Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Lions (10.10.11)

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Monday night’s 24-13 loss to the Lions confirmed what many of us fear the Bears have become. They’re old, tired, undermanned and overmatched. Lovie Smith’s defensive system has run its course in this league and Mike Martz’s offense never had a chance from the moment he became coordinator.

Each and every week the Bears appear to be going through the motions on the football field like any John Doe office worker who reports to a job he hates because he needs the paycheck to survive. The offense has grown weary and intimidated and is expecting to screw up in due time while the defense lacks the confidence and trust in a system that keeps them on the field too long and gives up far too many yards even in the best of circumstances. What’s worse is that you can see, plain as day, the difference in game speed between the Bears and any of their opponents. While other teams are playing at 100% speed, the Bears look as though they’re going 75-80%.

Before we dive into the chasm of unmistakable errors and miscues by the Bears against the Lions Monday night, let’s take a moment to point out the good we saw.

Jay Cutler had a great performance considering the circumstances. He completed 28 of 38 passes (73.6%), many of which were made while on the run while escaping pressure from the Lions’ pass rush. In the past few games, we’ve seen Cutler — who readily admitted this — get antsy in the pocket because of how much he’s gotten sacked as a Bear and how short his internal clock has become. While Cutler was still sacked three times against the Lions, he showed a lot of poise and found the open receiver on many plays that looked doomed. Cutler finished with 249 passing yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

Another positive was the Bears’ run game. Matt Forte had a second successful week by rushing 22 times for 116 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per attempt. His longest carry was 23 yards, which means it wasn’t as if his numbers were inflated from one long run.

Now comes the bad news. Statistics can be deceiving and the Bears’ 359 net yards belied their problems on offense. On their first series, the Bears committed three false start penalties, one by Kellen Davis, one by Chris Williams, and one by J’Marcus Webb. In a matter of minutes, the Bears had more false starts (3) than offensive plays (2). I don’t care if you’re the best offense in football, third-and-long situations are difficult to convert and the offensive line didn’t do the team any favors.

I also wonder about some of the decisions made by the coaching staff last night, two of which occurred in a back-to-back sequence. Facing a fourth-and-one situation from Detroit’s 26-yard line — well within Robbie Gould’s range — the Bears elected to go for the first down rather than attempt the field goal. That was mistake No. 1. Why would a team with a bad offensive line try to run the ball against a stout defensive line instead of taking points on the road?

Forte ran off left tackle for no gain, but that’s when questionable decision No. 2 occurred. Smith, as has been a recurring problem for him, made an ill-advised challenge, disputing the spot of the ball. First of all, it’s never a good idea to challenge the spot of a ball. Those plays are rarely ever overturned because there are too many bodies blocking the view and the camera angle has to be almost perfect. Secondly, the referee said the ruling on the field was “confirmed,” which means that there was visual evidence that showed Forte was indeed short of the marker. When a referee says a play “stands,” that means there was not enough evidence to overturn the call. My question is, if there was visual evidence that Forte was stopped short, who was up in the booth for the Bears that told Smith it was a good idea to challenge the play? And third, the failed challenge cost the Bears their third timeout of the half — before the end of the first quarter.

With Cutler under duress for most of the night, he had to resort to checkdown passes and Dane Sanzenbacher was his top target. Sanzenbacher caught six passes for 64 yards. That’s right, the Bears’ sixth receiver led the team in receptions while their fifth receiver, Sam Hurd, hauled in four passes for 50 yards. There’s something wrong with that picture. Cutler spread the ball around nicely, completing passes to 10 different receivers, but the Bears do not have a receiver on their roster who could start for any other team in the league. That’s a problem.

They also probably lack an offensive lineman who could start on any other team in the league. At least, none that are healthy. Gabe Carimi played in a little more than one game and looks like he could be a solid contributor, but even if he does avoid the injury bug throughout his career, he’s just one-fifth of the puzzle. Where’s the help?

I facetiously tweeted during last night’s madness that the solution to the Bears’ offensive line woes would be to sign the best five practice squad offensive linemen in the league and the Bears will have upgraded their line. It was a joke, but that collection of five couldn’t possibly be that much worse than the Bears’ current starters.

It’s only natural to pile on to the offense because that side of the ball has been so bad for so long, but now it’s the defense’s turn.

We’ll start with the defensive line, who cannot generate a pass rush. Julius Peppers, the highly-paid freak of nature, left Monday night’s game with an injury. He eventually returned, but one wouldn’t have noticed given how he was taken out of the game by an average offensive tackle, 34-year-old Jeff Backus. Israel Idonije had the lone sack for the Bears defense, but it was a coverage sack that occurred when the Lions were looking for a huge play down the field.

The Henry Melton experiment is done. Matt Toeaina is a high-motor overachiever, and I use that word lightly because he hasn’t achieved anything up to this point. I was high on Amobi Okoye at the beginning of the season, but I now realize I may have been high on something else to have held that view. The new No. 91 is playing about as well as Tommie Harris. The line is bad and there’s not much hope for the future. The Bears will never do it, but I would insert rookie second-round draft pick Stephen Paea into the mix. See what you have in him because nobody else is stepping up and playing.

