– In spite of all the personnel turnover this offseason, the Bears special teams are maintaining their place among the NFL’s elite.
– I personally believe it is posturing to make the Packers game plan for a few different scenarios, but Chris Harris says he is “50-50” for this week’s game against the Packers.
– In other injury news, Earl Bennett is looking like a scratch for Week 3.
– Arguably the greatest center in Bears’ history, Jay Hilgenberg sees promise in our young offensive line.
– Injury updates for OT Gabe Carimi; SS Chris Harris; . Nothing specific on whether WR Earl Bennett will play on Sunday after leaving the last game with a bruised chest. RB Marion Barber and WR Roy Williams are expected back at practice on Wednesday.
– Mike Ditka came to QB Jay Cutler’s defense, saying he needs more help from his entire supporting cast.
I do consider myself as die-hard a Bear fan as it gets; but the second half of Sunday’s beating at the hands of the Saints was hard to watch. I started having flashbacks of the Giants game at Meadowlands last year, one which Jay Cutler was knocked out of after suffering 8 sacks. In the first half.
As far as the pass protection goes, people are quick to blame the injuries to OT Gabe Carimi and OG Lance Louis, or the insertion of OT Frank Omiyale as reasons we had some trouble keeping Cutler upright. Upon further review, Omiyale played fairly well for being thrown into the fire against the Saints, and i expect him to do well going forward. The injuries never help, but every team has to deal with injuries—it is not an excuse for performance or execution. I will give my take on why our offense struggled later. But onto the review of the key points from my preview of Week 2, from last Thursday:
1) Bears’ tackling. Our defenses’ tackling was very average. There were a few impressive stops—most notably, a Tim Jennings’ tackle that forced a field goal from the Saints early in the 3rd quarter—but we had trouble bringing down rookie RB Mark Ingram and RB Pierre Thomas; and had a hard time even catching Darren Sproles.
2) Saints’ TE Jimmy Graham versus the Bears’ LBs. Graham finished the game as the Saints’ 2nd-leading receiver with 6 catches for 79 yards, including a 31-yarder.
3) The Bears’ Offensive Line versus The Superdome Crowd. The Bears committed 6 penalties for 47 yards, including 2 false starts on substitute OT Frank Omiyale. Even worse, there were numerous missed assignments on pass protection which led to alot of unnecessary hits on QB Jay Cutler. Whether those missed assignments were not a product of missed audibles, and just crappy blocking, we may never know. But the crowd was certainly a factor.
4) Kick and Punt Coverages. This was actually not a factor on either side, as neither return man really got anything going.
5) The Saints’ offensive line versus the Bears’ defensive line. This was a matchup the Bears HAVE to win in every game for the Cover-2 philosophy to work. They were dominated most of the game by the Saints’ offensive line; and they looked slow in pursuit. Take this for a contrast : In Week 1, Matt Ryan of the Falcons dropped back 48 times and was hit 11 times and sacked 5 times—a sack percentage of 11 percent. In Week 2, Drew Brees of the Saints dropped back 38 times, was hit just 2 times and sacked only once, a sack percentage of 2.5 percent. We must do a better job of creating pressure from our front four going forward.
Now…onto the pass protection troubles. I think there is are many facets to this problem that we need to fix before Jay Cutler gets killed:
A) I don’t know if we will ever know the reasoning behind the play-calling, but Matt Forte ran for 50 yards on 7 carries in the first quarter; and had 3 carries for -1 yards the rest of the way. Now, maybe the lack of running in the second half was a result of being down and trying to catch up…but what about the second quarter? Especially when you take into account the hostile environment…and how scrutinized our offensive line was all pre-season…you gotta get them into a rhythm and build some confidence.
B) Not having Roy Williams and Earl Bennett hurt, but I think it speaks ALOT to the ability of Devin Hester and Johnny Knox as receivers (or Cutler’s confidence in them; or both) that rookie Dane Sanzenbacher got a majority of the ‘clutch’ looks once Bennett went down. It is obvious that Hester and Knox have NO CLUE in the passing game.
