Monday, November 14, 2011

Bears Continue to Roll

With an intensity and physicality reminiscent of past years, the Bears trampled the Detroit Lions yesterday at Soldier Field. While the past few weeks have given us an indicator of the potential of this Bears team, nothing could have prepared us for the performance yesterday. In a word, the Bears defense, special teams, and to a certain extent, the offense, have a swagger back that they haven't had since the Super Bowl season of 2006-07.

This game epitomized everything about the Chicago Bears that makes them such a fun team to be a fan of. From the start of the game, the defense went off, utilizing a fierce pass rush to tee off on Matthew Stafford. Combine that with the Bears' seemingly unreal ability to force turnovers, and you have a championship-caliber defense. The Bears defense is all about swagger and hunger - I think of them like sharks smelling blood in the water. Once it's out, it's already too late for the offense.

Peppers is a freak of nature
It all starts up front with Julius Peppers and the rest of the ferocious Bears pass rush. To see Peppers' statistics (only six sacks) and to watch him play are two entirely different things. I cannot imagine a more dominant defensive lineman in football. His forced fumble of Calvin Johnson in the first half was only one of the key turnovers that the Bears defense forced the entire game. There are just not enough superlatives to describe his impact on the entire game. The Bears moved him around the entire game as well, forcing the Lions to constantly adjust and try to protect against him. All that did was open up opportunities for other players to get to Stafford, or just fail to begin with as Peppers got to Stafford for a sack of his own later in the game. Peppers is especially important in the Bears style of defense, which prefaces all of its defensive coverage on the quality of the pass rush. When the Bears are getting to the quarterback, it allows the zone defense that the Bears play to exploit rushed throws by even the best of quarterbacks and force turnovers. In this way, because the Bears are so effective at scoring with the defense as a result of these turnovers, it's almost like they have a second offense on the field. As we saw with the Bears Super Bowl defense a few years ago, when its on, its scary good.

Urlacher is the heart and soul of a dangerous defense
The linebackers, led by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, were outstanding as usual. Both of these guys, seasoned vets and team leaders, set the tempo for the rest of the defense. Urlacher and Briggs fly around the field to the football on every play, proving to be an inspiration to the rest of the defense. Moreover, as evidenced by Urlacher's recovery of the fumble that Peppers forced, Urlacher and Briggs are always well positioned to turn an opportune moment into a turnover. To put it a different way, on many team defenses, once the play is made other players watch it happen and already start preparing for the next play - especially those players on the other side of the field. But with the Bears, the philosophy, starting with Lovie Smith, who coaches it in practice every week, and continuing with the outstanding play and leadership of Urlacher and Briggs, every player flocks to the ball on every play. It's not just a figment of your imagination that the Bears seem to recover more of the fumbles they force than many other teams. You saw it yesterday with the Urlacher recovery and the Jennings/Conte recovery on a later strip. In much the same way, the coaching staff also constantly preaches to the defense to be attempting to strip the football on every play. The Bears are coached to not let the opposing offense turn the ball over, but rather force the turnover and create takeaways. It's that philosophy that permeates through the team that makes the Bears such a difficult defense to play. They play physical, tough, and look to take the football from you on every play. It wears down offenses and gives the Bears a mental edge as well. All of that goes to create the swagger you see the Bears defense have every week.

Speaking of turnovers, I would be remiss if I did not mention how well the secondary played yesterday. Representing the ball hawking philosophy mentioned above, the Bears took advantage of the pressure on Stafford and intercepted him four times, two of them being run back for touchdowns by Major Wright and Charles Tillman:

