Lets begin with an injury report recap. The Bears all hand on deck at Friday’s practice, with only WR Earl Bennett (ankle) being limited. Bennett is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. For the Packers, S Atari Bigby (groin), FB Korey Hall (knee), DE Cullen Jenkins (calf), and LB Frank Zombo (knee) are all out for Sunday’s game; while OT Chad Clifton (knees), S Nick Collins (ribs), LB Clay Mathews (shin), and DL Ryan Pickett (ankle) were limited in practice on Friday and are listed as probable for Sunday. With the Packers needing a win to make the playoffs, I expected everyone on the roster to make a go of it—so I am a little surprised that Cullen Jenkins was already ruled out for Sunday—but otherwise, it looks like the Packers will pretty much be a full go. Now on to some observations for this game:
1) Who will play for the Bears? We have somewhat of a slight advantage by playing at 3:15 on Sunday. Atlanta (vs. Carolina) and New Orleans (vs. Tampa Bay) both host winnable games at 12:00; but should both of those teams lose, the Bears with a win over the Packers would clinch home-field throughout the playoffs. If one or both of those teams win, and lock the Bears into the #2 seed, then the Bears have an interesting dilemma: how long do you play your starters, if at all? On one hand, you can rest all your best players and go into the playoffs as probably the healthiest team in the NFL. But do you want to give the Packers an easier game to clinch a playoff spot, and risk having to play them THREE times in the same season? One of the interesting subplots to the Bears’ postseason is that we will host either the Eagles or Giants (who we have already played this year), or the Packers (who we will have already played twice).
2. If the starters do play, how will our secondary hold up versus the Packers’ passing attack? Our pass defense has looked shaky (to put it mildly) against the Patriots and Jets. Can we put pressure on Aaron Rodgers? Can we cover the Packers’ WR corps? With prospective games in the playoffs against the Eagles, Packers, Saints, or Falcons—we must get this in order.
3. If the core starters are rested, what young players will step up? If the starters are rested for the playoffs (which I expect if the Falcons and/Saints win), look for these guys to get alot of reps: RB Kahlil Bell, WR Devin Aromashodu, WR Juaquin Iglesias, OG Lance Louis, OL Herman Johnson, DE Corey Wootton, CB Joshua Moore, S Major Wright, and S Craig Steltz. The play of these younger players will offer a glimpse of what areas the Bears need to prepare to draft in 2011.
> Johnny Knox has had 84% of his catches go for first downs. That is the highest percetange in the NFL of anyone with at least 40 catches. The next highest is Desean Jackson (Eagles) wih 71%. Knox also is 40 yards away from being the first Bear with 1,000 receiving yards in a season since Marty Booker in 2002.
> When Chris Harris and Danieal Manning start the Bears’ game at the Packers on Sunday, it will mark the first time since 2001 the same set of safeties started all 16 games for the Bears (Mike Brown and Tony Parrish).
> With 3,666 yards in 2009 and 3,106 yards (so far) this season, Jay Cutler is the first Bears QB to throw for 3,000 yards in two consecutive years since…EVER.
> If he can get 22 rushing yards and 13 receiving yard on Sunday, Matt Forte will be the first Bear to have 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving since Walter Payton in 1983.
> Julius Peppers (8) and Israel Idonije (8) are the first Bears defensive ends to get 8 or more sacks in the same season since 1993 (Richard Dent and Trace Armstrong).
> Devin Hester (14) set the record for combined return TDs in 75 games and 289 returns; Brian Mitchell (13) took 197 games and 1,093 returns to set the previous record. That means the previous record holder ran a TD back every 84 returns; Hester averages one TD every 20 returns. If Hester played as long as Mitchell and kept the same pace, he would end up with 54 return TDs.
> Chris Harris is the first Bears safety with 5 INTs in one season since Mike Brown in 2001.
> The Bears have a chance to be the first NFC North team to go 6-0 in divisional play in a season since the NFL realigned the divisions in 2002.
Let me begin by saying “THANK YOU” to the Vikings for shocking the Eagles in Philly to give us first-round bye. Don’t look now, but the Bears, who play at Green Bay at 4:15 on Sunday, are going to be able to see if the Falcons and Saints both win before deciding how long to play our starters, if at all. More on that stuff tomorrow. But today, lets go over the Pro Bowl. Congratulations to Devin Hester, Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, and Lance Briggs for making the Pro Bowl—I don’t think anyone could call their placement on the Pro Bowl team unjustified. Hester has been the best returner in either league; Peppers and Urlacher could both make a case for Defensive Player of the Year; and Briggs has been his usual consistent self.
