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Players optimistic Bears are ascending as a team

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Cleaning out their lockers Monday at Halas Hall, Bears players discussed the strides and growth that were made during the 2023 season and their determination to take the next step in 2024.

The Bears more than doubled their win total from a 3-14 record in 2022 to 7-10, rebounding from a 2-7 start to win five of seven games before losing the season finale to the Packers Sunday in Green Bay.

"I think we're definitely closer," said second-year linebacker Jack Sanborn. "We're definitely just a better team overall. However you look at it, I think this year we were playing better ball. We went through stretches this year where I really think we were playing some really good ball and winning games, closing out games."

The Bears defense showed marked improvement, ranking No. 1 in the NFL against the run after finishing 31st in 2022. The unit also increased its interception total from 14 in 2022 to 22 in 2023, tying for the most in the league with the 49ers.

Defensive end Montez Sweat fueled the resurgence after joining the Bears Oct. 31 via a trade with the Commanders. In 2023, the fifth-year pro became the first player in NFL history to lead two different teams in sacks, registering 6.5 in eight games with Washington and 6.0 in nine contests with the Bears.

Like Sweat, cornerback Jaylon Johnson was voted to his first career Pro Bowl. The fourth-year pro tied for the team lead with a career-high four interceptions—one of which he returned for a touchdown—while also registering 36 tackles and 10 pass breakups.

Offensively, the Bears ranked second in the NFL in rushing, averaging 141.1 yards per game, and showed big-play ability at times.

Quarterback Justin Fields completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 2,562 yards with 16 touchdowns, nine interceptions and an 86.3 passer rating. The third-year pro established career highs in completion percentage, yards and passer rating. Fields also rushed for 657 yards and four touchdowns on 124 carries.

Receiver DJ Moore, who was acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Panthers last March, exceeded high expectations in his first season with the Bears. The sixth-year pro set career highs in all receiving categories with 96 catches, 1,364 yards and eight touchdowns. His 1,364 yards were the sixth most in the NFL this season and the fourth most in Bears history.

Tight end Cole Kmet also excelled, establishing career highs with 73 receptions and 719 yards and catching seven TD passes. The fourth-year pro also improved as a blocker.

Despite those individual efforts, the Bears finished 27th in the NFL in passing yards, a ranking that coach Matt Eberflus acknowledged after Sunday's loss "needs to improve." The Bears failed to score more than 17 points in six of their last 10 games and totaled only one offensive touchdown in their final three road contests.

"I feel like we definitely could have played better to help [the defense] out," said running back Roschon Johnson, "because they were playing lights out, and they just ultimately kept us in a lot of games and ultimately were the reason we won games. I feel like from an offensive standpoint, we can definitely play better all around."

Asked if he felt the offense performed up to its capabilities this season, Moore said: "Probably not, because we had some games where there were lulls and we didn't finish out games the best that we could. But the games that we won, you could see the offense is on the rise and could be explosive throughout the game."

Looking ahead to 2024, the Bears are optimistic that they're ascending as a franchise. Several of the players selected in Ryan Poles' first two drafts as general manager showed promise while gaining valuable experience this season. They include 2022 selections Kyler Gordon, Jaquan Brisker and Braxton Jones; and 2023 choices Darnell Wright, Gervon Dexter Sr., Tyrique Stevenson, Zacch Pickens, Johnson, Tyler Scott and Terell Smith.

For the second straight offseason, the Bears seem to be in prime position to improve their roster, especially because they hold the No. 1 and No. 9 picks in the draft.

"I feel like this is a team and every guy on this team believes in each other and we just know that next year, we've just got to elevate our game a lot more," Stevenson said. "We've got to relax, reset and come back next year harder."

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