A lot has changed since the Chicago Bears last played a game that counted.
Since that 21-9 playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints in January, the Bears signed quarterback Andy Dalton and drafted quarterback Justin Fields. Sean Desai replaced Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator. And NFL teams that shut out fans from their stadiums in 2020 because of COVID-19 welcomed back crowds.
Now as the Bears take on the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium, we’re about to find out what those changes mean for the 2021 season.
As kickoff approaches Sunday, here’s our snapshot look at the game.
Kickoff: 7:20 p.m. Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
TV and radio: NBC-5, WBBM-AM 780, WCFS-FM 105.9, WRTO-AM 1200 (Spanish).
Even for an 11th-year veteran such as Dalton, the first test for the Bears offense is a tough one.
In 2020, the Rams defense led the NFL with fewest yards allowed per game (281.9) and fewest points allowed per game (18.5).
Former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley became the Los Angeles Chargers coach, but new coordinator Raheem Morris takes over a unit that still is led by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
Donald is coming off his third NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award with 13½ sacks and 28 quarterback hits. And he leads a group that totaled 53 sacks for 350 yards lost in 2020.
“It starts with the front being able to get pressure, and when you go back to our game last year Donald wasn’t the only one,” Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “There were multiple guys in the front who were able to have pressure on us. So when you start with the front putting pressure on the quarterback, it allows the defense, the coverage to play a certain way because usually the ball is coming out fairly quickly against them, so that kind of works hand in hand.”
That means Dalton will have his hands full as he plays with his full stable of offensive weapons for the first time. But Lazor touted Dalton’s poise in pressure situations, something that comes from his 142 career starts.
“Pressure comes from all different angles — from playing the game to the way a game is going to all that stuff,” Dalton said. “You still have to be even-keeled through the whole thing. I feel like I learned that as a young player. I wouldn’t necessarily say just in the NFL but it’s what I pride myself on is always being steady and a guy who’s unwavering in everything.
“Then when you’re talking football specifically, it’s understanding when you can get the ball out of your hands and when you can hold on to it a little bit longer and understanding protections and all the different stuff that goes into it.”
Can Sean Desai’s defense slow down the new Sean McVay-Matthew Stafford combo?
This Bears defense has a lot of unknowns playing under Desai’s leadership for the first time, with a young cornerbacks corps and a group of pass rushers that is looking for more than it produced in 2020.
Now the Bears are going up against a Rams offense looking to reignite under Stafford, for whom the Lions traded in the offseason after his eighth 4,000-plus yard season in 12 years in Detroit.
Desai, who said the move pairs one of the top quarterbacks in the league with one of the top offensive minds, spent time with his defense studying film of both Stafford and the Rams.
“(Stafford) is a dynamic player who can change the game at a moment’s notice, and he plays well under pressure and he plays well in primetime games,” Desai said. “So you’ve got great arm strength and great ability to see the field and manipulate coverages. … That stuff’s not going to change because that’s who he is.”
Keep an eye on ...
After the Bears signed former first-round pick Breshad Perriman this week, wide receivers coach Mike Furrey said he could field a pretty good 400-meter relay team with the new talent in his room this season.
Newcomers Marquise Goodwin, Damiere Byrd and Perriman all ran under 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash as they prepared for their NFL careers, and second-year receiver Darnell Mooney clocked 4.38 seconds in the 40 at the 2020 NFL combine. (Top Bears receiver Allen Robinson could serve as the relay team’s coach, Furrey said.)
Having this much speed is new under Nagy, and how the Bears utilize it will be of interest. With Perriman joining the Bears late, his role might be limited at first, but Goodwin and Byrd have been training with the Bears for months and are ready to show what they can do. It’s an interesting dynamic with the newcomers, who have all bounced among several teams in recent years and have plenty to prove. Meanwhile, Mooney is motivated to buildon a strong rookie season.
Furrey said the key to getting the most out of the speedy receivers is to “let them play.”
“Let them feel comfortable and let them play as fast as they possibly can,” Furrey said. “When they start thinking too much, where to line up, all those kind of things, it slows you down, it slows everybody down and if you slow that trait down now you’ve just got an average guy out there that can run. So it’s just putting them in situations where they feel free, and they feel comfortable and let them go play.”
Odds and ends
Only the New York Jets were worse on third down last season than the Bears, who converted just 34.6% of their opportunities. So obviously the Bears are looking to improve in third-down situations.
“When you’re ranked as low as we were, there were multiple things from protection to people to scheme,” Lazor said. “All of it really. It’s hard to be ranked 31st and have a lot of highlights.
“If you look in the third-and-3, 4, 5, 6 areas, where you would say, ‘Hey, this isn’t the hardest for the offense,’ those were some of the areas where we were ranked lower. So you would say what theoretically should be easier and we didn’t excel in those areas. We could spend hours on it.”
The Bears were a little better in red-zone efficiency — ranked 22nd — but it still is an area in need of improvement. Lazor said the Bears built some confidence in the passing game in the red zone during training camp they hope to carry over into the season.
“We tried to zero in on the concepts in practice that we felt confident we could carry through the year,” Lazor said. “Not every concept’s good against every defense. But if you start with your staples, things you feel like you have an answer versus everything and get really good at those and build confidence in it, they can carry the bulk of your red zone throughout the year.”
Nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19, will not play, the Bears announced Saturday. He suffered a knee injury in practice Monday and didn’t practice Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Goldman did not travel with the team.
The Bears elevated inside linebacker Josh Woods and defensive tackle Damion Square from the practice squad to the active roster.
Eight players were listed as questionable with injuries: outside linebackers Khalil Mack (groin) and Robert Quinn (back), safeties Tashaun Gipson (back), Eddie Jackson (wrist) and Deon Bush (shoulder), wide receiver Darnell Mooney (back), long snapper Patrick Scales (ankle) and inside linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe (shoulder).
Of that group, only Gipson was limited in practice Friday.
The Bears have done a really nice job on defense against the Rams in their last three meetings. Even when the offense didn’t provide much help, the defense always kept the game manageable. Some are predicting big things for Los Angeles this season now that Matthew Stafford is at quarterback. It’s worth noting Sean McVay teams have started fast, averaging 32.3 points in season openers under the coach.
Rams 23, Bears 10
The Bears’ recent meetings with the Rams have been ugly affairs, and I’m guessing this won’t be much different. Matthew Stafford lost three of the four games he started against the Bears in the Matt Nagy era, but this isn’t the Lions. The Stafford-Sean McVay pairing seems to give the Rams an advantage against a Bears defense and a cornerbacks group with much to prove. While I’m not sure Andy Dalton is going to win over fans clamoring for Justin Fields against a tough Rams defense, he should be able to keep it a little more competitive than the Bears were in their last two losses to the Rams. But it won’t be enough.
Rams 24, Bears 17
Can the Bears pull off the upset Sunday night? For sure. Is it imprudent to project that surprise based on what we’ve seen not only this summer but in the last three meetings between these teams? Yup. Quite simply, the Rams are a more complete team and have a menacing defense that could make life stressful for both coach Matt Nagy and quarterback Andy Dalton. The Rams may have some hiccups as Matthew Stafford gets his first start in L.A. and Raheem Morris takes the controls as the team’s new defensive coordinator. But the Bears will have to play a near-perfect game to prevail.
“Fire Nagy!” chants broke out yet again Monday night during the Bulls game at the United Center as Chicago sports fans continue to express their displeasure with Bears coach Matt Nagy at games — regardless of the sport and venue.