5 things to watch for as the Chicago Bears host the Cincinnati Bengals, including a timeshare between Andy Dalton and Justin Fields — plus our Week 2 predictions – Chicago Tribune

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The Chicago Bears are out to prove Sunday they can play better than they did in the 34-14 season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams. They welcome 2020 top draft pick Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals, who beat the Minnesota Vikings 27-24 in overtime in Week 1.

As Bears fans return to Soldier Field for a regular-season game for the first time since the end of the 2019 season, here’s our snapshot look at the contest.

Chicago Bears (0-1) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (1-0)

  • Kickoff: Noon Sunday at Soldier Field.
  • TV and radio: Fox-32, WBBM-AM 780, WCFS-FM 105.9, WRTO-AM 1200 (Spanish).
  • The line: Bears by 4½. Over/under: 45½.
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1. Player in the spotlight

Bears quarterback Andy Dalton will face the team that drafted him in in 2011 and started him in 133 games over nine seasons in Cincinnati.

And yet when Bears coach Matt Nagy on Thursday was answering questions about the game, more were asked about rookie quarterback Justin Fields than Dalton.

Nagy isn’t going to reveal ahead of time a target number of snaps — or if Fields might play a full series — but said Fields provides “a lot of value” in offering a changeup to Dalton.

“The biggest thing is schematically, do we want to use him?” Nagy said. “If we do, how is that and when it the best place to do it? The nice thing about Justin is you’ve got somebody that is special with making throws too. So many times you see guys that come in and sometimes they’re just running quarterbacks and that sort of thing. So he can become a weapon that way too. (We) allow him to grow each week in practice but yet still try to find times when we feel like it can be advantageous to us to use him in certain roles.”

Dalton is playing the Bengals for the second time since he left Cincinnati. He threw for 185 yards and two touchdowns in the Dallas Cowboys’ 30-7 victory in Cincinnati in December.

“Luckily I got that out of the way last year and now I’m just focused on doing what we can to win the game,” he said.

Can the Bears get the vertical passing game going?

The Next Gen Stats passing and routes charts from Sunday’s game against the Rams — in which the Bears completed one pass of more than 11 yards — caused a stir on social media this week.

Dalton average 4.2 intended air yards per pass attempt, the second-worst in the league in Week 1 behind the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts, and didn’t complete a pass over 10 air yards.

Top receiver Allen Robinson, who had six catches on 11 targets for 35 yards, didn’t run a route of 10 yards or more.

It was part of the game plan against a defense that tries to limit big plays and was sending out a fierce pass rush against an uncertain Bears offensive line.

“We knew what we were trying to get accomplished by just being able to get the ball out and try to get more yards after the catch rather than air yards, I guess, in certain situations,” Robinson said of his chart. “I wasn’t too taken aback after seeing it.”

Said Dalton: “It’s just the way they play defense. They try to keep everything in front of you, and with a good front and a guy like Aaron Donald and some of those guys that they have up there, that’s just how they play.”

The Bears were able to move the ball fairly well with 24 first downs and no three-and-out drives, though they got into the end zone only twice.

Robinson and Dalton expressed optimism they can add more deep passes to their offense Sunday.

“Just based off the simple fact of the structure that Cincinnati plays,” Robinson said. “They play a one-high defense. Typically in the NFL you’re able to try to get some more down-the-field throws against one-high safety. And it’s a press-man team, so they don’t play as soft and off as the Rams did.”

Chicago Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) and the defense late in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2021.

Chicago Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) and the defense late in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2021. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Cornerback Jaylon Johnson said Friday that defensive coordinator Sean Desai’s message was simple this week after the Rams forced some major Bears mistakes.

“Just be who we are, because that wasn’t who we are, having all the mental lapses,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t even really too much to talk about. It’s just, ‘Hey, this is what we did wrong. We can’t have it again’. So it wasn’t (any) panic. It wasn’t anything like that. It was just, ‘Fix what needs to be fixed.’ ”

The Bears defense allowed Matthew Stafford to throw for 321 yards and three touchdowns, including a 67-yarder and a 56-yarder. The Bears didn’t force a turnover, and Johnson had the only pass defended. They had one sack, shared by Akiem Hicks and Robert Quinn, and four quarterback hits.

