Chicago Bears Q&A: Where to start the blame game after Week 1 clunker? Are there any signs Justin Fields is improving?

After the Chicago Bears laid an egg in their season opener against the Green Bay Packers, boy, do readers have questions. As he does every week, the Tribune’s Brad Biggs opens the mailbag and takes a crack at answering them.

I think Ryan Poles along with Luke Getsy and Alan Williams are getting off easy. Agree? The Bears were completely outclassed by the Packers from personnel to scheme. Getsy’s play calling was abysmal. It is amazing how predictable the Bears look by formation. And Williams’ calls to start the third quarter are among the worst I have witnessed as a fan. — Bob B.

Before opening the mailbag this week, I knew there would be a large amount of disappointment after Sunday’s season-opening 38-20 loss at Soldier Field. A close game at halftime — the Bears trailed 10-6 — turned into a rout pretty quickly, and the offense failed to produce explosive plays while the defense had significant breakdowns that led to big plays for the Packers.

Poles and his staff did a credible job rebuilding the roster this offseason. Is it complete? Not by any stretch. But the Bears have a young roster and I’m pretty sure we can all agree they are better at a lot of positions in comparison with Week 1 a year ago. The problem is it didn’t show up Sunday. The Bears upset the San Francisco 49ers to open the 2022 season, and thinking back on it, how improbable was that? The blowout loss to the Packers was made worse because it was only the second career start for Green Bay quarterback Jordan Love.

A portion of the fan outrage — not all of it — probably stems from some having overly optimistic ideas about how this season would play out. One game doesn’t doom a season by any means, but I heard from an awful lot of folks over the past couple of months wondering about the possibility of a 10-win season or better. Anything is still possible, but the best-case scenarios that some believed in seemed unrealistic.

One thing I appreciate about Poles is he gives a pretty measured and candid take on the team. He doesn’t blow smoke or talk about seashells and balloons. I’m betting he understands better than anyone what work needs to be done with the roster.

We will hear from Getsy and Williams on Thursday to get their assessment of what went right (less stuff) and wrong (more stuff). I know there has been a lot of criticism of Getsy’s game plan, but what a lot of people are missing is there were plenty of plays on which I’m sure Justin Fields’ first and second reads were downfield. For myriad reasons, he didn’t push the ball to the second or third level often.

Only four of his 37 passes traveled 10 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage. One was the touchdown pass to Darnell Mooney. One was the interception over the middle by Packers linebacker Quay Walker. There were a lot of passes in the flat and screens, and I’d venture to say more than half of the 16 passes targeted for running backs were check-downs when the primary and secondary targets were — guess where — downfield.

The one thing that surprised me about the Bears’ approach is they didn’t try to pound the ball more with their running backs. Perhaps that was game flow. And as I noted in 10 thoughts after the game, the offense really struggled on first-down runs. Seven of the 14 running plays on first-and-10 resulted in a 1-yard gain, no gain or a loss. That’s the kind of thing that sets an offense back. Second-and-10 is as bad as first-and-15 after a false start. That’s one reason the offense was 3-for-13 on third down.

Williams needs to account for some breakdowns in coverage. The Packers fooled the Bears on the throw-back screen to Aaron Jones and the tight end leak play by Luke Musgrave. The defense was completely outflanked on the screen to Jones, and the Bears didn’t have a defensive back anywhere near Musgrave. There were also open targets on some key third-down throws with large windows for Love.

Probably more alarming was the complete lack of a pass rush. The Bears’ lone sack by Yannick Ngakoue came on a play on which Love held the ball way too long. It was a coverage sack. The Bears had only three QB hits, and that’s not acceptable. The Bears like to pressure with four and drop seven into coverage, but if that won’t work, they have to draw up some other stuff.

