All eyes — and media attention — will be on rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky this season, week in and week out. And rightfully so. Quarterback is the most important position in sports and it’s also the enigma that’s been most difficult for the Bears to solve.
However, don’t look now, but the Bears have an exciting young rookie on the defensive side of the ball worth monitoring, too.
Safety Eddie Jackson scored a pair of touchdowns of more than 75 yards each — an NFL record for a single game — as the Bears controlled the Panthers from start to finish en route to a 17-3 victory Sunday.
Jackson scored on a 75-yard fumble return on the Panthers’ first drive of the game when a Cam Newton pitch on an option play was botched and dropped by rookie Curtis Samuel. Jackson “scooped and scored” to give the Bears an early lead and the momentum.
Lightning struck for the second time when Jackson scored again on the Panthers’ first drive of the second quarter. Newton’s intended pass to Kelvin Benjamin was deflected by cornerback Prince Amukamara and Jackson’s playmaking ability kicked in. He snagged it out of the air and sprinted down the sideline — evading a desperate dive by Newton in the process — for a 76-yard interception return touchdown.
With a 14-0 lead, the Bears relied on what their offense does best: they stuck the ball in the hands of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen and pounded out a victory with the aid of a strong defensive performance.
If I had one complaint about how the game transpired — and I’m picking the nits here — I’d say that I don’t think the Bears should have altered their game plan too much, even after they jumped out to such an early lead.
No, the Bears did not need to allow Trubisky to drop back 40 times and sling the ball all afternoon. But they also could have let him throw the ball more than the 7 times that he did.
Trubisky completed 4 of 7 passes for 107 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions. It’s hard to criticize him for completing 57% of his passes, hurling a beautifully thrown bomb to Cohen down the middle of the field — who then made a few nifty moves to pick up 70 yards on the play — and not turning the ball over. Had there been more passing attempts, we could have better judged Trubisky’s performance.
But the fact remains that there were not more attempts, and we have to use what we were given to analyze the rookie’s development.
Three of Trubisky’s seven passes came before Jackson crossed the goal line for the second time, so it’s clear that the Bears altered the trajectory of the offense at that point.
Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains called a very conservative game plan with his offense protecting the lead. This is not a novel concept; every team does it. But when you’re grooming a quarterback and trying to develop his acumen, you might want to mix in a few more passing plays, even if they result in check downs to the running backs. At least allow him to read his progressions and diagnose what the defense is doing. You can’t learn much from turning around and handing the ball to the running back.
Trubisky did drop back four more times, but could not get a pass off, as he was brought down for sacks on those plays. And maybe that factored into the Bears’ decision to limit how many more times they put Trubisky in harm’s way. If the offensive line had trouble protecting him, then just secure the win and let him get his throws the next week.
This, in essence, is the delicate balance the Bears are trying to achieve. Even though they are longshots to win the division — although that’s not as farfetched as it once seemed given the injuries to the quarterback position within the NFC North — they cannot focus all their efforts on winning games at the expense of stalling Trubisky’s growth. And vice versa.
Backing their way into the division race with a great defense and strong run game does little to prepare Trubisky for what lies ahead beyond this season. In order to do more than win the division — as in: to compete for a Super Bowl someday soon — Trubisky needs to make plays. And the only way for him to make plays is to allow him to see the field, read the defense, and take decisive action.
Next week’s contest provides Trubisky with a good opportunity to continue his development. The Bears travel to the climate-controlled Mercedes-Benz Superdome of New Orleans to take on the Saints, who have a pass defense that ranks near the bottom third of the league. These are definitely conditions that are ripe for the pickin’, but if the venue gets loud it could mean confusion along the offensive line and a lot of pressure in Trubisky’s lap.
As all eyes continue to focus on Trubisky, though, we can’t neglect to enjoy the progression happening on the other side of the ball. Heading into the season, we all knew that the Bears’ front seven was going to be a force. And even with linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Willie Young missing from action, they’ve more than held up their end of the bargain.
What was a big question mark, though, and what has been a big surprise has been the play of the secondary. Jackson has been a big part of that upgrade, along with veteran corners Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper, and the reinvigorated Kyle Fuller — who has been playing at a Pro Bowl level this season. Even Adrian Amos, who was a decent starter for a while but lacked the playmaking skills to maintain his starting job — has looked a step or two better since filling in for the injured Quintin Demps.
This defense is going to be fun to watch the remainder of the season — with good health, God willing. The way they’re playing, it’s hard to imagine the Bears not being competitive to the finish in every game the rest of the year.
Now, if the Bears offense can complement its defense and muster enough pass protection to keep Trubisky upright, we could see some serious strides from the rookie signal-caller as well.