The Bears picked up their third win of the season on Thursday night, outlasting the Carolina Panthers in a slog, 16-13. Backup quarterback Tyson Bagent did enough to pick up his second win as the starter. The Bears leaned on their defense and a run game led by running back D’Onta Foreman.
Now, the Bears have nine days off until they return to action on Nov. 19 against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Bears head coach Matt Eberflus likes to refer to these long layoffs as mini-bye weeks. The Bears have a chance to get healthy and regroup before the final stretch of the season.
There will, however, be plenty of questions facing the team coming out of the mini-bye next week. Here are three key questions that the Bears will have to answer.
1. Can Justin Fields pick up where he left off?
Prior to dislocating his thumb on Oct. 15, starting quarterback Justin Fields was coming off two of the best passing games of his career. In two games against Denver and Washington, he threw for a combined 617 yards and eight touchdowns with only one interception. The Bears offense was rolling and top receiver DJ Moore looked unstoppable.
Assuming Fields plays against Detroit, how long will it take him to knock off the rust? He has missed four consecutive games. His first test would be tough against a Lions defense that ranks fifth in the NFL in yards per game allowed. The Lions are tougher against the run than against the pass.
The Bears tailored their offense to Bagent over the past few weeks, keeping the passing attack relatively simple and leaning on the run game. Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy will have to adjust again, playing into the strengths of Fields.
The Bears will face the Lions twice and the Browns once. Those are the toughest defenses remaining on the schedule. The offense should find ways to score points against everyone else.
The final seven games of the season are arguably the biggest games of Fields’ career. With two first-round picks next spring, including a Panthers pick that will almost certainly be in the top two or three, the Bears will likely have the chance to select a quarterback if they so choose. Fields’ play down the stretch will ultimately decide what general manager Ryan Poles wants to do moving forward at quarterback.
The team is nearly back to full health. The schedule has some winnable games. If Fields doesn’t play well now, under these conditions, it might be time for the Bears to move on.
2. Who leads the running backs?
Running back Khalil Herbert is likely to return from an ankle injury next week. He was back at practice ahead of the Panthers game, but didn’t play Thursday.
The Bears, it seems, have too many good options at running back. That, of course, is a good problem to have. Over the past five games, Foreman has averaged 79.6 yards from scrimmage and has scored four total touchdowns. He has been the engine that has kept the offense humming with Herbert and Fields out.
His teammates love the way he runs. Foreman meets defenders head-on and fights through tackles.
“He came up to us maybe before the game or halftime [on Thursday], he was like, ‘I’m going to need y’all and I’m going to run my hardest for y’all,’” Bears right tackle Darnell Wright told Shaw Local. “That’s kind of how it is. He shows a lot of love to us [on the offensive line]. We’re going to play hard regardless, but that goes a long way.”
“[D’Onta Foreman] came up to us maybe before the game or halftime [on Thursday], he was like, ‘I’m going to need y’all and I’m going to run my hardest for y’all.’ That’s kind of how it is. He shows a lot of love to us [on the offensive line]. We’re going to play hard regardless, but that goes a long way.”— Darnell Wright, Bears right tackle
Prior to the ankle injury, Herbert averaged 71 yards from scrimmage over five games, with one touchdown. The offensive line was severely banged up at the start of the season, which didn’t help his numbers.
Herbert is the second-most efficient back in the NFL this season, per NFL Next Gen Stats, but Foreman is also just outside the top 10.
When Herbert was the lead back through the first five weeks, Foreman was inactive during four of those games. Given what Foreman has done lately, there’s zero chance the Bears bench him entirely. He has earned at least a share of the touches moving forward.
The easiest thing for the Bears to do would be to give Foreman and Herbert equal touches against Detroit and adjust moving forward based on who is finding the most success.
3. Is the defensive turnaround for real?
Last week, the Bears defense played about as well as you could ask of a defense when the New Orleans Saints started six of their eight second-half possession on the Bears’ half of the field. The Bears lost that game, 24-17, but not because of the defense.
On Thursday, the Panthers didn’t score an offensive touchdown. They found the end zone only on special teams, with a punt return from receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
The Saints and Panthers combined to go 10-for-29 on third-down tries over those two games. Overall this season, the Bears defense has been terrible on third downs. The Bears are allowing a conversion on 45% of third downs over the first 10 games, which ranks 31st among NFL defenses. But a 34% rate over the past two games is more in line with some of the top rates in the NFL.
Is this turnaround for real? Well, the Bears have gotten healthier since the beginning of the season – when seemingly the entire secondary was injured. The health impact is real.
There are two red flags here, though. The first is that the Saints’ offense is mediocre, at best, and the Panthers’ is downright bad. The second is that the turnovers, still, are not coming. The Bears defense didn’t create a single turnover in either game. The Bears are a league-worst minus-9 in the turnover department. Their six interceptions and three fumble recoveries both rank in the bottom half of the league.
The good news, though, is that the Bears don’t face many good offenses the rest of the way (outside of two matchups with Detroit). The Vikings with Josh Dobbs? The Falcons rushing attack? The Browns?
The best QBs remaining on the schedule are Detroit’s Jared Goff and Arizona’s Kyler Murray, who is expected to return from an ACL injury this weekend. Nobody else is remotely scary.
If the defense keeps playing at this level, it should do enough to keep the Bears in games.