Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Rams (09.23.12)

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Cornerback Tim Jennings has four interceptions in three games this season and has an interception in four straight games dating back to last year's season finale.
Cornerback Tim Jennings has four interceptions in three games this season and has an interception in four straight games dating back to last year’s season finale.

The Bears went into Sunday’s game with the hopes of coming away with a feel-good victory over the Rams to help alleviate the sting of a thrashing from the Packers 10 days prior. They managed to win big, 23-6, but whether or not the win felt as good as it could have — or should have — is the debate.

In the NFL, there are no easy games and there are no “ugly” wins — at least, that’s the company line. But the Bears offense left a lot to be desired while they rode their defense to a victory against a Rams team that finished 2-14 last year. To their credit, the Rams are a much different team than last year and appear to be better, too, at least through three weeks. They certainly have a different attitude on defense led by new head coach Jeff Fisher and they gave the Bears offense some fits.

Jay Cutler was looking for a bounce-back game after the disastrous, four-interception performance against the Packers, but he did not look comfortable against St. Louis. He made some errant throws, was picked off once, and — as is seemingly the norm — had a few other potential interceptions dropped by the defense.

In his defense, Cutler did — yet again — have defenders in his lap for most of the afternoon. And his receivers, including Devin Hester late in the game, did him no favors on a few plays.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, in the midst of a 13-play drive that started from their own 25-yard-line, Cutler lobbed a ball toward the side of the end zone from the 4-yard-line to an open Hester, who had beat his man on a nifty move. Inexplicably, Hester cut off his route and attempted to leap in the air and make the grab. However, at 5-foot-11, the ball sailed over his outstretched hands and fell incomplete. The Bears had to settle for a field goal two plays later.

That play brought out a string of tweets on Twitter from zealous sportswriters reminding fans how Cutler once famously said Hester was not a “go-up-and-get-it guy” after the quarterback’s first preseason game with the Bears. As clever as those writers had thought they were — and hoped to be — that was not a go-up-and-get-it situation. That was a “please continue your route and the ball would have fallen gracefully into your hands for a touchdown” situation.

Regardless, it is clear that Cutler and his receivers are not on the same page right now, save for his buddy Brandon Marshall (5 catches, 71 yards), and possibly rookie Alshon Jeffery (5 catches, 45 yards). The normally sure-handed rookie dropped a few passes, but it’s clear Cutler has confidence in him, and Jeffery, if he keeps progressing, could be a big playmaker in this league.

What do you do when the passing game struggles? Take pressure off both Cutler and the offensive line by running the ball. And that’s exactly what offensive coordinator Mike Tice did. Tice fed the horse — well, more like the bull — and backup running back Michael Bush finished with 18 carries for 55 yards and a touchdown while filling in for Matt Forte. Kahlil Bell, in his return to the team, also got 10 carries for 20 yards.

While the yards-per-carry average was nothing to get excited about, the attention paid to the run game clearly helped the Bears control the clock and dictate the tempo of the game. Oftentimes it’s not how many yards you produce in the run game that matters; it’s the number of carries that keeps the opposing defense honest and prevents them from getting off the field which can help an offense win the game.

After all the fanfare this offseason about how good the offense was going to be this year and possibly have to carry the defense, the exact reverse is true — at least, at this point. This game brought back memories of years past where two phases of the game — defense and special teams — played well enough to overcome a stagnant offense.

The Bears once again produced a solid pass rush that swarmed Rams quarterback Sam Bradford and sacked him six times. Credit is due to the Bears defensive backfield, however, because a few of those sacks were clearly coverage sacks when Bradford could not find anybody to throw the ball to.

Still, the Bears attacked Bradford from all angles and the team now leads the NFL with 14 sacks — at least until the Packers play Monday night and add to their 11-sack total (seven of the Packers’ sacks were against the Bears’ woeful offensive line, so I still say the Bears defense holds the edge). It’s early in the season, but it appears the Bears finally have their pass rush they’ve been working to build two years ago when they paid big money for Julius Peppers and when they moved Henry Melton to tackle to create pressure on the inside. The bull rush of Stephen Paea, the health of Corey Wootton, the athleticism of Shea McClellin, the motor of Israel Idonije, and the depth of Amobi Okoye — and others — are clearly helping the cause as well.

