Lesson learned? Bears still need preseason work
Matt Eberflus is debating whether to play his starters in the preseason finale against the Browns on Saturday. But as Matt Nagy discovered in 2019 with a developing offense: The more work at game speed, the better.
Giving his starters only token snaps in the 2019 preseason was one of the few decisions Matt Nagy acknowledged regretting in his four seasons as the Bears’ coach.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the starting offensive line played three snaps in the preseason opener against the Panthers and were declared ready for the regular season.
They were not. The Bears finished 29th in points, 29th in total yards, 25th in passing yards and 27th in rushing yards. Trubisky’s passer rating plummeted from 95.4 in 2018 to 83.0, 28th in the NFL in 2019.
The lesson was clear: More work in game situations for a developing team is better than less. Nagy pledged to rectify that error in judgment but never really got the chance. There was no NFL preseason in 2020 because of COVID-19. And in 2021, the reduction of the preseason from four games to three altered the preparation dynamic.
The third preseason game that used to be the “dress rehearsal” for Week 1 starters now was also the last preseason game, typically a showcase for backups and players on the fringe of the roster. Nagy seemed caught in between. He sat starting quarterback Andy Dalton, but the starting offensive line played the first half against the Titans.
NFL coaches still are trying to sort out the three-game preseason. Most teams are trending toward playing their starters less in the preseason, apparently because of injury concerns.
But nothing beats game experience. And for developing teams such as the Bears — with an offense in a formative stage with a second-year quarterback in Justin Fields and a defense getting acclimated to a 4-3 under coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams — the last preseason game provides an opportunity for much-needed growth on both sides of the ball.
Eberflus would not commit to playing his starters — or resting them — when the Bears play the Browns in their preseason finale Saturday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
“We’re still working through that,” Eberflus said Saturday after practice. “We had one conversation so far about that, and . . . we’re not ready to make the proclamation of what’s going to happen in that game yet.”
Asked which way he was leaning, Eberflus deflected the question with humor — literally leaning to one side, then the other.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe this way. Maybe that way. We’ll see.”
The Bears have been described as a “work in progress” on both sides of the ball — by Eberflus with the defense and by coordinator Luke Getsy with the offense. The defense, which gets a lot of mileage out of hustle and intensity, appears much closer to Week 1 preparedness. The offense, which depends more on repetition, timing and precision, needs a lot of work.
“I feel like a lot of guys on the defense are ready for Week 1,” defensive tackle Justin Jones said Sunday. “We’ve been going against each other for [a while]. Preseason is cool, but there’s nothing like really game-planning — figuring out how to attack a team and its star players, how to keep the quarterback in the pocket so we can get all these sacks. That’s the real fun.”
So even what might seem like a meaningless preseason game is an opportunity for the Bears’ offense. If Fields and the starters sit against the Browns, they’ll enter the regular-season opener against the 49ers on Sept. 11 at Soldier Field without having played in a game for 24 days — and for only nine snaps at that, 27 for the entire preseason.
Any football game comes with the risk of injury but also provides benefits that practice cannot.
“Just getting hit and actually getting tackled,” running back David Montgomery said. “Seeing different looks. Getting the pace of the game — it’s completely different from practice.”