Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Cowboys (10.01.12)

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Wide receiver Brandon Marshall had a big night for the offense, but the story of the game was the Bears defense.
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall had a big night for the offense, but the story of the game was the Bears defense.

The Bears played with big “D” in “Big D.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the cheesy cliché).

All too often Lovie Smith teams are underdogs on Monday Night Football and yet more often than not, the Bears come out with a solid performance that surprises the masses.

Add another mark under the win column for Smith (8-2 on MNF) and the Bears as they convincingly handled the Dallas Cowboys, 34-18. The victory was even more lopsided than the score, but former Bears quarterback Kyle Orton led the Cowboys on a touchdown drive in garbage time.

The Bears got the job done on both sides of the ball albeit in different fashion. While the offense was efficient, led by Jay Cutler’s 18 of 24 passing for 275 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 140.1 passer rating, it was the defense that dominated the evening, intercepting Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo five times and imposing their will and physicality on the Cowboys.

It’s good to have one unit pick up the other one if it’s struggling, but just imagine what the Bears can do this season if both units perform well during the same night. Monday night offered a glimpse of that.

The game also featured the return of running back Matt Forte, who suffered an ankle injury in the Packers game and missed last week’s contest against the Rams. Forte ran for 8 yards on the Bears’ first offensive play of the game only to hobble off the field immediately after that. The concern was that he might have rushed back into action too soon, but after getting the ankle re-taped, he eventually returned to action. Forte finished with 52 yards on 13 carries (4.0 yards per carry) and backup Michael Bush rumbled 29 yards on 10 carries. On the night, the Bears rushed for just 93 yards as a team, but it turned out the offense just wasn’t needed as much. Not when the defense put up 14 points by itself and set up the Bears with short fields with which to work.

The onslaught started late in the second quarter. After both teams exchanged defensive stops and stalled drives for the first 20 minutes and change, Robbie Gould put up the first points for the Bears. On the ensuing drive, Romo and receiver Dez Bryant miscommunicated on a route and Romo fired a pass that Charles Tillman picked off and returned 25 yards for a touchdown.

On the Cowboys’ first drive of the second half, they moved the ball 62 yards from their own 20 down to the Bears’ 18-yard-line. That’s when Romo’s pass went off the hands of Kevin Ogletree and Bears safety Major Wright jumped and snatched it out of the air for the first of his two interceptions on the night.

On Romo’s third interception, midway through the third quarter, we witnessed one of the most athletic plays we’ve seen by linebacker Lance Briggs — and that’s saying a lot for a guy who has made a living with such plays. Romo was under heavy pressure by defensive tackle Henry Melton — who continues to play at a high level this season and recorded the lone sack of Romo. Melton hit Romo from behind and the ball popped forward in the air into the hands of Briggs. Whether or not it was an interception or a fumble remains a debate — it did not look like Romo’s arm was in throwing motion, which would insinuate that it was a fumble — but Briggs nonetheless took the ball 74 yards for the second defensive touchdown. The speed that Briggs showed on that play, in addition to the elusive juke he put on the offensive lineman — which resembled a running back splitting a crease — was something not too many linebackers can pull off.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were driving once again, this time at midfield. The Bears were playing zone coverage and Romo looked to hit receiver Miles Austin in between coverage. He badly underthrew the ball and it looked like he hit Bears nickelback D.J. Moore in stride instead. And by the time Romo threw his fifth and final interception of the evening, it looked like he was all but done — both physically and mentally. Wright jumped an Ogletree route down the sideline and tiptoed the sideline to secure the pass. On the next Cowboys possession, Romo exited and in stepped Orton.

The Bears, who entered Week 4 leading the NFL in sacks, had just one of them on the night. It was not altogether surprising considering Romo is one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the game who can sidestep pressure and keep plays alive with his feet. The Bears did get pressure on him on several occasions but his ability to step up in the pocket negated most sack attempts. Plus, the Cowboys did a great job of getting the ball out of Romo’s hands quickly before the pressure had time to get to him. There were several checkdowns to running back DeMarco Murray — who finished with 7 receptions on the evening — as well as tight end Jason Witten, who had a big game with 13 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown. When a Lovie Smith defense allows the opponent’s running back and tight end to have significant roles in the passing game, that’s a good thing, the way the defense is designed. Keep everything in front and minimize big plays.

And speaking of Murray, the Bears defense did a phenomenal job of shutting down the Cowboys’ run game — even though the Cowboys offense ran 54 passing plays because they were trailing for most of the game. However, don’t let the low number of rushing attempts fool you. Murray’s longest run of the night was on the first play of the game, when he ran for 11 yards. His next six runs — all in the first half when the game was still close — went for 2 total yards, including three runs for negative yardage. Murray finished with 24 yards on 11 carries.

Devin Hester made news last week when he griped about not being a bigger part of the offense. That was remedied Monday night — at least temporarily — when he caught 3 passes for 38 yards and a 34-yard touchdown. With pressure in the quarterback’s face, Cutler slung a pass down the middle of the field to an open Hester — who got past the last line of the defense. Hester did a good job of not only reading the pass and adjusting to it, but also by securing the ball to his body when he hit the ground to complete the process of the catch.

Rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery contributed to the cause with three catches for 32 yards, including a great catch in which he was falling to the ground on his back and caught a rocket from Cutler.

But the story of the offense was Cutler’s composure on the field and how confident he looked in the pocket. There was pressure on him, to be sure, but he was sacked just twice — one of which came late in the game when the Bears were trying to eat up clock and he just went down to the ground rather than risk taking an unnecessary shot. Cutler got in a groove with Brandon Marshall early as the receiver caught seven passes on the night for 138 yards and a touchdown. Marshall continued to show just how valuable a receiver he is in this league by leaping up to grab a reception down the sideline and also making several nifty moves after his catches to pick up additional yards.

With the victory, the Bears are now 3-1 and tied with the Minnesota Vikings — as shocking as that sounds — for first place in the NFC North, with the Packers nipping at their heels at 2-2. The Bears will travel to Jacksonville next week. Although no game in the NFL is a gimme, and although the second game of two straight road games — especially on a short week — is challenging, this is a game the Bears should, and must, win. Should they come out victorious, they’ll be 4-1 heading into their bye in Week 6.

What more could you ask for at that point in the season?

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