Any hero is an unlikely one the way the Bears’ offense has been running lately. But Ben Braunecker qualified on multiple levels Sunday. He doesn’t start. He rarely plays. He’s a tight end in an offense that doesn’t seem to know how to use one. And he’s Ben Braunecker, a former undrafted free agent who always seems like the last tight end on the roster.
But for one magical moment against the Lions at Soldier Field, the fourth-year pro from Harvard, heretofore known for how smart he is, finally was celebrated for how good he is. Braunecker’s fabulous reaching catch for an 18-yard touchdown with 25 seconds left in the first half not only gave the Bears the lead, but it provided a psychological boost by breaking a five-game stretch without a first-half offensive touchdown.
“It felt like a boost of energy across the stadium, both on the sideline and from the fans,” Braunecker said. “I was just happy that the coaches put me in there for that opportunity. Saw something on film . . . get man coverage. So I was happy to be there and make that play.”
On a second-and-five play from the 18-yard line, Braunecker beat safety Will Harris on a corner route and hauled in a well-thrown ball from Mitch Trubisky to give the Bears a 7-6 lead. It was his first NFL touchdown. Coming into the game, Braunecker had been targeted just 14 times in 44 games over three-plus seasons. He had played just five offensive snaps in the previous six games.
And although it was a perfect throw from Trubisky, it wasn’t an easy play, with Braunecker stretching out for the ball as he was streaking toward the right sideline in the end zone.
“It was right where I wanted it,” said Braunecker, a reliable special-teams contributor who was called upon with Adam Shaheen a healthy scratch. “It was a pretty difficult catch — a lot harder than I imagined it was going to be.
“Once I knew I beat him on the route, I looked up and was like, ‘Where is it?’ For a split second, I didn’t see it. It was really far towards the sideline. It was just like adjusting my body and everything kind of slowed down a little bit and went into slow motion. As soon as my hands went over the ball, I was like, ‘All right, squeeze it as hard as you can because [Harris is] going to be there, trying to knock it loose. I was relieved to secure that ball and make the play.”
Trubisky’s touchdown to Braunecker capped a 10-play, 80-yard drive that was fueled in part by desperation. The Bears punted on their first four possessions, gaining just 20 yards on 15 plays, with one first down.
Coach Matt Nagy was so desperate for first-half points, he gambled on fourth-and-one at his own 29 and went for the first down. David Montgomery gained two yards to keep the drive alive. Trubisky got on a roll, hit Allen Robinson for gains of nine, 14 and 11 yards, and Braunecker did the rest.
“We needed it. We needed a spark,” Nagy said of the fourth-and-one gamble. “I think it sends a message to our players: ‘Listen, here you go. We’re backed up. And it’s time for us to be in control of this.’ And they stepped up and did it.”
Against an undermanned Lions defense, it provided the needed spark. The Bears went into halftime on a high and scored two touchdowns in the first 5:22 of the third quarter to take a 20-6 lead.
“I’m glad we did it,” Robinson said of the fourth-and-one gamble. “It may be risky, but at the end of the day, it’s a football game. We’ve got a lot of faith in our defense. You gotta take risky plays. Chances make champions.”