Watching the game with my brother and two friends yesterday an interesting thing occurred in the final minute of the game. While standing up and cursing at the television when the Bears defense — who otherwise played a solid game — allowed Shaun Hill to lead a game-winning drive down the field in a minute and a half and throw an apparent touchdown to “Megatron” Calvin Johnson — who otherwise had a modest, uninspiring game — my friend asked a question that probably wasn’t asked by too many people around the country.
“Did he catch that?” he asked in doubt.
My response was, of course he caught it — but that’s because, with blood pressure rising, I stopped watching the TV closely after I saw Johnson’s two feet land as well as his backside. But my friend saw the ball trickle away which led to his initial doubt of the catch, and after just one replay, I knew it was not a touchdown because I knew the rule.
Of course, the game never should have come down to one play like that and it’s discouraging that the Bears nearly gave up the game-winning touchdown drive led by a quarterback who is just barely good enough to be in the league. But I’m not going to sit here and rip apart the Bears’ performance and say they didn’t deserve to win because, really, did the Lions deserve to win, either? Not a chance.
While checking the pulse of Bear nation this morning — reading the pointless drivel by Chicago sportswriters, surveying comments made by Bears fans online, and listening to the Score sports radio — I am shocked and alarmed at the amount of negativity out there, mostly regarding that one non-catch. I swear that more Bears fans are complaining about the non-catch than Lions fans. Many of these fans and sportswriters were probably praying for it to be ruled a touchdown so that Lovie Smith gets fired, but no such luck for them.
I can’t believe there’s not more discussion about what the Bears did well and less talk about them being “lucky” and how it was an “ugly” victory. I’m going to give the Bears’ defense their due. They gave up two touchdown drives, one following a Jay Cutler interception, but otherwise played stout defense. Brian Urlacher returned to action with a vengeance after missing all of last season with a broken wrist. He was all over the field making plays including registering a sack and eight tackles. Fellow linebacker Lance Briggs was also destructive as he led the team in tackles and also made perhaps the play of the game.
With 10:45 left in the game and the Lions backed up at their 9-yard line, Briggs shifted from the outside to the middle of the field. As soon as the ball was snapped, Briggs knifed through the offensive line untouched and nearly took the handoff from Hill. He lunged at Hill and stripped the ball from him while also recovering it at the 1-yard line. Unfortunately, what happened after what might have been the best play of the game might have been one of the worst calls of Smith’s coaching career, but I’ll get to that later.
Julius Peppers continued to earn his hefty contract after contributing well in the preseason, this time in a real game. Although he was credited by NFL.com with just one tackle, it was a big tackle. He sacked Matthew Stafford late in the first half and knocked the ball loose. Tommie Harris picked up the fumble and the Bears recorded three points off the turnover. Unfortunately, Urlacher had a mental lapse and got a personal foul penalty for hitting a Lions’ player after the play. That might have moved them out of range to score a touchdown because time was not on their side.
One Peppers tackle may not have tickled everybody’s fancy, but it was a huge play at a critical point in the game and it wasn’t too bad for a guy who was the focal point of the Lions’ protection efforts.
Not everybody had a great game, though. Safety Chris Harris, whom the Bears were counting on to help stabilize the secondary, had just one assisted tackle and he found himself on the sideline more often than he would have liked as the Bears worked rookie Major Wright into the game to play alongside Danieal Manning. I thought Manning, D.J. Moore, Pisa Tinoisamoa, and Zack Bowman all played good supporting roles that largely went unheralded. The fact that the Lions’ Johnson had just 4 catches for 45 yards was encouraging because he is the best receiver the Bears will face all year. Charles Tillman also contributed with an interception, but Johnson had fallen down on the route.
While the defense played well for most of the game, the offense had more bouts of erratic play. Still, scoring two touchdowns and recording 463 net yards in their first real action with Mike Martz’s complicated offense is a good sign. Jay Cutler had a terrific game completing 23 of 35 passes (65.7%) for 372 yards and 2 touchdowns. Unfortunately, he tried to force a pass into triple coverage that was deflected twice and intercepted, but one small blotch on his report card won’t spoil the rest of his performance.
Cutler’s top target was running back Matt Forte, who played the role well that Marshall Faulk excelled at in St. Louis. Forte caught 7 passes for 151 yards and 2 touchdowns, including an 89-yard screen pass and the go-ahead 28-yard reception. Cutler also hooked up with Devin Aromashodu 5 times for 71 yards, Johnny Knox 3 times for 52 yards, Chester Taylor 3 times for 44 yards, and Greg Olsen 4 times for 37 yards. Devin Hester had just one catch for 17 yards.
While the passing game looked sharp, the run game picked up where it left off last year. Forte had 50 yards on 17 carries (2.9 average) and Taylor carried the ball 9 times for 29 yards (3.2). Cutler also ran the ball 5 times for 22 yards. Overall, I was pleased with the balance of the offense as Martz went to the running game early and the Bears finished with 31 carries compared to Cutler’s 35 pass attempts. Many were skeptical whether Martz would throw too much and neglect the run game, something that has been a criticism of his throughout his career, but the first game was called well.
The Bears’ struggles in the run game bring up the most controversial call of the day, and I’m not talking about Johnson’s non-catch in the end zone at the end of the game. Following Briggs’ sack and forced fumble early in the fourth quarter, the Bears had first and goal at the 1-yard line and were trailing by just one point. Surely the Bears were about to take the lead, right?
Well, on four straight plays, the Bears failed to gain a yard and they walked away without points. Although I’m not as critical of Smith as most Bears fans are, I do have to fault him for not kicking the field goal on fourth down to take a 16-14 lead. Still, I’m more frustrated with two other things that occurred on that sequence of plays. One, that Martz did not call a quarterback sneak with his 6-foot-3, 233-pound quarterback. Two, that the offensive line could not get enough push or open enough of a crease for Forte to gain one yard.
As soon as the Bears broke the huddle on first down, I said to my brother and friends, “Let Cutler take it in himself!” Then again, I’m just a fan and an analyst, not a coach. But when you hand the ball off, you give the defensive enough time to penetrate the gaps and push the offensive line backward. When you run a sneak, the defensive line doesn’t have that time.
There’s not much to discuss about the special teams. Kick coverage was a lot better than we saw in the preseason, although that was to be expected because Dave Toub didn’t have as many moving pieces. Manning had just just 3 kickoff returns and a 23-yard average. Hester had 5 punt returns with a 3-yard average. Clearly, the blocking needs to improve.
As much as I was unhappy during the game, and this goes back to my playing days and the fact that I’m a perfectionist and always demand more, I’m not overall displeased with the Bears’ performance yesterday. I have hints of frustration at the Bears’ defense for their performance during the last minute and a half of the game when they were on their heels and nearly gave up the game-winning touchdown, but the other 58 1/2 minutes were good. The offense was encouraging, especially on the opening drive, but they need to clean up the turnovers. The Bears fumbled the ball four times and lost three of them and Cutler threw a pick. It’s difficult to win games in which you lose the turnover battle. They need to clean that up and the offensive line also needs to give a better effort in the run game.
At the end of the day, the Bears have a win and their season just shortened by one game. They head to Dallas next week, a place that is difficult to play, but face a Cowboys team that has been struggling the past month (if you count the meaningless preseason; and if Bears fans can count the poor Bears performance in the preseason, then they have to count the poor Cowboys performance there, too). It’s not going to be an easy game and that defense scares me, but anything is possible.