It was not the kind of showing that builds confidence in Desai’s unit.

Now the Bears must try to do better against Burrow, who made a solid return after a November left knee injury ended his rookie season early. He completed 20 of 27 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns against the Vikings, hitting rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase with five passes for 101 yards.

“Everyone talks about how cool he is back there and you see that,” Nagy said of Burrow. “He’s just so natural. He’s a leader. He’s a great teammate. But yet he makes those special throws. And he’s sneaky. He can move if he has to. I really like him a lot and I have a lot of respect for him. They’re going to be in great hands with him for a long, long time.”

Desai was asked this week about why the Bears settled on nickel Marqui Christian, who started the opener after a training camp competition with Duke Shelley.

“It’s been a great competition and it continues to be a great competition with him and Duke,” Desai said. “And we as a staff felt that he edged out there in the beginning and earned that spot there and so we felt good with that decision.”

Christian, a converted safety in his sixth season, was in the middle of a couple of the Rams’ big plays Sunday, including Stafford’s 56-yard touchdown pass in which Cooper Kupp raced by Christian into open field. Desai said there was a miscommunication on coverage on the play but didn’t give details.

When Nagy was asked whether the nickel spot was up for grabs or if the Bears were sticking with Christian, he didn’t answer directly, saying the Bears were “working through all that.” Shelley, a 2019 sixth-round draft pick who started in December when Buster Skrine was hurt, was inactive for the first game.

“They’re competing in practice,” Nagy said. “Both those guys understand that. They know that. And now we’ll just continue to work through that and see where it goes this week.”

Chicago Bears offensive tackle Jason Peters (71) pass blocks Los Angeles Rams linebacker Justin Hollins (58) in the first quarter at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021.

Chicago Bears offensive tackle Jason Peters (71) pass blocks Los Angeles Rams linebacker Justin Hollins (58) in the first quarter at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Bears nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who sat out the opener, is listed as doubtful to play Sunday after missing practices Thursday and Friday with a knee injury.

But left tackle Jason Peters participated in practice in a limited capacity Friday for a third straight day and is listed as questionable. Peters left the Week 1 game at halftime with a quad injury.

“You just have to trust in our trainers, trust in JP with where he’s at,” Nagy said. “He had a good week of practice. It’s more of just a trust thing and making sure that he feels good all week long. … It’s unfortunate what happened last week. At the same time, he knows how to treat his body. So we feel OK there.”

Rookie left tackle Larry Borom is out with the ankle injury he suffered when he entered Sunday’s game to replace Peters. Elijah Wilkinson is the other option at left tackle should Peters not be able to play.

Outside linebacker Robert Quinn, who was limited with a back issue Wednesday and Thursday, returned to full practice Friday and is listed as questionable.

The Bengals ruled out safety Ricardo Allen and cornerback Trae Waynes.

An alarming performance by the defense in the season opener cast doubt about the Bears’ ability to win lower-scoring games, something they’ve had success doing under coach Matt Nagy. It’s concerning because it was the same type of troubling effort on display through the second half of last season. However, it’s usually true things are never quite as bad (or as good) as they seem early in the season. Nagy needs a victory here because the schedule — with the exception of a Week 4 visit from the Detroit Lions — is unrelenting through mid-November.

Nagy said it’s too early to consider this a must-win game, and while that technically is true, a victory against the Bengals would go a long way toward preventing a meltdown among Bears fans. There’s reason to believe the Bears will look considerably better Sunday than they did against a very good Rams team. The Andy Dalton-Justin Fields combo should be able to capitalize on more downfield chances. I’m sure I’m not the only one who needs the defense to convince me it’s going to be OK after the Week 1 debacle against Matthew Stafford. But here’s thinking it will buckle down this week.

All three phases figure to be sharper in Week 2, enough to quell the anxiety of the Soldier Field crowd. A vertical passing game emerges. The “Takeaway Bucket” gets a deposit. And the Bears do enough to notch a satisfying victory in the home opener.