Tyson Bagent, D’onta Foreman and Jaylon Johnson put the Chicago Bears on their backs last weekend, and they delivered to the tune of a 30-12 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders, but where does that leave the state of this team?
Let’s start with the positives.
The Bears win at Soldier Field Sunday marked their first home win in more than a year after going winless in their previous ten home contests (a franchise record for consecutive home losses) — dating back to Sept. 25, 2022 — when they beat the Houston Texans, 23-20.
Foreman and fellow running back Darrynton Evans ate all Sunday afternoon, headlining a Bears running attack that registered 173 yards on the ground with 2 rushing touchdowns at 4.6 yards per carry.
With the return of guard Teven Jenkins, Chicago returned to the foundation of their offense from a year ago, one that could pound the rock at will. The Bears performance on the ground Sunday (38 – 173 – 2 TD’s – 4.6 YPC) fell right in line with their season averages from 2022 (32.8 – 177.3 – 1.06 – 5.4 YPC).
Bagent, one of just four Division II quarterbacks to start an NFL game in the last 20 years, and the first since Jon Kitna in 2010, looked the part of any given starting QB capable of leading their squad to victory.
Bagent was calm, cool and collected through all four quarters against Las Vegas, where he completed 72.4 percent of his passes (21/29) for 162 yards, his first career touchdown pass, and 3 carries for 24 yards, all the while playing turnover free ball, and guiding Chicago’s offense to a 34:06 – 25:54 time of possession advantage over the Raiders.
On defense, the Bears intercepted Las Vegas backup QB Brian Hoyer three times, two of which came courtesy of their top cornerback – Jaylon Johnson – who took his first one back 39 yards to the house for Chicago’s first pick six in 38 weeks, the longest such pick six-less streak in the NFL, up until Johnson turned on the jets with 5:46 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Six plays later, CB1 collected his second interception of the day, and further cemented his status as one of the best coverage corners in the NFL.
According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson has an 88.1 coverage grade and a 22.2 passer rating allowed through seven weeks this year, tops among all cornerbacks with a minimum of 100 snaps. Other notable marks include a 43.5% completion rate allowed (fourth among CBs) and 0.66 yards per coverage snap (tied-eighth among CBs).
In the absence of Justin Fields, the Bears have found someone to run the offense who seems to never be fazed by adversity, while the offensive line has become healthier, the running game continues found its wheels, and the defense has become stouter with each passing week.
The skies are definitely sunnier now than they were earlier in the season, but the positives of Chicago’s improved play bring new problems to solve with it.
With Fields set to be out for another week nursing a dislocated thumb on his throwing hand, Bagent will get his second consecutive start under center for the Bears.
The West Virginia-native has already become Chicago’s first rookie quarterback in 19 years to win his first start with the team, matching Craig Kenzel, who went 13/25 for 168 yards passing, with one touchdown and one interception in a 23-13 victory against the San Francisco 49ers in 2004.
If Bagent gets a second consecutive win starting at quarterback, will the calls to draft USC quarterback Caleb Williams get even louder?
Many have taken up residence on the ‘Justin Fields is not the problem’ hill (myself included), but there is also a sizable crowd of detractors who have submitted evidence on why they think he will not be the long term answer for the Bears.
After Chicago’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings two weeks ago, former NFL offensive linemen Jeremiah Sirles and Alex Boone appeared on the YouTube channel ‘The Oline Committee‘ to break down why Chicago’s offense was so inadequate against the Vikings, and the lion-share of their criticism fell on the shoulders of Fields, more so than coaching, scheme fit, or offensive line ineptitude.
Their breakdown of three plays in the video sums up the bulk of their criticism for QB1.
“Justin Fields just doesn’t have very good anticipation,” Sirles said, breaking down the very first offensive play of the game, where Fields was sacked by Vikings linebacker DJ Wonnum.
According to Sirles and Boone, what should have happened was that Fields should have found the ‘hot’ route, or where to immediately throw the ball as soon as he realized there was a blitz coming. Instead, Fields ended up on the ground with his entire offensive line staring at him, probably thinking, “Wow, you got sacked when we all knew the protection was sliding right toward the hot route?”
On the second play they break down, Fields didn’t make a move to avoid pressure until the very last second, or realize that he had an embarrassingly wide open Cole Kmet sitting over the middle, just waiting to take a catch 20 yards downfield, before he is inevitably sacked by Danielle Hunter.
On the third play they review, the Bears ran an option where Fields could either pitch the ball left to Darrynton Evans, or hold on to the ball and carry it himself on a designed quarterback counter to the right.
According to Sirles and Boone, Fields clean whiffed on seeing two uncovered defenders on the left-hand side of the line, which should have negated the pitch to Evans and led Fields to follow his two linemen pulling to the right side of the play — but instead — he pitched the ball to Evans anyway, who was nailed for a five-yard loss on the play.
“You are physically taking you and the running back into blitzers, run away from it,” Boone said, breaking down the play. “It’s just a bad play. You are not a good quarterback when you do that.”
If an undrafted, DII quarterback has a better grasp on running Chicago’s offense than Fields does, imagine bringing in a quarterback that has an equal grasp as Bagent, but just as much, if not more, talent than Fields?
Then on the other side of the ball and at the other end of the performance spectrum awaits another problem for the Bears — signing Johnson to an extension.
Extending Johnson should not be a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’
Not only does Johnson have the stats to back up the necessity to pay him, but he has also been a stand up member in the Chicago community, and an outspoken leader in the locker room for the Bears defense.
Last year, Johnson was Chicago’s nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year, the NFL’s yearly award for the player who displays the foremost commitment to volunteering and helping out their local communities.
Last week, one of Johnson’s teammates took to the mic to explain the value he has in Chicago.
“[Johnson] is barely getting the ball thrown to him. He’s shutting down one side of the field,” said Jaquan Brisker last Tuesday on 670 The Score. “I’m being completely honest with you. He’s a great teammate, he’s a great leader. When he leads, you hear his voice, and you obviously see his play. He’s a great technician. He’s a great corner, [he] plays with great energy. This year and last year, he showed that he can play the run also. I just feel like he’s a great corner. I just see him being a Bear forever.”
Brisker compared the need to keep guys like Johnson around, to keeping past Bears greats around who helped keep Chicago’s identity as a hard-nosed defense alive.
“Even back in the day, you see guys like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, those guys stayed with the Bears forever. You got to pay those guys the same dues with these guys too. I feel like we got to go back to the old generation where we have loyalty to the players, we keep players on the same team.”
I agree with Brisker, if the Bears want to maintain an identity associated with what they have always been known for — a strong defense — it starts with keeping Johnson around for the foreseeable future.
With four days to go before the trade deadline arrives, let’s just hope Poles and Co. find a way to get the job done, rather than shipping Johnson away to be a cornerstone on another NFL team’s defense, just like he did with Roquan Smith at the trade deadline last year.
This piece is a part of a weekly column that will be published on Tuesdays following each Bears game for the rest of the NFL season. For more on the Bears and other Chicago sports from WGN News, you can follow Eli Ong and Larry Hawley on X.