Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Rams (11.24.13)

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There comes a point in every season when fans of “bubble” teams fighting desperately for a playoff spot will ask themselves: “Are we just not good enough to make the playoffs?”

That time may have come for Bears fans on Sunday in St. Louis, following the Bears’ embarrassing 42-21 loss to the Rams.

The Rams are a below average football team, folks, and I’m not even talking about their record. They have some talented players, sure, but not enough to be a playoff contender, especially not on offense. But somehow, led by quarterback Kellen Clemens and running back Benny Cunningham — right, who? — they destroyed the Bears defense.

So, if the Rams are a below average football team and were dominant in their victory … what does that make the Bears?

I was saddened and disappointed by what I witnessed from the Bears defense on Sunday. Did the offense play perfectly? No. In fact, Matt Forte’s lost fumble on the Bears’ first offensive play of the game wound up setting the Bears back 14 points, a deficit too much to overcome for a defense so bad. But the Bears offense played well enough to win. The Bears defense did not.

Hence, the entirety of this column will be focused solely on the defense. A defense that gave up 406 yards of total offense, 258 of which came on the ground. That’s right, the Bears got gashed for 258 rushing yards. By the St. Louis Rams. That Rams offense led by journeyman Kellen Clemens? Yes, that Rams offense. Most of those rushing yards came from Benny Cunningham. Yes, Benny Cunningham. Who? I don’t know.

I’m going to be fair to the Bears and say that they have had some devastating injuries to their defense this year. They were without Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Stephen Paea, Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams, and Charles Tillman as they made Cunningham an instant fantasy football sensation.

But still. Benny Cunningham? Really?

From the game’s very first drive, you could tell the Bears were in for a long day. On the Rams’ third play of the game, wide receiver Tavon Austin took a pitch 65 yards down the sideline for the game’s first score.

First, the credit: Austin has game-breaking speed and he’s a good player. The blocking was set up nicely for him. And it was a clever piece of trickery whereby all the action was going to one side of the field and it got the defense to over-pursue, Austin then pivoted and reversed field and outran everybody.

Now, the reality: A good, disciplined defense does not let that play go for 65 yards. The Bears failed. Shea McClellin lost containment on the end of the line of scrimmage and Chris Conte and Khaseem Greene failed to keep their heads on swivels as they absorbed brutal, blindside blocks.

Of course, Forte fumbled on the very next play and gave the ball back to St. Louis. Three plays later, Stacy punched the ball in the end zone and the game-long battle of climbing out of a hole began.

Forte put that fumble behind him and on the Bears’ ensuing possession, Josh McCown led the Bears on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Martellus Bennett. Being down by 7 points with three and a half quarters to play meant the Bears were back in the game, right? Well, I certainly thought so. But we didn’t expect the Bears defense not to show to play.

The Rams matched that Bears drive with one of their own, spanning 9 plays and 80 yards capped off by a 6-yard touchdown reception from tight end Jared Cook, thrown to him by quarterback Kellen Clemens — yeah, that guy.

Two Bears drives later, McCown engineered another successful drive, this one a 12-play march covering 68 yards ending with a McCown-to-Brandon Marshall three-yard touchdown.

The Bears were once again within one score thanks to their offense. But was that enough to keep them in the game? Nope. Because on the next drive, the Bears defense was gashed again as the Rams answered right back with a field goal drive.

To open the second half, McCown led the Bears on a 14-play drive right down the field. That’s when Marc Trestman used his guts to go for a touchdown on fourth and goal from the 1-yard-line. With the Bears trailing by 10 points, should Trestman have sent out the field goal unit? He’ll be second guessed all day about that. Given how poorly the defense was playing, it didn’t matter either way. But Trestman was trusting his offense, which was playing exceptionally well up to that point.

But, Michael Bush — the Bears’ supposed goal line and short-yardage back — was stuffed for minus-4 yards on the play and the Bears turned it over.

Under normal circumstances with at least a competent defense, turning the ball over that deep in the opponent’s end of the field isn’t a big deal, right? With the Rams taking over at their own 5-yard-line, there was a good chance the Bears would get the ball back with good field position, right?

We know better by now.

The great Kellen Clemens led the Greatest Show on Turf down the field on 11 plays, capped off by another field goal.

The Bears offense had a couple more successful drives as the Rams had no answer for them, but they were in a hole they simply could not climb out of due to a defense that couldn’t stop anything.

How is it possible the Bears defense has gotten so bad? Well, part of it is the injuries I previously mentioned. Another part of it is the rapidly aging bodies of many of the veterans on that side of the ball.

But the most discouraging thing is that the Bears finally have a Top 10 offense, one of the best units in the NFL, and it’s being squandered by a defense that can’t hold up its end of the bargain.

McCown had a magnificent game on Sunday. He completed 36 of 47 passes (76.5%) for 352 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a 102.4 passer rating. This coming from a guy who just a year ago was no better than Kellen Clemens. But with weapons all around him and with Trestman’s successful offense, McCown looks like a capable NFL quarterback.

But does it matter? Not if the Bears can’t play defense.

So, are the Bears really a playoff team at this point? They’re on the bubble, but I just can’t see them winning too many more games with a defense that has trouble playing defense. The Detroit Lions have control of the NFC North, but they’re trying to give it away like they do every year, in Detroit Lions fashion. The Lions have now lost two games in a row — two games they’ve had no business losing, to the Steelers and Buccaneers — and probably should have lost a third in the row to these Bears. They’re actively trying to give the Bears and Packers a chance to stay in the divisional race.

Let’s be honest. The wild card is pretty much off the table at this point. It’s not mathematically impossible, but it’s highly improbable. The Bears’ best chance to make the playoffs is by taking the NFC North crown. But to do so, they have to win more games than the Lions in the final five weeks of the season.

That starts this coming week against Minnesota — a team that with a healthy Adrian Peterson could legitimately rush for over 300 yards against this Bears defense.

It’ll be quite the game.

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