First and Ten: Thoughts and notes about the Bears

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Thoughts and notes about the state of the Bears following their 23-6 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.

First: Defensive line presence a cause for optimism

I’m sure we all would have liked to see a more explosive Bears offense like we witnessed in Week 1 against the Indianapolis Colts rather than the one that looked like it just survived the St. Louis Rams. But there’s reason for optimism for the outlook of the rest of the season based on the other side of the ball.

Good teams are those that can pass the ball and can rush the passer. The Bears can do both this season, so long as the offensive line gets a little bit of help from the running backs and tight ends. The defensive line, meanwhile, is pressuring quarterbacks this year unlike any recent season we’ve seen.

The Bears currently lead the NFL with 14 sacks. Granted, the Packers still have to play their third game and are only trailing the Bears by 3, but that’s still solid production from Rod Marinelli’s boys up front. The Bears are getting it done in waves, exactly what led the New York Giants to a Super Bowl title last year. While I’m not ready to proclaim the Bears as talented up front as the Giants were a year ago, they’re currently producing at that level at this point in the young season.

Two of the reasons the Bears are producing at such a high level is the penetration up the middle and the depth of the line. Defensive tackles Stephen Paea and Henry Melton are shooting the gaps and getting into the backfield right in the quarterback’s face. Paea’s brute force is really showing up on film just as Melton’s quickness is. And as far as depth, it helps to have a healthy Corey Wootton, a productive Amobi Okoye, and an athletic Shea McClellin.

As I mentioned, it’s still early, but if the Bears can maintain this level of pressure — or even improve upon it — they’ll be in good shape in late December and into the playoffs, should they make it there.

1. Little Jennings filled with big confidence

There’s a reason Bears cornerback Tim Jennings still has a job in the NFL and it’s not because of his playmaking ability. Nobody will confuse him with Champ Bailey. He doesn’t exactly have elite speed for a corner, either. It’s because the 5-foot-8 Jennings plays like he’s 6-foot-2 in both physicality and confidence. We’ve known for a couple years now that Jennings is a tough guy because he’s been strong in run support since joining the Bears. But if you watch him on the field, you’ll see that he plays with a swagger, too, and a confident player is one in which everything seems to go right for him. Jennings still has a tendency to get beat, but it’s his confidence and relentlessness that will make up for it.

2. Stability at safety helping secondary

You know the Bears are exceeding expectations on defense when Charles Tillman, the best defender in the unit, sort of fades into the background. Lost amidst the talk of Jennings’ four interceptions in three games is the fact that the safety tandem of Chris Conte and Major Wright has remained healthy and intact through three weeks and, like Jennings, are playing with high confidence. The biggest problem for the Bears over the years at the safety position hasn’t necessarily been a lack of talent but rather an injury carousel. Conte was injured in the preseason and Wright — as always — got a little banged up, too. But the two are stabilizing the deep middle of the field and allowing the defensive line to get pressure on the quarterback.

3. Cutler appears shaken – either physically or mentally

Remember that Bears quarterback who was confident in the pocket in the season opener against the Colts? Remember the guy who had a swagger last season in the middle of a five-game win streak who helped lead the Bears in having one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league during that time? That guy seems to be missing, but why that is remains the question. Is Cutler’s thumb — which he broke last year and which caused him to miss the last six games of the season — acting up again? Or is it his confidence, which is surely rattled behind a line that acts more like an open road I-Pass than a toll booth? A third theory is that after Cutler was called out by practically half of America last week, he’s trying to play it safer in the pocket. That wouldn’t explain some of his errant throws on Sunday, though. Whatever the case may be, this does not look like the same confident, talented quarterback that makes a lot of throws that other quarterbacks in the league cannot.

4. Simplify the offense to help offensive line

Listen, I understand that with a stud like Brandon Marshall and an up-and-coming star in Alshon Jeffery, Bears fans want the offense to sling it all over the field like most modern NFL offenses. But the pieces just aren’t in place yet. Until Cutler can get about four seconds to throw a pass deep down the field, the Bears might want to simplify things a little bit. That’s exactly what offensive coordinator Mike Tice did against the Rams. He called a heavy dose of running plays and quick passes out of the backfield to limit the amount of pressure that could get to Cutler. It may not be sexy, but is it better to win looking like Martha Stewart or lose looking like Jessica Alba? … Then again, that might be a bad rhetorical question to ask some of you! The point is, the Bears should use the duo of Matt Forte — when he returns to the lineup — and Michael Bush more in order to set up the pass.

