At the end of the day, the most intriguing statistic from the Bears’ 24-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday was 1 — as in one victory in the win column of the standings.
Much can — and will — be said about the things the Bears did right and wrong against the Bengals, but I find nothing more gratifying than new Bears coach Marc Trestman beginning his NFL head coaching career with a win. (Maybe the fact that so many members of the Chicago media incorrectly predicted a Bears loss was a little more satisfying, but I’ll deal with my schadenfreude on my own time.)
Sadly, I’ve read and heard far too many complaints about all the bad things the Bears did, and all the “gifts” the Bengals presented to the Bears, rather than what the Bears did right in seizing the victory.
The truth is, anybody expecting the Bears to look dramatically different in Game 1 of the Trestman regime than they did in the nine years under Lovie Smith were in for a rude awakening. In this societal era of instant gratification, it’s easy to understand how some wanted to see the offense be exhumed from the depths of the NFL’s offensive graveyard and immediately reach Top 10 status. But revision and success take time, and it’ll be a work-in-progress all season.
We’ve already seen some progress in one game of this new era. For instance, Jay Cutler was not sacked once behind this brand new Bears offensive line. This was against a Bengals defensive line widely considered one of the best in the NFL. A Bengals defense that ranked third in the NFL last year in sacks, and only got better this offseason. And a Bengals defense that was supposed to provide a stiff challenge and a cold, harsh NFL welcoming to the all-rookie right side of the Bears offensive line in guard Kyle Long and tackle Jordan Mills.
I’d say the rooks passed that first test with flying colors.
Another form of progress includes the dispersion of the ball to other weapons in the Bears’ offense so that wide receiver Brandon Marshall didn’t have to shoulder the load himself. Marshall finished with eight catches for 104 yards and a touchdown, but Cutler successfully involved four other weapons in the game plan by hitting Alshon Jeffery five times for 42 yards, Martellus Bennett three times for 49 yards and a touchdown, Matt Forte four times for 41 yards, and Earl Bennett once for a big first down.
Another passing grade on the progress report.
How about the ongoing issue with getting plays called in a timely fashion? For years, Cutler has had to burn timeouts — somewhat exasperated — because the sideline was late getting the plays relayed to him. Additionally, the slow play calls wouldn’t give the Bears much time to settle in at the line of scrimmage and make reads and adjustments as necessary. Things like that lead an offense to rush and cause mistakes. Yes, Cutler had to burn a couple timeouts against the Bengals, but not because the plays weren’t given to him on time. It had more to do with him not liking the look of the defense and being unable to audible in time — a problem that happens with every quarterback in the league. By and large, Trestman was quick getting the plays in, leaving Cutler with upwards of 20 seconds on the play clock when the offense approached the line of scrimmage.
Let’s look at one more sign of offensive improvement. Trestman was brought in to not only help the offense improve in general, but to work with Cutler specifically. And one of the biggest faults of Cutler throughout his career has been his decision making with the football. Aside from the one interception he threw that left you scratching your head wondering what he saw, Cutler’s throws were all safe and calculated. He knew where he was going with the ball, went through his progressions nicely, and even showed good judgement choosing when to tuck the ball away and run with it.
Early in the fourth quarter after a Martellus Bennett holding call and an incomplete pass that left the Bears facing a second down and 20 yards to go, instead of forcing a throw downfield into heavy traffic, Cutler wisely read an opening in the defense, tucked the ball away and scrambled 18 yards. Three plays later, Cutler once again read the defense and found Marshall one-on-one with the safety and connected with his top receiver for the go-ahead touchdown.
Once more, progress for Cutler’s decision making.
We mustn’t expect the Bears offense to look like the New Orleans Saints, the Denver Broncos, or our neighbors to the north in the land of cheese. Instead, we have to look for signs of progress, and those were evident all over the field.
What’s of more concern than the rate of progress for the offense is the rate of decline for the defense. Right now, it’s not a huge cause for concern. The defense came up with timely turnovers, including two interceptions by Charles Tillman and a forced fumble and recovery by Tim Jennings, two of those turnovers just happening to kill potential Bengals scoring drives. This is nothing new, of course. We’ve seen this script for the past decade.