Critics still will nitpick Brian Urlacher’s performance and say he’s not yet back to his old self, but that may not have happened even if he had never hurt his knee last year. He’s getting older; how much sustained Pro Bowl performance can you expect from him? But he’s on his way back into football shape and he’s still creating enough plays to be relevant to the success of the defense. Meanwhile, Lance Briggs is playing at his usual high level and Nick Roach, while not a great player by any means, isn’t making any glaring mistakes to hurt the club.

The real story of the defense is the secondary, which, as mentioned previously, helped generate a few of those sacks on Bradford. Also, one never knows how early is too early to be talking about the Pro Bowl, but cornerback Tim Jennings is playing like a man possessed as he intercepted yet another pass, his fourth of the season and the third straight game he’s picked off a pass. Jennings also had an interception against the Vikings in the final game of last season, which technically extends his streak to four straight games with a pick.

Not only did Jennings record an interception against the Rams, but he also jumped a route and deflected a pass from Bradford to Danny Amendola which was intercepted by safety Major Wright and returned for a touchdown. The play was significant because the Bears were only up by a touchdown at that point and clearly struggling to generate offense. That play essentially put the dagger in the hopes of the Rams.

Credit also goes to the special teams, which played sound, fundamental football and didn’t make any big mistakes like they had the previous game against the Packers which resulted in a touchdown. The coverage units often swarmed the Rams’ return men and dropped them inside the 20-yard-line for poor starting field position. Punter Adam Podlesh did a great job at putting the ball inside the 10-yard-line and kicker Robbie Gould continued to eliminate any possibility of big kickoff returns with his deep kicks, five of which resulted in touchbacks. Hester, meanwhile, broke off a 19-yard punt return and a few big kickoff returns and continues to be just one little block away from taking one for a score.

Also worth noting is how undisciplined the Rams were on a number of occasions. Early in the game after a stop by the Rams defense, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar blatantly drilled Podlesh in the back following a punt and drew a roughing the kicker penalty which gave the Bears offense new life and a fresh set of downs. Safety Darian Stewart drew a roughing the passer penalty for hitting Cutler both late and in the head in the second quarter, which helped advance the ball on a Bears touchdown drive.

However, for the second straight week, the Bears were burned by a dumb penalty. Last week, offensive tackle Gabe Carimi drew a personal foul for shoving Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk at the end of a play and it killed the momentum the Bears were having on one of their only successful drives of the game. Against St. Louis, after the Bears defense stopped the Rams offense on third-and-24, Peppers was flagged for a late-hit shove that gave the Rams a new set of downs. Some of this pushing and shoving might have gone unpenalized by the regular officials, but the Bears have to play smarter.

And on a sidenote, I thought it was hilarious when Carimi tried to do the same thing to a Rams player that Hawk did to him last week. Carimi got into a confrontation with a Rams defender and when the defender gave Carimi a little shove, Carimi flopped on the ground with his arms flailing like an NBA player trying to draw an offensive foul in basketball. Carimi didn’t get the penalty called, and he looked ridiculous hitting the ground like he did, but at least he’s learning.

The Bears are right where most people thought they’d be when the schedule first came out in the spring: at 2-1 and right in the thick of the NFC North division hunt. Next week’s game figures to be the most critical game the Bears have played in a while, even more important than the Packers game a week ago Thursday, because the Bears weren’t really expected to win that one. The Bears will play on the road against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night.

Another road game in prime time and another big test for the composure of one Jay Cutler. It’s not as though Cutler has never had success in these types of games, but his track record is clearly spotty. A loss would not be unexpected — and again, many had this game penciled in as a loss when the schedule was released, anyway — but a win would put the Bears in great position after the first quarter of the season.

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