The Bears pressured Love — bringing five or more rushers — on 20% of his dropbacks. That ranked 21st in the league, which is consistent with what most coaches in the Tampa-2 coaching tree desire. The problem? Those pressures were not effective enough. I’m not so sure Williams’ play calling in the third quarter was a problem as much as communication breakdowns and missed assignments. The Packers had too many wide-open plays in the passing game. That’s not the result of play calls but blown plays.

When a team loses by 18, there’s usually blame to go all around, and that’s no doubt the case here. I’m sure Getsy and Williams will own that Thursday, and we’ll see what they have in store for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

There are no credible signs that Justin Fields is improving from last year. Reports from training camp, his limited preseason and Game 1 against the Packers continue to display all of his fatal weaknesses — locking in on receivers, holding the ball too long, inability to throw the ball downfield and taking too many sacks. At what point do coaches see what they have in Tyson Bagent? While it is only one bad game for Fields this year, it is actually bad start No. 18. — Jim A., Plymouth, Minn.

I can’t disagree with you, Jim, and the most optimistic thing I can say is we’re talking about one game, a small sample size. I’d be stunned if the Bears coaches don’t have more guidelines in the game plan this week to ensure they get the ball into the hands of their better offensive players. Fields and the passing offense didn’t look great throughout training camp, and any reports to the contrary were wishcasting. Camp can be difficult to judge because there isn’t a live pass rush, but the passing offense is too often clunky when Fields has to manage the pocket. That’s the big issue here, especially when an opponent is scheming to prevent him from doing damage with his athleticism on the edge.

It’s way too early to call for Bagent to get a chance. There’s a reason he was third on the depth chart last week. Throwing in an undrafted rookie in Week 2 (without injuries necessitating the move) would seem to set him up for failure. There are a lot of new pieces on offense and we need to see how things unfold throughout the season for Fields. The first game didn’t show the kind of growth observers from every angle were hoping to see.

I wasn’t expecting more than eight or nine wins, but I was blown away by how bad the Bears looked. Are there any reasons for optimism they can turn things around? I didn’t see any. — @tn5280

It was a really bad second half for the Bears. No question about that, and there’s nowhere to go but up, right? Yes, it seems like we’ve been saying that for a while. The one thing I would point to is this is a really young roster. Nearly half of the players are in their first or second season, so I would expect natural growth. Will they all take that step forward and emerge as real contributors to successful football? Of course not. But some of these players will develop.

The coaches will get a better feel for strengths and weaknesses, and you should see improvement. The sting of the loss was made worse because it came against the Packers without Aaron Rodgers. It’s a long season and there appear to be some bad teams on the schedule. You’d classify the Bears as a bad team now, too, but there will be opportunities for success.

Why did we see so many screen passes for running backs and wide receivers in the opener? — Marion L., Harwood Heights

The Bears put a big emphasis on the screen game this offseason and in training camp, and we saw them execute it during the preseason to create some big plays. Why do the Bears like the idea of expanding their use of the screen game? You’re talking about plays on which Justin Fields doesn’t need to read the coverage. It might be as simple as counting the number of defenders in the box. The ball comes out of the quarterback’s hand quickly, so that helps the offensive linemen. They’re great plays to combat blitzes. They’re relatively easy throws too. The Bears didn’t block well for the screen game Sunday, and coach Matt Eberflus acknowledged that Monday.

“That has to improve,” Eberflus said. “We all saw that, right? So we’ve got to block the perimeter better. We’ve got to sustain our blocks. We’ve got to take better angles. That’s part of what we need to improve, for sure.”

Why didn’t they spend more money on edge rushers? — @mdawg2375

That’s a fair question after a disappointing day getting after Packers quarterback Jordan Love. The Bears did spend some money on the position, signing DeMarcus Walker to a three-year, $21 million contract and adding Yannick Ngakoue on a one-year, $10.5 million deal early in training camp. Extravagant spending? Not by any means. The tricky part is it wasn’t a good offseason to be hunting for defensive ends in free agency even if you had a boatload of cap space and money to spend, like the Bears did. There wasn’t a marquee edge rusher available, and you can get in trouble in a hurry when you start overpaying players on the open market.

