a 118.8 passer rating. He added 47 rushing yards on eight carries. Eberflus called it “one of the best days of his career," and that was no exaggeration or rationalization. Finally, tangible evidence presented itself.

And perhaps one of the most memorable signs of growth came when Fields ran over to Smith-Marsette after that fateful fumble to console a teammate the way leaders do.

“I know Ihmir and I know he’s feeling down right now," Fields said. “It’s our job to pick him up. I know what he’s going through. He can be one hell of a player in this league."

Time will tell but, at the moment, Smith-Marsette belongs to a nondescript receiving corps that isn’t necessarily making life easy for Fields. One of the first-half incompletions that triggered familiar frustration came when Dante Pettis couldn’t come down with a catchable pass, a play Eberflus called a drop postgame. It represented the conundrum so often true with Fields. His receiver needs to help him out – in this case, Pettis – but the quarterback also needs to stop increasing the degree of difficulty on connections that shouldn’t be as hard as he occasionally makes them. Both things can be true.

That tricky dynamic contributed to a first-half misfire with Mooney that prevented a possible touchdown. Fields threw to a spot, and Mooney broke too late. Such is life with a potential franchise quarterback learning on the job, but at least nobody will attack offensive coordinator Luke Getsy this week if he has positive comments about Fields.

“The efficiency in the passing game, we took a step forward for sure," Fields said. “Overall, I’m just proud of everybody and the way we fought. We were down 21-3 a lot of teams in this league would have laid down and stopped playing."

These Bears just never do. Defensively, they made adjustments that sounded like they had more to do with pride than scheme. It would be hard to imagine a first half going much worse for Roquan Smith and Co. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins completed his first 17 passes. The Bears secondary did everything but give star receiver Justin Jefferson a hot towel, making him as comfortable as an air-traveler in first class. Running back Dalvin Cook got whatever he wanted. By the end of the first half, the Vikings looked like they could name their score.

Something changed after halftime. The Bears' pass rush remained a rumor, but running lanes closed quicker and pass routes were jumped faster. Every defensive back – from Eddie Jackson to Kyler Gordon to Jaquan Brisker to Jaylon Jones, who led the Bears with 13 tackles in place of Jaylon Johnson – asserted himself a little more. And as Cousins has been known to do, he threw an interception that invited the Bears back into it. Cousins never saw cornerback Kindle Vildor come off his receiver to intercept a pass intended for Adam Thielen with 12:54 left, which set up Cairo Santos’ go-ahead 51-yard field goal.

It gave the Bears a 22-21 lead but woke the Vikings out of their second-half slumber. Coach Kevin O’Connell’s versatile offense responded with a professional series, a 17-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up seven minutes and culminated with the game-winning quarterback sneak by Cousins. The two-point conversion made it 29-22 with 2:26 remaining.

Hmmmm….

Would Eberflus have gone for two and the rousing victory if the Bears had scored?

“I can’t tell you that,” he told reporters postgame from the podium.

Given how aggressive Eberflus already had been, nobody would've been surprised if the Bears went for the win. Eberflus already gone for two (and failed) after Jones’ first NFL touchdown made it 21-16 with 10:24 left in the third quarter. Then he followed up that decision by attempting an onside kick that was unsucessful, one of those moves that’s brilliant if it works but leaves traditionalists scratching their heads when it doesn’t.

“We saw an alignment we could take advantage of," Eberflus explained.

OK, but only one week ago, the same head coach conservatively punted the ball back to the Giants on fourth-and-2 with 3:15 left rather than give his quarterback a chance to make a play. The risks Eberflus took seven days later in Minnesota merely served as reminders that the quarterback isn’t the only thing the Bears are developing at Halas Hall this season.

Flus is finding his way too.

As he does, at least the Bears have found some resolve.

David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show from 5-10 a.m. weekdays on 670 The Score. Click here to listen. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Brad Rempel/USA Today Sports