Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Eagles (11.07.11)

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Welcome back, Earl! Bennett records the go-ahead touchdown.
Welcome back, Earl! Bennett records the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Just who exactly were those Bears who showed up in Philadelphia on Monday night and delivered a 30-24 victory over the heavily-favored Eagles?

Who was that team who defied my expectations? And these local guys? And these national guys, too?

It was a team on a mission, that’s who. A team who meant all business and knew the important playoff implications that were riding on the game. A team that felt slighted by the “experts” and, in typical Bears fashion, reveled and succeeded in the underdog role.

Zach Zaidman, sideline reporter for the Bears radio network on WBBM 780, reported just before the game how focused and intense the Bears were prior to kickoff. It felt like a playoff game to them and they treated it as such from the beginning.

The Bears won the coin toss and rather than defer to the second half and start the game with their defense like they usually do, they chose to receive the ball because they wanted to get out ahead of the Eagles.

From the very first drive, it was evident that the Bears were focused and determined as they drove 12 plays in 5:42 and scored on a five-yard touchdown pass from Jay Cutler to tight end Matt Spaeth. The Bears converted on a pair of third downs on the drive and Matt Forte rushed for 52 of his 133 yards on the game.

The Bears dominated the time of possession in the first quarter, which was the key to keeping the Eagles’ high-powered offense from doing too much damage. The Eagles offense ran just nine offensive plays in the first quarter and the Bears defense was doing a good job getting after Michael Vick.

To begin the second, Vick was intercepted by Major Wright after the pass was tipped — and nearly caught — by Lance Briggs. Wright returned it 36 yards to midfield and seven plays later, Robbie Gould drilled a 51-yard field goal to give the Bears a 10-0 lead. It was a great kick by Gould and it was a momentum-saving kick because instead of giving the Eagles the ball near midfield in a one-possession game, the 10-point lead was a big boost.

The lead was short-lived, though, as the Eagles answered with a field goal on their next series, and then stripped Forte of the ball after a reception and returned it for a game-tying touchdown with under two minutes to play in the first half.

The final two minutes of the half seemed like an eternity, because rather than enter halftime having gift-wrapped the momentum — and possession of the ball in the second half — to the Eagles, the Bears were determined not to be conservative in the final minute and a half of the quarter and wanted to put points on the board. They had a three and out, unfortunately, and had to punt the ball away, but a Devin Hester-like mental lapse by Eagles punt returner DeSean Jackson gave the Bears new life.

Jackson fielded Adam Podlesh’s punt at the 20-yard line and started backing up to avoid the oncoming coverage. Corey Graham and Zack Bowman converged on Jackson and bottled him up with Graham knocking the ball loose. Sam Hurd recovered the fumble and gave the Bears possession inside the 10-yard line.

The Bears nearly didn’t capitalize off the turnover after a three and out, but a very questionable roughing-the-passer penalty on Jason Babin gave the Bears a reprieve, and Marion Barber enter “Barbarian” mode and pounded in a two-yard touchdown run. The run was symbolic of the physicality the Bears played with all game. In fact, on the last play of the first half, Briggs and Charles Tillman met Eagles tight end Brent Celek after a reception and they destroyed him with a devastating hit.

In the second half, the Bears defense seemed to let down its guard a little and didn’t come out with the same intensity or sharpness that they had in the first half. The Eagles ran 15 — yes, 15 — offensive plays on the opening drive of the half and scored on a Ronnie Brown 4-yard run. Vick operated out of shotgun formation on eight of the 15 plays and systematically picked apart the zone coverage.

On the Bears’ first possession of the half, with the game tied at 17, Forte turned over the ball on his second fumble and LeSean McCoy burned the Bears defense for a 33-yard touchdown run.

At that point I was steaming, and it looked like the Eagles had weathered the storm of the first half and regained control of the momentum.

But the Bears had other plans in mind.

Barber, inserted into the game as Forte stood on the sideline thinking about his fumbles, had a run of 17 yards on the ensuing drive. Cutler connected with his old Vanderbilt buddy, Earl Bennett, — who had a great game in his first action back from a chest injury sustained in Week 2 — for a 28-yard gain on third-and-eight. The next play, he found Roy Williams for an 18-yard reception. Gould then brought the Bears to within four, at 24-20, with a 38-yard field goal.

Little did we know at the time, but by that point, the Eagles had expended all they had on the evening. The Bears defense held them to a three and out on the next series.

