Just three weeks ago, it looked like Bears general manager Ryan Pace might be returning to New Orleans in Week 8 a little chagrined, if not embarrassed. The Bears were 1-3 after a humiliating 35-14 loss to the Packers on national television. And quarterback Mike Glennon not only looked like the most inexplicable free-agent signing in Bears history, but a mistake that everybody except Pace saw coming.
Fast forward three weeks, and Pace will return to New Orleans this week as the prodigal son who’s making it in the big city. The Bears have won back-to-back games for the first time since 2015, and Pace’s hand-picked acquisitions are making the difference.
Of the 44 players who participated in the victory over the Panthers, 38 were acquired by Pace, including 18 of 22 starters and 12 players drafted by Pace in his three seasons as GM.
More importantly, several were difference-makers. Rookie safety Eddie Jackson scored touchdowns on returns of 75 and 76 yards. Rookie Tarik Cohen played only seven snaps but caught a 70-yard pass on one of them. The six defenders who combined for five sacks in a menacing performance by the front seven all were brought here by Pace: outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Pernell McPhee, inside linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive linemen Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Mitch Unrein.
A few weeks ago, Pace’s drafting acumen was clouded, if not defined, by the Kevin White miss; his free-agency judgment by the Glennon debacle. There’s still a long way to go — ask the Packers how quickly things can change — but those disappointments are being put into a better perspective. Pace can’t win them all, but most of his hits have a chance to clear the wall.
2. Hicks’ return to New Orleans doesn’t figure to be as chummy as Pace’s. Though the Bears defensive end will return as a great success story — from an expendable piece with the Saints in 2015 to a blossoming Pro Bowl-caliber force with the Bears — he made it clear there is no love lost between him and the Saints.
Hicks downplayed the opportunity to play against his former team when asked about it Monday. “Just want to play some good football,” he said. And he refused to say anything about former teammate Drew Brees, who is one of the most likable players in the NFL.
“I don’t really talk about Drew Brees,” Hicks said. “Nothing to say about him.”
Stay tuned. Should be interesting Sunday.
3. With all the success and promise of the rookie class, there’s potential for even more if tight end Adam Shaheen develops into the dynamic pass-catching threat the Bears envisioned when they drafted him 45th overall out of tiny Ashland.
Pace was emphatic that Shaheen would contribute as a rookie, but so far he has yet to show even a glimpse of the “Baby Gronk” type of weapon he is purported to be. Shaheen’s only catch this season is a two-yard touchdown against the Steelers. Shaheen played 19 of 38 offensive snaps against the Panthers.
4. The Bears’ defense outshining the offense was not that unusual in the Lovie Smith era. But on Sunday, the defense almost literally gained more yards than the offense. The defense gained 141 yards on Jackson’s fumble and interception return and Trevathan’s interception return (which actually lost two yards in field position). The offense gained a net of 153 yards on 37 plays.
5. Going into Week 6 against the Ravens, the Bears’ defense had not had a takeaway return of 50 or more yards since Lance Briggs’ 74-yard interception return for a touchdown against Tony Romo and the Cowboys in Week 4 of 2012. They now have four in the last two games. In fact, the Bears’ 322 takeaway return yards in seven games this season is more than four times their total of 73 last season and nearly as many as they’ve had in the previous three seasons (333 yards).
6. Speaking of the Vic Fangio Effect, several players are emerging in his defense, but none quite like cornerback Kyle Fuller, who looks like a different player than the one who started for the Bears in 2014-15. Fuller is a much more aggressive, effusive and productive player since missing last season with a knee injury.
That’s where this encouraging scenario gets dicey. Like Fangio, Fuller will be a free agent after this season. It’ll be interesting to see how much the Bears prioritize getting both signed for 2018.
7. The Packers have been lauded for using almost exclusively homegrown talent (either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents) in the Ted Thompson/Mike McCarthy era, but it might be more accurate to call it the Aaron Rodgers era. Against the Saints on Sunday, 20 of the Packers’ 22 starters and 40 of the 44 players to participate were homegrown. Yet the Packers fell to 2-9-1 when Rodgers does not start or finish a game because of injury, losing 26-17 at Lambeau Field.
8. Tyre Brady Watch: The 6-3, 208-pound junior from Marshall caught four passes for 22 yards in a 38-10 rout of Middle Tennessee on Friday night. In seven games, Brady has 38 receptions for 593 yards (15.6 average) and six touchdowns.
9. Ex-Bears Player of the Week: As if the offense didn’t look bad enough Sunday, Bills wide receiver Deonte Thompson made it look worse, catching four passes for 107 yards in a 30-27 victory over the Buccaneers — five days after signing with the team. That’s as many receiving yards as the Bears had as a team against the Panthers.
The Bears cut Thompson on Oct. 11 and promoted Tanner Gentry to the 53-man roster. He’s still the Bears’ fourth-leading receiver this season with 11 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown. When Thompson played the Buccaneers while with the Bears in Week 2, he had four catches for 57 yards.
10. Bear-ometer: 7-9 — at Saints (L); vs. Packers (W); vs. Lions (W); at Eagles (L); vs. 49ers (W); at Bengals (L); at Lions (L); vs. Browns (W); at Vikings (L).
Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.