Bears 1st-and-10: Braxton Jones’ trial by fire getting warmer

In the early stages of a challenging residency at left tackle, Bears fifth-round rookie Braxton Jones doesn’t want to complicate things by looking too far ahead.

But after a difficult game against the Commanders last week — in which he was expecting to be bull-rushed and still struggled with it — Jones already was making mental notes for longer-term developmental plans.

“I definitely need to get stronger in the lower body,” said the 6-5, 310-pound Jones, who has started all six games this season. “My lower half is weak. You can see it. I’m in front of these guys and they’re just driving me — so I think I’ve just gotta get stronger and it’s gotta be something I focus on and know that I’m gonna get all season. Not a lot of people are going to run around me, but they’re gonna run right through me.”

Jones can’t reach that goal in the 10 days between games, so he knows he’s just going to have to tough it out from here. But with the Bears’ offensive line as a unit struggling to protect quarterback Justin Fields, his margin for error could be closing.

It might or might not be a quandary for coach Matt Eberflus, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and offensive line coach Chris Morgan. Until the Commanders game, Jones had been making progress since beating out veteran Riley Reiff for the starting job in training camp.

But with a line that remains a work-in-progress six weeks into the regular season, the Bears need to shore up protection for Fields. Reiff, an 11-year veteran who started for the Bengals last season before getting injured, surely is in the conversation somewhere on the line.

Eberflus seemed to hint at possible changes when he said “lineups” as well as offensive and defensive scheme would be included in the mini-bye self-scouting. But asked specifically about Jones, he wouldn’t bite.

“Everybody needs to be evaluated at this point,” Eberflus said.

Eberflus is more open than most coaches to playing rookies and tolerating their mistakes as they — in theory — learn and grow. And the Bears current predicament — three consecutive losses and Fields’ being exposed to more hits than he should — doesn’t seem to change that.

“We know it’s a learning process with a younger player,” Eberflus said. “We know then are going to go through some ups and downs. Kyler Gordon, look at the way he played [against the Commanders] –he played pretty good, didn’t he? So he’s had a couple of ups and down but he stayed the course. He made a lot of nice tackle, made a lot of nice plays on the ball and I thought he played really well.”

The difference, of course, is that Gordon’s mistakes won’t impact Fields. Any mistake by Jones — or anyone on the offensive line — is potentially disastrous. Therein lies an early moment of decision for Eberflus, Getsy and Morgan — not just with Jones, but center Sam Mustipher, right guard Teven Jenkins and right tackle Larry Borom. Eberflus is willing to live with developmental mistakes –he’s seen them pay off — but he also has to weigh the costs.

2. Jones is not losing confidence through this trial. If the Bears didn’t need help at so many other positions on the line, Jones’ rookie issues wouldn’t be so evident. He still has the potential to not only be good for a fifth-round draft pick, but actually be good. But it’s going to take time.

“I’m in there for a reason, so as a front five, we’ve got to be better,” Jones said. “I’ve got to be better in pass protection. And it’s not like I’m getting run around or something you can’t control. I think it’s just man-on-man, getting bull-rushed. I’ve got to know that that’s all they’re gonna do I know this, so [it’s a matter of] just being better with it and not being such a rookie all the time.”

3. Did You Know? The Bears’ 392 total yards in their 12-7 loss to the Commanders is their highest yardage total with seven or fewer points in the Super Bowl era. In fact, it’s the fourth-most yards with seven or fewer points in the entire NFL in the last eight seasons.

The Bears’ previous high was 381 yards in a 28-6 loss to the Saints at the Superdome in 1992.

4. Red Flag Dept.: After a season-high 190 passing yards against the Commanders, Fields has thrown for more than 121 yards in 10 starts with the Bears — and the Bears are 1-9 in those games. They are 3-3 when he throws for 121 yards or fewer.

5. Fields and the offense have a daunting task against the Patriots and Bill Belichick on Monday night. First-round quarterbacks in their first or second season are 1-25 with a 66.5 passer rating (28 touchdowns, 38 interceptions) against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium since 2001.

Only four of them have had ratings above 83.1 — Carson Palmer in 2004 (110.1), Patrick Mahomes in 2018 (110.1), Josh Allen in 2019 (102.7) and Deshaun Watson in 2017 (90.6). The Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa (79.6) is the only winner, beating the Patriots 17-16 on the road last season.

6. If the Bears take rookie Velus Jones off punt return duty after his second muff/fumble in five tries, it might be the best thing for him. The Bears need Jones’ speed at wide receiver and he probably shouldn’t be learning two jobs at once.

It’s not that easy. Devin Hester’s return game went downhill when he insisted on being a wide receiver. His kick return game wasn’t rejuvenated until his role on offense diminished.

7. For what it’s worth, when general manager Ryan Poles was asked prior Week 1 about not acquiring enough support for Fields, he pointed to Jones (along with Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet) as a player who could fill that void.

“I’m excited about Velus coming in and making plays,” Poles said, “and being a factor that can do different things and bring speed.”

Now is the time to accelerate that impact. Jones has two receptions for 19 yards and one touchdown — a nine-yard “pass” that actually was a handoff on a sweep against the Vikings. But having one job could make a difference for an NFL rookie.

8. Quentin Johnston Watch: The 6-4, 215-pound TCU junior wide receiver came up big in a big game for the second consecutive week –eight receptions for 180 yards and a touchdown as the Horned Frogs rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat No. 8 Oklahoma State 43-40 in double overtime.

A week earlier, Johnston had 14 catches for 206 yards and a tie-breaking 24-yard touchdown with 1:36 to go in a 38-31 victory over No. 19 Kansas.

Johnston is currently the No. 3 projected wide receiver in the 2023 draft. USC’s Jordan Addison suffered a leg injury against Utah on Saturday and Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba has played two games because of a hamstring injury.

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky came off the bench to outduel Tom Brady and rally the 9.5-point underdog Steelers to a 20-18 upset of the Buccaneers.

Replacing injured starter Kenny Pickett, Trubisky completed 9-of-12 passes for 144 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 142.4 passer rating. It was the biggest upset of Trubisky’s career. He beat the Bengals as a six-point underdog with the Bears in 2017.

10. Bear-ometer: 5-12 –at Patriots (L); at Cowboys (L); vs. Dolphins (L); vs. Lions (W); at Falcons (L); at NY Jets (L); vs. Packers (L); vs. Eagles (L); vs. Bills (L); at Lions (W); vs. Vikings (W).

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