Cutler had a solid performance for most of the game, but what he did on the next drive was perhaps the most inspired effort we’ve seen from him as a Bear.

Trailing by four points early in the fourth quarter, the Bears were put into a first-and-20 situation following a Spaeth holding penalty. With the Eagles’ defense smelling blood in the water and coming after the quarterback with heavy pressure, Cutler spun out of trouble, fell to the ground, but had the presence of mind to get back up and toss a pass to Barber, who picked up eight yards on the play. On second and 12, Cutler hooked up with Bennett for a 22-yard gain. Cutler then completed his third straight pass of the drive, this one to Hester for a 12-yard gain after he flipped it to Hester while on the move. A silly, unnecessary roughness penalty for a late hit moved the ball ten yards closer to the end zone. After a short Forte run, Cutler found Bennett in the back corner of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.

The drive showed poise and leadership by Cutler — and the entire offense, really — to be able to march down the field on the road while trailing in the fourth quarter.

The Eagles were able to move the ball on the next series to the Bears’ 42-yard line before they got stopped on third down. That’s when a questionable fake punt call by the Eagles perhaps cost them game. On fourth and six, Eagles rookie punter Chas Henry tried to throw a pass to a wide-open teammate that was horribly under thrown.

A couple questions come to mind. First, why did the Bears punt return team fail to cover not only one, but both of the Eagles gunners on the outside? Second, was it a planned fake? Or was it audibled by the Eagles because the Bears left the gunners uncovered? And third, was the fake called by the Eagles coaching staff, Henry, or some other player on the field?

Whatever the answers to those questions are, the situation worked out in the Bears’ favor as they averted a possible disaster. Once again showing their grit and determination, the Bears offense drove 54 yards on 11 plays, burning 5:27 off the clock and taking a six-point lead after a Gould 22-yard field goal.

On the Eagles final “true” possession — they would get the ball back with three seconds but not be able to do anything with it — they took over at their 37-yard line following a poor Gould kickoff and a good return by Dion Lewis. Vick completed a couple first down passes to move the ball downfield, but then on fourth and 10, a high pass to Jeremy Maclin caused him to lose his feet and he fell short of the first down after a nine-yard gain.

The Bears then killed most of the clock with handoffs and secured the victory.

A number of things can be attributed to the Bears’ impressive road victory, perhaps none more prevalent than their physicality from the outset. Not only were they more physical than the Eagles, but the defensive line got after Vick and put pressure on him, delivering vicious hits to him all game just as he got rid of the ball. Those kinds of hits take their toll not only on a quarterback’s body, but also on his mind. And despite the fact that the Bears recorded just one sack — by Julius Peppers on his first play after returning to the game from a knee injury — the Bears definitely did their job putting pressure on the quarterback.

The other most important key to victory was discipline. The Bears had it, the Eagles lacked it. Ask anybody before this game what the biggest concern was for the Bears entering a road game and they’d almost unanimously tell you it was the offensive line’s ability to hear Cutler and then protect him. How’s this for a stunning turn of events: zero sacks on Cutler. And he stayed upright for most of the game with the exception of a few late hits.

We also can’t give enough credit to how well the offense moved the ball. And it wasn’t just Forte whom the Bears relied on, even though he had a great game as usual. The Bears were able to move the ball through the air and Cutler was efficient and poised. As I mentioned earlier in the day before the game, the whole of the Bears offense is clearly better than the sum of its parts.

Aside from those points, the Bears’ typical formula for victory — solid special teams by Gould and Podlesh as well as the coverage units, not getting burned by the deep pass, and recording a timely turnover — also contributed to the victory.

The Bears desperately needed this victory; there’s no point in sugarcoating it. Could they have made the playoffs if they didn’t win? It was still possible, yes, but it would have been much more difficult. They could not afford to lose another NFC game after having lost to the Saints, Packers, and Lions, especially considering the Eagles will probably be competing for the wild card with the Bears and the Bears now have the tiebreaker over them and the Buccaneers.

There’s a break in the Bears schedule coming up — although no game is a gimme in this league — but not before the Bears have to face division-rival Detroit for the second time this season. The Lions are 6-2 and, much like the Bears enjoyed for the Eagles, Detroit had a bye week and will have had two weeks to prepare for this game.

The game is in Chicago and will once again carry huge playoff implications with it. If the Bears play as physical, determined and focused as they did against the Eagles, there’s no reason they can’t win.

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