Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Falcons (10.18.09)

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If there is one positive that can be taken from the loss to the Falcons, it’s that the Bears still had a chance to win a turnover- and mistake-filled game. The Bears now have two losses on the season, and in both games they either had the lead or were tied late in the fourth quarter after playing badly all game.

That’s of little comfort to a team trying to hang around in the playoff race, but it’s a fact that can’t be ignored. The football is an odd-shaped ball. It can take funny bounces sometimes and you can win a game against a better team if you keep it close at the end.

Why does a game in which you correctly predict the winner still sting when your prediction is validated? I knew the Bears were going to lose to the Falcons, just like I was sure they’d lose to the Packers in Week 1. That didn’t stop me from being disappointed by what I saw on the field and the score at the end of the game. I sound like a parent who tells his child “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose as long as you try your best.” Of course, I’ll take an ugly victory before I accept a loss, but if the Bears do lose, I want them to lose while playing a good game against a better football team. Not because they shoot themselves in the foot.

All three phases of the Bears failed on Sunday night, of this I’m sure. I’m going to start with the one that performed the worst, the one that has struggled all season, the one that I knew would struggle against Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense.

Just like I knew the Bears would lose but it stung anyway, I knew the Bears’ pass defense would struggle to cover the Falcons’ weapons, but I was frustrated by the way it happened.

It’s not as if the Bears blanketed the field well and Ryan threw some unbelievable passes in tight coverage. He did that, yes, but the Bears’ defense also made some terrible mental mistakes and were often caught out of position. I can’t be too hard on Nick Roach because he’s the third player to line up at middle linebacker for the Bears. Bottom line, he shouldn’t be in there, but No. 54 is not available this season. Regardless, Roach is the signal caller in there and he certainly struggled getting the guys lined up correctly.

Zack Bowman, who has not been playing well, picked off a Ryan pass that was overthrown, then fumbled it away, but it was fortunately recovered by a teammate. How ironic is it that the man Bowman replaced in the lineup, Nathan Vasher, did the exact same thing later in the game?

The defensive line did not have a good game by any means. The Falcons did not allow a sack in their three previous games, so their offensive line has been playing great. But the Bears couldn’t generate any pressure with their front four and only hurried Ryan on blitzes.

I think what bothered me most about the defense was that the Falcons came out in a no-huddle offense in the second quarter and the Bears were flat out unprepared for it. Lovie Smith admitted as much at halftime to NBC’s Andrea Kremer. How you can’t be prepared for such a move, especially coming out of the bye week, is unexplainable. That second quarter no-huddle offense wound up being the turning point in the game because the Bears never looked the same after that.

Moving to offense, I still have a bitter taste in my mouth about the turnovers in the red zone. That’s at least 6 points, and maybe 14, that were lost. Jay Cutler began the game with a drive- and momentum-killing interception on the Bears’ first possession. Later, Matt Forte fumbled the ball away at the goal line that the Falcons pounced on. This turnover came just one play after Forte again fumbled — but recovered — while trying to leap over the pile into the end zone.

The offensive line had a miserable game. Olin Kreutz didn’t have a good game, Frank Omiyale continued to struggle, and Orlando Pace had a costly false start penalty at a critical time. That’s not fair to Pace, though, because he did a terrific job all game containing John Abraham.

I’m nervous that Cutler is one hit away from joining Brian Urlacher on IR. Cutler took some hits — some of them awkward — and got bruised and battered all game. The offensive line might not keep him upright all season and we might not even get a chance to see if he can lead the Bears to the playoffs.

Aside from its struggles in the passing game, the Bears got absolutely nothing going with the run. All you need to know about the performance of the run game last night was that Cutler, not Forte, led the team with 34 yards rushing. Forte’s line? 15 carries for 23 yards, a 1.5 average.

It’s funny that the Bears’ receivers were considered the weakest position on the team all off-season and they have performed as one of, if not the most consistent unit on the team this season. Devin Hester had 6 catches for 83 yards, Earl Bennett had 4 receptions for 57 yards, and Johnny Knox caught 3 balls for 34 yards and a touchdown. Greg Olsen contributed with 5 catches for 57 yards and a touchdown and Desmond Clark had 3 catches for 32 yards. At least Forte contributed in the passing game with 5 receptions for 37 yards.

In all, not a bad performance through the air. But that’s what happens when you’re playing from behind. It’s at least a good sign that the Bears were able to move the ball through the air successfully, even when the defense knows its coming. And Cutler delivered some great throws under pressure and even threaded a crucial third down pass to Desmond Clark at the 1-yard line to get a first down. Great throw, great catch.

Finally, I have to discuss the special teams. We give them credit when they do well, so we have to chide them when they do bad, as they did last night.

I have nothing bad to say about Brad Maynard, who continued to pin the opposition inside the 20. Robbie Gould didn’t have any field goal opportunities, but his kickoffs weren’t as good as they could have been. Gould chose to sacrifice height for distance, which means he was able to put a few kickoffs into the end zone, but they were line drives that didn’t leave his coverage team much time to get down the field. As a result, the kickoff coverage gave up several long returns, including the momentum-breaking 62-yard return on the ensuing kickoff after the Bears tied the game at 14. The Falcons marched right down the short field and scored the go-ahead — and game-winning — touchdown.

Knox and Hester did have their moments returning kicks and punts, respectively. Knox did have a 33-yard return and Hester nearly broke the first punt return for a touchdown before barely getting tripped up.

What’s next for the Bears is a date with the much-improved Cincinnati Bengals on the road. They have a better defense this year and a solid run game behind the resurgent Cedric Benson. I know that many Bears defenders have revenge on their mind, but revenge didn’t do so well for them this week. (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself taking a jab at the focus on last year’s Falcons game that many Bears players had.)

Defenders will be eager to get their licks in on Benson, though, but they can’t lose sight of Carson Palmer and the passing game. And not just because Palmer is a great quarterback, but because this Bears pass defense can’t lose sight of any quarterback at this point.

The Bears, by no means, are out of the playoff race, but with the Vikings appearing to be running away with the division, the Bears haven’t been doing themselves any favors with tiebreakers. They have two conference losses, a division loss, and both of those defeats came to teams they’ll be competing with for a wild card spot — the Packers and Falcons.

The sad fact is that the Bears will be struggling all season against the pass. Even with Urlacher defending the deep middle, the Bears would struggle in this department.

The encouraging sign is that both losses were close games late and neither the Packers nor Falcons were clearly better than the Bears. All you can ask for with a quarterback like Cutler is a chance to win the game. Then you just have to execute.

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