Emma's Tailgater: Now we find out if the 5-1 Bears are legitimate

Starting against the Rams on Monday, the Bears are entering the tougher part of their schedule.
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By 670 The Score

(670 The Score) We're about to find if the Bears are for real.

After a 5-1 start that has featured plenty of uneven play, the Bears face a stretch of three games that will define them as a legitimate championship contender or a pretender that's likely to make the playoffs but bow out on wild-card weekend. The Bears visit the Rams (4-2) on Monday night, then host the Saints (3-2) before visiting the Titans (5-0) in their next two games.

From coach Matt Nagy to quarterback Nick Foles and down the line of the Bears' roster, there's a belief they can turn the corner with better collective play. The Bears believe their offense is ready to make strides and complement a defense that once again has been dominant.

The Bears are averaging 21.3 points, which ranks 27th in the NFL. Their offense is managing 4.8 yards per play, which ranks 28th. Chicago's running game remains non-existent, and its quarterback play is perennially inconsistent. Yet here the Bears are atop the NFC North and well positioned.

The Bears' poor offensive play is a frustrating flaw that Chicago can't seem to escape. It's also a reminder of how much better the team can be with even marginal offensive improvements.

Monday night in Los Angeles pits the Bears against a familiar foe in the Rams. They're similar teams, with offenses not fulfilling their potential to varying degrees and defenses loaded with game-changing players. Two years ago, the Bears earned a 15-6 win over the Rams late in the regular season in a showing that proved they were a legitimate playoff team. Last season, Chicago lost 17-7 at Los Angeles and was exposed as an average team in a disappointing 8-8 campaign.

Once again, the Bears have a potentially revealing game waiting against the Rams. And it's just the start of a stretch that will prove what this team really is.

Open field: Gipson has game

In a Bears secondary that includes two Pro Bowl players in cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson along with an impressive rookie starting cornerback in Jaylon Johnson, don't discount the importance of veteran safety Tashaun Gipson.

Gipson, 30, has brought the Bears stability alongside Jackson, something they were sorely missing last season. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had a relatively strong 2019 campaign in Chicago, but Gipson is the ideal complement for Jackson.

Gipson has prioritized playing off Jackson in the secondary, filling the strong safety role and doing it well.

"My mindset has always been that I know I’m a playmaker and I know I can play in this league and I know I can be effective," Gipson said. "So, I didn’t want to do nothing more than just come in and do my job. I didn’t want to come in here and try to be somebody I wasn’t. I just wanted to come in here and fit the style of defense and fit the style of playing. You let the guys up front hunt, and you let the guys on the back end make plays. That’s just truly the model."

After the Bears seemed to have completed the bulk of their offseason work, Gipson became available in late April when he was surprisingly cut by the Texans. The Bears still had a void at safety. It was a natural match.

Gipson felt his release in Houston came without the recognition of the poor defense he played on and of the injuries that he played through in 2019. He saw the opportunity in Chicago as a blessing and a chance to show what he could still do.

Gipson has 34 tackles and two interceptions in his first six games with the Bears. He has helped solidify a secondary loaded with talent and has been a key piece of a defense playing at a high level.

"I just wanted to come in and do my part," Gipson said. "Hopefully I’ve shown that and continue to grow into this defense.

"The plays and the playmaking is going to be limitless. I’m just fortunate to be in this situation."

4-down territory

1.) 'Rough rider'
Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has been around the NFL for long enough to recognize when a cornerback is truly bringing his best in the open field.

It's why Pagano has such a strong appreciation for the relentless physicality of Fuller.

"We’ve all seen corners that make business decisions when it comes to tackling," Pagano said. "Some are just cat coverage -- 'I’ve got that cat, and you guys handle the rest of the stuff.' He’s a physical dude.

"You’ve got to be a rough rider. He’s a rough rider."

During the Bears' win against the Buccaneers on Oct. 8, Fuller produced the game-changing play with a hit on running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn that forced a fumble. The Bears scored three plays later, taking advantage of the short field in an eventual 20-19 win.

Fuller delivered a similar hit on Oct. 18, leveling Panthers receiver Keith Kirkwood and forcing the football loose. He was flagged for the shoulder-to-shoulder hit but wasn't fined by the NFL, an indication from the league that the hit was legal.

The Bears hold great admiration for how Fuller brings physical play every snap.

"I’ve never seen a corner with that type of mindset," Gipson said. "It’s refreshing to know that one, your corner’s not scared to tackle, but your corner’s laying boomsticks, hitsticks on people."

2.) Zoned in
The Bears entered Week 7 still leading the NFL in defensive red zone efficiency, allowing touchdowns to opponents on only 36.4% of their appearances inside the 20-yard line.

For a Bears team averaging just two more points than its opponents through six games, the defense's success in the red zone has been pivotal. Defensive lineman Bilal Nichols likened it to their collective identity.

"I just think that shows the type of football team that we have, the character that we have," Nichols said. "We have a bend-but-don't-break team. Coach (Nagy) always explains to us how he wants us to be tough, gritty and physical. You know, all those things we showed in training camp. We really put that together. I think that's just the identity of our team. No matter how bad the situation is, we're going to fight to the end. We're not going to let anybody have anything easy."

3.) Big addition?
After the Bills released veteran guard Quinton Spain last week, Bears running back Cordarrelle Patterson watched his film.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Patterson deadpanned when asked about his tweet.

The better question is what does Bears general manager Ryan Pace think of Spain's tape? The 29-year-old Spain could help stabilize a struggling offensive line that lost starting guard James Daniels to a season-ending pectoral tear.

Rashaad Coward started in Daniels' place in the win against the Panthers, while Alex Bars is another option to start. But if the Bears feel Spain can be an upgrade, it would make sense to bring him in.

4.) A new nickname
Bears receiver Allen Robinson has a request.

"Call me old-fashioned," Robinson said. "Like, literally, I mean it, call me 'Old-Fashioned.' That's my new nickname."

Quote to note
"We hear a lot of things about us being the worst 5-1 team, this and that. It's just an opportunity for us to show that we belong where we are."
-- Gipson on the Bears

Injury report
OLB Khalil Mack (back) -- The Bears don't seem too concerned with the back soreness Mack is dealing with. He's listed as questionable but should be good to go.

DL Akiem Hicks (illness) -- Hicks was kept away from Halas Hall for most of the past week while dealing with a common cold, but he rejoined the Bears for practice Saturday and wasn't listed on the injury report.

CB Buster Skrine (ankle) -- Skrine returned to practice Saturday in a limited fashion after missing the previous two days of work. He could be a game-time decision, though the two days to rest before kickoff should allow Skrine to get himself feeling better.

DB Deon Bush (hamstring) -- The Bears value what Bush brings as their third safety and will be happy to welcome him back if he can play Monday.

OL Rashaad Coward (finger) -- It's unclear if Coward is being hampered by his finger injury, but the Bears could turn to Bars for the start if they feel he's the better alternative.

DB Sherrick McManis (hamstring) -- A key special teams presence, McManis will be out once again as his hamstring issue continues.

OL Jason Spriggs (thumb/back) -- The Bears could be without a reserve on their offensive line.

Prediction (4-2): Rams 24, Bears 23
The Bears face a real test against the Rams. This time, a close game doesn't go their way.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.