The surprise of a 3-1 record through the first quarter of the 2020 season. The intoxicating thrill of a David vs. Goliath week five underdog victory over the soon-to-be Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The boiling frustration with an anemic offense and a broken defense in a six-week losing streak in the middle of the season and the rekindled spark of hope as the Bears found their footing both offensively and defensively, leading to a last Herculean effort that resulted in a 3-1 record to the end the season.
These were some of the rollercoaster emotions felt by Chicago Bears fans everywhere throughout the Bears’ 2020 NFL season. As wild and unpredictable the season was, it was ironically par for the course for the rudderless Chicago Bears: complete ineptitude on the offensive side of the ball, with the extremely talented defensive unit trying its best to make up for the offenses’ production (or lack thereof), and losing winnable games in the process.
From the fluttering anxiety in the race for the last NFC Wildcard playoff spot to the all-enveloping numbness of yet another first-round playoff loss, ending what was yet another dysfunctional NFL season, have yourself a grotesque dish of the modern day Chicago Bears.
Despite the gnawing bite of pessimism in the back of Bears fans’ heads everywhere, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Conversely, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic, depending on how you believe some of the Bears’ issues will play out. That balancing act is exactly where this Chicago Bears Season Preview will strike; we’re going to try to find the truth between the two extremes.
Best Position Group
Listen, I could be the plucky amateur sports writer who wants to make headlines by proclaiming some middling position group is quietly the best. “The Bears wide receiver group is among the best in football!” or, “The Bears have a three-headed monster at running back, and no one is talking about it!”. Heck, I could even go really off the deep-end and exclaim that the Bears have three starter-level QB’s in the quarterback room, but then I would get blacklisted from writing a sports article forever. No, in this Chicago Bears season preview, sometimes the easiest answer is also the correct answer: the Bears defensive tackle/ defensive end/ outside linebacker group (or the front four to keep it short) is both the most talented and deepest group on the roster.
To discuss the Bears front four position group in this Chicago Bears season preview, it’s most appropriate to talk about the two literal Bears in the group: perennial All-Pro OLB Khalil Mack and Pro-Bowler DE Akiem Hicks. Okay, maybe they’re not literal Bears, but they might as well be. Mack and Hicks both embody what it means to be a Chicago Bear: tenacious, nasty, smart, and powerful defenders where their charisma and aura simply intimidates whatever poor offensive lineman has to go against them. Mack has 30 total sacks in his tenure with the Bears, along with 144 total tackles. Despite his incredible statistics, the presence and leadership he brings to the Bears’ locker room is something that doesn’t display on the box score but is ever-present and incredibly impactful.
Hicks the perfect Robin to Mack’s Batman: he’s an outspoken character who loves to have fun and make jokes, but Hicks plays with a fierce tenacity that often gives him the edge in his one-on-one battles, thanks to Khalil Mack acting as a black hole that sucks multiple offensive linemen into his orbit. Hicks has 27.5 sacks through his five years in Chicago, along with a whopping 222 total tackles. He’s one of the definitive leaders of the Bears defense, and he reflects that both on and off the field.
Filling a 318-pound hole besides Akiem Hicks in this Chicago Bears season preview is a wall of a man who absorbs both running and passing lanes with his enormous strength and size: Eddie Goldman. While it’s well known to Bears fans that Goldman is easily one of the best defensive tackles in the league, that fact escapes the broader scope of general NFL fans. Goldman has 153 total tackles and 17 tackles-for-loss since joining the Bears as a late draft pick in 2015, and his presence will be a welcome relief to a defense that had to play without him for the entirety of the 2020 NFL season due to him being a COVID-19 opt-out.
And, of course, we saved the best for last in this Chicago Bears season preview… sigh. I lied. I saved this player for last because he is the most unproven of this front four, even though his resume should say otherwise. Last, and definitely least, is OLB Robert Quinn, who was extremely disappointing last season. Signed to a big contract in the 2020 offseason following an 11.5 sack season in Dallas, Bears fans thought general manager Ryan Pace found another great pass rusher to feast on the scraps that Khalil Mack left behind.
To the dismay of Bears fans everywhere, he was a no-show throughout the whole season, accumulating a measly two sacks and 20 total tackles. Still though -and call it wishful thinking if you’d like- Quinn started to flash at the end of the season, and he finally was able to get through a normal offseason program this year in training camp. I don’t think that it’s foolish to believe that Quinn had a hard time getting adjusted to not only a basic defensive scheme orchestrated by newly-retired Chuck Pagano but also a year where everyone’s routines were thrown out of the loop. Quinn could surprise some people… and, even if he doesn’t, the Bears have three extremely talented defenders who will pick up the slack for him.
To round out the front four group in this Chicago Bears season preview is an eye-opening cluster of depth players who have flashed or have real potential. 2020 7th-round draft pick Khyris Tonga had a very strong preseason at the nose tackle position, displaying great quickness and instinct for running lanes consistently. Defensive tackle Angelo Blackson also has a strong preseason as well as other interior and exterior defenders such as Trevis Gipson, Jeremiah Attaochu, Caleb Johnson, Charles Snowden, etc. While these unproven players don’t look like much now, after a couple of years of development, they could start making some noise in the trenches.
Worst Position Group
Most general NFL fans might think I have a plethora of positions to choose from at this position in this Chicago Bears season preview. I mean, it’s the Bears, right? They’ve been so bad for most of this decade, save for a couple of fluky playoff appearances. There must be atrophy festering all over the Bears depth chart! In a sense, that type of groupthink is correct. Record-wise and performance-wise, the Bears were downright horrid at times. Like, wash out your eyes with bleach bad. However, the product on the field did not reflect the talent on the roster all the time.
Especially last year; the Bears on both sides of the ball played like a shell of what their potential would dictate. So, in truth, there aren’t many real positions of need on the team. The defense is loaded with talent, with the only real issues being the depth at inside linebacker (the starters are Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan, so no issues there), and cornerbacks. That’s where I may shock you: I don’t think cornerback is the biggest issue. CB Jaylon Johnson will be a stud, and from Kindle Vildor down the depth chart, there’s some real promise there. No, my choice for the Bears’ worst position group is on offense, and that group is the offensive line.
In this Chicago Bears season preview, the Bears have a real issue at the offensive line position, and the worst part is that it shouldn’t have been. It was never going to be truly great, but it should have been, at worst, average, and at best good. The Bears had a slew of injuries plague the offensive line locker room, resulting in players having extended leaves on injury, last-minute signings, and extremely limited reps in training camp and the preseason. Talented left tackle Tevin Jenkins had potentially season-ending back surgery in the offseason, and both tackle positions succumbed to the injury bug as well.
The Bears signed former All-Pro LT Jason Peters in a panic signing after the tackle position suddenly became very fragile, but he is 39 years old and is trying to grasp OL coach Juan Castillo’s blocking scheme on the fly in preparation for a Sunday night showdown against the Los Angeles Rams. RT Germain Ifedi only got reps in the last preseason game against the Tennessee Titans, in which his performance was subpar.
Surprise Star Player
Alright. It’s time. It’s time to address the overwhelming, omnipresent elephant in the room in this Chicago Bears season preview. The incredibly talented, 2021 first-round draft pick elephant that threw for 2100 yards, with 22 TD’s and six interceptions in only eight games in a COVID-stricken NCAA season.
To cross sports and pop culture, Marvel superhero Doctor Strange could’ve done as he did in the 2018 blockbuster Infinity War and looked through all 14,000,605 timelines where I wrote this piece, and not a single one would have me choosing anyone other than Justin Fields (well, I almost considered dynamic running back David Montgomery for this spot, but just go with the hyperbole here.). Justin Fields will, almost certainly, be the surprise star player for the 2021 Chicago Bears, to the surprise of absolutely no one.
