CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- Somewhere, perhaps somebody stuck in quarantine for the past 14 days and unable to watch the first two Bears games might look at the team’s first 2-0 start since 2013 and get excited about the future.
The rest of us know better, having seen for the second Sunday in a row the Bears survive a scare by one of the worst teams on the schedule, this time a 17-13 escape at Soldier Field from the Giants, who lost their best player, Saquon Barkley, to a knee injury.
The Bears can feel good about starting undefeated, period. But it would be an exaggeration to call this unbeaten team a good one. At least Bears coach Matt Nagy works under no such illusion.
"I would say we’re just OK right now,’’ Nagy said. “I think we expect a little better. But I’m not criticizing our players and our coaches. That’s a part of being in the second week with no preseason. So we have high expectations.’’
Like anyone who watched, Nagy knew this matchup against a banged-up opponent never should've come down to the final snap, a mere 10 yards away from the goal line and a local crisis in a football city. Alas, it did.
In the pocket, Giants quarterback Daniel Jones threw to receiver Golden Tate, but officials called Tate for offensive pass interference after he pushed off nickel back Buster Skrine to create a separation. As the Bears celebrated and the Giants argued, you wondered if the refs also might drop a second flag for a pass interference penalty on safety Eddie Jackson, but they didn’t so the point was moot.
“You see a penalty and your heart stops, thinking they could have the ball at the 1,’’ Nagy said.
The Bears took a 17-0 halftime lead at home and your head told you there was no way the Giants could come back, not after injuries knocked out Barkley and receiver Sterling Shepard. Yet somehow the Bears still nearly managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Blame two turnovers and an offense that became more concerned with being efficient than explosive. Blame a defense that gave up too many big throws by Jones and has yet to live up to its lofty reputation.
Naturally, Nagy will receive criticism for getting too conservative after taking a 17-0 lead, but be careful in buying into that easy explanation. Remember, this is the same coach who heard all offseason how much he neglected the running game and this is the same quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky whom Chicago has begged simply to be mediocre. The Bears leaned heavily on the running game and short passes with a 17-point lead because that stayed true to the identity Nagy seeks to establish – 32 running plays and 32 called passes reveals an admirable attempt at balance. David Montgomery gaining 82 yards on 16 carries goes down as a positive.
The problem came with execution more than approach.
Trubisky threw two interceptions that thwarted drives. The first came when he forced a pass to Allen Robinson and the ball got deflected into the air, falling into the hands of Giants safety Julian Love. The second pick came on another pass to Robinson in which Giants cornerback James Bradberry IV made a terrific play to rip out of Robinson’s arms. It’s hard to fault Trubisky for throwing a 50-50 ball and letting his best receiver make a play on the ball.
Trubisky’s worst decision came on fourth-and-2 at the Giants' 36 – the field-position equivalent of no man’s land – with 3:58 left when he tried threading the needle to tight end Jimmy Graham in tight coverage. The deflection ricocheted into the air and, eventually, fell into the arms of right tackle Bobby Massie, who recorded his first career catch.
“That’s not the way we drew it up,’’ Trubisky said. “We got lucky, but sometimes when you’re playing hard, the ball bounces your way.’’
Almost everything went Trubisky’s way in the first half, which made the second-half struggles more maddening. The carryover effect from a historic fourth quarter against the Lions last Sunday showed as Trubisky threw with improved rhythm and obvious confidence. The Bears converted seven of their first 10 third-down attempts. They were on pace to score more than 30 points.
At halftime, Trubisky had completed 13 of 18 passes for 159 yards for two touchdowns and had a 139.1 passer rating. In the broadcast booth, CBS analyst Charles Davis complimented Trubisky in calling him “Deshaun Watson Light.’’
The most obvious display of his skills came with 14 seconds left in the second quarter at the 15-yard line as the play broke down – which is when Trubisky tends to thrive. He bought time in the pocket, surveyed the secondary and fired a dart to rookie receiver Darnell Mooney in the corner of the end zone. Mooney, who runs routes with a veteran’s savvy, stepped forward in front of the Giants defender to catch his first career touchdown.
“As a quarterback, you trust him,’’ Trubisky said. “I was just extending the play and saw the DB had his back turned and no eyes on the football. (Mooney) did a good job attacking the football.’’
Then, up 17, the Bears stopped attacking downfield. Is it too much to want Trubisky to blend efficiency with explosiveness? It shouldn’t be, not in his fourth season as a starter. Trubisky finished 18-of-28 for for 190 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Against the Giants, Trubisky’s longest completion was 28 yards by Montgomery – and that was mostly Montgomery after the catch. The rest of the game, Trubisky took exactly what the Giants gave him but never demanded more.
The Bears offense needs a quarterback who will demand more, a passer who’s as intrepid as he is accurate and willing to risk mistakes for the reward of touchdowns. That’s the way Trubisky played in the fourth quarter against the Lions, out of desperation more than anything. That’s not the way he approached the Giants game because the circumstances dictated otherwise, and the Bears went scoreless in the second half. That’s when Trubisky appeared to play committed to not losing the game more than he was winning it.
For that formula to work, the Bears defense must regain its swagger. Robert Quinn supplied a strip-sack fumble on his first play as a Bear, and the pass rush improved. But this was the Giants, the lowly Giants, and the Bears defense still surrendered a 95-yard touchdown drive in the second half.
Jackson had a 54-yard interception return for a touchdown nullified by pass interference – a good call – but too often Jones found the receivers he wanted in the clutch. On the final drive alone, Jones completed a key third-and-10 to Evan Engram for 22 yards before converting two fourth-down passes. It’s up to defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to coax more consistency from this group before we start wondering about the individual calling the signals. The Bears have too much talent on defense to look so vulnerable against two straight teams likely to finish last in their respective divisions. Pagano’s defense needs to focus on the videotape, not the standings.
What an unusual day this was.
Two hours before kickoff, the South Lot stood empty and eerily silent. Bears chairman George McCaskey typically takes a pregame stroll to interact with paying customers, who can't attend home games until further notice due to COVID-19 restrictions. But neither McCaskey nor any Grabowskis had any reason to mingle. Joggers and dog-walkers replaced tailgaters outside the stadium and, inside, not a seat was filled, but the music still blared and the videoboards entertained.
Staley the mascot also showed up and spent most of the game dancing alone on the first level behind the south end zone. But there was no crowd to engage or anyone in the stands to react to the shrill sounds of the silly air-raid sirens or the excited voice of new public address announcer Tim Sinclair. At one point, it was so quiet that, in the press box, you could hear a Giants assistant coach berating his defensive players on the sideline below.
Bears fans definitely were missed in the 2020 home opener.
But, honestly, they didn’t miss much.