Here are a few observations from the Bears’ 26-6 win over the San Francisco 49ers, which improved them to 3-9 on the season.
1. Matt Barkley continues to make his case
The thought seemed almost ridiculous to think about just a few weeks ago, but Barkley is actually playing reasonably well so far as the Bears’ starting quarterback. In his second NFL start, the former USC star picked up his first NFL win and looked good doing it, completing 11-of-18 passes for 192 yards in tough playing conditions.
Matt Barkley on where his confidence level is at: "Probably at an all-time high." #Bears
— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) December 4, 2016
No, that does not mean I think he should be competing to be the Bears’ #1 quarterback next season. In fact, that’s a “hell no.” We really need to stop settling for mediocre quarterbacking in this town as the default, given that this has become a quarterback-driven league.
That said, he delivered nearly every throw he attempted today right on the money, even in the midst of the snowy conditions. Though Dowell Loggains kept him largely inactive through the air for most of the second half, Barkley surged in the two-minute warning, completing 3-of-4 attempts and getting the Bears to the 1 yard line where Jordan Howard punched in.
From there, Loggains took the reins off and let Barkley make sling the ball, and he made smart, accurate, and confident throws reminiscent of last week’s 4th quarter performance. If Josh Bellamy wasn’t so insanely inconsistent, he would’ve even had a passing TD today.
But the fact that he didn’t shouldn’t diminish his performance. He’s clearly better than a lot of us expected he’d be after seeing him struggle against Green Bay in relief of Brian Hoyer. Apparently, give him time to actually prepare for a game, and he can hold his own.
And he’s absolutely playing well enough to talk about him possibly earning a spot on next year’s roster. To be clear, the Bears will still draft a quarterback, and there’s even the chance Jay Cutler comes back as the starter for another year, but Barkley’s not letting people write him off.
Also, credit to Bears’ receivers for not dropping every single pass thrown their way this time.
2. Jordan Howard gives Bears ability to win ugly
Jordan Howard is a monster
— Kyle (@Ky1eLong) December 4, 2016
Jordan Howard (24 carries, 104 yards, 3 TDs) is over 18 carries for just the third time this season. #Bears will be 3-0 in those games.
— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) December 4, 2016
His yardage totals weren’t stellar, but they didn’t need to be. All the Bears needed to do was make sure he got the ball in the red zone, and he handled the rest.
His three touchdowns tied him with Gale Sayers for the highest total in a game by a Bears rookie. In fact, he passed Sayers for on the list of most rushing yards by a Bears rookie back with 874 yards (Sayers has 847).
If they give him a chance over the last five games, he’ll have a legitimate shot at Matt Forte’s rookie record of 1,238 yards.
What I continue to take from these games is that if you give Howard carries, you give yourself a better chance to win. It wasn’t always pretty today, and Barkley deserves credit for helping the ball move the ball down the field, but Howard ground out yards and wouldn’t be denied when it was time to score.
We also saw today what having a back like Howard is like in terrible weather conditions. Sure, once Loggains took the training wheels off Barkley in the second half, the offense really become difficult for the bad 49ers defense to stop, but being able to bludgeon a team with a power back for 30+ carries and 3 TDs when they’re already struggling to generate offense makes any lead seem insurmountable.
And, what do you know? The Bears can actually run the ball alright even when facing 8/9-man-boxes. Who knew? You paying attention to that, Dowell?
3. The defensive line was dominant
On the other hand, the 49ers couldn’t establish a consistent offensive attack outside of a few chunk plays from Carlos Hyde and Shaun Draughn. And it all started up front, as the Bears registered six sacks against a porous 49ers offensive line.
In particular, no one could do anything to slow down Akiem Hicks today, as he racked up 10 tackles and two sacks. There was really no other way to say it: he just completely thrashed everyone in his path.
DL Akiem Hicks having probably the best game of his career today. 10 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF, 2 TFL, 2 QB hits. #Bears
— Aaron Leming (@AaronLemingNFL) December 4, 2016
His play today reminded me of what I expected from this healthy front seven from the start: let Hicks and Eddie Goldman, who also flashed with a few plays today, occupy double-teams and allow linebackers like Nick Kwiatkowski to clean up in the run game while also pushing the pocket in the passing game.
Then, to put the bow on this game, Leonard Floyd, who had a few tough moments early in the game after returning for injury, collected two sacks, including one for a safety on the 49ers’ last possession. He’s still a bit of a boom-or-bust player, but his growing consistency is winning me over.
— DLineVids (@DLineVids) December 4, 2016
At the very least, I no longer am skeptical of whether or not he’ll be a good NFL player. He’s already becoming one, and he’ll only get better if he stays healthy.
Hopefully next year will allow all of these players to mesh together into the kind of unit we expected to see early in the season, especially if Pernell McPhee can stay healthy. Given all the help this secondary needs, they’ll need to step up their game if they want to compete in any meaningful way.
4. Kwiatkowski helps validates Ryan Pace’s player evaluation skills
I’m sure that some people still wish one of those 2016 4th-round picks when to a quarterback (i.e., Dak Prescott), but it’s hard not to be happy with the way Kwiatkowski has acquitted himself in his reserve role this year.
The most obvious thing he’s shown is the ability to bring down a ball-carrier, both in a fundamentally sound and violent fashion. I’d have to look up some advanced stats on him, but it sure doesn’t look like people escape his grasp very often.
But what was even more encouraging about his play today was the way he defended the pass late in the game.
On the 49ers’ second-to-last possession, he had two passes defensed: one was on a tricky flat route where he knocked down a Blaine Gabbert throw to Vance McDonald while his momentum carried him away from the play, and the other was a batted pass at the line as he came on a blitz.
Given that Jerrell Freeman was one of the best LBs in the league this season before his drug suspension and Danny Trevathan is a high-priced free agent, don’t expect Kwiatkowski to start right away next season. But his role is going to continue to grow if he keeps playing like this.
— Lester A. Wiltfong Jr. (@wiltfongjr) December 4, 2016
He’s making Pace look very good right now despite the injury madness and poor performance that have cast a pall over this season, and while not all of the Bears’ rookies have panned out as well—Jonathan Bullard was a healthy scratch today, Deon Bush is starting but not doing much, and neither DeAndre Houston-Carson or Daniel Braverman have mattered much yet—there’s definitely some young talent on this team that the Bears can build on.
5. Special teams issues are quietly a problem
Delay of game penalty, fair catch inside 5, blocked punt, fumble on return. #Bears special teams just doing it all today.
— Zack Pearson (@Zack_Pearson) December 4, 2016
If the Bears had lost this game, this would’ve been front and center. But just because they did win doesn’t mean we can let it slide.
Every one of these mistakes (aside perhaps from the fumble…those happen) was related to poor special teams coaching. And to make matters worse, backup tight end Ben Braunecker ran onto the field late AND gave up the blocked punt to the former Bear Draughn.
Jeff Rodgers hasn’t been talked about a whole, as much of Bears’ fans ire has been directed toward Loggains and John Fox. But boy, this special teams unit has been uninspiring at best. Though special teams hasn’t been the worst aspect of this team, I’m sure this unit will be evaluated for the rest of the season and throughout the offseason.