Now, I want to take a look at the full NFC roster and compare, by the numbers, how some Bears who weren’t named to the squad stack up numbers-wise with the guys who made the NFC Roster (Here’s hoping NO Bears play in the Pro Bowl, because they are getting ready for a game the following Sunday).
Jay Cutler, QB- I think Cutler, especially after last weeks game, has won as many of his detractors over as he possibly can without winning a playoff game. YET. Pro-Bowl-wise, it is hard to argue with who made the roster, especially when you consider there wasn’t even room for Aaron Rodgers on the roster. Matt Ryan will be there on the basis of being the QB of the team with the Best Record. Drew Brees won the Super Bowl last year and has had a good year; and Michael Vick is the feel-good story of the NFL this year. Cutler has had a good year; but it would be hard fro someone to argue his way onto the roster above those four guys.
Matt Forte, RB- Forte may have the best argument for being snubbed as his numbers compare pretty favorably with the three guys who made the team, Michael Turner (Falcons), Adrian Peterson (Vikings), and Stephen Jackson (Rams). On the surface, if you look at rushing yards ONLY, Forte with 978 yards seems not in the same league with those guys: Turner (1304), Peterson (1267), the Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw (1213), S.Jackson (1196), and the Eagles’ Lesean McCoy (1080) are all well ahead of the Bears’ RB. However, if you take into account recieving yards as well as rushing yards, then Forte ranks ahead of Turner by a large margin (1465 to 1389). Forte has more TDs (9) than Bradshaw (8) or Jackson (6); and averages more yards per carry (4.4) than Turner (4.1) or Jackson (3.7).
Olin Kreutz, C- I know there are no real NFL-kept stats to rate the performance of an offensive lineman, as opposed to other positions. However, the importance of Kreutz cannot be understated, as he is the ONLY player on our offensive line that is playing the same position they started the season in. He has held his own against the great DTs in our division. And I don’t know too much about the centers that were selected, except that Andre Gurode’s team (Cowboys) is 5 AND FREAKING 10; and Shaun O’Hara (Giants) has played in 6 OF 15 GAMES.
Chris Harris, S- I know. I am as surprised as you that I am putting his name up here. I was first in line for the “Trade for OJ Atogwe” Fan Club. I was in the camp that wanted a Major Wright-Craig Steltz combo at safety. Chris Harris is too slow at times and can be a liability in deep coverage. But he has really anchored the secondary, and has made some huge plays for us. Statisically, he is tied for the ead in INTs (5) and fumble recoveries (2) for all NFC safeties. For those of you who watch who follow the NFC closely, name me three safeties that have had better years than Chris Harris. Of the safeties chosen for the NFC, Nick Collins (Packers) has 3 INTS and 0 fumble recoveries; Antrel Rolle (Giants) has 1 INT and 1 fumble recovery; and Adrian Wilson (Cardinals) has 2 INTs and 0 fumble recoveries. Do I think Chris Harris is one of the best 3 safeties in the NFC? Probably not. But he has had the best year statistically of anyone out there.
Other players who have had good enough years to warrant consideration, especially if the stars back out at the rate they have the past few years are DE Israel Idonije, K Robbie Gould, and ST Corey Graham.
The Bears quieted some (never ALL) critics and moved within a Philly loss or win over Green Bay next week of a first-round bye and the 2nd seed in the NFC Playoffs with a win over the Jets on Sunday, 38-34. Here are a few thoughts from the game:
1) I hope that those few writers who were writing about Desean Jackson being the best returner in the NFL, and not Devin Hester, watched this game. After being flat-out avoided for the first half, Hester finally got one punt return and one kick return. Both he ran back deep into Jets’ territory and set up crucial scores for the Bears. It reminds me of when Barry Bonds was in his prime in San Francisco. Teams would pitch around him 95 percent of the time; but when he got a pitch, he CRUSHED IT. Hester may only get one or two shots per game–and I expect that to get less as we head into the playoffs–but when he gets one, he is heading upfield, making big plays, and changing momentum of games. I saw an article making a case for Devin Hester for MVP; and it sounds preposterous at first glance to make a part-time WR and returner a Most Valuable Player; but no one can argue the fact that he changes games like few players in the league can.