The Bears obviously felt like Dre’Mont Jones’ three-year, $51.5 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks was beyond where they wanted to go for a player who would have been a solid fit for the scheme based on his measurables and traits. Arden Key, Marcus Davenport, Leonard Floyd and Frank Clark were other free agents the Bears could have made a run at. It’s important to understand it wasn’t a great draft for edge rushers (after Will Anderson) and the free-agent class lacked star power. No question GM Ryan Poles understands this position has to be a priority in the 2024 offseason.

The pass rush was nonexistent. Jordan Love had hours of time back there to pick apart the defense. What’s gotta change? — @just_acy

The Bears have to win one-on-one matchups on the line. I’d start with that. Maybe they need to get a little more creative with twists and stunts. They have to be more effective when they blitz. As I noted above, they brought five or more rushers on 20% of Love’s dropbacks. Totaling just three QB hits is evidence they were not effective.

Nickel cornerback Kyler Gordon was good when used in pressure on occasion last season, but it sounds like the Bears are concerned he has a broken right hand. We’ll find out soon if it is broken and if that will keep him out for a while. Strong safety Jaquan Brisker also was effective pressuring last season, when he led the defense with four sacks. But I’d circle back to the defensive line. It has to be better, especially against Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has a history of struggling when he feels heat in the pocket.

If Kyler Gordon is out for a while with a broken hand, who do we like as a replacement? Practice squad player or free agent? — @natebeardown

Josh Blackwell appeared to be the backup nickel cornerback throughout the summer, so my bet is he’s the first man up in the event Gordon misses time. The Bears would turn to a player on the roster before considering a practice squad option in most cases. If Gordon goes to short-term injured reserve, sure, they could elevate someone such as Greg Stroman. Jaylon Jones would be another option on the roster. I doubt they look for free-agent help right now, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Is Chase Claypool going to see the field this week? How many more chances is he going to be given? — @lovesports9191

Claypool disappointed against the Packers. He dropped one of the two passes targeted for him and was ineffective blocking on the perimeter. Matt Eberflus was asked Monday about the team’s effort and strongly defended it. The guess here is the Bears were not enthused by Claypool’s performance and a conversation with him went a little differently, but I’m only guessing on that.

Could it lead to reduced playing time against the Bucs? Sure. The Bears could use Tyler Scott more. Claypool had 58 snaps against the Packers compared with 13 for Scott. Could they go with less 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) and cut into his playing time that way? Yes. We’ll see. Hopefully, a pointed conversation with Claypool leads to a more productive game.

Do you think Luke Getsy will start to use more 12 personnel with Cole Kmet and Robert Tonyan? Or any combo of the three TEs they have on the roster? Green Bay used to run a ton of 12 personnel with Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis and seemed to be extremely successful. Chase Claypool was terrible in all facets of the WR game (blocking, route running, catching) so I sure hope they steer away from 11 personnel a tad. — Gerry M., Chicago

The Bears didn’t use 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) much against the Packers. By my count, there were only four snaps — two with the pairing of Kmet and Tonyan and two with Kmet and Lewis. There was one snap in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver) plus another play that was wiped out by a false-start penalty.

It’s a good question and we could see more against the Buccaneers, but it will be a game-to-game thing. Which personnel groupings do the Bears believe can create an edge? Then game situation will be a huge factor. When the Bears were chasing the Packers, behind by two and three scores in the second half, it made sense to have three wide receivers on the field. We’ll see what pans out the next couple of weeks because you would imagine there’s a bigger role for Tonyan. It’s possible he wasn’t 100%, too, after being added to the injury report the day before the game with a back issue.

How could the Bears be this unprepared for the Packers? Is this an indictment of not playing starters enough in preseason? — @williamsugas

When a team gets blown out as the Bears did — the worst season-opening performance I have witnessed since a 49-7 debacle in San Francisco back in 2003 — everything should be analyzed. But harping on the playing time of starters in the preseason is sort of a cop-out. Let’s say Matt Eberflus took a different approach to the second preseason game in Indianapolis and had the starters on the field for 20 snaps. Then let’s say he gave the starters another 10 or so snaps in the finale against the Buffalo Bills. Do you really think roughly 30 snaps in exhibition games would have produced a different result against the Packers?

I will say this: It would be a super explanation if that is the case. It would mean the Bears weren’t beaten by a team with a better roster and a better game plan. Maybe I’m wrong and I bet plenty of folks disagree with me, but I have a hard time believing a handful of snaps in the preseason would necessarily lead to crisper football in Week 1. If so, you would see the vast majority of coaches take a much different approach to the preseason usage of starters.

We were told players would play based on performance. If that’s the case, why did Nate Davis get the nod to start? — @depbearsfan

Davis was underwhelming in his Bears debut, and the offensive line as a whole didn’t play well. One reason the Bears targeted Davis in free agency — signing him to a three-year, $30 million contract — was the Tennessee Titans offense he came from is similarly structured in the running game. Davis can be a mauler in the ground game, and paired next to first-round draft pick Darnell Wright, I think we can see a lot of success running to that side.

Davis is probably average or below average as a pass blocker, and that showed against the Packers. He was on his toes a little too much. The Bears were adamant that Davis looked good in the practices he participated in. It could be a case where he had a little rust to knock off, but it’s fair to say he’s a better run blocker than pass blocker.

Is Braxton Jones a player to worry about moving forward? How well does he have to play this year in order for the Bears to pass on one of the top left tackles in this year’s draft class? — @beardown_media

That’s a fair question, especially after a subpar game from Jones against the Packers. He was called for two false starts and two holding penalties, and that was one part of the offense’s struggles. That being said, I thought Jones was probably the best lineman in pass protection in a game in which the Bears needed to be much better in that regard.

Jones was called for a team-high 10 penalties last season (two were declined). That’s not an alarming number for a rookie, but you would hope to see it decrease. His infractions were evenly split in 2022: five holding calls and five false starts. The Bears are banking on Jones taking a big step forward this season, and he’s more comfortable. He increased his strength and base to anchor against power rushers, and having a year of experience will help him prepare weekly.

As a fifth-round pick, there are questions about Jones’ ceiling. It definitely made sense to me to explore that option based on how he played last season. But the Bears need to determine where Jones is at the end of this season and if he’s an ascending player or one who needs to be replaced. A worst-case scenario is the Bears are in a spot where they have to shop for or draft a left tackle, an edge rusher (or two) and a quarterback. A best-case scenario is they’re in the market for a defensive end. I would expect Jones to be better against the Buccaneers this week.

Why was Velus Jones inactive against Green Bay? What exactly is his role at this point? — Khalil K., Countryside

The Bears have seven wide receivers on the 53-man roster, and it’s difficult for more than five to be active for a game. In this instance, they opted to go with rookie Tyler Scott as the kickoff returner. He had four returns for 84 yards with a long of 33. The decision might have been made because Scott has a more defined role on offense. I’ve been pretty consistent since the middle of last season in saying Jones is pretty much a gadget player on offense. If Scott does well — he had two receptions for 14 yards — it will be hard for Jones to find a spot right away unless something happens to punt returner Trent Taylor.

I understand that the Bears were probably not feeling great about their offensive line against Green Bay’s front seven but how could that have been Getsy’s game plan? You’re at home against your biggest rival on opening day with Aaron Rodgers not in the building. How could the Bears have played it so safe? They barely targeted DJ Moore. No shots downfield. No RPO. Cole Kmet quiet as usual. A maddening number of horizontal throws with no impact. — Jeff G., Palmetto Bay, Fla.

