By Dan Durkin
(CBS) The bye week couldn’t arrive a better time for a battered Bears team.
Despite enduring injuries to marquee players on both sides of the ball, the Bears battled in a wild one in Washington, but came up short in a 45-41 loss to the Redskins.
There was a collective gasp among Bears fans as they watched quarterback Jay Cutler wilt and grimace on a seemingly innocuous sack in the second quarter. Cutler clutched at his left hip as he went down, suffering a groin injury. Few teams in the league can withstand an injury to their starting quarterback and still function offensively, but if there was one silver lining in this game, it was the performance of Josh McCown in relief.
The offense sputtered in the first half, producing 24 rushing yards, and 22 net passing yards. Cutler threw a pick-six on a pass to Alshon Jeffery (4 receptions, 105 receiving yards, 2 carries, 16 yards). The pass was thrown high into tight coverage, Jeffery was able to get two hands on the ball, but bobbled it into the waiting arms of Brian Orakpo.
McCown (14/20, 204, 1 touchdown, 119.6 quarterback rating) led four second-half scoring drives – could’ve been five if Robbie Gould didn’t push a 34-yard field goal on the first drive of the second half – keeping the Bears in the game all the way to the end. Gould’s miss loomed large on the last drive of the game, as with a four-point differential, the Bears had to score a touchdown for the win.
Head coach Marc Trestman mentioned the Bears wouldn’t alter their game plan with McCown in the game and for the most part they didn’t. Initially, Trestman rolled McCown out of the pocket, but his accuracy waned on the move, so he adjusted to more drop back passes and McCown responded well, throwing the ball confidently down the field, and spreading it around to six different receivers.
The Bears leaned on Matt Forte (16 carries, 91 yards) and the running game to keep them in the game. They showed a new wrinkle on a packaged play in the third quarter, releasing wide receiver Marquess Wilson on a bubble screen, Martellus Bennett on an out route, only to run an inside-zone play, on which Forte made a decisive jump cut en route to a 50-yard touchdown play.
Packaged plays give the quarterback multiple options on the play to “count the box” and see how the defense responds to the formation to determine which play to run. Excellent read and recognition by McCown to get the Bears into the right play, great blocking, and decisive running by Forte.
Depending on the severity of Cutler’s injury, the bye week gives the Bears potentially two weeks to devise and tailor their game plan for McCown.
The hope for the 2013 Bears was Trestman would be able to ignite the offense, and they would bleed another year of production out of their defense. Unfortunately for the Bears, that assumption of production by the defense was incorrect.
The defense gave up six drives of 68 yards or more, 499 total yards, 209 rushing yards, allowed the Redskins to convert seven of 13 third downs, and most importantly, gave up 38 points. For a city that has prided itself on defense for decades, those numbers simply do not compute.
At one point in the game, the Bears defense played goal line with a back seven that included Blake Costanzo, Jon Bostic, Craig Steltz, and Zack Bowman. Not quite what anyone was expecting at this point in the season.
Even with the extra time off, cornerback Charles Tillman was unable to finish the game, and linebacker Lance Briggs tweaked his shoulder and watched the game from the sidelines.
The Bears safeties – Major Wright and Chris Conte – continue to be liabilities in both coverage and run support. Every week, Wright shows up in a negative light, taking poor pursuit angles to the ball and making tackle attempts with his head down and no wrap up.
A matchup I expressed concern about heading into this game was tight end Jordan Reed. Reed had his way with the Bears safeties, routinely beating Conte down the field for big gains. On a play near the goal line, Conte inexplicably lost Reed as he broke the huddle, and was then beat on a fade route for a touchdown.
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The middle of the field is the biggest area for an offense to attack, and tight ends have roamed freely in between the numbers against the Bears all season.
Another concern heading into this game was how Bostic would perform in his first NFL start. As expected, it was up and down. Bostic was manipulated on play fakes and had difficulty working through blocks in the running game. He did have a few flash plays, showcasing his speed and explosiveness, but his run discipline and ability to pick up shallow crossers in the passing game will be regularly tested.
One bright spot was the play of Corey Wootton, who turned in his best performance of the season. Wootton was strong and quick at the point of attack, regularly collapsing and pressing the pocket from the inside. In a contract year, Wootton’s willingness to play inside at three-technique because of injury, and bypass the sack numbers that will get him paid, shows commendable unselfishness.
The Redskins special teams have been an adventure all year long, and Devin Hester made them pay with an 81-yard punt return touchdown in the second quarter. That marks the third straight week the Redskins’ punt unit gave up a touchdown.
Robbie Gould picked a bad time to have his first missed field goal since Week 12 of the 2012 season. Gould’s miss on a 34-yard attempt left the Bears with a four-point deficit on their last drive, which they couldn’t overcome. Gould finally converted an onside kick, but Eric Weems was ruled offsides on an iffy call by the officials.
It’s nearly impossible to overcome the amount of significant injuries the Bears endured on both sides of the ball, yet they’ve showed resolve. We now know that this team can compete in a shootout and with a defense that can’t seem to stop anybody, it looks like they’ll play in their fair share of them.
The focus this week will be on what the MRI reveals about Cutler’s groin injury. While it was encouraging to see McCown perform with little-to-no practice time, the Bears won’t face many defenses worse than the Redskins.
After the bye week, the Bears head to Green Bay for a prime time Monday Night matchup against the Packers.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin