CHICAGO — On the first play of the first preseason game for the Chicago Bears, a University of Dubuque grad took the field.
Michael Joseph started for the Bears in Thursday’s preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers, a 23-13 loss at Soldier Field. Lining up alongside him were the likes of projected regular season starters Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Roquan Smith and Eddie Goldman, as well as several backups who figure to factor heavily on Chicago’s defense this year.
Joseph’s start wasn’t, per se, expected heading into the Carolina game. In a battle with several other defensive backs looking to make their first 53-man NFL roster, the 2018 UD grad was a last-minute entry among starters (after fellow backup cornerback Kevin Toliver II didn’t dress due to an illness). Joseph made the most of it, though, earning his first tackle of the preseason two plays into the game and appearing in every Chicago defensive series throughout the contest.
“They just let me know that I was going to be starting. Next man up, you’ve got to be ready,” Joseph said after the game. “I feel like I was up to the task.
“It was expected (to see a lot of playing time). The starters weren’t going to play. I was mentally ready to play the whole entire game and that’s kind of what we did today.”
Joseph is in a fairly crowded mix of unproven secondary players looking to fill one of what’s expected to be only a couple of available roster spots. After starting CBs Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, free agent acquisition Buster Skrine and special teams specialist Sherrick McManis, the position group appears to be up for grabs on the back end of the depth chart.
Toliver (a second-year player like Joseph) has the most game experience among the young DBs, having appeared in 15 games with one start last season. There’s also fellow returning practice squad member John Franklin III and rookies Clifton Duck, Duke Shelley and Stephen Denmark to contend with.
Even the starters are well aware of the close battles down the depth chart. Amukamara said midway through Thursday’s broadcast that it’s a toss up which cornerbacks could win out.
“It’s going to be a tough decision for coaches and management,” Amukamara told Fox 32 TV. “We drafted Duke (Shelley) to play and compete at the nickel spot. He’s shown flashes early on, as well as Michael Joseph and John Franklin, (Clifton) Duck and KT (Kevin Toliver) who is out today. But I feel like they’ve all had their flashes at camp, but I think the biggest thing is to show what they can do out on this field.”
Joseph made his presence felt almost immediately, taking down Panthers back Cameron Artis-Payne on a second down reception in the first series. He also forced Carolina QB Kyle Allen out of bounds on a scramble during Chicago’s second defensive set.
“You’re a lot more comfortable in Year 2,” Joseph said of his performance. “So I was a lot more confident in myself and my abilities. This year, I could just go out and play instead of worrying about the other things.”
Perhaps Joseph’s biggest highlight of the game came when he broke up a would-be Andre Levrone touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone on a third down of a Panthers drive to the red zone in the third quarter. That resulted in a Carolina field goal and kept the Bears within 16-10 by the end of the frame.
Joseph finished with three total tackles and that pass breakup. Duck finished tied for the team lead with six, followed by Shelley and Franklin with three apiece.
But the stats don’t tell the whole story. Joseph saw fewer targets on his side of the field, an indication that his assignment was well covered. And when the ball did come his way, Joseph said he felt like he made the play.
“It’s always a good sign when you’re not getting targeted,” he said. “That means you’re doing a good job of covering your man. You want targets so you can make plays on the ball, and I think I did that when I did get targeted.
“You just always want to be in good position. You never know when that ball is coming.”
There are still three more preseason contests for the Bears’ back-end defensive backs to sort out this battle, with Chicago’s next game coming up Friday at the New York Giants. Joseph said he wasn’t sure how the depth chart may have sorted itself out after the Carolina game.
However, Thursday’s game had several positive takeaways for the UD alum. Joseph said he’s hopeful it can be something he builds on.
“You always have to get better,” he said. “You can’t be complacent off of one decent game. You just have to keep building building blocks and keep making plays and stacking them day after day.
“I just want to play better next game. That’s always the goal.”