Monday, December 27, 2010

Bears Win; Mike Tice Earns His Paycheck

Most people thought that a game between the Bears and Jets in late December would be a low scoring defensive battle. As I like to say quite often--nobody knows anything. I was worried about the Bears offensive line getting mugged by the blitz-crazy Jets defense, but the line played like champs. They protected Cutler, opened holes for Forte, and started to show what they are capable of week in and week out. If they continue to improve, this line could go from a liability to a strength next year. For the rest of this year, they might be good enough to carry the Bears to a playoff win. The defense, though, took most of the Jets game off.

Sunday's game is why I will never be a big fan of the Cover-Two. If there is little pressure by the front four, and the opposing offense has done their film work, it is just too easy to complete slants, dig routes, and dump-offs. It's one thing to give up a few easy completions in a game, but the Bears made Sanchez look like Tom Brady in the first half. The Jets knew where they could attack on the field and they went to it over and over again. Plus, Tillman (who I respect the hell out of) just isn't athletic enough anymore to be an effective coverage corner. He knows this, too, because he plays very soft coverages most of the time hoping to take away the deep routes. Part of his technique is scheme, but part of it is fear. Most of the time, it just doesn't look like he trusts his ability to play receivers tight. Every once in a while, I would like to see the Bears mix up their coverages just to keep the other team honest. The defense played better in the second half, but they can't afford to play that poorly against the Packers this week and win.

Luckily, Cutler played great (besides his typical dumb interception). I'm not sure I trust this offense in the playoffs to score 30+ points and win a shootout, but I guess they are starting to show that a 10-14 point deficit isn't insurmountable anymore. That, I like. Martz's playcalling continues to be effective, and Cutler is dominating when given time to throw down the field. The pass to Forte down the sidelines was incredible.

How good are the Bears special teams? Teams are so scared to kick to Hester that the Bears are consistently getting superb field position, which is really helping their offense. I can't recall the Bears going on many long drives lately because they are usually starting at or near midfield. This will continue to be a huge advantage as the Bears head towards the playoffs. Hester is playing as well as ever, and it looks like the rest of the special teams are feeding off his energy.

It was a fun win against the Jets, and I'm truly shocked that the Bears have won 11 games this year. If they beat the Packers next week, they'll lock up the #2 seed in the NFC and secure a bye in the first round. I really like the sound of that.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bears are Playoffs Bound...and Jets Preview

The 2010 Chicago Bears are going to the playoffs! I'm more than a little surprised. I expected them to finish below .500, miss the playoffs, and fire Lovie Smith. It goes to show you how little any of us know no matter how much football we watch. This team looked terrible in the preseason and they were coming off of three straight seasons with a defense that looked to be in decline. But, a healthy Brian Urlacher, the newly acquired Julius Peppers, and some contributions from young players like Melton and Toeania have revitalized that unit. Their offense is still a work in progress, but it has shown it can be effective if the offensive line performs even at an average level. Their special teams, as usual, are outstanding (congrats to Hester!). With all of that said, can this team make some noise in the playoffs? I'm not sure (why would you trust my opinion anyway?), but at least we'll get the chance to find out.

After that first touchdown by the Vikings on Monday night, I started to panic a little. The defense couldn't tackle, Favre looked rejuvenated (briefly), and the fans were into it. But, the Bears didn't panic at all. They started making plays and didn't let up until they had punched their playoff ticket. Cutler can't make bad throws (like that interception) if the Bears hope to win a playoff game or two, but he seems to be limiting those mistakes compared to last year. Who knows, maybe he'll start going two or three games in a row without a dumb decision. Until that happens, though, the Bears can't be considered a true Super Bowl contender. When he is playing well, there are few quarterbacks I would rather have. But, he just needs to find some consistency with his decision making. He's taking us to the playoffs, though, so I can't be too upset.

The Bears control their playoff seeding destiny. If they win out, they'll be sitting at home during the first week of playoffs devising a brilliant offensive and defensive game plan for their eventual opponent. If they lose one game and the Eagles win out (which they likely will), then the Bears will probably end up playing the Giants or Packers that first week. I kind of want to see them take on the Packers just because they've only met one time in the playoffs (1941), which seems unfathomable (I'm trusting Wikipedia, by the way). A playoff game between the Bears and Packers would be great for this historic rivalry.

So, can they win out? Well, the Jets this weekend will be a tough, but winnable game. They don't have an explosive offense, but they are physical running the football, and they have some downfield threats (albeit inconsistent) with Edwards and Holmes. Their defense is aggressive as hell, and they have some corners who will play man-to-man all day. The Bears will have a hard time running the ball, and I think the offensive line will struggle with blitz pickups. But, Cutler should be able to take advantage with quick throws in the middle of the field. If he gets some time on deep drops, Knox or Hester might be able to get behind the corners. I see this being a close, low-scoring game that the Bears will win with a defensive or special teams score.

