Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Bills (11.07.10)

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When the Bears squeaked by the Bills with a 22-19 victory Sunday afternoon in Toronto, there was a big sigh of relief from many Bears fans. I suppose there also should have been a lot of head scratching, too.

Even though they survived a close game with a winless Buffalo team, they also got back to playing a familiar brand of football where they relied more on defense and special teams and focused on taking care of the football rather than taking risks on offense. It makes one wonder that if they had taken this same game plan and used it in their two home losses against Seattle and Washington, would they in fact be 7-1 right now as opposed to 5-3? It’s quite likely.

The Bears defense generated three turnovers by intercepting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick twice and recovering a Fred Jackson fumble. Israel Idonije blocked a Rian Lindell extra point to prevent Buffalo from tying the game at 14 in the third quarter. The Bills then were forced to go for a two-point conversion the next time they scored, but failed, keeping the score within a touchdown at 19-14. The Bears then scored and converted on their two-point try to take a three-point lead. Needless to say, Idonije’s block changed the game.

Offensively, the Bears recognized the need to be more balanced after two, pass-heavy game plans the past two games. The Bears ran the ball 31 times — including Jay Cutler’s five scrambles — and passed it 30 times. They couldn’t possibly have been more balanced than that. Matt Forte rushed for 49 yards on 14 carries and Chester Taylor gained just 13 yards on 10 attempts, but scored on a one-yard touchdown run, the first goal line touchdown of the season for the offense. On cue, the large contingent of Bears fans in the audience gave an exaggerated, enthusiastic mock ovation to signify their frustration with the offense’s goal line troubles this season.

Although Forte and Taylor had just a 2.5 yard average, it was important that Mike Martz didn’t stray from the game plan and that he continued to feed them the ball. The commitment to the run game and the fact that the offensive line did as well a job as they have all season protecting Cutler, allowed the passing game to find some holes. You often hear about the running game “keeping defenses honest” and there’s definitely some truth to that. Just the threat of running the ball can sometimes be enough to set up some passing plays.

And speaking about the offensive line, the return of veteran Roberto Garza to right guard certainly helped the Bears protect Cutler. The line allowed just one sack all game, although it led to a fumble, but it kept Cutler healthy and focused more on completing passes downfield than defensive linemen who wanted to take his head off. The line also gave Cutler enough time to set his feet and feel the pressure, allowing him to scramble for a couple first downs and make plays by rolling out of the pocket. Critics have claimed that Cutler’s pocket presence is overrated but I disagree with them. When there are defensive linemen in his lap before he even completes his dropback, it’s unrealistic to expect him to escape the pocket that quickly. He needs time to at least set his feet and scan the field before feeling the pressure and evading it. That’s exactly what he got in the Bills game. Plus, he was able to dump the ball off quickly in the face of instant pressure on a number of plays Sunday.

Earl Bennett quietly has been having a good season, or at least a good past few weeks. Bennett caught four passes for 52 yards and a touchdown, the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. Two of his other three catches were for first downs and the third one was a 14-yard gain on second-and-17. He’s basically become what everybody thought he’d be when he was drafted by the Bears in the third round of the 2008 draft: a possession receiver with good hands who has become a reliable target in key situations. It’s clear that the old Vanderbilt connection between Cutler and Bennett has helped their rapport this season and could lead to big things down the road.

Cornerback Tim Jennings has continued to be a pleasant surprise. Although small in stature, he’s played a lot bigger. His open-field tackling has been a treat and he’s made numerous pass breakups, some in key situations. Jennings led the team with nine tackles against the Bills and also made a timely fourth-quarter interception that led to Bennett’s go-ahead touchdown.

Another key to the Bears’ victory Sunday was the return of Lance Briggs, who missed time the past two games due to an ankle injury. Thanks to the bye week, Briggs had two weeks to rest his ankle and was a factor against the Bills, including on the Bills’ first two plays from scrimmage. Briggs stuffed running back Fred Jackson for no gain on first down and then stopped him behind the line of scrimmage — with the help of Julius Peppers — for a two-yard loss on the next play. Thanks to those two plays, it set up a third and long which led to a three and out. Needless to say, Briggs needs to be healthy the rest of the season if the Bears are going to make a playoff push.

Aside from Idonije’s blocked extra point, the special teams played a fair game. Robbie Gould missed a 42-yard field goal in the second quarter and also sent a kickoff out of bounds. Brad Maynard had a 40-yard average on his four punts and also came up brilliantly on a punt late in the game, pinning the Bills on their own one-yard line with just a minute to play. Most importantly, the coverage teams didn’t allow any big returns. Bills punt returner Roscoe Parrish had just one return for six yards and Gould had three touchbacks, preventing any kickoff returns from C.J. Spiller.

Other performances of note include Charles Tillman’s forced fumble, Chris Harris’ game-clinching interception, and the half-sack apiece from Tommie Harris — I mean, No. 91 — and Idonije. Offensively, Greg Olsen caught a touchdown pass and finished with three catches for 29 yards.

Although I didn’t leave Sunday with a good feeling that the Bears were playoff-bound, I was able to put it into perspective. The Bears are just a half-game behind the Packers in the North and still have the tiebreaker over them. Those two conference losses to the Seahawks and Redskins will hurt but I don’t think the Seahawks will win as many games as the Bears. Only six other teams have as many wins as the Bears do, so they’re still in the hunt. Some may be concerned that the Bears haven’t played well enough, but I ask what other teams have? Aside from the Giants and Packers, all other NFC teams have had their flaws recently.

The biggest test will come next week against the Vikings, who erased a two-touchdown deficit at home against the Cardinals to win in overtime. Minnesota is 0-4 on the road this year, but then again, the Bears are only 2-2 at home. These are not the same big, bad Vikings of the past few years, especially not like last year’s team. A win is possible and would be a huge boost to their playoff hopes. A loss would be devastating, but not season-ending.

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