Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bears Turn the Corner

Think back to last season. The Bears headed into their Week 8 bye having lost three out of four, including three awful losses to the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, and Washington Redskins. The Bears still sat at 4-3 during their bye, but questions about the putrid play of the offensive line, the play calling disparity towards the pass, and the defense's inability to stop big plays dominated Bears talk throughout Chicago. Moreover, the Packers were starting to find themselves as a team that would eventually win the Super Bowl. Yet, after that bye, the Bears would finish the season with a 7-2 record down the stretch and eventually clinch the NFC North division title. The Bears did this with a resurgent offensive line, a balanced attack featuring Matt Forte, and disguised coverages on defense that masked the weaknesses in the deep secondary.

Now fast forward to this season. The Bears headed into their Week 8 bye sitting at 4-3 with the same questions as last year. Fans and commentators wondered about the quality of the offensive line, the terrible big plays that the defense would give up, the weaknesses of their receiving corps and secondary, and why Matt Forte didn't get the ball enough. Yet as their huge victory over the Eagles last night showed, the Bears could be well on their way to a repeat of the 2010 season.

Last night had all the shades of a trademark Bears 2010 victory. They ran the ball exceedingly well, even if Matt Forte uncharacteristically fumbled twice (in two horrible situations too). Pay the Man Angelo. Please. The defense contained the explosive Michael Vick perfectly, and tried to contain LeSean McCoy, if that's even possible. The offensive line played great, without surrendering a sack, allowing Cutler to pick apart the supposed "Dream Team." This was a huge win. Philadelphia may now be 3-5, but they have as much talent as anyone in the NFL. This was a team that was in the middle of its own resurgence, having ripped the Dallas Cowboys apart on national television last week. But more importantly, beating the Eagles proves to the Bears and their fans that they're the same team that won the division last year. They proved that they're here to compete.

Cutler, with time, is elite
It was hard not to notice last night how great of a quarterback Jay Cutler can be when he has time to throw. Games like last night are the reason the Bears mortgaged two first round picks to acquire him. He had time to throw and consistently tossed darts downfield to move the ball, preventing the defense from focusing in on Matt Forte. He made some ridiculous plays to advance the ball and save the game, including the play where he fell down, had the wherewithal to get up quickly and toss the ball off to Marion Barber to save a sack. But just as importantly, he showed that the Bears have a leader on offense, and that this team is two dimensional when the offensive line is performing well. Cutler hasn't had a game in awhile where he throws three or so of those awful interceptions, so when he has time, he looks like an elite quarterback. He was facing the Eagle's secondary filled with three pro bowlers, yet him and Earl Bennett connected consistently all night, leading me to my second point.

Bennett and Cutler are a lethal combination
With Bennett back, Cutler finally has a receiver he is comfortable with to make consistent (and successful) plays down the field. Bennett was seemingly everywhere last night, and when the Bears needed him most, catching balls on long third downs and for touchdowns. He's going to be huge for the rest of the season. Hopefully, with him back, it will spur the rest of the receiving corps to step it up. My disappointment with Roy "Cupcake" Williams continues as he crapped the bed again last night with a disgusting drop on a huge throw by Cutler. The rest of the receiving corps was seemingly nonexistent, but that was merely because Cutler spread the ball around so well. Look for another receiver, like a Johnny Knox, to step it up opposite Bennett.

The offensive line played great last night. The much-maligned unit has actually played well the past few weeks, and just like last year, has finally become a cohesive unit that can be productive going forward. The line of J'Marcus Webb, Chris Williams, Roberto Garza, Chris Spencer, and Lance Louis has performed well as a unit, and will only get better once Gabe Carimi gets back to right tackle and allows Lance Louis to slide back to right guard. For the first time all year, I have been surprised and pleased with how they have played as a unit, and that is a testament to the great coaching by line coach Mike Tice.

The Bears Defense is Back
Finally, I loved the defense and how they played for the most part. First - the safeties are a huge concern. I lost count how many times Chris Conte looked out of position or took terrible angles to try and tackle LeSean McCoy. The same goes for his counterpart Major Wright, who just looks lost. The Bears have drafted safeties consistently the past few years, and they haven't performed at a sufficient level. That needs to be addressed. But the rest of the defense looked fantastic. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs were chasing after the ball the whole night and made life difficult for Michael Vick. Julius Peppers was his usual self. Charles Tillman continues to prove that he's the most underrated cornerback in the NFL. All in all, it is a defense that performed much the way it did last year, and can continue to play this well for the rest of the season.

So the big question is whether the Bears can continue this level of play for the rest of the season. While they certainly faced a difficult schedule last year down the stretch, the Bears were able to finish the season at 11-5. I honestly believe that the exact same record is possible for the Bears this season. It starts next week at home against the Detroit Lions in a HUGE game with playoff and divisional ramifications. I think the Bears can redeem themselves after their horrible performance against the Lions a couple of weeks ago on Monday Night Football. After that, the Bears have a difficult matchup against the San Diego Chargers at home, who just gave the Packers a run for their money. The Bears then finish up the season at Oakland, at home against Kansas City, at Denver, at home against Seattle, at Green Bay on Christmas night, and at Minnesota to end the season. I think the Bears can finish that entire schedule with only two losses. If they do that, they finish 11-5 and presumably have a playoff spot waiting for them. And after the way the Bears started the season, that's all us fans can ask for.