Week 9 of the 2022 NFL season will showcase two teams that are heading in different directions. The Chicago Bears are hoping to finally put it all together against a Miami Dolphins team that has surpassed expectations and is looking like a legitimate contender in the AFC.
The Bears (3-5) are coming off a loss to Dallas in which the offense showed some progress despite some miscues, while the defense got torched. They'll get a visit from a Dolphins team (5-3) that has won two in a row after last week's win over another NFC North team, the Lions.
Miami (5-3) at Chicago (3-5)
Three Things to Watch
1. Fields vs. Tua
More than anything, everyone will watch this game to see the two young quarterbacks — who were both first-round picks and wear No. 1 — try to outduel one another. Justin Fields has shown growth recently, albeit at a slower pace than everyone would have liked. He still ranks at or near the bottom in several passing categories, but the stats, and more importantly his impact on the Bears' offense overall, have improved in recent weeks.
Some of the credit goes to first-year offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who has adjusted his game plan and play-calling to take full advantage of Fields' athleticism and running ability. Having him roll out more as well as dialing up several designated runs has put Fields in a better position to succeed. There have been some trade-offs, however. Fields still needs to improve his accuracy (58.5 percent), make wise decisions (has thrown 6 INTs compared to 7 TDs), and be mindful of ball security (6 fumbles, but none lost yet). Pass protection also remains an issue (he's been sacked an NFL-high 31 times), but some of that is on the young quarterback, who needs to get rid of the ball quicker instead of trying to make something out of nothing when he chooses to stay in the pocket.
Chicago has the least productive passing attack in the NFL (126.9 ypg), and the team is hoping that a trade made on deadline day will help change that. While no one was surprised to see the Bears trade away a couple of players, they also added to the roster by acquiring wide receiver Chase Claypool from Pittsburgh. The price (next year's second-round pick) was high, but Claypool has appealing size (6-4, 238) and could bring an entirely new element to this offense. And even in what was considered a down year while working with a quarterback tandem of former Chicago starter Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett, Claypool still had more receiving yards (311) than any Bear not named Darnell Mooney (364).
Fields' counterpart, Tua Tagovailoa, doesn't have the same questions when it comes to weapons to throw to. And that's part of the reason why he has enjoyed a breakout campaign in his third year in the league. He also has unexpectedly become the poster child for the ongoing conversations about concussions and if the league is doing enough to address them during games.
Statistically speaking, Tagovailoa leads the league in passer rating (112.7) and yards per attempt (9.0). He's also in the top 10 in completion rate (69.9 percent, fourth), touchdown passes (12, tied for sixth), and passing yards per game (279.7, seventh). He also has thrown just three interceptions and has only been sacked eight times. The most important stat, however, is his 5-1 record as the starter. He missed two games because of a concussion, and Miami went 0-2 in those, further emphasizing his importance to this team.
It also helps to have arguably the NFL's most productive wide receiver duo to throw to in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Hill, who the Dolphins acquired from Kansas City this offseason for a package of picks and then signed to a new deal, is leading the league in receiving with 986 yards while Waddle has posted 744. They also have combined for seven touchdown catches. Add in the contributions of tight end Mike Gesicki (4 TD catches) and running back Raheem Mostert (team-high 452 rushing yards) and you get the bulk of a Dolphins offense that is seventh in yards per game (380.6 ypg). The ground attack has lagged behind the aerial one, which is why Miami lags a little behind in the scoring department (23.1 ppg, 13th), but it's still been enough production to keep the Fins firmly in the playoff hunt.
2. Defenses are a work in progress
This holds true for both teams, and they've both been active in the trade market the last few weeks. However, the Dolphins made a big addition while the Bears made two big subtractions.
In years past, the Bears' defense would usually mask any shortcomings by the offense. But this year, the defense is arguably the biggest issue with this franchise. After holding New England to 14 points two weeks ago, the Cowboys gave this team a harsh reminder last week — by scoring 49 points — that it still has a ways to go before they can be dominant again.