2) I hope those few people still out there that think the Bears made a mistake trading 2 first round picks for Jay Cutler watched this game. Granted, the INT that Lowery ran back for a TD was a terrible decision by Cutler. But the TD pass in the 1st quarter, and the 3 TD passes in the 3rd quarter were All-Pro throws. MVP-type plays. Against a defense with a pretty good secondary (2 past Pro Bowlers in Cromartie and Revis). And, for the record, the Kyle Orton-apologists who think Orton is a game manager who just wins games, he is now watching Tim Tebow run the Broncos’ offense after leading the Broncos to 3 WINS so far this season.
3) Our WRs have arrived. FINALLY. Did anyone ho watched this game actually think this offense FINALLY resembled the Rams ‘greatest show on turf in the second half? And throw in a Matt Forte that is running the ball harder than I have ever seen him run it, our offense looks like one that can score on any defense we will face come playoff time.
4) Julius Peppers has garnered most of the attention on the defense as free-agent acquisitions go, and rightfully so. But Chris Harris has really stepped his game back up the last 2 games; and he always seems to be making the big play that a)turns a game; or b) seals a game. For the most part, he has really solidified the safety position.
5) Alot of people, including myself, have bashed alot of the decisions Lovie Smith has made in his tenure in Chicago, including a few this year. The non-challenge in the Redskins game comes immediately to mind. But he & our coaching staff stayed steady with the game plan, even when we managed to turn a 10-0 lead into a 21-10 deficit. And, on the flip side, we saw what happens hen a coach (Rex Ryan) lets his emotions get the best of him early in the third quarter. I need an explanation on why, as a coach with a 4-point lead and a 4th-and-4 at YOUR OWN 40-yard line, you would run a fake punt with your PUNTER throwing a pass to a part-time WR? If you feel like you can get the 4 yards, keep you offense in, if anything. I think that 4th-down stop was the turning point in the game in the Bears’ favor.
I know some fans will be clamoring for the Bears to rest some starters and get healthy, having already clinched the NFC North last Monday night. I, for one, could not disagree more. Maybe we won’t catch the Falcons for home-field advantage, but getting a first-round bye would be HUGE. For one, you get the bye week to rest and get healthy. Two, you only need 2 wins to get to the Super Bowl, as opposed to 3. Three, the way the seeding is working out now, we would get the winner of the Eagles-Wildcard#2 at home, while the Falcons would have to play the winner of the Rams-Saints. Which will be the Saints. And, if the Saints were to beat the Falcons, we would host the NFC Championship game. So let us not take for granted that we are in the playoffs and there is nothing to worry about until the playoffs start. There is alot on the line for us the next 2 weeks. With that being said, here are some things I will be watching versus the Jets on Sunday:
1) Will our pass protection hold up against Rex Ryan’s pass rush? The Jets run a 3-4 defense, and have god pass rushers in Calvin Pace, Jason Taylor, and others. And while the Jets have 3 really good cornerbacks, their safeties and LBs are slow in coverage. So if our Offensive Line can keep Jay upright, we should be able to exploit Olsen, Forte, and Taylor in the flats and the middle of the field; much like the Patriots did to the Jets with their TEs and RBs in the butt-whooping they put on the Jets a few weeks back.
2) Jay Cutler versus Revis, Cormartie, and Wilson. The Jets corners play alot of man coverage. They play aggressive and like to jump routes. However, they are not blessed with a ton of pure speed. What will be important is our WRs ability to beat jams at the line and get into their timing routes. I expect to see some 5 to 7-yard drag patterns to take advantage of Hester’s and Knox’s speed. Cutler has done a great job of avoiding INTs, and that will really be tested this weekend.
3) Can our defense stop the big plays? In every Jets game I have watched, anytime they score, it is a long pass play on busted coverage or missed tackles on a short pass that turn into a big gain. And our tackling has looked really poor at times over the last 3 weeks. The Jets are saying that Mark Sanchez is a game-time decision; and while I think he is overrated myself, he would be much more of a threat than the Jets’ backup, Mark Brunell—the only QB in the league not named Brett Favre who qualifies for Social Security.
4) Can our special teams coverage units contain Brad Smith? Devin Hester’s accomplishments last Monday night versus the Vikings overshadowed the fact that, for the 3rd straight game, our coverage units consistently gave up tons of field position. I don’t see too many missed tackles, so it is obvious a lack on discipline in lane assignments. And Brad Smith of the Jets showed last week versus the Steelers that he can take it to the house on any kick. This is the type of game that has the potential to be a low-scoring game, and a big special teams play might be the difference.