The biggest surprise to me, and I alluded to it earlier, was that the Bears didn’t try to lean into what they’ve talked about being one of their real strengths — being physical on offense. They weren’t able to create an advantage running the ball against the Packers. They didn’t appear to have designed runs set up for Justin Fields. Maybe they were hoping that physical edge would play out on some of the lateral throws you’re talking about. Matt Eberflus admitted those needed to be blocked much better.

They’re not going to effectively attack defenses with play-action passing, where they create defined reads for Fields, without getting the ground game rolling. The Packers have a lot of high draft picks in their front seven, and that’s a talented group that has underperformed in recent seasons. The Bears were not effective — across the board — and we’ll see how they react at Tampa Bay. Game plans will be tailored differently each week and the Bears need something that works this week.

As a lifelong Bears fan, I need a question answered. Why don’t these Bears care about losing to the Packers? I see content faces. No desire. No will to win. No fire. Is this just a job for the coaches and players, or do they actually care? — Cliff T.

In days gone by — many, many years ago — the rivalry had real meaning to players. There wasn’t quite as much player movement decades ago. To me, the Bears-Packers rivalry exists way more for fans than anyone else. When you ask players about the rivalry, they generally rely on cliches and talk about it in terms they believe will resonate with the fan base.

The reality is the Week 1 meeting with the Packers was only one game. It was a division game, so it had a little more weight than Sunday’s trip to Tampa, but it’s one of 17 games. And the players need to put maximum effort into preparation each week. There are only 17 chances to go out and perform. There was desire. There was will. There was fire. Did you see the scrum on the sideline when Justin Fields was pushed out of bounds?

The Bears got their tails kicked in the second half, so it might appear those factors were missing. But Bears-Packers, Bears-Vikings, Bears-Lions — those are equal to players and coaches. Each NFC North game carries the same weight.

I never thought I’d be emailing you a question. But Week 1 was not only disappointing but seemed like ridiculously bad coaching at all levels. The call on 3rd and less than 1 with Cole Kmet was more than head-scratching. Why were there so many open receivers in the middle of the field after the supposed improved linebacker and defensive backfield acquisitions? — Chad Z.

Kmet gained 1 yard when the Bears used basically the same play last season. They figured a big guy there would get the job done, and at first they had an advantageous look before the Packers pinched to the middle. Maybe one issue in failing to get a first down on two sneaks at the end of the game’s first possession was running behind backup center Lucas Patrick. That’s one factor I have considered since.

The open receivers were the result of far too many communication errors in the secondary, and the Packers didn’t hit every open option they had. That stuff should be cleaned up pretty quickly. Poor coaching. Poor play. The 18-point loss had a little bit of everything you hope to avoid.

When will Cody Whitehair be cleared to start at center? — @greggisp

My guess is that switch will be made when left guard Teven Jenkins is ready to return from injured reserve. Unless something goes really wrong or there is another injury, I doubt they want more moving parts on the interior. I suppose choosing Dan Feeney over Lucas Patrick is an option, but when they shifted Whitehair after Jenkins’ injury, my initial hunch was that move would stand until Jenkins returns.

How long do we wait until Ryan Poles’ evaluation of free-agent talent can be questioned? — @theceej7

Let’s be a little more measured. As you know, the Bears were shopping at the thrift store in free agency in 2022. The plan was to eat a bunch of dead cap space and make a couple of small signings. Did Poles hit any home runs with guys on small deals who really outperformed them last season? Probably not. Defensive tackle Justin Jones has been OK and he’s on a modest contract.

My point is it’s hard to evaluate what Poles did in free agency last year. It’s not like he paid someone a whole lot of money who came in and was a disaster. He opened the checkbook more this year for some bigger signings, and we’re one game into the season. That’s why I said we should be more measured. Let’s see how things play out through half a season or the full season before we start judging who was worth the money and who wasn’t.