Monday, November 28, 2011

Hanie's First Start Struggles Cost Bears

Well, here we go. The mini Caleb Hanie era began in earnest yesterday in Oakland, where the Bears dropped a tough one to the Raiders to fall to 7-4. I could go off on Hanie like the Chicago Tribune did, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that this was his first game in a tough place to play and wait and see what he does this upcoming Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs at home. One thing's for damn sure - he's going to have to improve, regardless if it's only his second start, if the Bears have hopes of maintaining a Wild Card spot long until Jay Cutler gets back.

The Bears knew what they needed to accomplish heading into the game in order to pull out a win in Hanie's debut. The defense needed to perform admirably and the special teams had to put together their standard exceptional play. For the most part, these two things happened. Besides a few big plays given up to Oakland's fullback Marcel Reece, and the big catch near the end of the game by Louis Murphy, the Bears defense withstood Oakland's attempts to move the ball. Sure, they yielded 6 field goals to Sebastian Janikowski, but with a lesser defense, many of those drives would have been touchdowns that would have resulted in a blowout. Even so, the Bears, as acknowledged by Brian Urlacher, need to continue to step it up the rest of the way. Face it, this isn't the Bears elite Super Bowl defense of 2006, but it should be more than capable of performing at the required high level to reach the playoffs.

Peppers bearing down on Palmer
The key contributor to the defense was Julius Peppers. For what seemed like the entire game, Peppers kept pressure on Palmer, resulting on two sacks that ended up on the score sheet but countless other pressures that resulted in hurried throws, hits, thrown-away balls, etc. What's crazy to think is that this was a typical game for Peppers. He doesn't always record the sacks, but on a game-by-game basis is one of the most dominant defense ends in the NFL, right next to DeMarcus Ware on the Dallas Cowboys. He single-handedly provides open pass rushing lanes for the rest of the defense line, which trickles down through the rest of the defense. Because a successful pass rush is so key to the success of the overall defense the Bears run, Peppers is arguably the most important player on the entire defense. He helps force incompletions that otherwise could end up as easy plays against the suspect Bears safeties.

Speaking of those safeties - they're maddening to watch sometimes aren't they? Major Wright, in my opinion, has made major strides (no pun intended) this season. Earlier this year, he was awful in nearly every aspect. Now, he's at least reached the level of pure inconsistency. One week his ankles are blown out by LeSean McCoy, the other he's pick sixing it to the house off of Matthew Stafford. He played ok in the Raiders game, but his partner, Chris Conte, did not. Look, I get the point in drafting Conte. He's athletic, smart, tough, and physical. But for some reason, he seems to get overwhelmed at times on the field, leading to huge plays that wouldn't happen otherwise. This was most obvious yesterday on the 47 yard dump off by Carson Palmer to Reece, the Raiders FULLBACK!! Conte had a chance on that play to stop it before it started by making a big play to hit, tackle, or at least SLOW DOWN Reece. Instead, he took an awful angle and ended up barely touching him. If he had at least gotten a hand on him, it's unlikely he takes off given the Bears defensive style of flying to the ball. The play by these two has improved in recent weeks, but with the importance of the safety in the Bears defensive schemes, they both need to step it up to help mask the offensive inefficiencies with Hanie at the helm.

Speaking of Hanie, I'm mixed on his debut. We all saw his missed throws, stupid decisions for interceptions, and the horribly managed last drive. I'm just going to chalk some of that up to inexperience and debut jitters. It was easy to see his development and improvement even over the course of the game, beginning with the touchdown to Knox in the first half that came off a great blitz read:

Plenty of room to improve
Of course, there was that ridiculously stupid interception near the end of the first half that the Raiders were able to take all the way back to near the Bears five yard line, only to be saved by some really impressive hustle by Lance Louis. But I refuse to put that on Hanie. That, again, is evidence of why Mike Martz sucks so bad. Here you have your debut by your backup quarterback, driving down the field near the end of the first half with a chance to at least put up a field goal on the board, and you call a nonsensical play that costs the Bears momentum and points, and cost Hanie some confidence. Worst case, the Bears take a field goal there and head into the half with a 10-9 lead. Instead, due to Martz's ineptitude, the Bears have to come back out in the second half down 13-7.

Even in the second half, Hanie showed improvement. It's hard not to love his scrambling ability, which therein demonstrates his quick decision-making skills. I'm sure he was sacked during the game, but I'm almost positive that he bailed the offensive line out a few times and saved the Bears from some bad drives a couple times based purely off his scrambling ability. Hanie is going to make mistakes. That is a given. But the Bears have the right ingredients in place to make up for his shortcomings. Besides, that huge 81 yard pass to Johnny Knox at the end of the game was a thing of beauty:

Speaking of Knox, that ridiculous one handed catch is a perfect example of the plays that the Bears are going to have to make to avoid the offense becoming a complete non-factor. Knox was good the entire night, and will be invaluable the rest of the season to stretch the defense and prevent defenses from stacking the box, which the Raiders did for much of the game yesterday. Lovie Smith & Martz must make sure to continue feeding Matt Forte the ball, because even with 8 guys in the box he can still find a way to rip off a big run here and there. If the offense can play like much like they did in the second half, with some improvement, I'm fully confident the Bears will make the playoffs.

Heal quick!
In the end, this game showed a few things. First, Cutler obviously meant more to this offense than anyone gave him credit for. Forte is still our MVP on offense, but Cutler would have EASILY won that game for the Bears. But he's not coming back until the playoffs, so we need to try and take the positives from Hanie's performance and move on to next week. Also, we learned that the defense still has the ability to keep the Bears in games against good teams when the offense is struggling. It worked for us in 2006, and it can work now, even if the current defense isn't as good. One of the biggest things we learned is that Martz and Co. still have some work to do to make sure the play calling meshes with Hanie's strengths. Take advantage of his quick decision-making and athletic ability, and the game will come just that much faster. Finally, we learned that with Hanie, the Bears can still compete against good teams. The Raiders are now 7-4 and are definitely a playoff-caliber team. If the Bears can keep up with them, who's to say that the Bears won't beat the Chiefs, Seahawks, or Vikings? Those teams are terrible. In the very least, if they beat those teams, and steal one against the Tebowners in Denver in two weeks, the Bears finish 11-5 - the same record as last year, with a ticket punched for the playoffs and Cutler waiting to take a good Bears team wherever it can go.