I think our defense shuts down the Jets and our offense makes a couple big plays and we win, 21-10.
My overall thoughts on the Bears’ division-clinching win over the Vikings on Monday Night:
1) For all the talk about the Bears’ bickering over the playing surface, I think it is only fair to applaud the Bears’ players and coached for the mental toughness they showed on Monday Night. Firstly, the Vikings were able to somehow skirt a rule regarding injury reports that nobody in the NFL knew about and get Brett Favre in the lineup after declaring him out on Saturday. The Vikings were able to get an NFL game played at TCF Bank Stadium, a college stadium, that a) does not have the required number of NFL seats to host an NFL game (the very reason the Bears moved from Wrigley Field to Soldier Field in 1970); and b) does not have the NFL-mandated safety features, such as heating coils in the turf. Secondly, the Bears were going to be playing outside, in the cold—which was not a very good formula for us the previous week versus the Patriots. To make matters worse, the Vikings won the toss and drove right down with no resistance and scored on the opening drive. I don’t think I was the only Bears fan in the world thinking, “Oh CRAP.” Even the referees seemed determined to make the game close. Two BOGUS Holding calls on the Bears wiped out a long screen play and a TD; A roughing the Passer call was flat out missed on Jay Cutler’s INT; Brett Favre appeared to fumble on the play that knocked him out of the game; and The pass interference call on Major Wright that led to the Vikings; 2nd TD was incorrect. But the Bears withstood the early emotional burst from the Vikings and, quite frankly, physically and mentally beat them back down. Sure, the Vikings were a little short-handed, but the Bears went out and for the most part, took care of business very clinically.
2) It is GREAT to see Matt Forte finally running like a6-foot 2-inch, 225 pound running back. He was running downhill, and PUNISHING would-be tacklers. If this continues, this will give us that dimension that we really haven’t had since Thomas Jones left in 2006.
3) Our defensive line played their most dominant game of the season. Besides Wootton putting Favre out of the game, we had constant pressure on their QBs and batted down a few balls with active hands. Even the pursuit on plays down the field looked 100 times better. Everyone knows the defensive line is the lifeblood of the Cover-2 scheme—so hopefully, the high level of play carries over. One side note—HAS ISRAEL IDONIJE HAD THE QUIETEST 8-SACK SEASON IN THE HISTORY OF THE NFL?
4) Devin Hester. THANK GOD we have him. In an era where special teams coverage units are schemed and practiced more than ever, and teams have specialists on their teams strictly to nuetralize a good returner, it is safe to say that Devin Hester is the most dynamic returner in the NFL. Ever.
A FEW THINGS I AM STILL CONCERNED ABOUT:
1) What is up with our tackling at the beginning of games? We settled in okay, but Toby Gerhart is NOT Earl Campbell. Is it the cold weather? Lack of focus at the outset of games? This must be corrected, as we will play some good tough runners in the playoffs.
2) What is wrong with our kick coverage units? Is it just having to plug different guys in there as a domino effect of the Tinoisamoa injury? IT would be a shame to play so well in the playoffs and have a special team return turn the game in the other team’s favor.
3) With a 37-14 lead late the fourth quarter, WHAT THE HECK IS JAY CUTLER STILL DOING IN THE GAME? I think I can speak for all Bears fans when I say that based on what I saw in the Carolina game, I do not want to enter the postseason with TODD COLLINS as our starter. Lovie, PLEASE get Cutler to the playoffs healthy.
With all this being said, if you would have told me that with 2 weeks left, the Bears would have clinched the division, had inside track at a 1st-round bye in the playoffs, and an outside shot at home-field throughout the playoffs, I would have been pretty happy with that. Congrats to the Bears on a great year so far, and lets keep it going. BEAR DOWN!
The only real theme that has been pretty consistent in this game so far is a) the Vikings refuse to punt to Devin Hester; and b) the Bears are (once again) having protection issues. Cutler is taking way too many hits in this game. On the Vikings’ next possession, Julius Peppers almost intercepts his second pass of the game making an absolutely ridiculous play on a bubble screen. Let me take this time to say that I don’t know that anyone can EARN a $90-million-dollar contract; but Julius Peppers has made maybe the best case of anyone…Then, two plays later, Corey Wootton simultaneously made the first sack of his career, possibly ended Brett Favre’s career,and became my new best friend…Hester catches TD pass, and the half ends with the Bears leading 17-7…Overall, I have been impressed with the play of our defensive line, and the running of Matt Forte…