There’s not much to be said about the prestigious QB out of Ohio State that hasn’t already been passionately discussed and debated both within the confines of the Illinois border and the national NFL media that hasn’t already been said. We knew he was amazing in college, he was still amazing when the Bears made the shocking draft up to select Fields in the 2021 NFL Draft, and he was even more amazing through the preseason, turning up the pressure on current starting Bears QB Andy Dalton. There’s not a doubt in anyone’s minds that Fields will continue to glow brilliantly with his radiant play and eventually outshine Dalton in practice enough where the Bears decide to give Fields the key to the future. The question is not if, but when in this Chicago Bears season preview.
The when will be addressed in the next category of this Chicago Bears season preview, but let me say this on Fields. He is a grade-A character and student of the game. He has thoroughly impressed the Bears organization with his charisma, intelligence, and maturity from top to bottom. He has earned the respect of the leaders of the locker room, with said leaders often citing Fields’ play being on “another level”. His presence brought the national media’s eye back to the Windy City, for better or worse. And, most importantly, he immediately captured the hearts and trust of Chicago’s faithful. We trust him. We believe in him. He embodies exactly what it means to be a Chicago Bear.
Record & Playoff Prediction
The moment you’ve all been waiting for has arrived. The definitive, perfect, there’s-no-way-I-could-be-wrong record and playoff prediction in this Chicago Bears season preview. Will HC Matt Nagy unlock the full potential of the offense and unleash a scoring tidal wave on the league as the Bears defense returns to its monstrous 2018 form and make a deep playoff run? Or will the Bears crater and cripple themselves on offense like in years previous, while the defense makes no noticeable improvement on defense, leading to another disappointing season that results in Dalton, Nagy, and general manager Ryan Pace fleeing Chicago under the cover of darkness, never to be seen again? As I stated in the prologue, the truth will lie somewhere in the middle in my estimation.
Let’s start with the first quarter of the season. Week one at the LA Rams. Loss. The Bears never play well in primetime, the Rams’ strengths put pressure on the Bears’ weaknesses, and the Bears have too many unknowns to survive a true NFC contender in week one. Week two vs. the Bengals, week three at the Browns, week four vs. the Lions. Three wins. After a slightly disappointing but encouraging loss, the Bears rattle off three wins to being 3-1 on the season. There is precedent for this: Matt Nagy has led the Bears to a 3-1 record in his last three years as the head coach.
The Bengals and Lions games should be easy wins for this Bears team; the Bengals are still an up-and-coming team that has young players that still need to develop, and the Bears have had the Lions’ number every year. What may surprise people is the win against the Browns, and this one could truly go either way. The Browns are a deep and talented team that are true contenders for the AFC representative in the Super Bowl. I just believe the Bears match up well on both sides of the ball with the Browns and, hey, the Bears have the talent to beat good teams. I just think this is one of those instances that the unlikely happens.
The second quarter of the season is where the Bears will start to slide. The record from the first quarter of the season will flip 3-1 in the first, to 1-3 in the second. Losses to the Raiders in week five, Packers in week six, and the Buccaneers in week seven. Remember what I said about sometimes the better team just has a weird week and just nothing goes right? That’s what will happen to the Bears against the Raiders.
The Raiders have some sneaky good talent and I think this will be that wringing-your-hands game for Bears fans where they say “what the hell happened?”. Okay, listen. I know how badly Bears fans want to beat the Packers, and the team won a wild victory over the Bucs last year. It’s just not going to happen this time. I’ll revisit the Packers matchup later in the schedule, but c’mon. It’s Aaron Rodgers. You all know the drill.
As for the Bucs, well, they’re the defending champions, and again, c’mon. It’s Tom Brady. The Bears had a truly heroic effort to take down this juggernaut team last year, but lightning never strikes twice. In week eight, the Bears will get a much-needed victory against the 49ers. The Bears match up well with the 49ers, and the Bears have had the edge over the 49ers in recent years.
On to the third quarter of the season. This will be an interesting stretch, as there are good teams that Bears match up well with, but also teams the Bears are dead even with who may have a positional edge. Week nine vs. Pittsburgh. Thats a loss. The Steelers have a great wide receiving core that could potentially tear apart the Bears’ secondary, and the Bears historically have not played well in prime time.
