By Laurence W. Holmes-
(CBS) Every week I take 24 hours to watch the Bears game again and talk to players, coaches and experts behind the scenes. Here’s what I saw, heard and was told since the Bears beat the Panthers 23-22 Sunday:
What I Saw
-A disjointed effort offensively. It was surprising that the Bears only had 18 called runs against a defense who had struggled stopping the run. Carolina came in ranked 19th giving up an average of 120 yards on the ground. The Bears finished the game with 79 yards. Some of that is the by-product of playing from behind, but you have to ask yourself if part of the reason that they got behind is because they stopped running the ball? On the day, Matt Forte only had 20 total touches. That’s not enough when you’re struggling to get production in other areas. Especially when you consider that Forte averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Only giving him 15 opportunities is something that needs to be scrutinized.
-Problems with special teams continues. Robbie Gould is one of the most consistent kickers in NFL history. He missed a 33-yarder that could have been the death knell for the Bears. It took the Bears awhile to figure out and adjust to the Panthers’ kickoff strategy by moving Eric Weems and Armando Allen up into the catch zone for the squib kicks.
-The defense got turnovers when they needed it. Cam Newton and the Panthers offense moved the ball pretty well. As an average, they got 5.4 yards per play. Compare that to the Bears who only averaged 4.0 yards per play and you’d think the Panthers won in a romp. What’s made the Bears defense so good under Lovie Smith is their ability to take the ball away and score. What they’ve done this year has been historic. No hyperbole: This season, the Bears defense has scored on six interceptions. That’s a franchise record. They’ve also done it in just seven games. That’s an NFL record.
-A fantastic fourth quarter drive orchestrated by Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. Even though the Panthers had success with their bizarre kickoffs, I was really surprised to see it late. The Panthers had a 2-point lead, a field goal beats you, so why give the Bears extra yards? Anyway, that’s a discussion for the folks in Charlotte. When the Bears went into their 2-minute offense, Carolina couldn’t change their defense. So the Bears were able to march down the field using the same quick slant to Brandon Marshall. It came in the same formation with Marshall at the top, running the same pattern over and over again. On that drive, Marshall had four catches for 36 yards-ALL ON THE SAME PLAY!
What I Heard
“It got everyone going.” – Lovie Smith
Tim Jennings’ interception for a touchdown with 6:44 left was the game-changing moment. Steve Smith slipped on the turf, Newton threw it high outside. Jennings snatched it and made his way to the end zone. Coming into the season, Jennings had seven career interceptions. This season he has six, in seven games. He’s having an unreal season. Expect him to be a Pro-Bowl selection.
“This would have been sweet-without a doubt in my mind.” – Ron Rivera
Rivera was quite melancholy describing his disappointment over the loss. He wanted this one badly. Rivera’s relationship with the Bears ended amicably, but I wouldn’t expect him to invite Lovie Smith over for Christmas dinner. Rivera had his team prepared to play. Even Smith had to admit that.
“…A lot of things that went for us early on were more what they were doing and them playing better football than we were.”- Lovie Smith.
I would imagine that it was a long flight back to Charlotte. The Panthers had a 12-point lead with seven minutes left to play and lost. A lot of that falls on Rivera. After six sacks in first half, the Panthers weren’t able to sustain pressure on the Bears’ final scoring drive. They weren’t prepared for the Bears hurry-up and the kickoff decisions need to be questioned. I think Rivera is a good coach and there’s a part of me that understands his angst towards the way his career ended with the Bears, but he is as much to blame for that loss as anybody.
“I’m good. I had the wind knocked out of me.” – Earl Bennett
The Bears need someone to step up and take over the secondary receiver role. Bennett’s contribution in the second half was crucial. All 47 of his receiving yards came in the last 16 minutes of the game. All three catches were for first downs, keeping drives going. He got hurt towards the end of the game, but seems to be OK. No one knows what Alshon Jeffery will be like when he returns and someone on the other side needs to take the coverage pressure off of Marshall. Bennett needs to be that guy. One, because he can do it. Two, because he was paid like it in the offseason. Strange that Devin Hester saw a few more plays at WR than Bennett.
What I Was Told
“When you have a special player like that, of course we need to get him the ball more.” – Lovie Smith
I asked Smith about Forte only getting 20 touches. He agrees that the effort needs to be better in getting Forte more touches. He cited the problems with protection and turnovers that got them out of getting Forte the ball. He’s a valuable weapon as a receiver and runner. The more he gets involved, the better the offense is going to look.
“We were just taking turns not making the play.” – Brandon Marshall
I asked Marshall about the problems with the offense and whether it was play-calling or execution. He says execution and there’s some evidence to that. There were some big drops by Marshall and Matt Spaeth early on that stalled drives. That wasn’t the only problem though. Protection was a real issue. The offensive line didn’t do a good job holding their blocks on 5 and 7-step drops. Jay Cutler also held on to the ball too long on a couple of the sacks.
“Everything is easier when you win games. Period.” – Jay Cutler
It’s clear to everyone on the offense that the team is having problems offensively, especially Cutler. When I asked him about it, he pointed out that it’s better to still have these problems while sporting a 6-1 record than losing these games.
“When you’re in 2nd & long, it makes things easier for the defense.” -Tom Thayer
I caught up with Thayer in the tunnel after the game and wanted his take on the issues with the offense. He told me to go back and look at the down and distance, so I did. The Bears ended up in 2nd & 9 or longer nine times. That’s right Ed Rooney… NINE TIMES. If I changed the down & distance to 2nd & 6 or longer, it gets even uglier, but I digress. Thayer explained to me that when you end up in those situations, linebackers can freelance more. They can cheat and take risks to blow up plays and don’t have to respect the depth of the playbook. It’s not surprising that on third down, the Bears were 2-for-8.
There needs to be some soul-searching in the offensive gameplan, but I do agree with Cutler’s assessment that you’d rather make these changes at 6-1 instead of 5-2 or 4-3.
For more Bears information, follow Laurence on Twitter at @LaurenceWHolmes.