– They do not break off routes on 8-man blitzes and get open quickly. They do not beat the jams and give Jay a good targets. There was one play in particular, where the Saints showed an 8 man rush, pre-snap. Jay takes a two step drop and looks for Hester or Knox out on the edge, expecting them to run a slant or a hitch. The only problem? Both Knox and Hester are running go routes and have not even looked back. Which is probably a good thing, because all they would have seen was Cutler getting thrown to the ground. Again.
– They do not make the clutch catches routinely. Hester, Knox, and Sanzenbacher all dropped very catchable passes that would have extended drives, or at least showed the Saints that we could be functional on blitz reads, and perhaps slowed the blitzes down somewhat. One thing I notice in this regard is that Hester, Knox, and Sanzenbacher NEVER come back to the ball to shield the defender and thus give Jay an easier target to throw into. They are always falling to the ground, away from Jay—which allows the defender to easier get in the way of the pass.
– Alot of people will blame this on Jerry Angelo for drafting smurf WRs who are not terribly physical, or not going out and getting a number one WR-type. But Hester and knox have been WRs now for 3 years apiece; you KNOW they have been coached up on how to do these things. There are WRs in the NFL with the same body types that do very well in third-and-short situations—Wes Welker, Steve Smith, just to name a couple—HESTER AND KNOX JUST HAVE TO EXECUTE.
– in other words, if you are going to try to win with those two guys, then you have to alter the game plan. ALOT. Keep 8 guys in to block for Jay, send Knox and Hester on go routes, have Jay chuck it 60 yards, and see if they can out-run the CBs and catch up to the ball. Its what we used to do with Bernard Berrian a few years back, because he had alot of the same deficiencies as Knox and Hester.
C) A coach can draw up the best plays and protection plans in the history of the NFL…but eventually your players have to MAN UP AND BLOCK SOMEBODY. Our OTs, TEs and RBs routinely whiffed on blocks, and nearly got Jay killed. Kellen Davis had a couple; Kahlil Bell had a really bad whiff on an inside blitz. Having Barber back will help there, as he is more of a physical presence than Bell. But again, blitz pickup is more about “want to” than skill. Us Bears fans had the chance to witness one of the best ever, Walter Payton—and he was only 5 foot-10 inches; maybe 200 pounds. As for Davis, maybe it is time to leave Speath in there full-time, or see what rookie Kyle Davis can do; because Kellen Davis looked SOFT in the Saints game.
D) I am not letting the coaches off of the hook on this one. On the 80-yard TD pass to Devery Henderson, credit Saints’ head coach Sean Payton for calling the play. Most coaches have a tendency to not try those deep balls against the Bears’ Cover-2 defense, and just are satisfied trying to 5-yard slant us down the field (eg.- The Falcons in Week One). Payton knew he had to stretch our defense out to open up some running lanes for his RBs and underneath passes to RB Darren Sproles and TE Jimmy Graham. So, even if Major Wright doesn’t get beat and the pass is incomplete, Payton’s purpose would have been served. I NEVER see the Bears doing this anymore. You have two of the fastest WRs in the game in Knox and Hester. You have one of the strongest arms in the game in Cutler. THROW THE BALL DOWN THE FIELD A COUPLE OF TIMES—if nothing else, you will loosen up the underneath stuff, or at least get Hester and Knox a cushion from the CBs, so they do not have to try and beat press coverage.
And please—when we are losing by 3 scores midway threw the fourth quarter and you have 2 backup offensive linemen in the game and your franchise QB has been getting beaten to a pulp all game long, PLEASE TAKE JAY OUT OF THE GAME, RUN THE BALL, AND LIVE TO FIGHT ANOTHER DAY. As we learned by the Giants’ debacle last season, it is just one game—we still won the NFC North last season, regardless of that game.
The good news? Our coaching staff made the adjustments last season, after the Giants game, and we went on to win the NFC North. So don’t write off our team just yet—just know they have some stuff to fix before Sunday.
