Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan (59) celebrates with teammates after recording an interception.

Cary Edmondson/USA Today Sports

Haugh: Nagy's Boldness Pays Off As Bears Survive

The Bears' defense-driven 14-9 win against the 49ers kept alive hopes for a bye.

David Haugh
December 23, 2018 - 8:10 pm
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(670 The Score) Facing fourth-and-1 from the Bears’ 35-yard line with 4:19 left against the 49ers and clinging to a 14-9 lead Sunday, coach Matt Nagy reminded everybody why he’s here.

To change the culture by doing things differently. To take high risks that produce high rewards. To put the Bears in the best position to win the Super Bowl.

To have fun along the way while the rest of us chuckle at his aggressive, unorthodox approach.

As long as it works, nobody minds Nagy’s boldness – and it keeps working.

Conventional wisdom in that fourth-down situation called for the Bears to punt the ball and trust one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses to protect a five-point lead against a 49er offense led by an undrafted rookie quarterback. But there's nothing conventional about the way Nagy has become the first Bears’ rookie head coach ever to win 11 games so, naturally, he called a quarterback sneak. Mitchell Trubisky gained two yards, the chains moved as Bears fans exhaled and Nagy backed up his big talk about being a risk-taker late in the fourth quarter of a game in doubt.

By now, maybe the big surprise wasn’t Nagy going for it on fourth-and-1 when most NFL coaches would've punted. Maybe the bigger surprise was that he didn’t call a hand-off to a defensive tackle or a reverse pass with a clever name.

The Bears survived the 49ers more than they beat them, escaping Levi’s Stadium like thieves in the night more than Super Bowl contenders puffing their chests. The best part about this game for the Bears was that it ended without anybody getting seriously injured. The most valuable aspect came in the Bears proving to everyone, maybe even themselves, that they can win a tight game away from home.

“When you play on the road in this league, they’re never easy,’’ a relieved Nagy told reporters postgame. “We found a way to win.’’

Bernstein: Sloppy Bears get some gifts

You know Chicago has entered a new era of football when people are complaining after the Bears improved to 11-4.

Christmas came two days early for the Bears, who received their share of breaks – none bigger than 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens’ decision on fourth-and-4 from the Bears’ 45 with 1:14 left in the game. With enough open field in front of him to run for the first down, Mullens instead floated a feeble Hail Mary attempt downfield intended for receiver Marquise Goodwin that landed out of bounds. One day Mullens will know from experience to take what the defense gives you. Fortunately for the Bears, Sunday wasn’t that day.

For the second straight year, kicker Robbie Gould supplied all the points the 49ers could muster. Gould, a future Bears ambassador and likely Chicago media personality, kicked three field goals to give him eight in the last two games against his former team. Besides Gould, the 49ers moved the ball between the 20s but struggled in the red zone, where the Bears toughened up. Mullens completed 22 of 38 passes for 241 yards and one costly interception that went through Goodwin’s hands but never really threatened the Bears downfield.

The 49ers only found themselves in position to win the game on the final drive due to Bears receiver Allen Robinson’s fumble at the 49ers' 22 with 1:52 left after Robinson caught a 10-yard pass and had the ball jarred loose by cornerback Tarvarius Moore. It’s easy to say Robinson should've gone down immediately after catching the pass but much harder to turn off that instinct to run for a player whose contributions have been clutch.

Earlier on the same series, for example, Robinson connected with Trubisky for a six-yard completion to convert a key third down. The drive also included another type of controversy after a play that resulted in three ejections. After 49ers rookie safety Marcell Harris drew a flag for hitting Trubisky when the quarterback had slid, tempers flared on the Bears sideline after teammates sprung to Trubisky’s defense. A painfully long review revealed that Bears receivers Anthony Miller and Josh Bellamy were ejected for fighting, as was 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman. Harris made a rookie mistake and the Bears understandably reflexively defended Trubisky, but football players throwing punches is only a good way to injure hands.

In the grand scheme, the game didn’t carry heavy consequences for a team that already had clinched the NFC North, and the Bears treated it that way during an uneven first half. For the first 30 minutes, the four-win 49ers outplayed the Bears, who looked jet-lagged.

Cody Parkey missing a 37-yard field goal in ideal conditions appeared to kick-start the 49ers, especially on defense. The Bears offensive line struggled to protect Trubisky early, and he manufactured mistakes trying to make plays. The most egregious example came on the 49ers’ first takeaway since Oct. 28 – which really was more of a giveaway. On a run-pass option, Trubisky forced the lateral to Tarik Cohen instead of simply accepting a play for lost yardage. A wobbly pass behind the line to Cohen went through his hands and the 49ers recovered at the Bears’ 26. As bad as Trubisky’s judgment was, Nagy’s also came into question for calling such a play just as running back Jordan Howard had begun to establish himself between the tackles.

“One of those plays trying to do too much,’’ Trubisky said.

Even on the Bears’ first touchdown drive, Trubisky was more lucky than good. A defensive holding call saved Trubisky from an interception he threw after scrambling to buy time that he used foolishly to force a ball into coverage. The yellow flag gave the Bears a second chance on the series, and they took advantage with 1:52 left in the half on a four-yard touchdown pass to Miller, a missing element of the offense lately after catching only one pass in the previous three games. Nagy focused on Trubisky’s ability to recover more than the mistakes.

“There’s going to be some times where you don’t make 100 percent great decisions, but we’ve got to be able to accept that,’’ Nagy said. “It’s neat to be able to see him do that. That’s a part of who he’s going to be.’’

The quarterback that Trubisky was in the second half looked more familiar. He finished 25-of-29 for 246 yards with a touchdown for a passer rating of 113.5 that seems deceptively high. The Bears finally resembled the NFC North champions again with a 12-play, 90-yard touchdown march that ate up 7 minutes 43 seconds in the third quarter – their longest scoring drive of the season. Nagy mixed the play-calling up well, with seven passes and five runs. Trubisky completed all seven of those passes as he developed a rhythm missing in a balky first half. The touchdown came on a bruising two-yard run by Howard that gave the Bears a 14-9 lead.

But perhaps the most entertaining part of the entire drive came during a timeout when Nagy appeared so unhappy on the sidelines that he didn’t speak to Trubisky, who spent more time talking to quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone. For anyone wondering if the fun-loving Nagy ever gets upset with players, the answer came in his grimace as Trubisky trudged off the field. That’s part of good coaching too.

“That was a playoff-ready offense right there,’’ FOX analyst Chris Spielman said in the booth.

The defense never left any doubt. The most impactful play came when linebacker Danny Trevathan intercepted a catchable pass off Goodwin’s hands midway through the fourth quarter to thwart another 49ers drive inside the red zone. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks deflected three passes and dominated the line of scrimmage, playing as if to prove he deserved his Pro Bowl selection last Tuesday. Hicks dealt with illness all week, but try telling the 49ers offensive line he was ailing. Does that make this The Flu Game for Hicks? Linebacker Roquan Smith added a sack and was everywhere. Consider that the defense played without Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson and still kept the 49ers out of the end zone.

The game ended closer than necessary but was exactly what Nagy’s team needed after a week’s worth of celebration and comparisons to the 1985 Bears. The Bears passed a pass-fail test on the road and kept their hopes alive for a playoff bye that comes with the No. 2 seed in the NFC. No matter how it looked or what you think, that qualifies as a good day.

David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show on 670 The Score weekdays from 5-9 a.m. Listen to the show here. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh and email him at [email protected].​​​​​​​

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