For much of the NFL, the game Sunday between the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans at Soldier Field is an afterthought, a clash between two bottom-tier teams, each with new coaches and scrapping to make the steep climb back toward relevance. But there’s still plenty of intrigue folded in as the Bears look to improve to 2-1 under Matt Eberflus and determined to prove last week’s 17-point rivalry loss to the Green Bay Packers was a small speed bump in their growth process. Former Bears coach Lovie Smith, meanwhile, brings his Texans to Chicago with plenty of hunger after they tied the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1 and were edged 16-9 by the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
As kickoff approaches, here’s our snapshot look at Sunday’s game.
1. Pressing question
Can Luke Getsy find answers to stimulate the Bears’ passing attack?
By now, you know the attention-grabbling numbers from last week’s loss to the Packers. The Bears attempted only 11 passes, completed seven and managed just 48 net passing yards. Through two weeks, they have an NFL-worst 153 passing yards.
Still, as anxiety mushrooms in the outside world, Getsy has been measured with his assessment. For starters, he stressed Thursday, the Bears ran only 41 plays in Green Bay and called 19 pass plays. Three resulted in sacks. Another three led to Fields scramble runs. Two others were interrupted by sloppiness or confusion at the snap.
So fear not, Chicago, Getsy has not put his offense into a time machine back to the 1940s.
“You have to look at each opponent and say, ‘OK, here’s where you have to take advantage of them. Here’s what you have to stay away from,’” Getsy said. “To me, that’s what I want (this offense) to be. Whatever that means — if it’s 50 (percent) throws, 50 runs — I don’t really care. It’s about winning. It’s about giving us the best chance to win.”
On the bright side, the Bears not only committed to their running game last week, they had great success with it, chewing up 180 yards on 27 rushes. That’s something to build on and should open up opportunities in the play-action game.
The next step is finding greater balance and capitalizing on opportunities to make game-changing plays. To that latter quest, the Bears were shaky with the details on more than a few occasions against the Packers and paid the price, unable to hit on several big-play chances because of imprecise routes or poor blocking or improper awareness.
Said Getsy: “That’s part of this process. We’ve talked about it. The way we approach our walk-throughs and … practices, we have to approach it like those are game situations so the details feel easier when you get to the game.”
The next test comes Sunday.
2. Players in the spotlight
Justin Fields and Davis Mills
The clash between second-year quarterbacks Sunday might boil down to which player takes better care of the ball. With two similar defenses that both preach the need for takeaways, Fields and Mills must understand how to avoid game-changing mistakes.
Fields has thrown an interception in each of his two starts this season and has 17 turnovers in 12 career starts. Mills has been a better protector of the football in his 13 starts with 12 turnovers, including 10 interceptions during his rookie season.
Few in the league are expecting a shootout Sunday. The Bears and Texans are tied for 27th in the league in scoring, each averaging 14.5 points. Oddsmakers have set an over-under of 40 points.
To that end, Fields and Mills will have to be conscious of ball security while still finding the proper spots to take their chances.
Fields, in particular, might have more riding on Sunday’s game to quell the increasing worry from some Bears fans about his development. Through two games, the Bears rank last in passing yardage with just 153 yards. Fields’ 69.2 passer rating ranks 30th among qualified starters.
From Sunday’s dispiriting loss, Fields found at least one silver lining: a seven-play, 71-yard touchdown drive on the first possession that ended with his 3-yard scoring run.
“We had a good start last Sunday,” Fields said. “It’s just sustaining that start and playing like that for four quarters.”
3. Keep an eye on …
The Bears’ ability to tackle.
There was a lot of chatter at Halas Hall this week about tackling fundamentals, a necessary emphasis after the Bears allowed 414 total yards, including 203 on the ground, in last week’s loss to the Packers.
The Packers, led by running back Aaron Jones, averaged 5.3 yards per rush and had 10 plays that gained at least 15 yards. Eberflus was disappointed with the sloppiness from his defense, identifying numerous instances in which players took poor angles, overran the ball carrier or simply didn’t finish with sound technique.
“You’ve got to get guys to get up on the runner and get their pads on them at the proper level and then have a strong wrap and run your feet,” Eberflus said. “A lot of times missed tackles happen because you’re lunging and not getting up on the runners.”