Just some quick, random thought about some other games going on in the NFL today:
1 ) DO OR DIE IN WEEK 2? There are quite a few teams, especially in the NFC, with playoff aspirations who are going to be facing tough opponents while trying to avoid an 0-2 start. The Saints host (our) Bears in New Orleans, the Falcons host the Eagles in Atlanta. Dallas travels to San Francisco, and you have two games where BOTH TEAMS are 0-1—the Buccaneers face the Vikings in Minnesota, and the Giants host the Rams. For the Saints, Falcons, Giants, Rams and Bucs, a loss would also mean falling to 0-2 in conference play, which always seems to come into play as a tiebreaker for wild-card berths or home field advantage later in the year. 0-2 is not a death sentence, but you have to consider that 10-6 teams have missed the playoffs the last couple seasons; so you are basically putting yourself in a situation where you HAVE to win 11 of 14 games the rest of the way, to be assured a spot in the postseason. Even more interestingly, if the Falcons and Bucs both lose, they will be facing each other in Week 3 in a game where one team potentially saves their season, and the other team ends theirs.
2 ) POTENTIAL WEEK 3 MATCHUPS OF UNBEATENS. Should the Packers beat the Panthers in Charlotte today, and the Bears beat the Saints in New Orleans—it sets up a Week 3 matchup of 2-0 teams that could go a long way in determining who wins the NFC North. Same with New England and Buffalo (no, seriously—Buffalo) in the AFC East. Winning that game would essentially put you up 2 games in the division.
3 ) 1,000 YARDS PASSING—IN ONE GAME? The Patriots will be facing the Chargers today, one week after Tom Brady torched the Dolphins for 500+ passing yards. The problem is that they allowed Chad Henne of the Dolphins to throw for over 400 yards in that game. The same Chad Henne who was almost benched if the Dolphins could have pulled off the preseason trade for Kyle Orton. The same Kyle Orton who couldn’t beat out Rex Grossman for a starting job in Chicago a few years back. So after giving up 400+ yards to a mediocre-AT-BEST quarterback on Monday night, who do the Patriots get? PHILIP RIVERS OF THE CHARGERS. (On a side note, there was an interesting read by Michael Wilbon about how dominating defenses are a thing of the past.) We might see the first 1,000 combined yards passing game in NFL history.
4 ) SLOW STARTS. The performance of the Titans’ RB Chris Johnson should be fair warning to the Bears in regards to the Matt Forte contract situation. Johnson held out for a majority of the preseason, and obviously has not worked himself into playing shape yet, as he was limited to 24 yards on 9 carries and 25 yards on 6 catches. The Bears have always been good at taking care of their own in a timely manner, and Forte is an integral part of the offense we run. We could not afford a slow start from him.
5 ) IF A KICKOFF RULE IS CHANGED, AND PLAYERS STILL RETURN THE KICKS, DOES IT MAKE THE GAME SAFER? We saw three kick returned for touchdowns on opening weekend. Returners are running kickoffs back that they catch 8 yards deep in the endzone. The main effect I think this rule will have is it will place a premium on kickoff specialists who can put air under the ball—thus allowing their coverage to get downfield; and coverage teams that resemble punt coverage teams, as opposed to your ‘normal’ kickoff coverage teams—with more receivers, cornerbacks, and safeties as opposed to linemen and linebackers—players who can get up to top speed faster, since coverage team members can no longer get an unlimited running start. One thing is for certain—it hasn’t discouraged any of the elite return men from trying to run one back.
6 ) DOES THE NFL SCHEDULE MAKER LIVE IN DETROIT? If you look at Detroit’s schedule, after playing the Buccaneers (who are a marginal NFC playoff contender at best) in Week One, they do not play a road game against a team with a winning record until Week 10, when they travel to Chicago to face the Bears. Which seems pretty difficult to imagine, since they have the NFC South on their schedule, along with Green Bay and the Bears. The schedule lines up for Detroit to be able to be 6-3 or so going into that game with us.
7 ) NO LOVE FOR THE BEARS. The Bears (vs the Saints), Jaguars (vs the Jets) and the Chargers (vs the Patriots) are the ONLY 1-0 teams who were picked UNANIMOUSLY to LOSE their Week 2 games.