Bears 17, Jets 13

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bears vs. Vikings Preview

After Sunday's debacle against the Patriots, I didn't feel compelled to write a review of that game. What can one say? The Pats were better in every phase of the game (offense, defense, special teams, coaching, equipment preparation, catering, post-game new conference, grooming, and holiday spirit). Some of those are just conjecture, but I'm pretty sure Tom Brady is the kind of guy everyone wants at their Christmas party due to his affable nature, sexy wife, and general saintliness. Jay Cutler seems like he'd be the mean drunk in the corner in dark glasses and a black turtleneck sweater making fun of his co-workers kids. Anyway, I just couldn't find much to write about. The game didn't really change my opinion of the Bears, but it did make me realize how much better the Pats are right now than everybody else. I'd love to see the Bears get on a magical, Arizona Cardinals-type run and shock the world by making it to the Big Dance. But, I'm pretty sure they'd have Brady and Belichick to deal with. Yikes. Maybe the Bears could learn from this loss, make the necessary adjustments, and upset New England in the Super Bowl??? Whoa. Someone really spiked this holiday nogg...

None of this talk about the playoffs matters much if the Bears fail to get there. The way things look now, that almost seems inevitable. They only have to win one of their next two games along with a Packers loss. With Aaron Rodgers' availability questionable this week against the aforementioned Patriots (at New England) and a game against the somewhat dangerous Giants, one Packers loss seems likely. In fact, if the Bears DON'T make the playoffs, it will be a collapse of epic proportions. Even Ted Phillips couldn't justify keeping Lovie and Jerry if that happened, right? Right? RIGHT?

So, where the hell is the game going to be played on Monday night? I've been trying to follow this pretty closely because I find it wildly entertaining. The Vikings are literally a ship lost at sea. They have no home. The Metrodome is unusable due to the roof collapse (on a side note, I was in Minneapolis on Tuesday and it was crazy to drive by the dome and see it deflated, much like the Vikings fans hopes this year!). The NFL has supposedly given approval to use TCF stadium on the U of M campus, but there are huge problems with that idea. First of all, the field turf is frozen and there is no heating element under the field. There is two feet of snow on the ground and in the stands (with a few more inches falling today), and the water has been shut off since November. Plus, the concourses and bathrooms are relatively open since games were not designed to be played in December. As if that wasn't enough, there are no beer taps in the entire stadium because it's on a college campus. How can Vikings fans expect to enjoy this team sober? As a native Minnesotan and current Wisconsinite, I can say the following with expertise...drinking in general is a way of life in these parts--but it's a close second to breathing during football games.

I recently watched an episode from the first season of Friday Night Lights where coach Eric Taylor decided to use a cow pasture to play their playoff game when their stadium had become unusable. Has anyone considered this??? There are tons of cow pastures and unused farmland just outside of the Twin Cities! Ok, that's not a real solution. But, it sure is a fun thought to imagine millionaire athletes running around like kids again on a big, open snow-covered field.

As for the game, the location doesn't really matter that much. Tavaris Jackson has been put on IR, Brett Favre still doesn't have much feeling in his hand, and Joe Webb (who?) has a bad hamstring. In fact, the Vikings just signed Patrick Ramsey. He might actually get the start on Sunday. If the Bears can't beat a just signed Patrick Ramsey or a severely hobbled Brett Favre or some unknown kid with a slew of physical abilities but no experience, then they have no reason to play in the postseason. The defense needs to show up with as much determination as they had against the Eagles. They need to shut down Adrian Peterson, and force whoever is playing QB to beat them. This should happen.

On offense, Jay Cutler and company need to play with some swagger. They looked tentative, cold, and scared against the Patriots. That game is long over. Time to get back to doing what has worked since the bye week--running the ball and converting third downs. The offensive line needs to find a way to slow rushers off the edge. Hopefully Mike Tice can continue to keep fresh bandages on this gaping wound.

If this game is played in Indy, Detroit, or St. Louis, it'll be basically a home game for the Bears. Even if it's played in Atlanta, I have a hard time believing Vikings fans could come close to out numbering Bears fans down there. Any of those stadiums give the Bears an edge due to their team speed. The Metrodome nullifies that with its raucous home crowd. But, as I said, that won't be an issue on Monday night. If the game is outdoors at TCF stadium, I think it will level the playing field a little bit. The Bears, though, are the more talented, hungry team that should be playing for the division that night. Regardless of location, the Bears will win this game. Right? RIGHT?