Major Wright Int Return for TD

Charles Tillman Int Return for TD

Tillman is the most underrated CB in the NFL
First, it was great to see Major Wright make a huge play for this defense, after playing what I thought was some terrible football this year. Not only was this a big play for him and his confidence, but it was a huge play for the game in general. It was early in the third quarter, after another putrid Bears drive, and the Bears were only up 20-6 at this point. You had to figure that the Lions would get their outstanding offense together at some point, but thanks to the pressure up front and the confusing coverages the Bears ran the entire game, Wright was able to take advantage of a huge moment to essentially hand complete control over the game to the Bears. Not to be outdone, Charles Tillman returned a pick back only minutes later, and the game was all but out of reach at that moment. I wanted to specifically mention Tillman here. In my opinion, he is the most underrated defensive back in the NFL. The Bears secondary gets a bad reputation, which, at least for the cornerbacks (the safeties, until yesterday, had been terrible) was undeserved. With the type of defense that the Bears run, it's easy to forget about how valuable a physical and intelligent corner like Tillman is to the team. Yet, he's one of my favorite players on the defense because of his ability to force turnovers and limit the effectiveness of the opposing team's best receiver. Coming into the game, Calvin Johnson had been absolutely dominating opposing defenses. To hold him to only 81 yards and zero touchdowns is a testament to the physical and mental skill that Tillman brings to each game. If you think about the reputation the Bears have on defense, it's that they run a consistent Cover 2 defense. If that were the case, that would mean that the Lions could move Johnson around and exploit mismatches against Tim Jennings or D.J. Moore in other areas of the zone. However, the Bears use that misconception of their defense to their advantage and disguise coverages frequently. As a testament to the abilities of Tillman, he covered Johnson for nearly the entire game. And the result was one of the only corners in the NFL to limit  Johnson this entire season. Tillman is not just one of the best cornerbacks on the Bears (obviously), he's one of the best in football. The fact that he hasn't been to a Pro Bowl is ridiculous. 

Bears Defense: Swag.
Another underrated aspect of this Bears defense is the leadership and experience they have at each position group. Lovie knows that he can rely on his philosophy never being lost on the field because he has Peppers and Israel Idonije to lead on the defensive line, Urlacher and Briggs at linebacker, and Tillman in the defensive backfield. With those kind of elite veterans on the field, the rest of the defense almost picks up their game to their level by pure osmosis. That's another reason why you see the Bears flocking to every football. And for me, it's another reason why I love having Lovie Smith as our head coach. Without the belief that his defense has in his schemes, and  his ability to let his best defensive players lead by example, you don't have the kind of swagger that the Bears exhibited yesterday. Can't say enough about it.

And then there was Da Hess. Devin Hester again showed why he should be a Hall of Famer with his ridiculous tip-toeing-down-the-sideline punt return for a touchdown:

Hester is ridiculous
Keeping with the swagger theme, Hester is the epitome of such. Has there ever been a more dangerous special teams weapon in NFL History? The legend that is Devin Hester only seems to grow with each return. His ability to escape seemingly tight coverage, even in this case on the outside, is unparalleled in the entire NFL. To be sure, the Bears place an emphasis on special teams more than any other team in the NFL. They even have many of their starters playing on it. So when you combine that with the otherworldly talent of Devin Hester, you have a threat to score on each return. Can any other team in the NFL say the same thing? It's time that the national media woke up and realized that the Bears don't just get lucky with turnovers and huge special team plays. This is what identifies them as a team. They practice it, they preach it, and they work hard at it every single day. And when you have the most ridiculous gamebreaking player in the NFL as the primary focus of that weapon, it turns it into a legitimate force. I've simply never seen anything like it. Opposing teams know what he can do, punt it to him, and it happens time and time again. Even yesterday, on a Lions punt that Hester bobbled near the Bears own 20 yard line, Hester was pinned to the sideline and yet somehow didn't step out of bounds on his way to blowing past what seemed like the entire Lions coverage team for the touchdown. What a stud. It just adds another swagger to the Bears that can dishearten other teams - if they do everything they can to prevent him from scoring (besides not kicking it to him altogether and then still giving the Bears excellent field position) and he still scores, how scary is that? He even does it on the biggest stage!

And when you see how that pumps up the rest of the team and creates momentum in and of itself, it's hard not to view Hester and one of the MVP's of the Bears. Hester doesn't just create opportunities for the offense, like every team hopes for. He creates moments that every Bears fan will never forget. The lasting impact he makes with each return is an achievement that is rarely found in sports. The fact that he does it with such flair and swagger makes it, at least for me, that much better. Watch that clip and you can't find someone out there who would disagree.