Eberlus stressed this week that he would have no tolerance for such slip-ups and believes the Bears can make a quick turnaround.
“It’s something we have to correct,” Eberflus said. “And we’re going to work tirelessly to get that done.”
The Bears will be tested Sunday by Texans rookie running back Dameon Pierce, who is earning trust from his coaching staff and figures to be featured. Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams lauded Pierce for his quickness, explosion and contact balance.
“When he’s getting hit, he doesn’t stop his feet. He keeps going,” Williams said. “He’s one we’re going to have our hands full with.”
4. Lovie Smith’s return
Throughout the offseason, in an effort to show players what his style of defense looks like at its peak, Eberflus mixed in video clips of the 2000s Bears and a defense led by Smith and fueled by playmakers such as Brian Urlacher, Mike Brown, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman.
“Their unity was obvious,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said earlier this month. “Just seeing all those leaders and all those guys buy in to set the tone for that defense was impressive. That would be eye-opening for anybody. But we have the advantage that they were here with the Bears. Knowing that standard can be set, we’re trying to recreate that and bring that back.”
On Sunday, the Bears will face a Smith-led Texans defense and understand what they’ll be up against.
Bears coaches have plenty of admiration for how Smith coaches and what he believes in but also don’t want him to expect a warm and fuzzy return.
Said Williams: “I love that he’s a head coach in the NFL again. I’m excited for him. But at the end of the day, he’s the opponent across the field and he’s trying to come into our house and take what we have. With that in mind, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure he goes away with a frown on his face.”
5. Injury report
Roquan Smith missed his second consecutive practice Thursday with a hip issue, an injury worth monitoring as Sunday approaches. Eberflus was not available to reporters Thursday, but Williams insinuated he expected Smith to play.
“As far as I know, yes,” Williams said.
Receiver Velus Jones Jr., meanwhile, was a limited participant in practice, continuing to work through a hamstring injury that has prevented him from playing in the first two games and has caused him to miss all but two practices since the regular season began.
On the offensive line, Lucas Patrick continued taking practice reps at center, perhaps on track to move back into that role soon. But Patrick still might be another week away from being fully ready. He split time at right guard with Teven Jenkins in the first two games, playing 49 of the Bears’ 99 offensive snaps.
After undergoing surgery on his right thumb in late July, Patrick has been working to regain strength in that hand, enough to be able to squeeze and smoothly snap the football. As soon as the Bears feel he has cleared that hurdle, it will change their plans up front.
Brad Biggs (1-1)
These teams are mirror images of each other in a lot of ways. Defensively, both are from the Tony Dungy coaching tree in terms of playing Cover-2. Both have second-year quarterbacks. Both have rosters that are being turned over. Both have scored only 29 points. Both have played shoddy run defense. It feels as if it will be a grind-it-out ballgame. Texans quarterback Davis Mills has made 15 career starts, and his home/road splits are striking. He has thrown 14 touchdowns with only one interception and averaged 7.7 yards per attempt in eight home games. Mills has four touchdowns, nine interceptions and a diminished 5.2 yards per attempt in seven road starts. If Justin Fields can avoid turnovers, figure the Bears will improve to 2-1.
Bears 20, Texans 16
Colleen Kane (1-1)
After the ugly loss to the Packers, the Bears have a prime opportunity to get the good vibes flowing against the mediocre Texans, who have allowed 433.5 yards but just 18 points per game. David Montgomery was impressive in Week 2 and could have another big game, but there should be a chance for Fields to make a bigger impact too. The Bears defense needs to tackle better and force Mills and company into a couple of turnovers to make it an easier feat.
Bears 20, Texans 14
Dan Wiederer (1-1)
Thank goodness for Cairo Santos, whose late-game heroics will rescue the Bears from a second consecutive loss and suppress a major civic outcry. The Bears must capitalize on winnable moments whenever they arise. And this one comes ready-made — at home against an opponent that’s also in transition. Things won’t always be pretty Sunday. But this team sees its sturdy resolve as one of its biggest strengths. That will come in handy, particularly in the tense stages of the fourth quarter.
Bears 23, Texans 21