Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Vikings (11.14.10)

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Thanks to a dominant effort from the Bears defense, a special performance from Devin Hester and the special teams, and a balanced offensive attack, the Bears registered their most complete game of the season in wiping out division rival Minnesota, 27-13, on Sunday.

Let’s be clear that Minnesota is not a bad team. They have some internal affairs — or “drama” if you will — such as disdain for their head coach, but they have as much talent as most teams in the league. And for you nitpickers out there, yes, they played without receivers Sidney Rice and Bernard Berrian.

But they got their butts kicked by the Bears and I don’t think those receivers would have mattered that much.

Not enough can be said about the performance of Jay Cutler yesterday. He’s received his criticism this season — and rightfully so at times — but he played an excellent game registering 237 yards and three touchdowns while completing 22 of 35 passes. A few of his throws were questionable, including one stupid pass that he tried to force to Johnny Knox in the end zone that was intercepted, but he made smart decisions throughout the game. He had one other interception that could be pinned on Knox, that bounced off the receiver’s hands.

While praising Cutler, we also have to credit the offensive line for giving its best effort and playing about as well as talent could dictate. They protected Cutler well, for the most part, and only allowed one sack, which Jared Allen registered in the third quarter. Right tackle J’Marcus Webb was beat early and often by Ray Edwards, but that’s when Cutler’s awareness and mobility kicked in.

For those who like to criticize Cutler’s pocket awareness, what do you think now? He can avoid the pass rush when one guy breaks through and maybe even two. But when the pocket completely collapses due to a breakdown from multiple blockers in front of him, he’s not going to escape, just as most other quarterbacks would not.

A lot of credit goes to offensive coordinator Mike Martz, too, for his game plan. A week ago, the Bears ran the ball more than 25 times because the Bills had the worst run defense in the league. Despite the fact that Minnesota had the No. 6 run defense before this game, Martz was not afraid to stick to the run. Matt Forte and Chester Taylor combined for 32 attempts for 102 yards. It only amounted to 3.1 yards per carry, but it was effective.

When the Bears did elect to throw the ball, Cutler spread it around the field to nine different receivers, which was good to see. Knox was his preferred target and he stepped up big after causing Cutler’s first interception by not hauling in the pass that hit his hands. Knox finished with five catches for 90 yards. Perhaps his biggest catch came late in the second quarter when the Bears were backed up for a first and 25 after a chop block penalty. Cutler found Knox after rolling out of the pocket for an 18-yard gain. Four plays later, Cutler hit Devin Hester on a crossing route for a 19-yard touchdown. Hester did a great job of extending the ball over the goal line while diving for the end zone.

Hester’s greatest contribution to the victory came through special teams, where the Bears surprised the public by placing Hester back on kickoff return duty. Hester had two kickoff returns, the first he returned 32 yards to the 37-yard-line and the second he returned 68 yards to Minnesota’s 34-yard-line. He also maintained his punt return duties and returned one for 42 yards down the sideline. The fact that he had such a long return while being confined to a tight area along the sideline, sidestepping and shaking tacklers, was extremely impressive.

Hester wasn’t the only Bear to play well on special teams. When the Vikings kicked off short to avoid kicking to Hester, Rashied Davis fielded the ball on the fly and returned it 32 yards to midfield to set the Bears up with great field position. The Bears’ kick coverage was pretty good for the most part, too. The Vikings’ Percy Harvin, who was elected to the Pro Bowl last year but was replaced by Knox because Harvin had an injury, was held to a 25-yard average on six returns.

Although the offense and special teams played well, it was the defense that deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Sunday’s victory. Following his career-high 446 passing yards last week against Arizona, Brett Favre had a miserable outing against the Bears while completing 18 of 31 passes for just 170 yards and a touchdown. He accounted for four Vikings turnovers, though, by throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble.

The Bears’ run defense — ranked No. 3 prior to the game — moved up a slot to No. 2 after holding the league’s most dominant running back, Adrian Peterson, to just 51 yards on 17 carries. What’s even more impressive is that 20 of Peterson’s yards came on one run, which means the Bears held him to 31 yards on the 16 other carries, a 1.9 average.

Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, the two most important cogs in the Bears’ run defense this season, led the charge with seven and five tackles, respectively. Briggs also had one of Favre’s three interceptions. D.J. Moore and Chris Harris had the other two. Tim Jennings continued his solid tackling from the cornerback position as he finished third with five tackles. Julius Peppers added four tackles and applied pressure on Favre on many passing plays. Henry Melton was the one that stripped Favre and forced a fumble, which Tommie Harris recovered. The fact that Charles Tillman, Israel Idonije, and Danieal Manning — three defenders who have made solid contributions this season — had relatively quiet games speaks volumes about the balance of production this defense has. It’s good to have different players stepping up and making plays each week.

The Bears defense played so stout that they allowed just one touchdown in this game. Ironically, it’s both disappointing and forgivable that the touchdown came on broken coverage between Jennings and Harris. Broken coverage is something that can be corrected and avoided in the future, so that’s why it’s forgivable. Still, the 13 points allowed is better than the season average for the No. 1 scoring defense in the league, the Packers, who average 15.9 points allowed.

The biggest key to this game had to be third down production. The Bears’ offense picked up first downs on 11 third down attempts. The defense, meanwhile, was able to get off the field on third downs and stay fresh throughout the game.

The Bears have a short week of practice before they head to Miami for a Thursday night matchup with the Dolphins. Miami, too, was victorious on Sunday and will also have a short week of preparation, so there is no benefit for either team. What might help out the Bears is that the Dolphins have injuries at quarterback, where they were down to their third-string quarterback Sunday after injuries to Chad Pennington and Chad Henne, and they also could be without left tackle Jake Long, one of the best in the league at his position.

With criticisms abound, the Bears stepped up big time and won a game they sorely needed and now find themselves tied with the Packers at 6-3 — and ahead of them by virtue of their Week 3 victory over them. Can they rally together again in a short time frame to win a big road game in prime time in front of a national audience?

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