Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Saints (10.06.13)

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For much of the Bears’ 26-18 loss to the undefeated New Orleans Saints, my takeaway from the game was that this Bears team is looking less like a ball club in the final year — or years — of its Super Bowl window and more like one that is struggling with its steps while learning a new dance.

Ever the optimist that I am, I have no doubts that the Bears can compete for a playoff spot this season, and once they enter the tournament, anything can happen from there. (Except I don’t see anyone standing in the way of the speeding freight train known as the Denver Broncos, engineered by the greatest quarterback of all time, Peyton Manning. But that’s a story for another day.)

The story of this day was how the Bears just don’t quite seem to be in total sync yet under new head coach Marc Trestman. It still seems like a team trying to learn a new dance move — sometimes they wow us with a performance we’re not used to seeing, and other times they stumble and fall. And unfortunately, with such a large contingent of the roster being in the final year of its deal, this was supposed to be a Super Bowl or bust season. Thus far, I have reservations that the final destination will be in New Jersey in early February, 2014, for Super Bowl XLVIII.

The Bears’ performance on Sunday wasn’t without its glitz and glamour. Let’s take a look at some of the positives that came from the game, starting with the most important position on the field. Fresh off his four-turnover game against the Lions last week, quarterback Jay Cutler had one of, if not his best performance as a Bear. Certainly his best under Trestman. Cutler completed 24 of 33 passes for 358 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He completed 72.7% of his passes and scored a 128.1 passer rating. Performances like that usually don’t go unrewarded, but Cutler lost just his second game in 28 tries when posting a passer rating above 100.

Cutler’s go-to guy for the game was second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery, who set a Bears record with 218 receiving yards on 10 receptions. He also hauled in a touchdown pass. Tight end Martellus Bennett caught five passes for 56 yards, Matt Forte caught four balls for 40 yards, and Brandon Marshall finished with 30 yards and a touchdown on four catches.

All in all, a good day for the offense, right? Well, that’s about where the good news ended.

Unfortunately, the offensive line — and the tight ends and running backs; we won’t leave them out of this particular discussion — did not have its best day protecting Cutler. The Saints got to Cutler and sacked him three times on Sunday and pressured him a number of other times. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was sending a variety of blitzes and the offense just wasn’t able to pick them up. Any time the Bears had some momentum going, the improved Saints defense would quash that.

Now let’s get to the bad that came from the game, and to do that we turn to the other side of the ball.

Further proof that this Bears season may be more of a “learning to dance” season than final Super Bowl run, the defense flopped for the second week in a row and looked awfully bad in doing so.

Let’s start with the pressure up front because, really, that’s where defense starts and ends. The bad day started with bad news when defensive tackle Stephen Paea was inactive for the game, further decimating the depth at tackle. Without their two starting tackles at season’s beginning — Paea and Henry Melton — the Bears lined up Nate Collins and newbie Landon Cohen. Collins registered one of only two sacks on Saints quarterback Drew Brees — Lance Briggs had the other — and Cohen failed to make the stat sheet without a single tackle. Same goes for defensive end Julius Peppers, who, after a solid game last week against the Lions just sort of disappeared this week. Ends Shea McClellin and Corey Wootton were a little more active, but hardly enough to get Brees off his spot or off his game.

When there’s little or no pressure up front, it’s near impossible to accurately gauge the reliability or competence of the secondary. And from all indications, there are still issues with safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte. There were a few plays that come to mind, one of which was in the second quarter on a deep strike to tight end Jimmy Graham with Wright trailing in coverage and Conte coming over late to help. The Saints put it in the end zone two plays later and took a 13-0 lead.

The defense wasn’t altogether bad. I thought the linebackers played well, with Briggs, James Anderson, and D.J. Williams all leading the team in tackles. Briggs notched a sack and recorded 11 tackles. Unfortunately, he made a mental mistake not normally seen from a veteran that cost the Bears late in the game. The Saints were lined up on a fourth and short, seemingly just trying to draw the Bears defense offsides like they had attempted earlier in the game. Whereas the Bears held their ground and stay disciplined on the first attempt, Briggs jumped offsides and gave the Saints a new set of downs.

(As a side note, I want to register my disdain for the ruling on “defensive players causing offensive players to move.” Once upon a time, the ruling was: only when a defensive player made contact with an offensive player was that ruled a defensive penalty. Now, there’s a rule where if a defensive player jumps into the neutral zone “causing the offensive player to move” that it is a penalty on the defense. Unfortunately, too often in today’s NFL, you get offensive linemen who stand up voluntarily and start pointing at the defensive player, even though the defensive player didn’t really “cause” the offensive player to move. It’s just silly how offensive linemen can bait the officials. But I digress.)

As for special teams, there wasn’t much to comment on regarding Devin Hester’s performance. He only got to return two kickoffs for an average of 24 yards because Saints punter Thomas Morstead was putting the kickoffs deep into the back of the end zone. Likewise, Hester was able to return only one punt, which he took back for 17 yards. It was a quiet day for him, but let’s give credit for those three returns. Those are good averages to have despite them flying under the radar.

The bigger special teams question — well, two of them — was how punter Adam Podlesh was going to do after struggling all season. The Bears brought in punters last week for tryouts to try to send a message to Podlesh. Podlesh responded well with a 44.8-yard average on four punts, with a long of 54 yards and one punt downed inside the 20. Saints punt returner Darren Sproles had just one punt return for two yards. The resulting starting field position on each of those four punts were the Saints’ 32, 11, 28 and 28 yard lines. Not too bad in flipping field position.

The other special teams concern was how the coverage units would do. As previously mentioned, the punt coverage allowed just two return yards whereas the kickoff coverage allowed just two returns for an average of 19 yards. This is definitely improvement for these units.

Unfortunately, despite the improvement from the special teams, despite the solid bounce-back game from Cutler (as he so often does), and despite the big, record day by Jeffery, the Bears just didn’t have enough firepower to overcome problems elsewhere.

The Bears can’t win games when they have six penalties. They can’t win games when they fail to pick up blitzes. They can’t win games when they run the ball just 14 times for 67 yards against a bad run defense. They can’t win games when they don’t take the ball away. And perhaps most of all, they can’t win games when they don’t rush the passer and create problems in the backfield.

The Bears still have to learn their new dance moves under Trestman, but most of those reside on the offensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker hasn’t changed the scheme that the defense has run the past nine years under Lovie Smith, so there are no “moves” to learn.

The sad reality is that the defense is aging rapidly and injuries are depleting the depth on a defensive line already struggling to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The sad reality is that the move to Trestman might have been just one year too late.

The sad reality is that the Bears — and their ardent fan base — might be facing a painful rebuilding mode at season’s end.

But there I go with a pessimistic outlook when it’s not really in my nature. Let’s look at the positives instead. Because the Lions lost to the Packers this week, the Bears are still tied with Detroit for first place in the NFC North, with the Packers a half-game behind. The Bears have a chance to reclaim control of the division when they welcome the winless New York Giants to Soldier Field on Thursday night. The Lions and Packers will have road games next week against the Browns and Ravens, respectively.

The Bears just have to take it one game, one week, one practice at a time, and maybe by season’s end they’ll be in sync and dancing their way into the postseason.

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