8 ) WELCOME TO THE PASSING ERA. Of the 16 games in Week One, 14 of a possible 32 quarterbacks threw for at least 300 yards. 4 quarterbacks threw for 400 yards. On the contrast, only 7 of a possible 32 running backs ran for at least 100 yards. Furthermore, in 3 games, the running back on either team did not even reach 60 yards. It will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend that continues throughout the season.
1) Bears’ tackling.The Saints run alot of the same style offense that the Falcons employ, with alot of quick passes and run-after-the-catch. In Week 1, Drew Brees had 6 of his 32 completions travel more than 10 yards in the air; 11 of the 32 were dump-offs to RBs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. The Packers tackling was horrendous, and gave the Saints more than a few third-down conversions that extended scoring drives. Conversely, the Bears’ tackling was superb, for the most part, and limited Pro-Bowl WR Roddy White to less than 8 yards per catch, and QB Matt Ryan averaged just 6.5 yards per pass attempt. The Bears will get a slight reprieve as Saints’ WR Marques Colston will be out for this game, recovering from a broken collarbone.
2) Saints’ TE Jimmy Graham versus the Bears’ LBs. This becomes even more crucial should the Bears be without MLB Brian Urlacher, who left the team on Wednesday following the death of his mother, and whose status is understandably uncertain for Sunday. Graham is a rising star and is excellent at finding seams in the middle of the field. It will be the responsibility of LBs Lance Briggs and Nick Roach to cover those seams between the hash marks. I expect to see the Bears in alot of nickel and maybe even dime packages should Urlacher be unavailable.
3) The Bears’ Offensive Line versus The Superdome Crowd.Bears’ tackles J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi played relatively well in their first NFL games at left tackle and right tackle, respectively; but did give up 4 sacks—not to mention a missed cut block that led to the Falcons’ only touchdown, on an interception return. The crowd will make it difficult to audible protections and hear the snap counts—which could lead to false starts and missed assignments—and we know that Saints’ Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams loves to dial up blitzes. False starts change 1st-and-10’s to 1st-and-15’s, and change 3rd-and-shorts to 3rd-and-longs—limiting the penalties will be key.
The Bears opened some eyes with their dominating, 30-12 victory over the Falcons at home in Week 1. It was eye-opening, I think for a couple main reasons: 1) Jay Cutler completing over 65 percent of his passes for 300 yards and 2 touchdowns; and 2) holding the Falcons’ highly-regarded offense to a pair of field goals. So the Bears have gotten through the first part of what is arguably the hardest 3-game stretch of their schedule with a win, and now travel down to New Orleans to face the Saints in Week 2. After watching the Packers put up 21 first-quarter points and 42 total points, it seems like the key to this game will be whether the Bears’ defense can contain Drew Brees and the potent Saints’ offense. Digging a little deeper, here are some things to watch for in this game that could determine the outcome.
5) The Saints’ offensive line versus the Bears’ defensive line. Again, the possibility the Bears might be without Urlacher make this a matchup the Bears have to win. The Saints gave up 3 sacks on 49 pass attempts in Week One, a pretty impressive performance, considering they were going against the Packers’ pass rush. On the flip side, the Saints average less than 4 yards per carry. The Bears’ defensive line combined for 5 sacks and 10 other tackles for loss against the Falcons. 3 of those sacks came up the middle from DTs Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye—the battle between Melton, Okoye, and Anthony Adams against the Saints’ OGs Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans and C (Ex-Bear) Olin Kreutz will be a key one to watch.
4) Kick and Punt Coverages. The Bears did a great job covering kicks against the Falcons’ Pro Bowl returner Eric Weems, holding him to 3.3 yards per punt returns and 16.5 per kick return. The Bears face another test this week with Saints’ returner Darren Sproles, who has 5 return for touchdowns in his 78 career games. The Saints gave up a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to rookie returner Randall Cobb of the Packers, and now face the best returner in the history of the NFL in the Bears’ Devin Hester. On turf. With two such evenly-matched teams, a big special teams play could be key.
MY PREDICTION: I expect this to be a high-scoring game. And I expect a big return by Devin Hester to be the difference as the Bears go to 2-0 with a 31-27 win.