Bears 20, Vikings 9

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Patriots vs. Bears Preview

After watching the drubbing the Patriots gave the Jets on Monday Night Football, I must say I'm a little tempted to portray the role of Adrian Balboa in Rocky IV in this preview. She stood at the top of the stairs after Rocky agreed to fight Drago and screamed at him, "You can't win!". Unfortunately, the Bears are mandated by the NFL to play every game on their schedule. In boxing, you can simply talk trash in the media while continuing to dodge your opponent (see Mayweather, Floyd Jr.). Our beloved team does not have that option. This game will take on Sunday afternoon in front of a national audience. The last time the Bears faced a hot team at home in front of a national audience was two weeks ago against Philadelphia. That turned out pretty well. I'm not so sure that will happen again. I'm not going to say the Bears can't win, but they are going to have to pull off a Rocky type upset.

The Patriots have the best offense in the NFL. They are averaging over 31 points per game this season, and they are averaging 40 points per game over their last four games. Tom Brady is playing some of his best football, which is impressive considering his long-track record of success. He's thrown 27 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions, he's completing 66.8% of his passes, and his rating is 109.5. He's only been sacked 18 times. If all of that wasn't enough to scare the Ditka mustache right off your face then consider the fact that they also run the ball pretty well (111.5 yds/game). Green-Ellis is averaging 4.3 yards per carry and Danny Woodhead is averaging 5.4 per carry. Can you say offensive line? It takes some real talent up front to pull of those stats, and the Patriots have it.

The scariest part of Patriots offense is that they don't rely on the big play. They are more than happy to check down, move the chains, and control the clock. Their receivers and backs are small and quick allowing them to take short completions and turn them into long gains. This is not a good match up for the Bears. The cover-two is designed to take away the big play, and force short throws and sure tackling. Even if the Bears are able to shut down their running game, I'm still worried Brady will complete 80% of his passes on Sunday. If he does, the Bears can't win.

Given all of this, is there any hope for the Bears? Yes. The Patriots defense has struggled (22.4 pts/game). They can be run on (114.1 yds/game) and, especially, thrown on (276.8 yds/game). They are a very young defense, but they are coached by a true defensive genius in Belichick. I'm sure he'll dial up some exotic blitzes to confuse the Bears enigmatic offensive line. Martz will need to be at his very best to counter some of the things the Patriots will do. If I had to guess, though, I'd say the Patriots won't blitz much. They'll show pressure and bring it from weird places when they do blitz, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that they'll play mostly coverage. Belichick always goes against the grain. The Bears will need to run the ball often and convert third downs at the same rate they've been able to since the bye week. The best defense against the Patriots offense is to keep them off the field.

For the Bears to win, they will need to dominate the time of possession, field position, and the turnover ratio. They'll need to harass Brady the same way they got after Vick, and someone in the secondary is going to have to make a huge play. And, Cutler will have to have another one of those "Wow, I'm glad we traded for him!" games. It's up to the offense to have a monster game because it is unlikely the Bears defense can keep the Patriots under 27 points.

I've picked against the Bears twice (Cowboys & Vikings), and I was wrong both times. That said, I can't just pick the Bears every week because I'm a huge homer. I hope I'm wrong again, but I just don't see the Bears winning this game. If they do, I'll be the first one on the Super Bowl bandwagon and I'll gladly eat crow!

Patriots 31, Bears 20

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bears Tame Lions

I had called this a trap game for the Bears, and I was concerned that they would come out flat on defense against a feisty Lions team. The first half demonstrated my concerns. The defensive line got very little pass rush against third-stringer Drew Stanton, and the sure-tackling most of this year was curiously absent. As much as the Bears talked all week about being focused on the Lions and not taking any games for granted, it is human nature to rest on your laurels after recently accomplishing a significant task (beating the Eagles). I don't really think they took the Lions for granted, but I do think they weren't fired up being on the road against a last place team. It definitely showed early on.

The offense did a good job of staying poised, converting third downs, and scoring touchdowns once they got in the red zone. Cutler was under pretty good pressure all game long, especially on the seven-step drops that Martz called. I was hoping the offensive line would continue to improve, but I think it took a small step back in today's game. The Bears tackles just don't get to the edge fast enough on deep drops to slow down defensive ends. One of the sacks was on Brandon Manumaleuna, but this has been a problem all year long. I don't know if it's a talent issue, an alignment issue, or a reaction-time issue. Regardless, it's going to have to improve. Martz and Cutler have turned the offense into an efficient, balanced unit that can sustain long drives. But, the Bears have the speed on the outside in Knox and Hester to hit some big plays down the field. Unfortunately, Cutler can't get the time necessary to let those plays develop. It's a nice option to have, especially when the defense is off its game like it was for part of Sunday's game.

