The loudest cheer Thursday night by the faithful at Soldier Field came with 1:55 remaining in the second quarter. That was when the stadium public address announcer revealed that rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was entering the contest. Trubisky came right in, took control of the offense and led the Bears down the field for a touchdown, leading to more raucous ovations from the nearly 45,000 fans in attendance.
If the entrance and TD pass by the Bears' 2017 first-round pick earned the two rowdiest reactions in the 24-17 loss to the Denver Broncos in the preseason opener, then Chicago's first defensive snap comes in as a close third. That was when the 2016 first-rounder, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, displayed the skill and potential that made him a standout player a season ago by sacking Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian.
Floyd's takedown did more than just earn a loud response from the crowd. It also set the tone for what turned out to be a strong performance by Chicago's top defensive teams.
Nick Kwiatkoski led the Bears with six tackles.
"To see the guys flying around, being a preseason game, it says a lot about where this team wants to go as a unit, as a whole," said outside linebacker Willie Young. "This is good experience for us to have in the preseason."
It all started with Floyd, who had seven sacks in 12 games as a rookie. He used his tree-trunk arms to maneuver around Denver right tackle Menelik Watson and then his speed to rush Siemian. With Floyd's path unobstructed, the Broncos quarterback had no choice but to duck his head into his chest and pray for safety, as the 251-pound linebacker barreled into him. Floyd's sack resulted in a seven-yard loss for Denver and a promising beginning for the Chicago defense.
"I had the rush on that play, I just came off the ball," Floyd said. "Seeing the tackle in pass protection and just beat him around the edge.
"I had to make sure I got there before (Siemian) got the ball off, but my eyes definitely got wide seeing that I was getting off the tackle like that. And then I see the quarterback, ran him down and made the sack."
Floyd worked on his tackling technique this offseason after suffering some injuries as a result of incorrect form as a rookie. The linebacker said that the revamped form is now coming naturally to him, and that he's cognizant of his form to keep himself out of harm's way. On the sack, Floyd kept his head up, driving his shoulder and chest into Siemian before pulling him to the turf.
The Bears are looking for more impact plays from Floyd this year, but he's far from the only defender who is being asked to take on a larger role in 2017. Fellow second-year defender Jonathan Bullard received some early playing time along the line, and rewarded the coach's faith by making some key plays. That included a stuff of Denver running back Stevan Ridley for a three-yard loss on third-and-one early in the second quarter.
Yet another member of the draft class of 2016, inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, led Chicago in tackles on Thursday with six.
In total, the Bears first- and second-string defensive units didn't allow the Broncos to do too much with the ball. Denver had just six first downs in the first half, three of which came via Chicago penalties. The Bears forced three three-and-outs in that opening half, all of which took less than two minutes off the clock.
The problem was, the strong play didn't carry over to the bottom of the depth chart. After keeping up the strong play in the third quarter, when the Bears forced a pair of punts, Chicago's defense collapsed in the game's final six-plus minutes. Denver tied the game with a 47-yard touchdown on a play that featured both mental and physical breakdowns by the Chicago defense. Broncos receiver Isaiah McKenzie got open down the middle of the field due to some poor coverage, but also because the Bears only had 10 defenders for the snap.
Five minutes later, on a third-and-22, the Bears defense collapsed again. Denver running back De'Angelo Henderson took a shotgun snap off left tackle and ran 41 yards for the go-ahead and eventual game-winning touchdown.
The two big plays at the end tilted the score and stats in Denver's favor. The Bears wound up allowing 5.6 yards per play, after giving up just 3.6 per play in the first half.
"I thought defensively, we played pretty well really up until late in the fourth quarter," said coach John Fox. "Yards-wise, it was pretty lopsided and we obviously gave up two big plays. During one pass, we had 10 guys on the field, so it was basically a screw-up in the substitutions."
The end may have left a sour taste in the mouth of the fans, but the strong start by Floyd and the Chicago defense gave the Bears an idea of what could be to come moving forward this season.