The Bears started off the season just about as well as a team could start off a season with a 30-12 thumping of the Falcons, one of the media’s preseason’s NFC darlings. The media, who have been very eager to write the 2011 Bears off ever since the end of the lockout, have attributed the Bears’ dominance over the Falcons from everything to lucky bounces to early season jitters to playing on real grass. The fact remains, however, that the Bears would have been up 20-3 at halftime (not just 16-3) had Cutler not over thrown a WIDE-OPEN Kellen Davis on a third-and-goal; and the Falcons’ lone touchdown came on a returned interception late in the fourth quarter, when the game was essentially over. With all that being said, here are my THREE STARS for Week One:
1) Brian Urlacher, LB – Finished with 10 tackles, 1 interception, and a 12-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown. Was all over the field in the way that only Brian Urlacher can. Of all the players in the NFL, the lockout might have been most beneficial for him, as it let him rest up for the season—he looks faster than he has in 5 years.
2) Jay Cutler, QB – Completed 70 percent of his passes and averaged 15 yards per completion. Took 4 sacks, but showed improved maturity in throwing the ball away on a couple instances and took a couple sacks instead of throwing the ball into coverage. That being said, he did have a couple potential interceptions dropped and cost us a touchdown on that overthrow at the end of the first half. Overall, if Jay continues this pace and ends with 5,000 yards passing and 30+ TDs, we should be in excellent shape.
3) Henry Melton, DT – Alot of people would put Julius Peppers here, as he had 2 sacks and probably altered the Falcons’ game plan more than anyone else on our defense. However, in his first career start, Melton was UNBLOCKABLE as the “Tommie Harris” 3-technique tackle. He finished with 2 sacks, 2 other tackles for loss, and 7 quarterback hits. At this rate, teams will not be able to slide blockers over to Peppers—which should keep all opposing offensive coordinators up at night.
Now lets look at the keys to the game from Friday; and evaluate how we did:
1) Good Tackling. I said if the Bears tackle well, we should hold them to under 20 points. Our defense did even better than that, holding the Falcons’ offense to just 6 points. We had 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception. There were a couple of coverage lapses—one in particular on a 20-yard seam route to TE Tony Gonzalez—but a really good overall game by our defense.
2. Pass protection. The Falcons had 4 sacks, but overall the line protected Jay pretty good. On the Cutler interception, OT J’Marcus Webb has to do a better job of cutting that DE who batted the quick pass up in the air. I thought Chris Spencer did a great job filling in for Lance Louis—and I think he might keep the starting spot, even when Louis gets healthy.
3. Our WRs versus the jam. Overall, orur WRs did a good job getting open; Roy Williams had a good game before he injured his hamstring. One of the aspects of Williams’ game that wasn; treally talked about upon his signing this offseason was his ability to block—and he had a couple really good blocks—-one on a pass to Hester, one on a pass to Forte—that sprung them for long gains.
4. Punt Coverage. Really good job here—I am not sure why I ever doubted a Dave Toub-coached special teams unit. held Eric Weems, last year’s NFC Pro Bowl returner, to 3.3 yards per return.
5. Cutler’s decision making. I give Cutler a free pass on the interception-turned-touchdown. I am not sure why we were still passing at that point; or why Cutler was even in the game at that point. But he threw the ball away on a couple plays, where 2 years ago he might have tried to force a pass; and a couple of those sacks were the result of him just taking the play for what it was, not trying to be Superman, and living to fight another down.
FINAL PREDICTION: The name of the game in the current NFL is being able to create big plays. I think the Bears are more suited for this than the Falcons, and—especially being at home—-the Bears beat the Falcons in Week One, 28-17. The final score was 30-12. Pretty good, huh?
The only good thing about the lockout and subsequent late-starting training camp was that it made this preseason fly by; and all of a sudden, here we are at Opening Week. Experts have said that the scheduling gods did not do us any favors the first 3 weeks—versus Atlanta; at New Orleans; and versus Green Bay. I think this could end up being a plus for the Bears; especially when you consider if we can get through this cluster of games at 2-1 or even 1-2; our schedule is noticeably easier for the final 12 games—especially the final 6 games of the season, which gives us an advantage for a late-season playoff push.
