It didn’t take long for Bears fans to feel discouraged by the performance of the first team offense or defense in Saturday’s 32-17 preseason loss to the Raiders.
To summarize, the Raiders’ offense received the opening kickoff, converted a 3rd-and-17 for a first down, and proceeded to execute a 10-play, 81-yard drive that culminated in a quarterback sneak by Jason Campbell for a 1-yard touchdown.
Conversely, on the ensuing first drive for the Bears, Matt Forte gained 2 yards off right guard before Jay Cutler was sacked two consecutive times for a loss of 20 yards, forcing the Bears to punt.
As a man of literature, I appreciate live foreshadowing when I see it. Let’s just hope that first 8-plus minutes against the Raiders was only an indication of things to come in the game, not the regular season.
In fairness to the Bears’ starting units, things did improve from there, but against a Raiders team that has been the running joke of the league for the last half-decade, it might have been too little too late to inspire any confidence.
The Raiders scored again on their second possession, a 43-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski. The Bears then stayed on the field one player longer than they did on their first drive as they went four-and-out on their second. Forte had a 12-yard gain on the first play, followed by an 8-yard gain on the second. Suddenly, it appeared the run game started to look improved. However, Forte was dropped for negative two yards on the third play and Cutler threw an incomplete pass to Johnny Knox on the last play of the drive.
On the Raiders’ third drive, things became about as bad as it seemed. Julius Peppers, the $20-million man, was injured on the first play of the drive while making the tackle. At first and second glance, it appeared reserve linebacker Kelvin Smith — yes, who? — jumped on the pile as the play was ending. My first thought was that some Joe Nobody who was trying to make a name for himself but could realistically be bagging groceries in a couple weeks just injured the Bears’ prized off-season addition. Thankfully, the injury wasn’t serious and Peppers returned shortly thereafter.
But the drive continued from there and the Raiders converted on a 40-yard screen pass to fullback Marcel Reece. After a play like that, it was of little assurance when Charles Tillman intercepted Campbell on the next play. My confidence in this defense was already shot by that point. It’s amazing what happens when the defensive line gets pressure on the quarterback, though, isn’t it? It can force a bad and poorly-timed throw into the waiting arms of your secondary.
That screen pass might have been the turning point of the game — at least for the starting units — because immediately following Tillman’s interception, Forte broke away for an 89-yard touchdown run on the Bears’ first and only play of their third possession. Maybe Cutler’s comments last week of the offense just missing one block from breaking big runs wasn’t just guff. The Bears got a few big ones on Forte’s run, including a crack back by Greg Olsen, good pulling blocks from Lance Louis and Olin Kreutz, and maybe the key block on the play was a good seal by tight end Kellen Davis.
Of course, while the play ran right off Davis’ hip, if any of those four blocks were missed, it would have been an ordinary play. Credit should be heaped upon Forte, too, for his patience and vision as well as the one cut he made on the second level to get past safety Michael Huff on his way to the end zone. With last year’s injuries, Forte not only might have been unable to make that cut but he certainly would have been caught from behind on the play.
The Bears’ defense forced a three-and-out on the next possession as they started applying more pressure on Campbell. The offense then took the field and Cutler led a 9-play drive that normally would have resulted in a Robbie Gould field goal, but with long-snapper Patrick Mannelly sitting out, backup snapper Desmond Clark misfired on the snap and Robbie Gould picked up the ball and threw it away. This botched attempt came after Clark bounced the snap to Brad Maynard on the failed extra point attempt after Forte’s touchdown.
Still, had Mannelly been playing, the game would have been tied at 10 at that point as the team was breathing new life.
Once again, the Bears’ defense forced another Raiders three-and-out on their next possession, but the Bears’ offense likewise followed that up with a three-and-out of their own.
