Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Vikings (11.25.12)

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Jay Cutler looked comfortable and efficient in his return from a concussion.
Jay Cutler looked comfortable and efficient in his return from a concussion.

The Bears responded from a two-game losing streak with a convincing victory in a must-win game over the rival Minnesota Vikings, but the triumph may have come at the expense of a handful of injuries to key players.

In a game that saw the return of quarterback Jay Cutler from a concussion, the Bears played strongly on both sides of the ball and jumped out to a big early lead before cruising to a 28-10 victory over the Vikings. On their way to the win, however, the team endured injuries to starting running back Matt Forte (ankle), cornerback Charles Tillman (ankle), wide receiver/kick returner Devin Hester (concussion), and guards Lance Louis (knee) and Chris Spencer (knee). Additionally, linebacker Lance Briggs was seen in a walking boot after the game.

The injuries put somewhat of a damper on a victory — paired with a Packers loss to the Giants — that sprung the Bears back into first place in the NFC North. At 8-3, the Bears seemed destined for the playoffs, but it begs the question: can the Bears win in the playoffs without any of these key players?

Cutler did not have to be spectacular in his return, but he was efficient. He completed 74% of his passes (23 of 31) for 188 yards, a touchdown and an interception that was deflected. The Bears wisely focused on running the ball for multiple reasons, including keeping the defense honest, controlling the clock, opening up the playbook, and preventing Cutler from taking too many unnecessary hits. Forte rushed 14 times for 42 yards before exiting with his injury. Michael Bush finished up the game with 21 carries for 60 yards and two touchdowns.

Brandon Marshall caught 12 of Cutler’s 23 passes for 92 yards, and in doing so, Marshall became the first Bear since Marty Booker in 2002 to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season. He can also surpass Booker’s 100 receptions in 2001 by recording 20 more catches by the end of the season.

The Bears were wisely allowing Cutler to get rid of the ball quickly and many of Marshall’s catches were short passes over the middle. Due to the injury to Hester, Cutler also made use of Earl Bennett, who caught four passes for 45 yards. With two of his favorite receivers catching passes, Cutler looked more at ease than he has in many weeks. Credit certainly has to be paid to the offensive line for what seemed like improved protection, and Cutler also bought himself a lot of extra time with his ability to move in and around the pocket. Perhaps one of, if not his best throw of the game was one in which he evaded the pass rush and fired a pass to the corner of the end zone, where tight end Matt Spaeth made a terrific catch and managed to get both feet in for a touchdown.

The Bears defense played well in all, holding the Vikings to just 258 yards of offense. They had trouble containing Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who gained 108 yards on 18 carries. But given that Peterson leads the NFL in rushing and the Bears prevented him from swinging momentum with a game-changing play — his longest run was 23 yards — I’d say the Bears did an adequate job of keeping him in check.

Where the defense earned its paycheck was in the passing game. Henry Melton opened the game with a sack on Christian Ponder and the Bears kept the pressure on the quarterback for most of the game. Ponder had to hurry many of his throws and he completed just 51% of his passes for 159 yards. Ponder was also intercepted by Chris Conte.

As for the special teams, Adam Podlesh averaged 43.3 yards per punt — a slight improvement for him — and even ran in a two-point conversion attempt. The Bears lined up for an extra point following a touchdown, noticed that the Vikings had just three defenders on the left side of the formation, and called an audible for the easy conversion.

Regarding that two-point conversion, I don’t fully understand why the Bears chose to run it. The common theory behind running it in a meaningless situation like that is that it “puts it on film” for other teams to have to prepare for. Personally, I don’t feel teams will spend that much extra time preparing for a fake field goal — any more than they normally would, that is. Thus, I feel the “element of surprise” would have provided the Bears with more of an advantage moving forward than “putting it on film.”

Robbie Gould was 2 of 3 on field goals with his one miss being blocked at the end of the half. And Eric Weems — filling in for the concussed Hester — averaged just 21 yards on three kickoff returns. Moving forward, the Bears are going to have to block better or find ways to spring their kick returners because it’ll certainly help the offense with better field position.

The big questions in the days ahead are how serious were the injuries to Forte, Tillman, Hester, Louis, Spencer, and Briggs, and how long will they be out? Any prolonged absence could have ramifications on the Bears’ playoff picture.

The Bears will face the Seahawks — who are in the hunt for a wild card spot but are coming off a disappointing loss to the Dolphins — next week at Soldier Field. The Seahawks have one of the top defenses in the NFL but their offense is one-dimensional and is centered around running back Marshawn Lynch. The Bears need to take care of business at home because they have tough road games coming up against the Vikings, Cardinals, and Lions as well as a home game against the Packers. The Packers don’t have too many tough games remaining on their schedule, so if the Bears want to claim the NFC North crown, they can’t afford to lose to Seattle.

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