What was alarming, though, was how the defense failed to generate much pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, and as a result the defense was systematically picked apart up and down the field. What’s discouraging is that the Bengals offense had drives of 97, 91, and 80 yards, respectively. All three of which resulted in touchdowns.
It’s okay that the Bears give up big yardage totals. That’s been a staple of the Cover 2 defense for years, a system designed to bend but not break.
What’s not okay is that the defense gave up passing plays of 42 yards, 45 yards, and a pass interference penalty netting 34 yards in those three drives. The defense is designed to prevent big plays.
What’s not okay is that the Bengals netted 21 points from those drives.
What’s not okay is that the defense gave up 10 first downs on those drives.
The Bears defense had to suffer fatigue and endure 29 agonizing plays on those three drives. They need to get off the field quicker and limit the offense to a field goal at worst.
But, let’s not forget that the Bengals have a solid offense including one of the best wide receivers in the game in A.J. Green. Aside from Calvin Johnson, whom the Bears will face twice this year, the defense won’t see as many playmakers at receiver as good as Green played on Sunday.
Let’s bring the discussion back to Trestman because, really, this victory was about him. He’s the new man in charge and he was going to be heavily scrutinized in victory or defeat. As I mentioned previously, he did a great job of getting the plays in to Cutler with an abundance of time left on the play clock. He did a great job of calling plays to keep Cutler from getting physically assaulted early in the game — which was by design, as he noted in his postgame comments, even if it resulted in less dynamic plays than the Bears fans had expected. He also made one of the gutsiest calls a head coach can make in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
With about 8:32 to go in the game and the Bears trailing, 21-17, and facing a fourth-and-short from the Bengals’ 27-yard-line, Trestman had a decision to make. He could have sent out the most accurate kicker in Bears history, Robbie Gould, who had nailed a career-long 58-yard field goal to close the first half. If Gould converted on what would have been a 44-yard field goal, the Bears would have narrowed the Bengals’ lead to 21-20 and would have had to rely on the defense to come up with a key stop. Instead, Trestman had the fortitude to bypass the points and elected to go for the first down instead.
What’s even more impressive is that he didn’t even hesitate, either.
Knowing full well that he could ask for, and be granted, a measurement, Trestman immediately approached the official nearest him and requested it, allowing him extra time to pick the right play call for this crucial situation.
Sometimes coaches ask for a measurement to be given extra time to debate their own decision. Trestman, however, knew he was going for it as soon as the ball was spotted.
As if the measurement wasn’t enough added time to pick the perfect play, the Bengals used their second timeout of the half, which allowed Trestman even more time to ponder.
When the offense finally lined up to go for it on fourth down, the play Trestman called was a Forte run off the right end — yes, behind the all-rookie right side of the line. Because of penetration by the Bengals defense, Forte had to string out his run and use his speed to the outside to pick up the one yard he needed for the first down. But the fact that Trestman had the confidence in his two rookies, Long and Mills, to call a critical play to their side was perhaps the most impressive part of his decision to go for it.
After Forte’s first-down conversion, two plays later Cutler hit Marshall for the touchdown and the rest is history.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one more tidbit about the coaching skills of Trestman. As the Bears were running out the clock late in the game, they picked up a few first downs to keep the chains moving and the clock winding — which was impressive in and of itself. But on third down in what appeared to be their final play of the drive, Michael Bush was stopped short and it looked as though the Bears would punt the ball to the Bengals and give them one last shot with about 20 seconds and no timeouts.
However, Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga was flagged for unnecessary roughness by throwing Mills to the ground after the play. It gave the Bears an automatic first down and they proceeded to victory formation to run out the clock. Whether or not the rookie Mills was baiting Maualuga is debatable, but Mills’ restraint from retaliating and negating Maualuga’s penalty with an offsetting penalty of his own was quite impressive for the youngster. Afterward, we learned that Trestman was the one who told his team that under four minutes to go in a game, they must resist retaliation at all cost to avoid costly penalties.
Checkmate for the new Bears head coach who was thinking two moves ahead.
The Bears have much to improve on as they go forward in the season, including shoring up their pass rush and coverage on defense, and their run blocking and cohesion in the passing game. But against one of the top-rated teams in the NFL and in the first game of a new coaching regime with new pieces all over the field, you couldn’t have asked for much more than big plays at big times resulting in the all-important statistic — number 1 — in the win column.
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