The Raiders then went on a 10-play, 4-minute drive ending in a 43-yard Janikowski field goal. The drive was as frustrating as any other executed against the Bears that night because the Raiders converted on two third-and-longs on the drive, an area in which the Bears were among the league’s worst defenses last year and in which they were supposed to improve this year with the addition of Peppers and the return of Brian Urlacher. The Bears were getting pressure on Campbell on many plays, but failed in containment as Campbell stepped up and moved around in and out of the pocket to buy time for his receivers to get open.
The Bears had a chance to execute a 4-minute offense before the half, which is an opportunity you’d like to see in the preseason, but they went three-and-out and punted the ball away.
Fortunately, a Raiders fumble, recovered by Israel Idonije, gave the Bears the chance to run their 2-minute offense. Four plays later, Cutler rolled out of the pocket and found a wide-open Johnny Knox in the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown. The play was a broken one, but the fact that both Cutler and Knox were able to improvise is a good sign. That’s something you’d also like to see in the preseason because broken pass plays happen all the time in the regular season and it was clear that Cutler and his receivers weren’t always on the same page last year about what to do in those situations.
Rather than send out Robbie Gould for extra point practice for fear of another botched snap from Desmond Clark, the Bears elected to run another play and go for the two-point conversion. Chester Taylor took the handoff untouched into the end zone to give the Bears a 14-13 lead.
The half ended with another failed drive for each team.
At that point, I would have tolerated the Bears’ performance. I wouldn’t have liked it — and I didn’t — but under the circumstances, they started poorly and made a comeback, playing well in the second quarter to take a lead into halftime. Had this been a regular season game, I believe that the Bears would have expanded that lead in the second half and put away the Raiders.
But it’s discouraging the way the team played for most of the first quarter. What’s also discouraging is the Bears allowed Cutler to get sacked 5 times, this time at the fault of the offensive line, specifically left tackle Chris Williams. Williams looked as poorly against the speed rush as Orlando Pace did last year, and Williams is much younger and should be able to handle that better.
Between Cutler getting pummeled and the Bears’ defense failing to get off the field on third-and-long, my proverbial glass just got a little emptier Saturday night. I’m encouraged by the improved run game, Cutler’s confidence and rapport with his receivers, and the pressure that Peppers did apply on Campbell — which included a strip sack that the Raiders recovered. But I don’t think those positives outweighed the negatives, at least from a perception standpoint.
I won’t even get into the depth of the disaster that was the second half for the Bears. It’s clear that if any of the starters get hurt, the Bears don’t have a lot of depth to sustain production in the regular season. The Bears kept backup Dan LeFevour on a short leash after his poor outing last week. He made some nice touch throws including one down the sideline that Garrett Wolfe dropped, but also some poor ones, as most young quarterbacks do.
Like the first string defense, the Bears’ backups gave up a 10-play drive in the third quarter resulting in a Kyle Boller touchdown run. It’s bad enough when your manhood gets questioned by being pushed backwards down the field, but the icing on the cake is when a quarterback caps off the drive with a touchdown run. Raiders backup running back Michael Bennett preceded Boller’s touchdown with five straight runs of his own for 19 yards, an average of almost 4 yards a carry.
Wolfe and Kahlil Bell saw steady action in the second half. Wolfe carried the ball 6 times for 13 yards and Bell added 6 carries for 10 yards. If not for a Robbie Gould 25-yard field goal — with a successful Clark snap — the Bears would have been shut out in the second half.
You’d like to see improvement from one week to the next throughout both the preseason and regular season, but it’s hard to say whether the Bears took a step forward or backward against the Raiders. They played poorly in the first quarter, yes, but much better in the second quarter. So, if I had to compare it to something, I’d say their progress from Game 1 to Game 2 was much like a Devin Hester punt return — there were a lot of stutter steps, jukes and spin-moves, but mostly just lateral movement. In other words, they looked different than they did against the Chargers, but I’m not sure if they got anywhere.
Next week’s game against the Cardinals is the traditional “dress rehearsal” for the regular season. It’s the game in which the Bears starters should play into the third quarter. That’s the game we need to see the Bears playing their best football and eliminating mistakes and costly plays. Can they improve enough in a week to do it is the million-dollar question.