5. No mistaking it: Cowboys game a turning point for Cutler, Bears

Next week is the big test, folks. The Dallas Cowboys are not a team to fear and they have just as many weaknesses as the next team. But they do have a strong pass rush and the Bears will be facing them on the road in prime time on Monday night, which is typically trouble for Cutler and the offense. It’s not just a stereotype; Cutler surely struggles in prime time games. I’m not about to throw around theories of diabetes problems or vision issues, but something just isn’t right with him. Then again, most prime time games are against good teams, so maybe it’s just him struggling against a defense that’s in his lap all night. But we should get a good indication about where the Bears are at this point in the season after Monday night’s game is over.

6. Forte should improve offensive versatility

Forte made good progress in his return from an ankle injury this past week and there is still hope he’ll be back for the Cowboys game. But whenever Forte returns to the field, he should help upgrade the offense immensely. First of all, I think Tice learned the value of the run game against St. Louis, and to be able to deploy both Forte and Bush, that should open things for the passing game. But Forte is also a talented receiver out of the backfield and he should be able to prevent defenses from doubling up Marshall and Jeffery down the field.

7. Difficult to tell Peppers is battling foot problems

Does anybody even remember that Julius Peppers is battling plantar fasciitis? It’s difficult to remember that sometimes because of how well he’s been playing. The guy is like a man playing against teenagers sometimes. The harshest of critics will nitpick and say he should be among the NFL’s sack leaders if he was really that good, but nobody can deny his versatility, his ability to read plays, and his athleticism to chase down ball carriers and get his hands on the ball. I won’t say that I feel 100% confident about Peppers’ health at this point, but he’s one of the last players you have to worry about performing well at this point.

8. Can’t fault Lovie for end-of-half field goal

The Bears won the game and so there’s not a lot of attention being paid to it, which makes me feel good that the football meatballs out there aren’t picking the nits of Lovie Smith’s coaching job on Sunday, but a timeout called by Smith wound up netting the Rams three points at the end of the first half. What happened was that the Rams were facing a fourth-and-10 at the Bears’ 37-yard-line and they sent out their punter. Smith, unsure of the personnel package on the field, called a timeout so that the Bears had the right players on the field. Rams coach Jeff Fisher then sent out his field goal unit and they converted on a 56-yard field goal. It’d be silly to blame Smith for those points because think of the alternative. What would happen if the Rams had a fake in place and they wound up with a touchdown because the Bears had the wrong personnel in the game? Would you rather the Rams have put up 7 instead of 3? Better to be safe than sorry.

9. Hester at fault for missed TD

I mentioned it via Twitter during the game, and I wrote about it in my Monday Morning Quarterback, but I’ll complete the trifecta and address it one last time because I heard one producer on WSCR 670 The Score assign blame to Cutler for it and the Mully & Hanley show made reference to it as well. At the beginning of the fourth quarter with the Bears facing a second-and-goal from the 4-yard-line, Cutler tossed a pass to the side of the end zone for a wide open Devin Hester. For whatever reason — most likely that he’s not a real NFL receiver — Hester stopped running and decided to jump for the ball instead. This brought out a chorus of people who joked about Hester not being a “go-up-and-get-it” guy, which Cutler accused him of three years ago. The fact is, that play didn’t call for a go-up-and-get-it receiver — although we all know that either Marshall or Jeffery would have snagged it for the score. It wasn’t a jump ball, nor was it a bad throw by Cutler. It was actually a good throw, away from the defender, which would have hit Hester in stride if he had continued running his route toward the side of the end zone.

10. Brandon Marshall-Warren Sapp feud

Flying low under the radar, a little war of words has erupted between Bears receiver Brandon Marshall and former Buccaneers and Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp. Sapp called Marshall a “retard” for apparently talking negatively about former NFL receiver Shannon Sharpe. Marshall responded in two videos posted through Twitter. Marshall apparently tried to take the high road while also taking shots at Sapp’s personal life, however contradicting that sounds.

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Extra Point: Keep around the St. Louie ref!

The NFL’s lockout of the officials is likely to end at some point, but if and when it does, can we keep around the referee who did the Bears game on Sunday, if for no other reason than for some cheap laughs? I want to hear him call St. Louis “St. Louie” again.

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