By Robert Zeglinski
CINCINNATI – The Hall of Fame Game was just the warmup to the warmup. The Bears visiting the Bengals would have them showcase their newfound offensive firepower in a place they had won 33-7 only seven months earlier. The Matt Nagy era would get off to a roaring start thanks to the elite status of Mitchell Trubisky and company.
Not quite. And for now, that’s okay. That’s what the preseason is for, to touch up kinks and get rid of rust. But the Bears will have to get better, and soon.
The Bears’ starting offense had eight plays in Paul Brown stadium. Eight plays that went for a net loss of negative 12 yards, including a 10-yard holding penalty on Cody Whitehair and a drop by Kevin White on a crucial third down. Though, the Bears did still get a first down on the drop: if only because of a roughing the passer on Trubisky by Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap.
The key caveat in this ineptitude was that the Bears were missing Allen Robinson, Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, and Taylor Gabriel: four of 11 starters and or major contributors, and some of which are the primary best playmakers on the roster. To put it lightly: this wasn’t a full arsenal Trubisky was operating with. With just an eight-play sample size, that makes it difficult to take away any deep insights.
Regardless, this was an uninspiring offensive effort by the players the Bears did possess. Particularly the majority of a starting offensive line that let Trubisky be pressured on at least half of his plays. This isn’t necessarily a harbinger of a disastrous season as the preseason is more about individual tests of competition than collective cohesiveness. But they had to be better, it’s that simple.
A fact Trubisky knew in the postgame.
“It’s gotta be better. It will be better,” said Trubisky.
Whether it will be better for the Bears is a subjective statement that only time will tell. Luckily, they have a month before Week 1 of the regular season to make Trubisky’s declaration come true.
Let’s examine other winners and losers from the Bears’ 30-27 preseason loss to the Bengals.
Winner: Kyle Fuller
The Bears’ cornerback duo has been Chicago’s talk of training camp on defense. While the offensive skill players get the social media highlights winning one-on-one matchups against their defensive counterparts, that doesn’t translate to games in the same manner. It doesn’t translate because of how skewed these scenarios are for the offensive players, as they’ll never see the same time and space against a full-fledged defense.
However, when guys like Fuller and his partner Prince Amukamara are dialed in, getting interceptions, and generally toying around, it does translate. The transition is made seamlessly because these are players excelling despite the odds being against them. They’re playing well even with the offense taking away their poker chips.
You saw the best example of this cornerback practice flair when Fuller returned an interception for a 47-yard touchdown off of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton late in the first quarter. Fuller, normally not known for being a ballhawk, read Dalton’s eyes well and broke on the ball with momentum. He practiced what he’s preached, and it paid off.
The Bears defense didn’t make many changes this off-season. If Fuller and his secondary friends continue to take their game to the next level, that will be bigger than any personnel change the Bears could’ve reasonably made.
“It feels good, just that work paying off,” Fuller said. “That’s something I work on, getting those takeaways all day.”
Practice does indeed make perfect.
Loser: Marcus Cooper
A year ago, Cooper was signed in free agency as one of the guys to ironically take Fuller’s job considering Fuller had missed the entire 2016 season due to a knee injury. After an albatross of a debut in Chicago and Fuller clearly staking his claim as the Bears’ No. 1 cornerback, Cooper steadily became a liability any time he appeared.
A year later, that liability status hasn’t changed. In one of the more troubling results of the Bears’ visit to Cincinnati, the Bengals regularly abused Cooper when he was in the game. A.J. Green, one of the NFL’s best receivers, was lined up across from Cooper on a few plays. Everyone on both sidelines then knew where the ball was going, and Cooper didn’t have a chance.
Something to keep in mind: Cooper only creates $750,000 in dead salary cap money if the Bears were to cut him before they finalize their 53-man roster in September. Given that cheap, harmless hit it’s likely Chicago is willing to stomach the loss of an older corner that can’t even be relied on in a reserve role. There are other younger options with more upside like Kevin Toliver and Michael Joseph more than able to fill in in that capacity. Cooper faces a tough task the rest of the preseason to prove he’s worthy.
Winner: James Daniels
When Eric Kush was bowled over by perennial Bengals Pro Bowler Geno Atkins for a sack, the opening for James Daniels to soon start at center started to slightly unfurl. When Cody Whitehair later launched a high shotgun snap, the opening for Daniels to start at center was clearly visible. When Daniels himself later entered the game to take matters into his own hands, he emphatically bursted through said starting opening.
And that was how a Bears starting center controversy began.
Daniels was so impressive in the several series he played, he didn’t need the objectively bad repetitions from Kush and Whitehair to magnify his play. Daniels pulled well and created running lanes. He bowled over Bengals defenders with natural athleticism he was praised for coming out of the draft. And he stood his ground in pass protection, despite only having around a week of snaps at center during Bears camp. He was utterly dominant against fellow backups: a great sign.
Daniels was so good as the Bears’ No. 2 center, he had a highlight play on Taquan Mizzell’s second quarter touchdown. Daniels, as the man at the point of attack, at first lost ground against his man. But he kept his feet churning, and never lost his balance with a strong base. That led to Daniels burying his man and creating the seam for Mizzell to scamper in. The best example of a player willing to get his hands dirty and a skill set built to play center. A play that offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will beam with pride over when he watches it again.
Daniels was so good as the Bears’ No. 2 center, it’s difficult not to envision him starting against the Packers on September 9th at this pace. Of all the overreactions from the preseason, this isn’t one. Daniels was that special and that exemplary, as expected. The Bears are merely delaying the inevitable of the man who will soon be snapping footballs to Trubisky.
Loser: Eric Kush
With Daniels’ meteoric rise, someone’s has to be the main fall guy of the current offensive line. Seeing as how Whitehair is likely the Bears’ left guard in the event that Daniels takes over at center, Kush will be the odd man left out.
An unfortunate and unforeseen development for the veteran since the Bears were pumping him up over the last several months. The 28-year-old Kush is returning from a hamstring tear suffered last August, and worked arduously to be in this starting position. It’s a testament to Kush’s work ethic and ability that’s he back in this position.
Yet the NFL is about putting the best players on the field, not just how hard you work. Kush isn’t the Bears’ best left or right guard, and he isn’t their best center either. He’s comforting depth to have on the interior, as he was always going to be once Daniels came into his own. A sentiment Kush knew to be true long ago, so he isn’t bitter in seeing the 20-year-old Daniels’ rise.
It’s just unfortunate that his short starting stint likely ends sooner than Kush believed. His replacement day came sooner than he thought. The yeoman’s work is never as appreciated as it seems. R.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.