I apologize for the tardiness of this week’s Monday Morning Quarterback. But the extra time has allowed me to formulate my thoughts more concisely, plus, it has given me some more topics to discuss after having listened to Bears talk on the radio all day.
Lovie Smith likes to dissect a football season into quarters and the Bears have just completed the first quarter with a solid, 3-1 record. That’s not only a terrific accomplishment, but a necessary one with two other teams in their division playing just as well. Now, if only the Bears can begin games as well as they’ve started the season, they’ll be in great shape the rest of the way.
My biggest complaint with not only the Lions game but with the Bears all season has been how slowly they’ve started games. Theoretically, you want to be playing your best football at the end of games and at the end of the season, too. But I fear that one of these weeks — probably against a team like the Vikings, Ravens, and maybe even the Bengals or 49ers — a slow start might mean a more difficult task at coming from behind. I guess if you’re equipped with a quarterback like Jay Cutler, though, it’s not the end of the world.
How about Cutler’s performance, by the way? The guy continues to produce when everybody knows the Bears will be putting the ball in the air due to a deficiency in the run game. Even when he has a low yardage game — he had just 141 passing yards against the Lions — he still puts up solid numbers with 2 passing touchdowns and 1 rushing touchdown on 64% passing. The guy is efficient and is playing within the system, not forcing things too much and risking interceptions like he did against the Packers.
I want to briefly discuss the rushing touchdown that has divided many observers. Some feel it wasn’t necessary to leap into the end zone and risk his body against the Detroit Lions in the fourth game of the season. Others commend him on his “toughness” and applaud his decision to risk his body for the good of the team. I’m in the middle somewhere but tend to side with the latter. Cutler was in a no-win situation with his critics. He was going to be criticized either way. If he had decided to slide feet-first to avoid contact or run out of bounds at the 1-yard line, think of how many Bears fans or members of the Chicago media would have questioned his toughness and called him a sissy for running out of bounds. At least this way, he got points out of it. The ideal scenario would be that those situations don’t arise too often the remainder of the season.
One of the reasons why Cutler even found himself in such a situation is that the running game is still a work in progress. Sure, Matt Forte scampered 61 yards early and later broke off a 37-yard touchdown run — his first and last carries of the game, respectively. With statistics like that, though, he should have finished with 138 yards and not the 121 yards that he did. Many of you may be scratching your head and saying, “Why is 17 yards that big a difference?” The answer is that if you take away those two carries that produced 98 yards for him, he would have finished with just 23 yards on 10 carries. That’s 2.3 yards per carry. Which means, if you would have given him 17 more yards on those 10 carries, that would have been a 4.0 yards-per-carry average, which is the ideal number you’d like from your running back.
In short, total rushing yards are not indicative of the success of a run game. Yards per carry — and to a greater extent, the median number, which would have been one of his 3-yard carries — is what defines a run game.
It’s still early in the season, which means the Bears will have plenty of time to work on their run game, as the Pittsburgh Steelers did last year en route to the Super Bowl. The Bears have three new starters on their offensive line, so it takes time to jell and work on their blocking schemes.
Speaking of time, the bye week came in just the right situation as the Bears have some injuries — specifically ones to Devin Hester, Pisa Tinoisamoa, and Johnny Knox — that could use time to heal before they have a showdown with the Falcons in two weeks. Plus, that extra time will help the defense figure out why they are being shredded by offenses and why it takes so long for them to get anything going.
Listening to the radio after the game Sunday, special teams coordinator Dave Toub was asked about time off for the coaching staff due to the impending bye week, but his answer intrigued me. Toub said the coaching staff would get to work immediately on a game plan for the Falcons. I was happy to hear that because although the Falcons, in my estimation, are overrated, they’re still a good football team and have home field advantage.
I don’t think enough can be said about Toub’s unit on Sunday. For starters, how about Brad Maynard’s coffin corner punting? All four of Maynard’s punts landed inside the 20-yard line at the 6, 2, 17, and 19, respectively. Unfortunately, the best of those punts couldn’t help the defense prevent the Lions from driving 98 yards for a touchdown. But his ability to place his punts is a huge help for field position.
Toub’s special teams were also excellent in the return game. Even with injuries to kick returner Johnny Knox — whose amazing display of speed helped the Bears break open the game following his 102-yard kickoff return to open the second half — and punt returner Devin Hester, who had one return of 24 yards, the Bears did not drop off. Danieal Manning filled in for Knox and returned his only attempt 43 yards. Earl Bennett took over the punt return duties and had 4 returns for a 15-yard average.
Defensively, after a slow first half, it was good to see the unit pick up the pressure in the second half. Adewale Ogunleye continues to have a solid contract year as he picked up 2.5 sacks. Nick Roach and Israel Idonije each added one and Alex Brown contributed a half-sack and a couple tackles for loss. Tommie Harris, although not showing up much on the stat sheet with just one tackle, intercepted a pass that was thrown right to him after Matthew Stafford was under heavy pressure. Danieal Manning was credited with 9 tackles, according to NFL.com, to lead the Bears.
The underlying hero, of course, was Lance Briggs, who appears to be well on his way to his fifth-straight Pro Bowl. The guy continues to make plays that make you go, “Wow,” and, as some radio talk show hosts were discussing today, there isn’t any reason why he can’t be in the team photo of all-time Bears greats at the linebacker position. Just because he isn’t on the long list of great middle linebackers, doesn’t mean he can’t be mentioned in the same breath as the other greats, much like Brian Urlacher has this decade.
The Bears’ receiving corps continued to come up big for Cutler as all four active receivers caught passes. It was good to see Desmond Clark back and his addition on the field should open things up more. Greg Olsen continues to struggle to have that “break out” season as he finished with just one catch, a 1-yard touchdown reception.
The Bears are in good position after four weeks and could find themselves in a 3-way tie for first if the Packers beat the Vikings tonight, or in sole possession of second place if the Vikings should win. I don’t want to take anything away from their schedule, because the Packers and Steelers are good teams, but the Bears will now hit a rough stretch of their schedule with road games against Atlanta, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Minnesota and home contests against Arizona and Philadelphia in the next 7 weeks. The only game in that time span that makes you say, “They should pound this team,” is a Nov. 1 meeting against the lowly Browns. But the Bears can’t fall into a trap that week.
Ever since last season’s disappointing — deflating, really — loss to the Falcons in Atlanta, in which Matt Ryan helped engineer a comeback with 11 seconds remaining, the Bears — and Bears fans — have been itching for payback.
In two weeks, we’ll see just how good these Bears are and if payback can come true.