CLEVELAND — The Bears gave us a glimpse of the future Sunday.
Not Justin Fields, the rookie quarterback who has a long way to go in Matt Nagy’s offense to reach his potential. But the Bears’ defense, which got off to an impressive start against the Browns, wilted under the immense pressure of carrying a team with an unworkable offense and ended up in an ominous state following a another credible performance in another dubious Bears loss — another day older.
Nagy’s Bears have been wasting the best years of their Vic Fangio-built defense for three-plus years now. But Sunday’s 26-6 loss to the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium was the biggest step towards an uncomfortable scenario — by the time Nagy ever gets this discombobulated offense on track, the Bears’ defense will be too old and too far from its glory days to take advantage of it.
For a while, the Bears were putting as much heat on Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield as the Brown’ defense put on the beleaguered Fields. The Bears sacked Mayfield on three of the Browns first four drives and five times in their first seven, with no cheapies.
Robert Quinn/Angelo Blackson and Khalil Mack had fourth-down sacks on the Browns’ first two drives that turned the ball over. Mario Edwards, Mack again and Quinn again continued the barrage. But the offense couldn’t take advantage of it, and ultimately the defense paid the price.
It wasn’t for lack of effort. Mack suffered a sprained foot in the first quarter, went to the locker room for treatment and played through it throughout the second half.
“I know this: when you’re getting those stops on fourth down — they’re going for it and you’re getting sacks — there’s a juice on the sideline. There’s an energy. There’s a vibe,” Nagy said. “And then to not be able to take advantage of that is the part where you feel like, ‘OK, that can’t happen.’
But it did. Over and over and over.
“When it kept happening on offense and we weren’t getting first downs and weren’t getting touchdowns and they kept getting stops,” Nagy said, “in the end you get into that third … fourth quarter, it just wears you down.”
Indeed it did. It seemed to start late in the second quarter, with the game tied 3-3, when right tackle Germain Ifedi was penalized for a false start on third-and-1 at the Bears 43-yard line. Fields was sacked on third-and-six and the Browns responded with a 12-play, 89-yard touchdown drive, capped by Mayfield’s 13-yard pass to tight end Austin Hooper that gave the Browns a 10-3 lead at halftime.
The defense wore down from there, finally breaking in the fourth quarter when safety Eddie Jackson whiffed on a tackle at the 20-yard line on Kareem Hunt’s 27-yard touchdown run — after Deon Bush had missed Hunt in the backfield. That made gave the Browns 20-6 lead with 14:46 to play — insurmountable on this day.
The Browns’ offensive numbers made the Bears’ defense look bad instead of valiant — 418 total yards and 215 rushing yards on 42 carries. The Browns rushed for 101 yards against a beaten Bears defense in the fourth quarter to close it out.
It put the defense in an uncomfortable spot. The offense was the obvious culprit, but the players can’t acknowledge that.
“It’s offense and defense and we all stick together,” Smith said. “It’s not about singling anything out or trying to make one [side] look better than the other.
“We all have a job. My job is to play defense and go out there every time the defense is up and try to make play and put the ball in the offense’s hands. And I’m sure everyone else on defense will say the same.”
It’s a tough spot for them. The questions have to be asked. And the Bears’ proud defensive players handle them well. But among the many things left unsaid is that time is running out.