I thought Martz called an excellent game after the early failed screen passes. After that, though, he took advantage of the aggressive blitzing by the Lions with quick passes and draw plays. Cutler was super accurate, hitting Earl Bennett consistently in tight windows. I also loved the playing calling in the red zone. The misdirection pitch to Forte that resulted in a touchdown is a play I love that should be used more often. It slows down the defense, and it takes advantage of Forte's burst to the edge. The touchdown pass to Manumaleuna was well designed and executed. The big guy doesn't get many balls thrown his way, so they should continue to use him in the red zone and on third and short. Late in the game when the Bears had the ball and the lead, I was really hoping they would just run it to use up the clock. I held my breath the three times Jay dropped back to pass. But, the completions to Olson, Knox, and Manumaleuna proved the offense can move the ball when they needed to. Is there anything better than having the ball with a four-point lead with five minutes to go and not punting it back to the opponent?

As I previously stated, the defense was a little flat in the first half, and Marinelli was calling too many blitzes. They had such success running their base cover-2 last week that they should stick to it. I'm not a huge fan of it, but the Bears are running it well and their secondary just isn't good enough to lock down receivers when they are left in man coverage. But, the defense stepped up huge after Cutler fumbled inside his own 15-yard line. They did what you had to do in that situation--they held the Lions to a field goal. It was a huge point in the game, and the defense rose to the occasion.

The defense can't miss tackles or give up huge gains against the Patriots like they did against the Lions and expect to win. And, the normally sound special teams needs to get back to their dominating ways next week. They, too, had an off game. But, Cutler and the Bears did what they had to do to win a dogfight game on the road against a division opponent. Again, that's what good teams do. They'll have their work cut out for them next week against New England. Their defensive line will need to step up, and their tackling will have to be better because Tom Brady will take those underneath routes and nickel and dime the Bears to death. All of that is for another post, though. For now, let's enjoy being fans of the 9-3 Chicago Bears!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bears vs. Lions Preview

It would be a terrible, overused cliche' to call the upcoming game against the Lions a classic "trap" game. The Bears are coming off their biggest win since their 2006 season and their playoff chances are squarely in their own hands. If they win three out of the final five games, they are in. If they win two out of the final five games, it could get dicey with tiebreakers and such. In order to win at least three with a difficult remaining schedule, they MUST win this game. Since I'm just a fan untethered to the mores of quality journalism, I'm going to scream the overused cliche' from the highest mountaintops. This is a classic "trap" game!

Drew Stanton will be starting for the Lions on Sunday. It seems like the Bears can't get out of the way of good fortune when it comes to their opponents' quarterbacks this season. This will be the third time they have faced either the back-up (Jimmy Clausen) or the third-stringer (Tyler Thigpen). In both of those cases, they dominated on defense. I see Peppers, Izzy, and company putting consistent pressure on Stanton and forcing mistakes. If the defensive line doesn't give the effort they gave against the Eagles, though, the Bears could be in a dogfight. Scott Linehan, Lions' offensive coordinator, runs an offense that can be effective against the cover-2. He'll take the underneath routes, slants, and dump-offs available to him. I doubt they can play mistake-free football needed to actually beat the Bears, but, since I've already called this a "trap" game, I worry what'll happen if maximum effort isn't there on defense.

Stanton does have one very intimidating weapon at his disposal, however--Calvin "Megatron" Johnson. His "drop" against the Bears during the opening game of the season has helped push the notion the Bears have been lucky all year (until last week, that is). They will need to commit all available resources to stopping him (are you out there Optimus Prime?) Truthfully, though, the Bears DOMINATED the Lions in that game, but kept shooting themselves in the foot (four turnovers). The Bears racked up 463 yards of offense while only giving up 168 yards. In many ways, it was the best the Bears looked on offense. The high-flying Martz offense was on full display. Cutler was 23 for 35 for 372 yards. No, seriously. But, the injuries and shake-up to the offensive line put that type of offense on ice for the year. Now, they rely on shorter passes, a solid running game, and a mobile Jay Cutler making plays with his nimble feet. That formula has been very successful during their current winning streak, but I expect Martz to open things up a little bit in this game against a weak Lions secondary. I don't think he'll go crazy, especially with the Lions possessing a poor run defense, but I wouldn't be shocked to see a few more seven-step drops this week. And, Forte will get his second 100-yard rushing game in a row.

The Lions have a good defensive line, and Suh is living up to the hype. The Bears offensive line will need to have another solid game to slow them down up front. Cutler will get sacked a few times, but if the o-line can limit their blown assignments, the Bears should be able to move to 9-3.

I just don't see how the Lions offense can score more than 17 points, and I'm probably being generous with that number. I know I've called this a "trap" game, and I really am worried that the Bears will come out flat, but this team just beat an Eagles team that was soaring. The Bears will take care of business on Sunday, even if it's less exciting than last week.

Bears 27, Lions 13