Friday, October 5, 2012

Bears Put Together a Complete Game in Thrashing of Cowboys

Flash back to last season. The Bears, after convincing victories over Phildelphia, Detroit, and San Diego, looked poised to make a deep run into the playoffs before Jay Cutler's injury ended those hopes.  Had Cutler not gone down, though, the Bears were clicking enough on both sides of the ball that there was no telling where the team could have gone. Now, the reason I bring this up now is that I hadn't seen that same type of play from the Bears since then until this past Monday's game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Bears dominated that game in all facets from start to finish. The offense was clicking, the defense was their usual turnover forcing selves, and the special teams played well as well. All in all, it looked like the Bears were starting to click as a team in all the right ways.
To be sure, the focus on ESPN after the game was on the Cowboy's "self destruction," but that's to be expected from a network that values ratings above all else. In reality, however, it was the ferocious play of the Bears defense that suffocated Tony Romo into making bad decisions all game long. 

Melton has been a force
I've spoke at length regarding the vast improvement of the pass rush from the defensive line alone many different times this season. It truly is the key to success for the entire defense. Now, I understand that unlike what ESPN and the rest of the football pundit universe think, the Bears do not run a plain vanilla cover 2 system all the time. But what their entire defense is premised on is the ability of the front four to create pressure in the backfield to allow the linebackers to both drop back into passing lanes and have the lateral movement to make plays on ballcarriers as well. In particular, this philosophy succeeds the most when the pass rush is successful up the middle. We saw this in the mid 2000s when Tommie Harris anchored an interior pass rush that dominated offenses. Now, we have outstanding players like Henry Melton, who has been so successful disrupting the interior lines of opposing teams that it flushes QBs out of the pocket into the waiting arms of players like Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije, and Shea McClellin. 

When the Bears can create this pass rush merely from their front four, it allows the talents of the Bears superior linebacking corps to do what they do best. Brian Urlacher, even limited by his knee issues, can still take care of the middle of the field, whether it be dropping back into covereage or slipping through blocks in run coverage. And it gives Lance Briggs opportunities at the WILL to slip blockers (who are already recovering from great penetration by the front four) and either disrupt passing lanes or chase to the other sideline and make the tackle. The front four has created so much pressure that plays like this past monday, where Melton got inside to pressure Romo and forced the interception that Briggs was able to return for a touchdown, are becoming more common place as this defense finds its stride.

If I had to describe this Bears defense, I would use words like tough, physical, intense, ball-hawking, and ferocious. But more than anything else, I would use the word opportunistic. It's common knowledge that this team takes any opportunity they can find to create turnovers and try to make things happen off of them. In a way, it's almost a second form of offense. You saw it again when Charles Tillman jumped a Romo throw and returned that for another 6, and you see it every play where Tillman makes the tackle but tries to punch the ball out in the middle of the tackle each time. I had a discussion with a friend of mine during the game and we simply couldn't believe how underrated he's been his entire career. Tillman was only selected to his first Pro Bowl last year. Yet, he has 29 forced fumbles as a CORNERBACK in his career, and has played consistently well against top receivers for most of his career. He was in Dez Bryant's face the entire game, frustrating the kid into drops and poor decisions the whole time. 

Tillman has been underrated his entire career
Coming into the season, we were worried about the backend of the defense. Sure, there was Charles Tillman, and to a certain extent, the linebacking corps when they dropped into covereage. But the real question was how the safeties and the rest of the corners would play. So far, though, they've exceeded expectations. I've really grown to love the way Tim Jennings is playing opposite Tillman, and considering he was just named NFC defensive player of the month, it's just us that is noticing his fine play. DJ Moore in the nickel slot has been great as well, and he just always seems to have his nose around the football waiting for interceptions. Just as impressive to me, though, has been the steady play of Major Wright and Chris Conte at the safety spots. I really do think the Bears have found themselves some solid players to fit spots that admittedly have been the spur in Lovie Smith's boot for his entire tenure in Chicago. If those kids can stay healthy, and keep improving, they can bring a certain amount of solidity to a defensive backfield that was supposed to be a weakness heading into the season. Above all, though, from the defensive line on back to the safeties, there aren't any weaknesses on the defense at all. It's an encouraging development for the season going forward.

And then there's the offense. For the first game nearly all season, the offense appeared to be firing on all cylinders. I'd like to first address the Cutler pouting issue before moving on to real, substantive issues. The whole issue with his anger towards Tice getting the plays relayed to Cutler on the field is important. Cutler should be upset that it takes so long to get the plays to Cutler, because it affords Jay that much less time to check the play at the line of scrimmage. Now, while I don't approve of Jay acting like a child by waiting for Tice to sit down before standing back up and walking away, wouldn't anyone be upset coming off the field to that? Jay is trying to get some momentum going for his team, and it doesn't help if the coaches on the sideline are lollygagging on getting the plays called. For once, and I'm admittedly not a Cutler apologist, I'm on Jay's side here. Here, he finally shows that he can be a leader, and even though he acted a little immature about it on the sidelines, his point is valid. Get the play called quicker so we can get our offense moving in the right direction with some sense of momentum and fluidity. It's important, get it done.

As for the play on the field, it's hard not to admire what the Bears did. The offensive line played excellent, which is probably a combination of better playcalling to accentuate the strengths of the line while at the same time adjustments being made in practice to protect J'Marcus Webb agaisnt DeMarcus Ware on the outside. The Bears ran a lot of quick plays more reminiscent of a West Coast Offense to try and ease the pass rush, and eventually, it forced the Cowboys to sit back and give Cutler more time to throw. The first of these was the Devin Hester touchdown, where Hester torched rookie Morris Claiborne on a double move for a beautiful touchdown:

The result was a series of huge completions from Cutler to Brandon Marshall. I particularly enjoyed Cutler's adjustments at the line on the last touchdown to Marshall, where it appeared that Cutler recognized the blitz coming from the left and motioned Marshall across. From there, the chemistry between Cutler and Marshall is such that Marshall knew to run his route and stick into open field, waiting for the ball. Beautifully executed.

I hope that this is a corollary to the same Bears team we saw last year that started to click after similar wins against similarly good opponents. The Cowboys are no slouch, and I personally think that if the offense did not self-destruct against Green Bay, the Bears would be 4-0 right now and receiving much more publicity.

The sky is the limit with this team. They head to Jacksonville this weekend, so let's see if they can continue their great play against one of the worst teams in the league. They should; they have a playoff-caliber defense and their offense is finally starting to find its stride with all the new moving parts. If Matt Forte is healthy, Cutler stays calm, and Mike Tice keeps calling good games to compensate for the weaknesses on the offensive line, who's to say that this Bears team couldn't go far? Every other team in the NFC North, and the NFC for that reason (well, maybe besides San Francisco) have weaknesses. The Bears, if they're coming together as I think they are, should be able to get through this season and be contending for a division title the entire way.

It's going to take determination, luck, health, improvement, and consistency, but that applies across the board to each NFL team and the Bears are led in general by a strong group of leaders that can ensure this happens on this team. For once, we have a Bears team that has improved nearly all of its weaknesses. The pass rush is now an elite unit. The secondary has been a revelation. With the playcalling and adjustments on the line, who knows, maybe that can become a passable unit as well. All we know is that if the Bears come out this weekend and play great against a very bad Jacksonville team, they head into the bye week as one of the NFC's Super Bowl favorites. Time to make it happen, boys.