CLEVELAND — The Bears gave us a glimpse of the future Sunday.
No, not Justin Fields, the rookie quarterback who has a long way to go in coach Matt Nagy’s offense to reach his potential. But the Bears’ defense, which got off to an impressive start against the Browns, wilted under the immense pressure of carrying a team with an unworkable offense and ended up in an ominous state after another dubious Bears loss: another day older.
The Bears have been wasting the best years of their Vic Fangio-built defense for a while now. But their 26-6 loss Sunday to the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium was the biggest step toward an uncomfortable scenario: By the time Nagy gets this discombobulated offense on track, the defense will be too old and too far from its glory days to take advantage of it.
For a while, the Bears were putting as much heat on Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield as the Browns’ defense put on the beleaguered Fields. The Bears sacked Mayfield on three of the Browns’ first four drives and five times in their first seven, with no cheapies.
Robert Quinn/Angelo Blackson and Khalil Mack had fourth-down sacks on the Browns’ first two drives that turned the ball over on downs. Mario Edwards, Mack again and Quinn again continued the barrage. But the offense couldn’t take advantage of it, and the defense ultimately paid the price.
It wasn’t for lack of effort. Mack suffered a sprained foot in the first quarter, went to the locker room for treatment and played through it throughout the second half.
‘‘I know this: When you’re getting those stops on fourth down — they’re going for it and you’re getting sacks — there’s a juice on the sideline, there’s an energy, there’s a vibe,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘And then to not be able to take advantage of that is the part where you feel like, ‘OK, that can’t happen.’ ’’
But it did. Over and over and over again.
‘‘When it kept happening on offense and we weren’t getting first downs and weren’t getting touchdowns and [the defense] kept getting stops, you get into that third [and] fourth quarter, it just wears you down,’’ Nagy said.
Indeed, it did. It seemed to start late in the second quarter, with the score tied 3-3, when right tackle Germain Ifedi was penalized for a false start on third-and-one at the Bears’ 43. Fields was sacked on third-and-six, and the Browns responded with a 12-play, 89-yard touchdown drive — capped by Mayfield’s 13-yard pass to tight end Austin Hooper — that gave them a 10-3 lead at halftime.
The Bears’ defense wore down from there, finally breaking when safety Eddie Jackson whiffed on a tackle at the 20-yard line on Kareem Hunt’s 27-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter — after safety Deon Bush had missed Hunt in the backfield. That touchdown gave the Browns 20-6 lead with 14:46 left — insurmountable on this day.
The Browns’ offensive numbers made the Bears’ defense look bad instead of valiant: 418 yards, 26 first downs and 215 rushing yards on 42 carries. The Browns rushed for 101 yards against a beaten Bears defense in the fourth quarter to close it out.
It put the defense in an uncomfortable spot. The offense was the obvious culprit, but the players can’t acknowledge that.
‘‘It’s offense and defense, and we all stick together,’’ linebacker Roquan Smith said. ‘‘It’s not about singling anything out or trying to make one [side] look better than the other.
‘‘We all have a job. My job is to play defense and go out there every time the defense is up and try to make a play and put the ball in the offense’s hands. And I’m sure everyone else on defense will say the same.’’
It’s a tough spot to be in. The questions have to be asked, and the Bears’ proud defensive players handle them well. But among the many things left unsaid is that time is running out.