Bears' Keys to Success in 2021 NFL Season

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 30, 2021

Bears' Keys to Success in 2021 NFL Season

0 of 3

    David Banks/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears are poised to attempt one of the NFL's more unique balancing acts.

    After making the playoffs last year and in two of the last three seasons, Chicago will try getting back to the postseason. At the same time, the Bears will look to develop quarterback Justin Fields for the future.

    Andy Dalton is expected to begin the season as the starting quarterback, but Fields—who went 7-of-10 for 54 yards and a touchdown in the preseason finale—could take over sooner than later. For the rookie, though, the long-term picture is more important than what lies immediately ahead.

    For the Bears, success won't be measured purely by the win total. So, what needs to happen for their 2021 campaign to be a success? That's precisely what we're here to examine.

Develop and Protect Justin Fields

1 of 3

    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    This is the big one. Whether the Bears make the postseason or not, their season will be a success if Fields grows as a professional passer and comes out of the season healthy.

    The second factor is one Chicago must prioritize. The Bears may soon determine that the 22-year-old gives them the best chance to win games. He's the future at quarterback and has a much higher upside than Dalton.

    "Throughout camp and the exhibition games, Fields has shown that he has the ability to raise the level of play of those he's actually playing with at any given moment," The Athletic's Adam Jahns wrote.

    If Fields does see game action, Chicago must protect his health and confidence. Exposing him to injury as the Cincinnati Bengals did with Joe Burrow in 2020 would hamper his long-term development. So, too, could yanking him from games, as the Miami Dolphins did with Tua Tagovailoa.

    Protecting Fields with simple schemes, a balanced offense and coaching support will be critical. Or the Bears can protect him by keeping him on the sideline, as appears to be the current plan. However, that plan will only last as long as Dalton proves capable and Chicago remains in playoff contention.

Improve the Ground Game

2 of 3

    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Regardless of who is under center, the Bears must improve their rushing offense if they hope to be legitimate postseason contenders. Despite having a 1,000-yard back in David Montgomery, Chicago's ground game was lackluster in 2020. The Bears finished ranked 27th in rushing yards and 21st in yards per carry.

    Unfortunately, primary backup Tarik Cohen is still recovering from last season's torn ACL and remains on the physically-unable-to-perform list.

    "I don't have a timeline for him, but he's in a good place. It's been frustrating for him, but he's working hard," coach Matt Nagy said, per Jason Lieser of the Chicago Sun-Times.

    Chicago added former Kansas City Chiefs back Damien Williams in the offseason, along with rookie sixth-round pick Khalil Herbert. The new pieces may help, but it will be up to Nagy to work out a successful rushing attack and craft a plan for the injury-riddled offensive line.

    Getting more consistent production out of the running game will not only make Chicago more effective offensively, but it will also help protect Dalton and/or Fields throughout the 17-game season.

Identify Pass-Rushers Not Names Khalil Mack

3 of 3

    David Berding/Associated Press

    The Bears don't need to have an elite defense to go on a deep postseason run, but the ability to get to opposing quarterbacks will be critical. As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed in Super Bowl LV, even the best signal-callers can be derailed by pressure.

    While Chicago has one premier pass-rusher in Khalil Mack, he was largely a one-man show last year. The Bears notched only 35 sacks as a team, and he was the only defender to log more than five on the season.

    Chicago's five-year, $70 million gamble on Robert Quinn yielded just two sacks in 2020.

    The need for an improved pass rush grew even greater when the Bears parted with No. 1 cornerback Kyle Fuller this offseason. If opposing quarterbacks regularly have time in the pocket, the Bears could be in real trouble.

    Chicago must create more consistent pressure from players other than Mack. Whether that comes from Quinn, Bilal Nichols (the only other five-sack producer last season), preseason standout Trevis Gipson or a group effort is irrelevant. The defense cannot rely solely on Mack to generate pressure.