At any rate, we open the season at home against the Falcons; a trendy pick by the experts to be an NFC contender—led by (overrated, in my book) quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, and wideout Roddy White. A win here could be huge later in the season, when head-to-head tiebreakers could determine playoff spots, seeding, and possibly home-field advantage. Here are some things that are key for the Bears to come out of Week one with a win:
1) Good Tackling. Matt Ryan averaged about 6.5 yards per pass attempt last season, which was actually a career-high for him. Which means the Falcons throw alot of bubble screens, slants, hooks, and quick outs. They rely on players like Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and (now) Julio Jones to break tackles in space in order to create big plays. In fact, the Falcons only had 2 plays the ENTIRE GAME over 15 yards—a 40-yard TD catch and run by White and a 16-yarder by Gonzalez—both the result of missed tackles that would have limited those plays to 4- 5 yards. We did do a good job on Michael Turner, limiting him to just 30 yards on 13 carries. But he is one of the premier RBs in the NFL, and he is a load to bring down.
Coincidentally, the Thursday night game between the Packer and Saints would have been about a 21-14 game if either side was tackling well. It looked like a charity flag football game at times. I am not sure if this was a fluke, or a result of a shortened training camp, or the reduced number of padded practices—but this bears watching in al the week one games, not just the Bears game. If the Bears miss alot of tackles, our defense could be in some trouble. If we tackle well, the Falcons should have trouble putting up more than 20 points.
2. Pass protection. We have a 2nd-year player in his first year as a left tackle (J’Marcus Webb) and a rookie right tackle (Gabe Carimi) going against top-tier pass rushers in Ray Edwards and John Abraham. I expect us to run the ball ALOT early; and a game plan that attempts to get Forte out in space in the passing game matched up on the Falcons’ LBs and safeties, who are not known for their speed. I also expect to see alot of help from TEs Matt Speath and Kellen Davis on those edge rushers.
3. Our WRs versus the jam. The Falcons play a TON of man coverage, relying on their pass rushers to cause inaccurate passes and generate takeaways. Their CBs like to play up and aggressive on opposing WRs. However, they were exposed TERRIBLY in their last playoff game against the Packers, because if they are left to cover WRs for more than 2 or 3 seconds, or forced to try to make one-on-one, open-field tackles, they struggle. Heck, their CBs had trouble guarding our WRs during our last meeting in 2009, as Cutler threw for 300 yards and 2 TDs. Our offense’s downfall last season was the inability of our WRs to get open against in-your-face, physical CBs. Knox, Hester, and Bennett all look like they added some strength this offseason—not to mention the addition of Roy Williams—and we will see if this results in improved play in beating jam coverage, and better windows for Cutler to throw into.
4. Punt Coverage. I do not expect to see that much action in the kickoff return game, as both Robbie Gould and Falcons’ KO specialist Michael Koenen can bury the ball into the back of the endzone from the new 35-yard line kickoff line. However, the Bears and Falcons boast Pro-Bowl punt returners in Devin Hester and Eric Weems, respectively. And the Bears had some trouble covering punts last season, and now have a new punter and as many as 5-6 new players on punt coverage. Field posistion will be huge in this game, and one big punt return either way could be the difference.
5. Cutler’s decision making. One of the most under-noticed things about the Bears’ 2010 season was how QB Jay Cutler’s decision making improved over the last 8-10 weeks of the season. Knowing when to take what the defense gives you, or when to scramble if nothing is open. As we saw in the Thursday night game, one turnover by the Saints early in the game put them in a 14-0 hole they could never overcome. When you play elite teams, you cannot give them anything easy in the way of good field position or defensive touchdowns. As long as Cutler makes smart decisions, I really do not see the Falcons moving the ball at will against our defense.
FINAL PREDICTION: The name of the game in the current NFL is being able to create big plays. I think the Bears are more suited for this than the Falcons, and—especially being at home—-the Bears beat the Falcons in Week One, 28-17.