By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Back in October 2006, after watching his team squander a 20-0 halftime lead against the Bears, then-Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green had an epic meltdown in a postgame press conference that will live in infamy forever. “The Bears are who we thought they are,” exclaimed Green.
Three games into the 2014 season, I’m unsure if Chicago coach Marc Trestman knows who his Bears are.
After dropping their season opener to an inferior Bills team, the Bears have reeled off back-to-back wins in primetime matchups, the most recent a 27-19 win over the Jets on Monday night. In eight days they’ve traveled about 7,387 miles to collect two wins and now sit atop the NFC North with a 2-1 record.
Taking inventory of their most recent win against the Jets, a mixture of encouraging signs and concerns can be gleaned.
Offensively, when they’re at full strength, the Bears may boast the league’s most potent passing attack. With three legitimate threats who can consistently beat single coverage at the top of their route, the Bears force opponents to pick their poison, as it’s impossible to neutralize all of them without completely sacrificing the pass rush.
The Jets’ defensive game plan was evident from the opening snap — they weren’t going to allow Brandon Marshall to beat them. Marshall was bracketed in coverage, drawing safety help over the top of the defense.
With the defense rotating its coverage to Marshall’s side of the field, quarterback Jay Cutler didn’t force the ball. Rather, Cutler wisely took what the defense gave him, distributed his targets and, for the second straight week, didn’t throw an interception.
Receiver Alshon Jeffery appears to be progressing well in his recovery from a hamstring pull. Jeffery led the team with 13 targets and was once again able to get vertical, drawing a 33-yard pass interference call and hauling in a critical 42-yard reception down the sidelines on a vertical route to start the second half.
The biggest beneficiary of the attention being paid by defenses on the perimeter is tight end Martellus Bennett. While his yards per catch average is down, Bennett has a touchdown in every game and is one shy of tying his career high. The Bears are effectively using Bennett in the flats on check releases and up the seam, where he’s a physical mismatch against safeties and cornerbacks.
Heading into the Jets game, the Bears led the league with a 70-to-30 pass-to-run ratio. After the Jets game, they maintained the stop spot, sitting at 68 percent. Given this high volume of dropbacks, credit is due to offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, offensive line coach Pat Meyer and Trestman for remaining protect-first play-callers.
Once Marshall exited the game after re-injuring his ankle, the Jets turned up the heat, testing the soundness of the Bears’ protection scheme with a variety of blitzes both off the edge and through the A-gap. Even so, the Bears’ protection held up. On 43 dropbacks, Cutler was sacked four times, two of which came on blitzes.
The concern on offense remains the lack of a running game. The Bears operated a ball-control offense against the Jets by using a series of short and controlled quick passes. However, until the running game gets on track, defenses will play split (two high) safeties to congest passing lanes, knowing they can confidently stop the run with seven-man fronts.
Running back Matt Forte has historically been a slow starter. In fact, the only time he’s broken 100 yards rushing over the first three games of a season was his NFL debut against the Colts in 2008. Even so, Forte has 42 carries on the season with a long of 14 yards. Six of Forte’s 13 carries against New York went for two or fewer yards.
Looking ahead, the lack of rushing productivity becomes especially problematic late in games in which the Bears are leading and are trying to run out the clock. Chicago’s bread-and-butter run play remains the crack toss — which it ran to convert on third-and-2 in the fourth quarter on a quick count — but it needs to find a play it can confidently use in between the tackles.
When you consider the Bears were already playing the Jets game without two starters in their base package and lost both their starting safeties during the game, there’s optimism on the defensive side of the ball. The Bears have shown improvements in their run fits each week, they’re generating turnovers and have been stout in the red zone.
The Bears rarely pressured Jets quarterback Geno Smith with blitzes. Instead they opted to rush with four and drop seven into coverage (primarily zone) and challenged Smith to beat them, which he couldn’t.
This sort of game plan works against developing quarterbacks like Smith but won’t against quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, whom the Bears face this Sunday. The Bears’ front four applied some pressure, but overall Chicago needs more production, particularly from defensive end Jared Allen.
Allen was on the field for 19 more snaps than Willie Young yet didn’t register a sack. Allen’s get-off speed is nowhere near what it once was, and he’s having difficulties disengaging from single blocks. Through three games, Young has emerged as the Bears’ best pass rusher and has earned the right to rush the passer.
Defensive tackle Stephen Paea has been known as primarily a run stuffer throughout his career but once again turned in a strong performance as a pass rusher Monday, collapsing the pocket from the inside. Rookies defensive tackles Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson worked in tandem on a play to move Smith off his launch point and into the arms of Ferguson, who registered his first career sack.
Jon Bostic started in place of Shea McClellin as the Sam linebacker in the Bears’ base defense and was extremely active. Bostic played every defensive snap, set hard edges against the run and played with proper technique to keep his outside shoulder free.
Bostic did have some negative plays, not finishing a tackle on fourth down and dropping a sure interception that would’ve iced the game. In all, the Jets game was a positive step in Bostic’s development.
For the third time in two weeks, rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller intercepted a pass, this time in the end zone. Fuller made a rookie mistake of bringing the ball out of the end zone, but every week, he’s making impact plays on the ball. He was able to force a fumble on the sidelines, which was nearly recovered. Fuller needs to shore up his pursuit angles, but he’s a physical, instinctive player who’s making the personnel department look more and more astute each week.
Clearly, the Bears are far from a finished product. They have a lot to clean up on both sides of the ball, and the special teams continue to be a problem area. However, the offense was built to take advantage of both the physical mismatches on the roster and how the rules are set up, which the Bears are doing.
The Bears are playing opportunistic football on defense and are 2-0 in games in which they’ve won the turnover battle. Heading into this week’s game against Green Bay, throw out the Packers’ 1-2 record. They’re a dangerous team with elite playmakers who will serve as a measuring stick as to whom the Bears truly are as a team.
The Bears have an opportunity to take control of the NFC North on Sunday, so let’s see if they rise to the occasion.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.