Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Panthers (10.28.12)

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Bears cornerback Tim Jennings returns the second of his two interceptions for the temporary go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter against the Panthers.
Bears cornerback Tim Jennings returns the second of his two interceptions for the temporary go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter against the Panthers.

Bears head coach Lovie Smith said before the season that he saw this year’s team compare favorably with the one in 2006 that went to Super Bowl XLI. If true, Sunday’s 23-22 comeback victory over the Panthers might have inspired a bit of déjà vu.

Sunday’s one-point victory brought back memories of a one-point victory in Arizona six years ago. Back then, the Bears were rolling through opponents and running up big margins. Back then, the Bears entered the game with swagger expecting to pound a 1-win team. Back then, a young quarterback methodically picked apart a Bears pass defense while the Bears offense turned over the ball and could not get anything going for much of the game. And back then, the defense had to score in order to help the Bears come back from behind.

Sound familiar?

The only thing that would have made the similarities more eerie is if Panthers head coach Ron Rivera would have stepped to the podium after the game and cried out, “The Bears are who we thought they were! And we let ’em off the hook!” like Cardinals coach Dennis Green infamously did after that game in 2006.

When the Panthers were making a late drive in the game and they sent out their inexperienced kicker, Justin Medlock — who had been 4-for-4 up to that point in the game but only entered with two field goals on the year — I seriously saw flashbacks to when Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers botched the go-ahead field goal wide preserving the victory for the Bears.

Only this time around, Medlock converted the kick (touching the inside of the right upright) and the Panthers took the lead. At that point, I felt it was just one of those days and that Bears kicker Robbie Gould would get a chance to win the game, but that he would miss it because of how sloppy the game was played.

I was wrong.

The major difference between that Cardinals game and this Panthers game is that back then, the Bears trotted out Rex Grossman, Thomas Jones, and Bernard Berrian as their “Big 3” on offense. This year’s version features Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and Brandon Marshall — three players who have made the Pro Bowl in their careers and must be accounted for at all times.

The Bears entered their two-minute drill trailing by two points and found instant success as the Panthers played soft, prevent coverage. With quick passes to negate any kind of pass rush, Cutler led the Bears 55 yards down the field using a series of intermediate routes which Bears receivers cut off underneath the Panthers’ deep coverage. Cutler completed four passes to Marshall and one to Earl Bennett before handing the ball off to Forte to set up Gould’s game-winning attempt from the left hashmark.

I don’t know if a lightbulb went off in Mike Tice’s head after the game, but here’s an idea the Bears could try from now on: quick passes and a no huddle offense. That’s no kind of long-term offensive solution, but that can surely help an offensive line that struggles to pass block. Cutler likes a more upbeat tempo, anyway, and gets discouraged if the slow play calls mess up his rhythm.

Speaking of Cutler, much like was the case in the Packers game in Week 2, it appeared as though he let the pass rush get to his head — mentally, not physically — as he let his guard down and didn’t protect the ball. He had an interception and two fumbles in the game — only half the turnovers that Grossman had in that Cardinals game in 2006 for those keeping score — and he made several throws that just weren’t on target.

I wasn’t upset with the interception. It was on the first drive of the game and the Bears wanted to test the Panthers’ sketchy secondary with a deep bomb down the middle of the field. The ball was just a little underthrown; either that, or Marshall outran it. Nevertheless, it was like a good punt because the Panthers got the ball at their five-yard line and a handful of plays later, they punted the ball back to the Bears and set them up with good field position. Four plays later, Matt Forte scampered 13 yards basically untouched for a touchdown.

That first quarter, where the Bears were effortlessly moving the ball utilizing Forte and the run game, was about as good as it would get for that side of the ball. Cutler was sacked six times and the Panthers then loaded the box to stop the run.

The Bears’ sudden inability to move the ball and take time off the clock put a strain on their defense. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton capitalized and burned the Bears pass defense for 314 yards on 20 of 39 passing. The combination of Newton and running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for 112 rushing yards on 33 carries. The Panthers scored 19 unanswered points and took a 19-7 lead into the fourth quarter.

Not only was the offense stalling and the defense getting burnt, but the special teams were basically taken out of the equation as the Panthers squib kicked all game to keep the ball out of Devin Hester’s hands. The Panthers were gift-wrapping golden field position for the Bears because they had enough confidence in their defense to stop the Bears offense.

The plan was working. For awhile.

On their first drive of the final quarter, Cutler took the team from their own 38-yard-line — solid field position — and drove 50 yards to the Panthers’ 12-yard-line. He fired a pass into the middle of the end zone where the normally shaky-handed Kellen Davis hauled it in for the score. It should be noted, however, that no matter how much trouble Davis has had with catching passes and staying on his feet this season, he’s always had solid hands inside the 20 and has been a great red zone target for the Bears throughout his career, catching 11 touchdown passes on 38 career receptions.

With the Bears trailing by less than a touchdown, the momentum was on their side now. The crowd was rejuvenated and energy was returning to Soldier Field. It seemed only natural that the field should do its part, too. And that’s exactly what happened.

On the first play following the Davis touchdown, Panthers receiver Steve Smith — who had been torching the Bears defense all game and had 7 catches for 118 yards — slipped on the Soldier Field surface (go figure) and a Newton pass went sailing into the hands of Tim Jennings, his second interception of the game. Jennings returned it 25 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. The Bears missed the two-point conversion attempt to put them up by a field goal, but that set the drama for the final exchange of field goal attempts.

On a side note, I tweeted about this during the game and I’ll reiterate it here. If the season were to end within the next few weeks, the Bears realistically would have (and should have) two Pro Bowl cornerbacks. Charles Tillman has two interception returns for touchdowns and was twice named NFC Defensive Player of the Week — not to mention, his usual assortment of forced fumbles. Jennings, meanwhile, is having a career year and leads the NFL with 6 interceptions. The duo deserves to be voted to the Pro Bowl because they’re playing as well as any combination in the NFL and their statistics back it up. And who would have ever expected two cornerbacks from the same team who play mostly in a zone coverage defense — where the cornerbacks don’t get as much recognition as the safeties — would both make the Pro Bowl? It seems like a long shot to happen, but they both deserve it as of this moment.

All things considered, the Bears’ narrow, comeback victory over the Panthers was the best thing that could have happened to them. They were punishing teams by wide margins this year and were not getting an accurate assessment of how good they really are. Every now and then, a team could use a slice of humble pie and the Panthers served up a big, hot, steamy one on a silver platter to them. The Bears now realize they have a lot of work to do to compete against the likes of the Texans, 49ers, Packers, and others.

And they learned that lesson while also increasing their win total.

From here, the Bears will take their 6-1 record on the road to face the Titans, a very beatable team, but one in which — as we learned from the lowly Panthers — will not be a pushover. The Bears can’t afford to overlook them and set their sights on the Texans the following week. And judging by Lovie Smith’s track record, I wouldn’t expect that to happen.

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