By Dan Durkin
(CBS) There’s a thin line between winning and losing in the NFL. Games typically come down to a handful of plays and today was no exception. The Bears had a handful of costly miscues – both physical and mental – on both sides of the ball as they dropped their second straight.
Here’s my rapid reaction to the Bears 26-18 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
The Bears offense sputtered out of the gates. Their first play from scrimmage was indicative of their first half performance. Jay Cutler’s toss bounced off of Matt Forte’s hands for a 10-yard loss. Negative plays on early downs put the Bears in unfavorable third-and-long situations which the Bears failed to convert. Three of the Bears first four third-down situations were 13+ yards. Those are low-percentage downs that prevented the Bears from sustaining drives.
Why was it such a struggle for the Bears to find a rhythm on offense?
Communication issues along their offense line led to assignment breakdowns and sacks. The Saints defense was flooding the B-gap and bringing two safeties off the edge. Offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod – previously with the Saints – was twice caught helping inside, leaving a man unblocked in the C-gap with a free run at Cutler. The first sack of the game was a strip-sack by Malcolm Jenkins, which led to a field goal. In five games, the Bears have had three strip-sacks, compounding already negative plays.
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The Bears start was so slow that they didn’t run their first play in Saints territory until there was 4:44 seconds left in the first half. On that drive, Cutler (24/33, 358, 2 touchdowns, 1 fumble, 128.1 quarterback rating) rebounded nicely, orchestrating a 7-play 80-yard drive, capped off by a three-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery (10 receptions, 218 yards, 1 touchdown). Jeffery’s performance set a franchise single-game record for receiving yards.
Clearly, there’s a trust and comfort level developing between he and Cutler. As defenses roll coverage to neutralize Brandon Marshall (4 receptions, 30 yards, 1 touchdown), single-coverage opportunities are created, and Jeffery – team-high 13 targets – is making the most of these opportunities.
Trailing 23-7, Cutler and Jeffery connected on a 42-yard strike, setting the Bears up first-and-10 from the Saints 16-yard line. However, the Bears stalled after having the ball first-and-goal, settling for a Robbie Gould field goal, to cut the lead to 23-10. The Bears must find a way to convert golden opportunities like this into touchdowns, especially against a team as talented offensively as the Saints.
Once again, the Bears showed resolve and were able to cut it to a one-possession game late. Despite struggling to run the ball early, Trestman put the onus on the offensive line early in the fourth-quarter and they responded grinding out 53 yards on a drive to the Saints 25-yard line. Trailing 23-10, the Bears opted to go for it on 4th-and-2. Cutler made the right read and delivered a strike to Earl Bennett on the sidelines, which Bennett was unable to come up with. For a guy who doesn’t get his numbered called that often, Bennett has to make the most of his opportunities, his drop was a killer.
The Bears offense is still a work in progress. They’ve shown flashes, Jeffery’s emergence is a positive sign, but there’s a lot to clean up in terms of protection as they move forward.
The Bears are the first team in ten games to hold Drew Brees to under 300 yards passing. Coming into the game, the focus was on Brees (29/35, 288, 2 touchdowns, 120 quarterback rating) and tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham is the most difficult matchup in the NFL, and the Saints scheme ways to get him in advantageous matchups.
On plays the Bears were in zone, the Saints used pump fakes and play-action to create voids between the linebackers and safeties. On plays the Bears were in man, the Saints found ways to get Graham lined up against safeties. The two connected 10 times on 11 targets for 138 yards, but Graham was kept out of the end zone.
With Stephen Paea inactive (toe), the Bears were forced to do more shuffling along their defensive line. The Bears primarily played Corey Wootton at the three-technique and kept Nate Collins at nose. Collins made his presence felt early with a powerful hump move on Jahri Evans for a sack, but unfortunately suffered what looked to be a severe knee injury, further decimating the depth of an already thin group.
Lance Briggs played at his normal All-Pro level, leading the team with 14 tackles, and 3 tackles for loss, but there’s certainly one play that Briggs would like back. While trying to time up the count on a fourth-and-one play, Briggs jumped early and was penalized for a neutral zone infraction, giving the Saints a fresh set of downs. The Saints went on to kick a field goal, extending their lead to 26-10.
All in all, the Bears defense did their job. They neutralized the Saints running game, limited the Saints weapons other than Graham, and kept the Bears in the game early.
However, this unit didn’t create a turnover for the first time this season and for an offense is still finding its way, they’ll need to create more opportunities in order for the Bears to have a chance to win games.
The message to Adam Podlesh was delivered loud and clear. Podlesh’s hang-time was noticeably improved as he averaged 45 yards per punt, pinning the Saints inside their 20 once, and the coverage units held Darren Sproles to two return yards.
For as accurate as he’s been on field goals, Robbie Gould has yet to give the Bears a legitimate opportunity to recover an onside kick this season, something they’ve been in a position to do in two straight games. Special teams coordinator Joe Decamillis needs to devote extra practice time to this and the Bears need to figure out what their general strategy is.
This is a game the Bears never got control of, yet kept it close enough to have a chance in the end. Two fourth-down miscues by veteran players loomed large. Losers of two straight, the Bears must quickly put this one behind them.
The Bears have a quick turnaround and a short week to prepare for the winless New York Giants on Thursday Night Football. My Know Your Opponent preview of the Giants will be up this Wednesday.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin