CHICAGO — Sunday was supposed to be Trey Lance’s big exit moment as Kyle Shanahan picked the franchise quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.
The Bears had other plans.
All week, the Bears’ veteran defensive leaders have been preaching for Lance, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, to “prove” he can beat them with his arm.
The North Dakota State product failed this test. The Bears held Lance to 13 passes for 28 for 164 yards and an interception in the Bears’ 19-10 week at rain-soaked Soldier Field.
“What do you think he did?” He doesn’t do anything,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said of Lance after the win. “We had him play quarterback. We know he hurt us in the running game with his feet, and everyone knows that at some point he’s going to run and make a play. But I feel like we really had to. play the quarterback.
“Like I said, he’s still young and I think he’ll end up being a good player for them. But he’s early. He has to go through this. I feel like we’ve done exactly that. I said we’d do. Prove him as a quarterback.
Throughout the offseason, new Bears head coach Matt Eberflus and his team have been preaching the HITS principle (hustle, intensity, takeout and smart football). The new staff got buy-in from everyone on the roster, and the Bears’ defensive performance was the first proof that the concept can lead to wins.
“These are results. That’s the big thing,” safety Eddie Jackson said of the HITS principle after the win. “When you see the results start to show – I’ve said this all camp. You start to see the results on film, the way we train, the way we hustle, just the mindset of the whole team, that mindset and how we’ve built our foundation and continue to build that identity on defense, we just want to keep stealing defense and getting the ball back.
The HITS principle was in full effect early Sunday.
With the 49ers inside the Bears 20-yard line on their first possession, Deebo Samuel took a pass down the left side and gained 4 yards before Johnson hit the ball. Rookie safety Jaquan Brisker picked it up for an early swing and a plus on the HITS bulletin.
The early takeaways were important, but for most of the game the HITS principle showed in how the Bears defense made Lance do what they wanted – hang in the pocket. and beat them with precise throws in narrow windows.
“It’s just a young quarterback thing,” Jackson said of the plan to piss off Lance. “You know, Year 2, he didn’t play much last year. Trying to get him to do something different that he’s not comfortable with, and that’s to try to get him to back off and throw the ball, go through his readings, give him different looks and disguises.
“It played out today. He made a few plays but that’s how we wanted to keep him.
On a soggy field with a new Bermuda surface, the Bears defense played disciplined and fundamental football. They tackled as a group, kept yards to a minimum after contact and gave up just two explosive plays in the passing game.
With the offense struggling in the first half, the Bears defense held firm and only led the team at halftime 7-0. Lance and the 49ers offense added three more to start the third quarter, but that was it for one of the NFL’s most feared offensive attacks.
The Bears offense designed longer drives in the second half, allowing the defense to rest and peak to buy time.
After Justin Fields hit Equanimeous St. Brown for an 18-yard touchdown to put the Bears ahead 13-10 in the fourth quarter, Chicago’s skies opened up again and a deluge descended on Lance and a Bears offense. 49ers desperately trying to find answers in unideal conditions.
“The ball game was over,” Johnson said of that moment. “They didn’t want to play anymore. Especially having those conditions and being down two points. It’s really difficult to throw the ball in the field. Difficult to do much with these weather conditions. You can see it in their eyes. They were trying to get out of here and go home.
It was fitting for the HITS principle to send Lance and the 49ers to the tarmac.
On third-and-fifth of their own 41, Lance backed up and looked for Jauan Jennings in midfield. Jackson and Brisker executed the game plan to perfection. The safeties gave Lance a Cover 2 look and baited him into a throw they knew he wanted to make.
Jackson read the play, stepped in front of the pass and took it 26 yards the other way to set up the Bears’ touchdown.
As the Chicago rain cascaded down a sloppy 49ers team, Lance stepped away from the sideline to speak with Shanahan as the highly questionable Bears defense celebrated Jackson’s dagger.
“No one is surprised in this locker room or in the building,” Jackson said after the win. “Everyone out there is more surprised than us. We know what we’ve got, and I said I felt like we were going to shock a lot of people, surprise a lot of people with the way we work. I feel like that nobody works harder than us and the mindset that we have as a team and what we build is something special.
The Bears never gave Lance an easy chance to beat them. They didn’t blitz him on any of his 34 dropbacks, but still pressured him 12 times. Of those 12 pressure returns, Lance went 1 for 7 for under 2 yards and two sacks.
The game plan worked perfectly.
Despite all the rumors that Lance would be an unknown entering his third career NFL start, the Bears seemed to know exactly who and what Lance is right now and what he isn’t.
Their assessment was correct and they let the HITS principle do the rest.