Jordan Mills, an NFL rookie playing in his first official pro game, made a veteran play.
What thrills for Mills. And what a finish Sunday for a new starter, a 22-year-old who could be just starting a long, productive career.
When a late-game play ended with Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga being flagged 15 yards for throwing Mills to the Soldier Field grass, the right offensive tackle hustled back to the Bears huddle. The fifth-round draft pick stifled a smile that he would finally be able to flash in another minute.
"I had to block him," Mills said of Maualuga, with whom he engaged while blocking for Michael Bush on a 1-yard gain on third-and-6 from the Cincinnati 45 with 1:15 left in the fourth quarter. "When he came up, I locked on, and I was not letting him go no matter what until the whistle blew. He got a little frustrated and pushed me. I wanted to retaliate, but I kept my composure and we got the first down."
Maualuga's unnecessary roughness penalty allo0ed Jay Cutler to take a pair of knees and the Bears clinched their season-opening, 24-21 win.
Playing against a Cincinnati defense that ranked among the AFC's best last year, Mills and first-round pick Kyle Long, who started at right guard, played creditably. Jay Cutler, who was sacked 38 times last season, wasn't sacked once while completing 21 of 33 passes for 242 yards and 2 touchdowns.
So much for Bengals star Geno Atkins and fellow sack machine Michael Johnson schooling the two Bears rookies.
"They did a good job. I'm proud of them," new Bears left tackle Jermon Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowler, said of Long and Mills. "To come out here in their first NFL regular-season start and to play the way those guys played, the sky's the limit for them. I'm extremely excited about their future."
New Bears coach Marc Trestman is equally thrilled with the potential of Long (6-6, 313) and Mills (6-5, 316). With the Bears trailing 21-17 with less than nine minutes left in the fourth, the home team needed to gain the length of a football on fourth down from the Bengals' 27. Matt Forte was getting the ball and running right, not up the middle, which recent Bears teams often tried in short-yardage situations.
Forte gained an edge and sped for 8 yards.
"When the play was called in the huddle, I looked at Jordan and said (excitedly), 'That's us,'" Long said. "We've run it a million times in practice. It was good to see Matt bounce it outside. Great first down."
An example of the new-look Bears offense under Trestman, perhaps?
"Man, I don't know," Long said with a laugh. "He's a lot smarter than I am. For me to try to speak on his thought process would be unfair."
What was Mills thinking before the fourth-down snap?
"Don't whiff. Make my block and help my team win," Mills said. "If I whiff and give up something that's a loss, everybody's going to see it. I just had to slow myself down, be patient, know who I had and how to get there."
On the next play, Cutler hit Brandon Marshall in the end zone from 19 yards out for the go-ahead and game-winning score.
On Saturday, Bears veteran guard Matt Slauson talked to Mills. He warned the rookie, who last year was playing for Louisiana Tech, that come game day everything would be "a tick faster and quicker." Mills made sure he was mentally prepared for NFL game speed.
Then noon rolled around Sunday, and Jim Cornelison belted out the national anthem. A stadium full of Bears fans roared.
Welcome to the NFL, rookies.
"Unbelievable," Long said. "From the national anthem, I knew that it was going to be a wild day. I never heard the entire stadium cheer throughout the national anthem. But I understand why now. Pretty cool."
Mills looked around, heard the crowd "screaming and going nuts," he said, and had to collect himself.
"It was a great experience," Mills said. "Going against that (Cincinnati) defensive line that was (darn) good last year and had a (darn) good game this game, we just had to settle ourselves down."
He did so, from start to finish.