A little more than 10 minutes remained Sunday night at SoFi Stadium when Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy made an unorthodox call.
Fourth-and-15? At the Los Angeles Rams 30-yard line? Against a defense that led the NFL in yards and points allowed last season?
Nagy didn’t hesitate to give his offense the green light, passing up a 48-yard field-goal attempt for a long-shot do-or-die passing play. Unsatisfied with the prospect of pulling within 27-17 with plenty of time left, Nagy put the game in Andy Dalton’s hands for one desperation snap, then felt the deflation when the low-percentage gamble resulted in an incompletion along the right sideline to Darnell Mooney.
Turnover on downs.
“Some of it is just a feel for where you’re at,” Nagy half-explained after the game.
Once upon a time, such a decision might have deserved harsh criticism. It has been a long, long time since the Bears defense couldn’t be trusted to keep them alive.
Yet Sunday was one of those nights, a brutal 34-14 season-opening loss defined by defensive ineptitude. And whatever justified second-guessing there was when Nagy rolled the fourth-and-15 dice, it was quickly blown away right after the Rams took the ball back.
Twelve plays. Seventy yards. Touchdown.
It was all too easy. The Rams converted three third downs on that possession, including a third-and-goal, 2-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Robert Woods. Six plays before, Stafford moved the chains on third-and-13 with a 15-yard screen pass to Cooper Kupp, who was well short of the sticks when Bears safety Eddie Jackson raced past like a kindhearted uncle letting his 8-year-old nephew have his fun.
“We all have to tackle better,” inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. “There’s not a science to it. It’s just wrapping up the guy with the ball and running your feet. But we all miss here and there.”
If that had been the defense’s only crucial mistake, so be it. But it wasn’t. The Rams reached the end zone on their first possession when Van Jefferson got behind the Bears secondary and caught a pass 52 yards downfield. Jefferson then raced the last 15 yards to the end zone after Jackson and fellow safety Tashaun Gipson failed to touch him while he was on the ground.
“That’s definitely a learning lesson,” Nagy said after the game, “to make sure you touch him when he’s down. … It’s not for lack of effort with those guys. They care.”
Yet caring and concentrating are much different things.
On the first drive of the second half, Stafford and Kupp connected for the game’s most significant play: a 56-yard touchdown pass on which Kupp was left uncovered 11 yards behind Jackson, Gipson and nickel cornerback Marqui Christian.
So what exactly went wrong on that sequence? It’s difficult to say, in part because the Bears failed to make a single defensive back available to reporters after Sunday’s loss.
“I’ll have to look at the film and see,” Smith said. “I haven’t seen it since that play (happened).”
Added Nagy: “Until I see the tape, I don’t know (what went wrong). But that’s something we can’t have happen.”
Inevitably, Chicago will spend most of the next six days shouting about the need for rookie quarterback Justin Fields to replace Andy Dalton and rescue the Bears ASAP. But the issues for this group run far deeper than the quarterback situation.
Sunday night’s result, after all, wasn’t the shocking part. The Bears flew to Southern California as heavy underdogs and were beaten soundly by a Super Bowl-hopeful Rams team that is clearly more complete in all three phases. That was what most people projected.
What was difficult to comprehend was how incompetent the defense was, allowing the Rams to average 8.4 yards per play before they went to “victory formation” on their final series.
Stafford completed 20 of 26 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns and posted the highest single-game passer rating of his 13-year, 165-start career, a sparkling 156.1.
That fancy “turnover bucket” the Bears packed with them for the trip west wasn’t needed. The Rams were turnover-free in nine possessions.
To recap the impact plays the Bears defense made: There was a 9-yard sack of Stafford in the second quarter, shared by Akiem Hicks and Robert Quinn. That led to a three-and-out.
And then there was …
Well, no other sacks to speak of.
No takeaways either.
Only two non-kneel-down plays by the Rams were stopped for a loss.
So we return to the previous discussion of a defense that didn’t show up for the opener and might have left the Bears exposed on a prime-time stage as an ordinary team that figures to spend much of this season overmatched by superior opponents.
Perhaps more significantly, Sunday’s loss also teased at a worst-case scenario: the possibility that this defense is fading so much faster than anyone in Chicago would care to consider.
Bears pass rusher Khalil Mack made it clear Friday that he wants to use 2021 as a platform to establish himself as one of the most menacing defensive players in the league. “I’ll show you better than I can tell you,” Mack said.
Yet he was invisible Sunday night, showing up on the stat sheet with one assisted tackle on a 15-yard Kupp reception during the fourth-quarter touchdown drive that put the game away.
Jackson, meanwhile, stressed last week that he had few excuses not to affect games on a weekly basis.
“If you’re a great one, you’re going to find a way to make a play,” he said.
Yet his tackling efforts Sunday were shoddy in crucial moments, another sign that the Bears might have much more work than anyone expected to stabilize a unit that was supposed to be the strength of this team.
“It definitely doesn’t sit well,” Smith said. “That’s definitely not our style. We know we have to look ourselves in the mirror and get better. Because that’s not the standard. And we have to keep the standard the standard.”
Added Nagy: “Our guys know we can play better. For us, it’s about not overreacting. We have to stick together and get better.”
Inarguably, the results have slipped since the Bears defense was considered the best in the league in 2018. On Sunday night, the slippage convinced Nagy he would rather trust his work-in-progress offense to convert on fourth-and-15 than lean on his defense to make multiple key stops late.
That’s as alarming as anything as the Bears stumbled into Week 2.