Just as quickly as it started, the 2023 NFL preseason has come to a close for the Chicago Bears. They wrapped up their finale against the Buffalo Bills at Soldier Field but fell 24-21 to finish the preseason 1-2, their first losing record in August since 2019.
Saturday’s game had a bit more juice to it, however, as both teams played their starters on offense and defense to begin the game. Bears quarterback Justin Fields struggled out of the gate while Bills quarterback Josh Allen drove his team downfield on their first drive to put seven points on the board. Backup quarterback Kyle Allen also orchestrated multiple scoring drives on the Bears backup defense.
On offense, Bears backup quarterback Tyson Bagenet once again used his legs to find the endzone, and Cairo Santos netted a pair of field goals throughout the day. The Bears clawed their way back to keep things close thanks to a touchdown pass from P.J. Walker later in the game, but never held a lead the entire day.
With the preseason now in the books, it’s about time to turn our focus to the regular season, but there were still things to take away from the final dress rehearsal. Here are our takeaways from Saturday’s preseason loss.
1. Justin Fields looked shaky in the pocket
Two weeks ago, Fields threw for two touchdown passes that didn’t go beyond the line of scrimmage. As great as it was to see D.J. Moore and Khalil Herbert carve up the defense, we needed to see true dropbacks in the pocket with passes that traveled downfield. Well, we saw them this week, and they didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Fields wasn’t awful on Saturday, but he wasn’t particularly good either. He went 2-of-5 for 51 yards. About half of those yards came thanks to Moore’s yards after catch, when he caught a 15-yard pass from Fields but slipped a tackle to gain 25 more. Otherwise, Fields was inaccurate down the sidelines on plays to Moore and Darnell Mooney, missed a low pass to Cole Kmet (that may have been overturned on a challenge had the Bears thrown the flag), and held onto the ball too long even when pass protection was solid.
This was a contrast to what we saw in practice earlier in the summer. Fields was decisive with his throws and utilized his checkdowns when needed. That wasn’t evident on Sunday, albeit against a more formidable defense. He’ll need to make sure his internal clock is up to speed when Week 1 rolls around and make better deep throws when given the chance.
2. The running game was ineffective
Do you know what else impacted Fields’ day? The fact that the Bears had an ineffective running game. Early on, the Bears were getting stopped at the line of scrimmage when trying to rush the ball with Khalil Herbert. That led to second- and third-and-long situations that changed how Fields and the offense wanted to operate. It happened on consecutive drives too, which both went three-and-out.
The Bears running backs had just 37 rushing yards on 16 carries. That’s under two and a half yards per carry. Roschon Johnson was the leading back with 22 rushing yards on nine carries, and even he had to fend off defenders in the backfield to get some of those positive gains. The offensive line couldn’t hold their blocks, and plays were blown up before they even started. The primary contributions in the run game came from the quarterbacks and wide receiver sweeps.
That inability to gain yards on the ground hurt the Bears offense all day, putting them in obvious passing situations that didn’t work for the majority of the day. The Bears converted just 4-of-13 third-down attempts. They’ll need to get the run game in check for Week 1, otherwise the game could solely rest on Fields’ shoulders.
3. QB2 is still way up in the air
Earlier in the week, head coach Matt Eberflus talked about how the QB2 position became a true competition thanks to the poor play of P.J. Walker, coupled with the stellar run from Tyson Bagent. The cries for Bagent, an undrafted rookie free agent, to not only make the roster but become the primary backup to Fields grew louder and louder. Did he do enough in his final audition to silence any remaining doubters? Not really, if we’re being honest.
Bagent did lead the Bears to their first touchdown drive of the day when he scrambled into the end zone a couple drives after coming in for Fields. He once again looked poised in the pocket and avoided pressure. But his passing wasn’t as accurate as before. Bagent went 7-of-14 for 43 yards and an interception on the day. He did get the majority of the snaps, however, which might be a good sign for his prospects when rosters are finalized. Things got interesting, however, when Walker relieved him.