Things aren’t much better on the second level. Lance Briggs, anytime you want to show up and play like a six-time Pro Bowler, be my guest. Stop reading comic books in between demanding more money or a trade and start making plays. Brian Urlacher is probably having the best season of any Bears defender but even he is not without his flaws. And I don’t even know who is playing strong-side linebacker (I do, but I’m just making a point).

What is going on in the secondary? The Bears were fortunate last season to have their starting safeties healthy for the entire season. After years of a revolving door at the position, the Bears finally had stability and it helped get them to the playoffs in 2010. Now, it’s back to the carousel.

I’ve heard a few Bears analysts, one of whom is an “expert” on WSCR 670 The Score, say that the Bears desperately needed Chris Harris back in the lineup because even though he’s not as physically gifted, he’s at least intelligent enough to know where to line up and not get beat deep.

Really? Well, the “intelligent” Harris, who can’t seem to lay off his Twitter account, got beat deep by Lions receiver Calvin Johnson for a 73-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. For those who want to argue that Johnson is the best receiver in the league, the point is that Harris’ job was to keep everything in front of him and he failed at that core principle.

At one point in the game, one of ESPN’s color commentators, either Ron Jaworski or Jon Gruden — and it doesn’t matter which one; they might as well share a brain — noted that the Bears’ safeties were playing a little deeper than usual after that Johnson touchdown and that we could be sure “they won’t get beat deep again.” My response: Really? What makes you so sure about that? What have you seen from these safeties that tells you they learn from their mistakes and make sure they are isolated incidents?

The Bears let Danieal Manning walk in free agency because they didn’t want to overpay him. Wise choice. Manning is a player without a position. But what was their backup plan? Major Wright, the third-round draft pick from a year ago? He has failed miserably in both the run and pass aspects of the job and is now relegated to second string.

The team brought in Brandon Meriweather, a two-time Pro Bowler with the New England Patriots. Meriweather doesn’t seem to like to conform to a scheme and prefers to freelance out on the field. It’s as if Meriweather would rather knock a receiver out of the game and get fined for an illegal hit than to cover that player and prevent him from catching the ball in the first place. Patriots coach Bill Belichick may be an arrogant, crabby man, but the guy knows what he’s doing and wouldn’t have gotten rid of a player who could still do great things for his team.

The Bears’ only other move at safety was drafting Chris Conte in the third round of this year’s draft. Conte, like Craig Steltz, will never be more than a glorified special teams player. If I’m wrong about him in the future, I’ll admit it. But it was a bad selection and showed neglect on the organization’s part in addressing the holes at safety.

For the past couple years now there has been a movement from fans and analysts alike to move Charles Tillman from cornerback to free safety, where he could probably be among the best in the league. That suggestion has always drawn pushback from the Bears organization because Tillman has been the best cornerback on the team and they need him to stabilize the position.

The time for that position change is fast approaching. They can’t do it in the middle of the season, especially considering there is no depth at cornerback. But Tillman’s skills are dwindling and this defensive system doesn’t require him to stick with defenders down the field, anyway. His responsibility, as he communicated it on Laurence Holmes’ show on The Score, is to cover from the numbers to the sideline from the line of scrimmage to 18 yards deep. More often than not this season the Bears are being burned deep and also by quick slants. With this system, the Bears don’t need a great man-coverage cornerback and Tillman would serve the team better from deep in the secondary.

Something is wrong with the Bears defensively because they’re missing assignments and giving up huge plays. Aside from the blown coverage on the Johnson 73-yard touchdown reception, the Bears also allowed Lions running back Jahvid Best to sprint, untouched, 88 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Their run defense has been atrocious and the pass defense makes too many mistakes and give up big plays. This is a broken and demoralized unit. You can see it from their body language and their lack of intensity.

Finally, I just want to take a minute to address the special teams from last night, or, more specifically, Devin Hester. A week after Hester set the record for career punt return touchdowns, he might as well have set the record for stupidity. If we’re to avoid calling Hester “dumb” because it hurts his or wide receiver coach Darryl Drake’s feelings, then at the very least we can say he has a problem with bravado. His decision-making is often questionable and there were two such instances against the Lions. One was on offense when he caught a quick pass and was confronted by defenders. Rather than cut his losses and get whatever yardage he could, he decided he was going to try to reverse field and wound up running backwards and losing eight yards on the play. The other questionable decision was on special teams when Lions kicker Jason Hanson sent a kickoff toward the sideline. Instead of letting the ball sail out of bounds, Hester wanted to make a big play so he caught the ball a few steps from the sideline and his momentum carried him out of bounds at the seven-yard line.

While certainly not mathematically out of anything at this point, the Bears realistically are long shots to make the playoffs at this juncture. They’re 2-3 and are three games behind the division-leading Packers and Lions, four games considering both those teams hold the tiebreaker over the Bears. Given the way the Bears have played this season, no game on the schedule looks easy, not even next Sunday’s game against the 1-4 Vikings. Given how the Bears have done against the run this season — they’re ranked 28th in the league right now — I fear what Adrian Peterson will do to them in prime time in front of a national audience.

I just hope it’s less embarrassing than what happened last night against the Lions.

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