Stopping the run has been a particular issue and after Tony Pollard gashed them for 131 yards (and three touchdowns) on just 14 carries last week, the Bears are now 31st in the league at 156 rushing yards allowed per game. And even though they have fared better against the pass (188.0 ypg, fifth), part of that is due to teams being able to run seemingly at will on them. Chicago certainly isn't putting a lot of fear into teams with its pass rush. The unit has just 13 sacks so far.
And there's a really good chance these numbers only get worse after the Bears traded their two best defenders in linebacker Roquan Smith and edge rusher Robert Quinn. The draft picks are certainly valuable for a rebuilding team but those are two holes that will be very difficult to fill as it shakes up the two-deep on that side of the ball.
The other part of this is that several players will now have an opportunity to claim bigger roles and make a name for themselves. This particularly applies to undrafted rookie linebacker Jack Sanborn as well as A.J. Klein, who Chicago got back from Baltimore in the trade for Smith, as well as defensive linemen Trevis Gipson, now in his third year, and Dominique Robinson, a fifth-round pick this year.
As for Miami, its defense ranks in the bottom half of the league in yards (362.8, 23rd) and points (24.0, 21st) allowed per game, and unlike the Bears has had more issues stopping the pass (262.1 ypg, 25th) vs. the run (100.6 ypg, fifth). One of the reasons for this could be a pass rush that has generated just 15 sacks. But that could change, and in a hurry, after making what many consider to be the biggest move of this year's trade deadline.
The Dolphins pulled off another huge trade, this time acquiring edge rusher Bradley Chubb from Denver for a package of three draft picks (including a first-rounder next year) and running back Chase Edmonds. Then, just as the team did with Hill after acquiring him, Miami signed Chubb to a five-year extension worth $110, including $63.2 million guaranteed. The Dolphins now add Chubb (5.5 sacks this season) to a pass-rushing rotation that also includes fellow edge rusher Jaelan Phillips (team-leading 3 sacks) and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.
It should not take Chubb long to make an impact for this defense, especially given Chicago's issues with pass protection and Fields' tendency to hold onto the ball too long.
3. Showcase of first-time head coaches
Both the Dolphins and Bears brought in first-time head coaches this season: Miami hired former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel for its vacancy while Chicago turned to former Indianapolis defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
McDaniel is one of the league's younger coaches at just 39 years old, but he's been a quick study and is already earning rave reviews from inside his own locker room and those watching from afar. He's shown an ability to relate to his players, brings plenty of energy to everything he does, and has helped transform this offense and built a very solid relationship with Tagovailoa. As a result, the Dolphins are winning more than they are losing and have as good a shot as any team making the playoffs in the AFC.
For the Bears, players have long bought into Eberflus' system but this team isn't as far along as Miami, something that clearly shows up in the win-loss column. But Eberflus and first-year general manager Ryan Poles were fully aware of the task that was ahead of them in rebuilding this franchise into a consistent winner and they are going to stick to that plan, as evidenced by the moves made over the past few weeks. But that doesn't mean Chicago won't continue to compete on the field, as New England found out two weeks ago when the Bears went into Foxborough and dominated the Patriots on "Monday Night Football."
The contrast between the two rookie head coaches' backgrounds only adds intrigue to this chess match, so it will be interesting to see how McDaniel and Eberflus fare going up against one another, and which one is able to get the most out of his team on Sunday.
Miami is 1-1 against the NFC North so far, beating Detroit 31-27 on the road last week but losing at home to Minnesota (24-16) back in Week 6. Tua Tagovailoa didn't play in that loss to the Vikings. Chicago stunned New England (33-14) two weeks ago in its only game against the AFC East so far. However, the Bears weren't able to carry over much of the momentum from that victory as Dallas overwhelmed them in their own building (49-29) last Sunday.
Justin Fields is showing why Chicago drafted him in the first round two years ago but this offense is still a work in progress. On the other side, the Dolphins have all the pieces to their offense and have shown on more than one occasion how dangerous they can be when everyone is clicking. And now the defense has added a huge piece in Bradley Chubb while the Bears' defense is missing its two best players. Chicago should be able to hang around at home but look for Miami to make a few more plays on both sides of the ball and pick up a satisfying road win.
Prediction: Dolphins 20, Bears 14
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
*Price as of publication.