The Chicago Bears will try to bring an end to their three-game losing streak Sunday when they play the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Bears quarterback Justin Fields has led the offense in averaging 30.3 points per game the last three weeks, but a struggling defense and the offense’s inability to come through on clutch second-half drives have kept the Bears out of the win column in that stretch.
As kickoff approaches, here’s our snapshot look at the game.
1. Player in the spotlight
Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson
Johnson strained an oblique during the Week 9 loss to the Miami Dolphins, an injury that lingered through the next week and hampered him during Sunday’s home loss to the Detroit Lions.
Johnson struggled physically and in coverage at times, most notably when he was beaten by receiver Tom Kennedy for a 44-yard gain on the Lions’ game-winning 91-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes. Johnson said his oblique bothered him “from Play 1.”
“My biggest limitations (were) my explosiveness, my quick twitch,” he said. “Really just being able to move, you need your core. And when you’re pressing and making certain breaks and certain movements, it was taking a lot out of me and not being able to move at my full potential.”
Johnson has not been on the injury report this week, an indication he will be closer to full strength against the Falcons. Coordinator Alan Williams has zero anxiety about his top cornerback’s ability to rebound.
“When Jaylon hasn’t performed up to his standards, you can almost bet the next week is going to be better,” Williams said. “He’s prideful, he’s smart, he’s tough, he’s mentally stable. I guarantee you this week will be better than last week.”
As frustrating as Kennedy’s big catch was late in the game, Johnson was even more agitated at the hands to the face penalty he drew in the fourth quarter from the jam he put on receiver Trinity Benson, a penalty the league since has apologized for. That call, though, negated a Jack Sanborn interception, and the Lions scored a touchdown on the next snap.
When Johnson was asked if there was any coaching point to that sequence, he laughed.
“It was more teach tape than anything,” he said. “I feel like you should coach others to do what I did. I feel like that was a clean play.”
2. Pressing question
How will the Bears stop Cordarrelle Patterson and the Falcons running game?
Bears fans are familiar with what a special athlete Patterson is from his two years in Chicago as an All-Pro returner. But over the last two seasons, the Falcons have been able to use Patterson on offense better than any team has during his 10-year career with five teams.
He totaled 618 rushing yards and six touchdowns and 548 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2021 and this year has 402 rushing yards and five touchdowns and 39 receiving yards.
“He’s, respectfully, an alien,” Williams said. “There aren’t many guys on the planet that are that big, that fast that can do all that he does.
“You talk about a receiver that has the whole route tree, he’s a running back that has the whole — I’m just making this up — the run tree so to speak, that he runs inside, he runs outside, he runs powers. So it’s not one thing where you say, ‘Hey, when he’s in there, he’s going to be running perimeter runs.’ He runs them all, so you have to defend him like a running back. And then when they put him out wide, you have to defend him like a receiver.”
The Bears have more to worry about than just Patterson. The Falcons are averaging 160.4 rushing yards per game and 4.89 per play using multiple players — Tyler Allgeier, Caleb Huntley, Avery Williams and quarterback Marcus Mariota.
That’s a tough test for a Bears run defense that ranks in the bottom third of the league.
“They run with a sense of urgency, and that’s what they’re going to try to attack us with,” Bears safety Eddie Jackson said. “We already know that. So we’ve just got to be in our gaps, play our keys and be ready to tackle.”
3. Keep an eye on …
Not long after the Bears’ loss to the Lions, Justin Fields was asked how he was feeling. “I’m hurting pretty bad,” he said, “not really from hits but just my legs are kind of sore.”
It was a notable admission from a player who has been carrying the offense for the past month. The NFL’s sixth leading rusher, Fields has carried the ball 104 times this season and 62 times over the five games. That’s not an unfathomable workload by any means. But for the Bears’ most important player, that soreness requires monitoring as well as adjustments during the week.
Fields provided an update on that front Wednesday afternoon.
“My legs just felt heavy after the game,” he said. “The guys on our strength staff said my load has been pretty high. So (we’ve) just been doing a little bit of tapering back this week in practice.”
Coordinator Luke Getsy acknowledged Bears coaches have to keep a pulse on how Fields is feeling and how much he’s taking on. “Definitely,” Getsy said. “We’re mindful of that for sure.”
