After hours and days of studying, reviewing game film, analyzing rosters and projecting strengths and weaknesses of each team in the NFL, I think we can say this much is certain: There is nothing certain in the NFL.
I think most of Chicago is still trying to figure out how the Bears escaped with a 28-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers Sunday night. The Bears were outplayed for much of the game before coming back from a big deficit and escaping like a thief in the night.
I’ve already heard many references to this being Jay Cutler‘s defining game as a member of the Chicago Bears. That might be a fair assessment, but we’ve seen plenty of other great performances from him in his five-plus years with the organization. This has more to do with the Bears as a team overcoming a rash of injuries and elements working against them in order to beat a good Niners team on the road.
What this game was not, was a Cutler turnover fest. We did not see an antsy, agitated quarterback who tried to do too much by himself and wind up imploding on national television. We saw a poised leader who completed 68% of his passes with four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 119.2 passer rating.
Immediate kudos are due the Bears’ makeshift offensive line, which was missing starters Roberto Garza and Matt Slauson, and still kept Cutler clean and protected for most of the night. In fairness, the Niners were without pass rush specialist Aldon Smith, who terrorized former Bears quarterback Jason Campbell and the offense the last time the Bears played in San Fran. Still, this is a much-improved offensive line from that game, and the depth came through.
While the Bears were able to move the ball through the air primarily in the second half, the one thing they were not able to do well was run the football. All week, the talk of the town was the need to get Matt Forte more involved in the game plan because of the fear that receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery would not be able to play due to their respective injuries. Not only was Forte stifled in the run game, but he wasn’t much a factor in the passing game, either. He rushed just 12 times for 21 yards — a 1.8 average — and only caught five passes for 15 yards. Fortunately, the dynamic duo of Marshall and Jeffery were able to play and that took pressure off Forte. Marshall had a fantastic game with five catches for 48 yards and three touchdowns — one of which was a leaping, one-handed grab in the end zone.
Tight end Martellus Bennett had yet another good game for the Bears, hauling in a team-high seven receptions for 37 yards and a score. Santonio Holmes chipped in with two receptions for 20 yards and Jeffery finished with just three catches for 47 yards, although his physical stature helped create some defensive penalties that gave the Bears first downs.
As big a day as Cutler had, the level of play from the defense was equally noteworthy — at least in the second half. Whereas the defense looked like it was getting shredded in the first half — and the relatively close score did not accurately reflect the defense’s performance — they came out and played much better to close the game. With cornerback Charles Tillman leaving the game with a triceps injury — a saddening scene that left the veteran in tears on the sideline — rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller stepped into the spotlight and made two great interceptions off of Colin Kaepernick. Safety Chris Conte added a third pick, one of the most athletic diving interceptions I’ve ever seen. His weaknesses are clear — poor tackling and occasional misalignment — but he clearly has displayed through two games why the coaching staff has confidence in him. Conte left the game with a shoulder injury, though.
Jared Allen stepped up his play from last week and applied good pressure on Kaepernick. He also forced a fumble that helped lead to a turnover. Jeremiah Ratliff was having another productive game stuffing the run before he left with a concussion. Shea McClellin and Stephen Paea each showed up with a sack. But perhaps the best surprise of the evening was defensive end Willie Young, who really got after Kaepernick and took him down for two sacks. Young now has three sacks in two games.
The special teams were less than special, beginning with a penalty on the opening kickoff return and a blocked punt that gave the Niners great field possession on their first offensive drive. To make matters worse, perhaps the team’s best special teamer, Sherrick McManis, hurt his quad in the game. With the rash of injuries going on around the team, the Bears could be in serious trouble in the third phase if they can’t find some stability.
I never expected the Bears to win that game. I think most of Chicago can say the same thing. But what I think is most important is that the Bears showed they still had fight in them after last week’s disheartening loss to the Bills. If they can come out and duplicate that effort each and every week, they can contend against anybody.
Next week, the Bears travel to New York to take on a Jets team that nearly knocked off the Green Bay Packers this week before flopping in the second half. The Jets clearly have the ability to move the football so the Bears can’t take them for granted. They can’t risk looking past the Jets on Monday night to the Packers game the following week.