Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Steelers (9.20.09)

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Lost in the dramatics of Robbie Gould’s game-winning 44-yard field goal against the Pittsburgh Steelers is the fact that the Bears not only defeated the defending champions but avoided an 0-2 record that few teams in the past have ever rebounded from to make the playoffs.

Per Brad Biggs of the Sun-Times, since 2000, only 9 of the 78 teams that started 0-2 have gone on to play in the postseason. I’m not a big statistics guy, but there is some merit to beginning the season slowly and struggling to climb out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself. It’s even tougher to reach the playoffs when two of your division foes are among the top teams in the conference and will also be vying for a trip to the second season.

With the Packers’ stunning, 31-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field Sunday, the Bears have now pulled even with them in the standings, although the Packers remain ahead by virtue of their victory over the Bears in Week 1. The Vikings did everything in their power to give the Lions their first victory in more weeks than I care to count, but even they couldn’t play bad enough to lose. So, they remain one game up on the Bears and Packers in the NFC North.

A team can watch all the tape on an opponent they want, but it can never truly be completely sure of what it’s in store for until that opponent takes the field opposite them. I think the Bears found out how great a team the Steelers really are on the first two drives of the game.

The Bears began the game with the ball and went three-and-out against the league’s top defense. After a solid Brad Maynard punt that backed up the Steelers to their own 8-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger led his team on a 13-play, 92-yard drive that chewed up more than eight minutes off the clock and ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass. It’s a good thing football games are 60 minutes long, because that sequence of drives appeared to signal a long, difficult game ahead.

The Bears finally got things going in the second quarter when Jay Cutler led his offense on its own 13-play drive that ran off nearly six minutes and concluded with a 6-yard touchdown pass to backup tight end Kellen Davis to close out the first half.

In the second half, Roethlisberger answered back in the manner you’d expect from a two-time Super Bowl champion as he put his team ahead with a 2-yard touchdown run. Cutler responded early in the fourth quarter with a 9-play drive that ended with a 7-yard touchdown pass to rookie Johnny Knox.

Thanks to a pair of missed field goals by Pittsburgh’s kicker Jeff Reed, the Bears were in position to run down the clock and give Gould a chance to close out the game, which he did successfully.

I’m an optimist by nature, but I’m also a realist. So, even though I will take an ugly win over a pretty loss every time, there is still work to be done if the Bears are to keep pace with the Vikings and Packers.

What bothered me most about the Bears’ game Sunday was the ease at which the Steelers were able to move the ball. Granted, they have one of the league’s top quarterbacks and a pair of Super Bowl MVP wide receivers. Not to mention a pretty good tight end. But the Bears’ defense frequently found themselves out of their gaps, which resulted in gaping holes that the Pittsburgh running game exploited. They also missed many tackles, which has become commonplace the past few years. We’ve known since Lovie Smith arrived in 2004 that this defense was a bend-but-don’t-break system that gave up a lot of yards but not points. And in fairness, points are all that matter. But the more you allow an offense to push you backward and stay on the field, the more opportunities you give them to score.

I’m also a little disconcerted about the Bears’ run game. Again, I realize that the Bears have faced two 3-4 defenses — and two of the better units in the league — and that scheme is difficult to run against, but the Bears haven’t shown much to make you feel good that they’ll be able to step up their production on the ground.

After two games, the Seattle Seahawks — the Bears’ opponent this week — is ranked 27th against the run, allowing an average of 166.5 yards per game on the ground. And the Lions, whom the Bears face the following week, are dead last with a 172.1 yards-per-game average. In short, we should be able to see Matt Forte find some daylight over the next two weeks.

For those fans skeptical of the Bears’ receiving corps — and I’ve been one of them — you have to feel a little pleased with the performance of Knox. The rookie had 6 catches for 70 yards and a touchdown to lead the Bears. I’ve always believed that it’s a great quarterback that makes his receivers good, not the other way around, and I think we’re seeing that develop between Cutler and Knox.

I’m a little curious why the Bears removed Danieal Manning from his kickoff return duty and inserted Knox instead. Manning led the league in kick return average last season after taking over for Hester midway through the season. He’s one of the best in the league at doing it, but the Bears felt that with him starting at free safety, they could give him a break and Knox could be just as effective. Knox has great speed and he’s going to pick up yards quickly on returns, so I’m willing to give him a shot. But if he continues to play a pivotal role on offense, I’m not so sure I want him putting his body at risk on special teams. Besides, if Manning continues to struggle defensively — he bit on a play fake at the goal line and lost coverage against tight end Matt Spaeth, who scored the game’s first touchdown — then it would seem to make sense to place him back in the kickoff return role, at which he excels.

I got this far into the column, and no mention yet of the quarterback play. I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on how well Cutler played. After leading two long touchdown drives as well as the one that led to the game-winning field goal, he surely was in a better mood at his postgame conference than he was following last week’s 4-interception disaster. He finished with 236 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions on 27 of 38 passing. That’s a 71% completion percentage. In the rain, when the ball is slick. Against the league’s best defense. Cutler… good.

Finally, I want to commend right end Alex Brown for his role in Sunday’s victory. Brown, like Adewale Ogunleye did last week against the Packers, had two sacks and played solid throughout. He’s one of the most underrated defensive ends in the league and he keeps his mouth shut and goes to work every Sunday. Brown left the game with a sprained ankle, but he claims that he won’t miss any time, which is good news for a team that can’t afford any more injuries on defense.

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