Walker had his best performance of the preseason, albeit against third- and fourth-string defenders. The veteran went 6-of-11 for 71 yards and one touchdown. He led all quarterbacks with a 104.7 rating and eased some of the concern with his erratic play over the last few weeks. Nathan Peterman, the other quarterback on the roster, didn’t see any action after he excelled last week.
If I had to choose now, the backup quarterback role is still likely Walker’s going into the season, with Bagent as the third option. All three quarterbacks have an argument for the spot, though, and it very likely could change as the season unfolds. It’s still up in the air, but a resolution is coming soon.
4. Tyrique Stevenson might be a boom-or-bust cornerback
If the preseason was any indication, then Bears rookie Tyrique Stevenson is going to have a rollercoaster regular season as one of the team’s starting cornerbacks. Stevenson had three tackles, one pass breakup, and finally got an interception after being in position for one each of the last two weeks. But where there was good, there was also bad.
Stevenson was penalized twice early on, both for defensive holding. He also allowed Buffalo’s second touchdown when he mistimed his jump in coverage against Quintin Morris, just missing getting his hand on the ball. It seemed as if Stevenson was involved in the action, good or bad, and that could be a preview of what’s to come early in the season.
The rookie cornerback has shown the ability to be a gamer and puts himself in position to make a play. It’s executing that play from start to finish that has been an issue this preseason. But since it is so early in his career, that can be worked on with the coaching staff. He already made it a point earlier this week to not let any more passes go through his hands and wound up with a pick. Stevenson is determined and will have plenty of good moments. He’s also going to be targeted a ton and will have bad plays as well. The rollercoaster may not stop anytime soon.
5. The Bears would be foolish to move on from Trevis Gipson
The situation between Trevis Gipson and the Bears appears to have reached a boiling point. It was reported during the game that Gipson had been granted permission to seek a trade, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. Gipson has been near the bottom of the Bears depth chart for much of the summer, and the two sides could be gearing up to move on from each other. It would be a mistake if they did, though.
Gipson hasn’t been some superstar defensive end up to this point in his career, but he’s been effective and has shown more than any other Bears player at the position in recent weeks. At a position that needs capable players to generate pressure, Gipson is one of them and deserves a spot not only on the 53-man roster but in the rotation.
Can we really point to guys like Rasheem Green and Dominique Robinson as clear upgrades in that department? I sure can’t. Green hasn’t generated much buzz, and Robinson’s impressive practice reps haven’t carried over to games. As Unbearable Sports points out, Gipson has won 22.4% of the snaps in which he rushed the passer. Robinson had not won any.
Even with Yannick Ngakoue coming in to provide a boost, the confidence level of the Bears defensive ends can’t be high overall. If they choose to move on from Gipson, they must have their reasons. Perhaps there is internal strife to which we’re not privy. But Gipson’s preseason performance and past accomplishments show he can still play and will make a team happy with his motor and performance. It should be the Bears, though. Gipson finished the preseason with nine tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, and five QB hits.
6. Preseason performance is not indicative of regular season performance
Over two weeks ago, I made a promise to myself and anyone who would listen that I wouldn’t get too high or too low with the Bears following the preseason, no matter what. Whether it was after the incredible screen plays against the Titans, the missed interception from Stevenson vs. the Colts, or Fields’ up-and-down day facing the Bills, my goal was to keep a level head, and I believe I’ve done that.
We truly have no idea what this team is going to look like in two weeks, four weeks, or six weeks. That was abundantly clear last year after the Bears steamrolled everyone in the preseason and capped it off with a dominant performance from Fields and the offense. They went 3-0 in August and 3-14 the rest of the way. When Green Bay comes to town, it’s up to the coaching staff to implement an effective game plan that isn’t vanilla and for the players to execute it to the best of their abilities.
Fortunately, this coaching staff has been through it together. They should be better prepared for the start of the season and be able to make the necessary adjustments if and when things go south. What we saw in August won’t be indicative of what’s to come in September and October. And knowing what transpired from the first six weeks to the next six weeks, it will be tough to gauge this team even then.
Players will still be getting their feet underneath them and adjusting to the rigors of playing a full 60-minute game when the season starts. Good or bad, this team will look very different. The real evaluation begins on September 10th.
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