The Bears offense just wasn't needed
The Bears defense and special teams was so good yesterday that we don't even need to spend much time with the offense. Much will be made about how the defense outgained an offense that could barely put a drive together, but in this instance, I'm going to actually side with Mike Martz (for now). When your defense and special teams are spotting you that many points and opportunities, why open up the playbook to any other teams scouting the Bears? It wasn't necessary. The Bears offense just wasn't needed yesterday. I did see some things though, that are encouraging for the times when the offense will be needed. First, the offensive line continues to play well. It will be interesting to see how they continue that play, however, with their continuity and chemistry being disrupted by the season ending injury to left guard Chris Williams. My guess is that Lance Louis will slide over to left guard, which means that until Gabe Carimi comes back, Frank "Oh My God I Crapped My Pants" Omiyale will have to fill in at right tackle. That could be scary. Second, the Jay Cutler to Earl Bennett combo is proving to be highly successful. Let's just hope that other receivers step up and give Cutler more targets. This one's for you, Johnny Knox - we for damn sure know that it won't be Roy "Cupcake" Williams. And finally, Matt Forte looked good again even in a much lighter workload than usual. As I always say, Pay the Man Angelo. It's important to remember that there will be moments where the defense cannot hold off an offense, and the Bears offense will be needed to win a game. We can only hope that when it does happen, it responds like it did last week against the Eagles.

On a final note, I couldn't let this post finish without mentioning the fighting that was going on nearly all game between the two teams. Allow me to take this opportunity to call the Lions one of the cheapest, dirty teams in all of the NFL - something that has already been done plenty of times before me. Sure, the Bears have their fair share of dirty plays like every team in the NFL, even though that penalty called on Lance Briggs was utterly ridiculous. But the Lions seem to thrive off of it. While I've made quite clear the philosophy that Lovie Smith imposes on his team above, it seems that Lions Coach Jim Schwartz imposes a dirty philosophy with his team. You saw it the whole game - intentional roughing penalties, chop blocks, headhunting etc. And all you see after the game is Jim Schwartz make excuses. Nowhere was this situation more evident than the Tim Jennings interception that subsequently resulted in a brawl on the field:

During the return, Stafford responded to a D.J. Moore block down field by grabbing the back of Moore's helmet and carrying him that way to the ground. Moore, obviously upset about the potentially dangerous way in which he was brought down, responds by going after Stafford. To prove my point that the Lions are dirty even further, the end of the play was a personal foul penalty for a late hit out of bounds on Detroit. Now, I'm not trying to say what Moore did was right - but he was the only one ejected!! And to make it even worse, how does Schwartz respond when asked whether Stafford should face discipline?
“Discipline for what? For their guy getting kicked out of the game? For their guy getting kicked out of the game? Did Matt get penalized? No, Matt did not get penalized.”
The Bears don't back down from anyone
From the fiasco with Jim Harbaugh to now, Schwartz is proving that his dirty team feeds off his dirty philosophy. All the guy does the entire game is whine and complain to the officials. Hey coach - maybe you should start figuring out why the Lions are falling apart, as usual, instead of complaining about every call. Maybe work on that in practice instead of practicing late hits and chop blocks. Give Lovie credit in this regard too - his even-keeled manner never gets the best of him, and that calmness trickles down to every player on the team. What I loved, though, was the Bears response. In keeping with their team philosophy and swagger, the Lions dirty play only riled up the Bears even more, culminating in a huge hit by Lance Briggs that should not have been called a penalty, and the immediate support D.J. Moore received from his teammates when going after Stafford. Watch the replay - Stafford curls up like a baby while players from both teams surround him. Which team has the tougher mentality? Give me the Bears mentality over the Lions dirty play every day of the week.

All told, this appeared to be a defining game of the season, much like the previous week was against the Eagles. And really, that might be what it is like the rest of the season, with matchups against the Chargers, Raiders, and Packers remaining on the schedule. But with a swagger and mentality like the Bears have right now, I'm confident they're going to go out and make Bears fans proud this season. In any event, we know for damn sure that it's going to be fun to watch.