It turns out the Bears’ workmanlike itinerary served them well in defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 24-18, in London on Sunday.
Lovie Smith drew a lot of unnecessary heat from fans and the media for departing for London late in the week whereas his counterpart, Raheem Morris, took his Buccaneers a week ahead of time to get them acclimated to the culture change. It turns out the Bucs looked as though they were unprepared for the game as if they were on vacation while the Bears were all business.
The Bears did what they had to do in jumping out to an early, 7-0 lead. On their second possession, the offense drove 81 yards and capped off the drive with a Matt Forte 32-yard touchdown run. The offensive line picked up all its blocks on the play and Forte did the rest by making defenders miss downfield.
Later in the first quarter, Jay Cutler threw a screen pass to Marion Barber that ricocheted off the running back’s hands and was intercepted by the Bucs and returned to the Bears’ 12-yard line. On the very next play, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman was picked off at the goal line by Chris Conte, the first of the rookie defensive back’s career. Following that pick, Forte was dropped in the end zone for a safety after Roberto Garza was knocked into the backfield into his running back.
That was a bizarre sequence of three consecutive plays, to be sure, but the Bears were able to rebound.
Early in the second quarter, Cutler found an open Roy Williams for a 25-yard touchdown to put the Bears up, 14-2. Williams gets an awful lot of grief for his antics and his unsteady hands, but he made that touchdown possible with an excellent move at the line of scrimmage to avoid a jam by the defensive back.
The Buccaneers added a 33-yard field goal at the end of the second quarter to send the game to halftime with the Bears ahead, 14-5.
The Bears came out strong in the second half by holding Tampa Bay’s offense to a three and out on its first possession. After a short punt to midfield, the Bears offense moved the ball downfield quickly and Barber rushed — barely touched — for a 12-yard touchdown and a 21-5 lead.
At that point, with the momentum on their side and a two-touchdown (and two two-point conversion) lead, it looked like the Bears were on their way to a rout. They were dominating not only on the scoreboard but in yardage, too. The Buccaneers hadn’t given any indication they were interested in playing and they had already lost backup running back Earnest Graham to an Achilles injury early in the game leaving them with their third-string running back.
But the Bears defense relented, the offense stalled, and the Bucs climbed their way back into the game.
Early in the fourth quarter, Forte whiffed on his blitz pick-up responsibility and Cutler threw off his back foot and was intercepted for the second time in the game. Four plays later, the Bucs turned that into points when Freeman hit Kellen Winslow on a two-yard touchdown strike.
The Bears went three and out on their next possession before Freeman and Co. returned to work. The Bucs threw six straight passes on the next drive, the last of which was a 24-yard touchdown pass to Dezmon Briscoe, in which Chris Harris blew his coverage responsibility.
The score was 21-18 at that point as the momentum clearly shifted in Tampa Bay’s favor. The Bears offense needed to step up its performance, take time off the clock and put some points on the board.
The offense moved down the field in a hurry thanks to a pair of great plays. Cutler hit Williams for a 15-yard gain, but only after the ball hit Williams’ unsure hands and the receiver juggled it before finally corralling it for a first down. On the next play, Cutler connected with Forte, who took the ball down to the four-yard line.
With the offense moving the ball with ease, it appeared the Bears were headed for six, right?
Not so fast. That’s when Mike Martz, who had called a pretty good game plan up until that point, started to out-think himself. Martz called three straight pass plays, one of which had Dane Sanzenbacher lined up in the backfield, and the Bears appeared as if they would have to settle for a field goal. Fortunately, Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, drew a penalty for sticking his fingers in Williams’ facemask to give the Bears a new set of downs.
The Bears, however, could not capitalize off the second chance as Martz called three straight run plays this time and Robbie Gould had to kick the field goal to give the team a six-point lead.
The Buccaneers had one last chance to win the game and they were moving the ball down the field against the Bears’ soft zone coverage in the final minute. However, on a well-executed stunt, Julius Peppers circled around behind Amobi Okoye and got a free rush toward the quarterback. Freeman had to hurry his throw and was intercepted by D.J. Moore to close the game.
Although I’d like to criticize the Bears defense for allowing the Bucs to climb back from a 16-point deficit, or lambaste Martz for his late play calling, or chide the offense for its second-half deficiencies, it’s difficult to do so considering the circumstances. Sure, the Bucs were down to their third-string running back, but they still were a 4-2 team entering this game who defeated the high-powered Saints the previous week. And winning on the road — even in a neutral location — is not the easiest thing to do against a good football team.
The offensive line continues to make strides now four games running. They protected Cutler well — allowing just two sacks — and continued clearing holes for Forte, particularly around the edges. The Bears also are stopping the run better as of late. After holding Adrian Peterson to 39 yards last week, the Bucs managed just 30 net rushing yards on Sunday. Again, it’s a difficult number to analyze considering Tampa Bay was trailing for much of the game and Graham got hurt early, but it sure beats the alternative of allowing a third-stringer to gallop over them.
I guess we can thank the NFL schedule-makers for giving the Bears a bye next week. It came at a perfect time as they can readjust their bodies from the London experience and rest some injuries over the next two weeks before their two-month stretch in which they’ll try to make the playoffs as a wild card.
Smith mentioned even before this week’s game that the Bears could conceivably be in the same position they were in last year, sitting at 4-3 at the bye. And now that they are, expect Smith to say the same thing this week when he addresses the media.
Last year was a bit different in that the Packers had suffered quite a few injuries and the Lions were not as good as they are now, so this year the Bears will have to try to surpass what they did in the second half of 2010. That won’t be easy, especially considering they went on a five-game win streak after the bye. The Bears next three opponents? At Philadelphia and home versus Detroit and San Diego.
That’s a daunting stretch of games but the Bears have to focus on one opponent at a time.
Check back later in the day for a few more thoughts from Sunday’s game.