Week 11 vs Baltimore. Win. Yes, Ravens QB Lamar Jackson is great. He has incredible scrambling ability and is extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands. However, Jackson is not as much a gifted passer, which will be his Achilles’ heal in this matchup. The Ravens do not have many other running threats besides Jackson, which will give him more limited lanes to pass into. One constant the Bears defense was stout in was being disciplined in containing the option and not breaking contain in the pocket. Jackson will inevitably get his yards; you can’t always contain greatness. But make him beat you with his arm, and you have a good chance of winning.
Week 12 vs Lions. Win. A season sweep of the Lions. Week 13 vs. Cardinals. Loss. These two teams have a lot of strengths and weaknesses that counteract each other, which makes this matchup the toughest to make a decision on. There’s a reason why the Bears and Cardinals were in a deadlock for the last NFC playoff spot in the 2020 season. Ultimately, it’s with a heavy heart I will concede this victory to Arizona. Cardinals QB Kyler Murray will ascend in his third year, the Cardinals will have a creative offense, and the Cardinals’ stellar receivers will dominate a suspect Bears secondary.
Finally, we arrive in the home stretch, the last five games. Week 14 vs. the Packers. Win. Yes, I’m well aware that Green Bay has dominated Chicago in the last decade. Is this a bit of a pipe dream? For sure. Regardless, I believe the Bears will win one of two against their historic and despised rival. The Bears will know a playoff berth is at stake, and every game counts. The Bears pull out a gritty and hard-fought victory in week 14. Week 15 vs. Minnesota. Win. Much like the Lions, the Bears have had the edge over the Vikings in the last few years, and overall the Bears have a better team. Week 16 vs. Seattle. Loss. Though the Bears had a great win over the Seahawks early in that exciting 2018 season, the Seahawks had only gotten better on both sides of the ball, while the argument could be made that the Bears had gotten slightly worse. Week 17 vs the Giants. Win. While the defense has certainly made a statement for themselves last year and I don’t think quarterback Daniel Jones is as bad as people say he is, the Bears are more polished and established and they will win this one with a sizeable margin. Finally, the extra game. Week 18 vs Minnesota. Win. A season sweep of both the Lions and Vikings.
After a hard-fought season with its ups and downs that involved a QB change, a reenergized defense, winning streaks, and losing streaks, the 2021 Chicago Bears will finish with a record of 10-7, earning themselves a Wild Card playoff berth.
The playoffs have arrived. HC Matt Nagy’s team has made the playoffs in this Chicago Bears season preview three of the last four years, the playoff berths before this year resulting in first-round exits. Will the third time be the charm in this scenario? Unfortunately, history will be doomed to repeat itself. I predict the Bears’ 2021 season will end in yet another flameout against an NFC Wild Card opponent.
Though, even if it’s just a consolation, the Bears will go out in a more competitive fashion akin to their 2018 playoff appearance rather than 2020’s. The NFC is bursting at the seams with talent this year: the Cowboys, 49ers, Washington Football Team, Cardinals, Seahawks, Vikings, and Saints all could be the Bears’ opponent in the Wild Card. In most of those matchups, the Bears would be on the losing end of the bout.
In summation, I’m predicting a promising and constructive year where the Bears really come into their own on both sides of the ball, usher in their future with Justin Fields, have some big wins and big losses, and have this season be the appetizer before next season’s big leap into the upper echelon. Did the Bears have extraordinary highs and pitiful lows in this Chicago Bears season preview?
Not necessarily, but that means this piece will be more in touch with the reality of the situation, rather than some pessimistic rant or waxing poetic about how absolutely nothing will go wrong. The Bears could lose one or two more or win one or two more, but overall, the 2021 Chicago Bears are working through the growing pains of an adolescent team under HC Matt Nagy’s leadership; tribulations necessary in order for Chicago to once again reclaim their spot as one of the NFL’s elite.
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