Fields’ speed and explosion has been obvious recently. He has five touchdown runs over the last four games, including a dash of 61 yards against the Miami Dolphins and one for 67 yards against the Lions. He has topped 100 yards rushing in each of the past two games.
No one is expecting the Bears to suddenly pound the brakes. Still, to keep Fields’ progress on the upward arc, no measure is too small.
4. Settling in
Those hoping for a bigger dose of wide receiver Chase Claypool in Week 10 were disappointed.
Claypool, whom the Bears acquired from the Pittsburgh Steelers via trade on Nov. 1, played 19 snaps against the Lions and had one catch for 8 yards in two targets.
Getsy and Fields said Claypool is working to get settled in the offense.
“He’s having to learn a lot, and he’s done a tremendous job,” Getsy said. “To pick up as much as he’s done in two weeks is pretty impressive, so the opportunities will just continue to grow. His role continues to grow, and we’re on the right track.”
Wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said they have a bigger package for Claypool this week, and Fields said they put in extra work every day after practice to get him up to speed.
This week represents another opportunity to get the passing game going. The Falcons have the worst passing defense in the NFL, allowing 280.1 yards per game and 7.39 yards per play.
“He’s coming in and having to memorize the offense, memorize the formations and not really having that base or foundation like the other guys on the offense have,” Fields said. “You have to work him in slowly. Our routes have a lot of details in them, so it’s tough for him to come in and learn every little detail of every route. Just working him in on the plays that he does have and trying to execute the best we can.”
5. Injury report
The Bears will be without running back Khalil Herbert, who went on injured reserve this week with a hip injury. Wide receiver N’Keal Harry (illness) and safety Dane Cruikshank (hamstring) also will miss the game.
Bears right guard Teven Jenkins (hip), defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad (knee) and cornerback Kindle Vildor (ankle) all practiced in full Friday and are listed as questionable.
Jenkins missed the Lions game with the injury, which he said he has been managing since before Week 1.
“I’m just trying to get back to where I can play football and manage it at the same time,” Jenkins said. “There are certain movements you have to test to make sure you’re able to do game movements, like sit-down bull rushes. There are going to be big guys out there that are going to test your hips.”
Tight end Cole Kmet is good to go after suffering a thigh bruise in the Lions game.
“Just continue to get in the training room, taking care of my body, eating right, just doing the normal things I usually do,” Kmet said. “No worries about it. I’ll be full go by Sunday.”
The Falcons ruled out tight end Felipe Franks (calf). Safety Erik Harris (foot) and cornerback A.J. Terrell (hamstring) are questionable.
Brad Biggs (5-5)
In many respects, the Bears and Falcons are mirror images, and that has nothing to do with the familiar faces within the Atlanta organization. The Bears are No. 1 in the league in rushing and Atlanta is No. 4. The Bears are 32nd in pass attempts and the Falcons are just ahead of them at 31st as each offense tries to pick and choose its spot for play-action and downfield throwing. Both defenses have a rough time against the run, struggle to rush the quarterback and don’t get off the field on third down. Losing running back Khalil Herbert for a minimum of four games can’t be overlooked, but this is a big spot for David Montgomery to showcase himself with seven games to go until he’s a free agent, and Justin Fields should be amped to return to his home state. As bad as the Bears run defense has been — it ranks 28th — they have allowed only 172 yards on 54 carries (3.19 per attempt) in the last two weeks. Maybe that means they can corral ex-Bear Cordarrelle Patterson.
Bears 24, Falcons 20
Colleen Kane (6-4)
After the last few weeks, it’s hard to have confidence in a Bears defense that hasn’t stopped anyone, and the Falcons running game is going to be a big test. But the Falcons defense is giving up nearly 400 yards per game, including 280 passing yards. That should help the Bears and quarterback Justin Fields, playing in his home state, put together another impressive offensive performance. Perhaps that means Fields can take the next step and engineer a clutch fourth-quarter drive. Then Bears fans could celebrate both their quarterback and a win in the same week. Wouldn’t that be something?
Bears 30, Falcons 27
Dan Wiederer (6-4)
It’s only a matter of time before Justin Fields’ hot streak results in an energizing victory. And what better timing than back in Fields’ home state against the team he grew up rooting for. The Falcons just aren’t very good. And this feels like an opening, on a fast track, for Fields and the Bears offense to continue showcasing their growth and explosion.
Bears 30, Falcons 27