By Laurence Holmes-
(CBS) Time offers the opportunity for perspective, so I thought it would be a good idea to wait each week to give my thoughts on the Bears game. The idea is that 24 or so hours allows me to watch the game over and to talk a few more people. Hence, “The 24 Hours Later” blog.
Today, we break down Chicago’s 21-13 win against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
What I saw
For the first 30 minutes of this game, the Bears were doomed. The offense looked like it would rather be anywhere other than the end zone. How bad was it? In the first half, the Bears recorded three first downs compared to 11 for the Bucs. They never got any further than the Tampa 36 in seven drives. Quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked three times. They had two possessions that ended in negative yardage, and their drive chart looked like this:
Punt, fumble, punt, missed field goal, punt, punt and end of the half.
The star of the first half was Pat O’Donnell, who averaged 48.3 yards on his four punts. When the punter is the star of your team after 30 minutes, something is terribly wrong.
In the second half, the Bears rallied with a familiar strategy. So familiar, in fact, that the man across the field, Bucs coach Lovie Smith, should’ve been impressed when he saw it on film on the plane ride back to Tampa. That’s because in the second half, the Bears used a conservative offensive game plan, defense, turnovers and field position to get the win.
It wasn’t pretty, but it’s the formula that was needed to win against this particular opponent. It makes me happy that the Bears were able to figure it out. The best coaches in the league don’t just try to impose their will on an opponent. They’re smart enough to attack a weakness in that opponent and get the win.
For too long, Chicago coach Marc Trestman has been stubborn, standing in awe of what the Bears were last year or might be instead of what they actually are. On Sunday, they bit the bullet and just did what they needed to do to win the day and keep their season alive.
Matt Forte had 28 touches Sunday. Nineteen of those touches came in the second half. The Bears didn’t really push the ball down the field, because they couldn’t protect Cutler adequately enough and zone looks have been his bugaboo. So they settled for the short passing game. Cutler finished with only 130 yards passing and had fewer attempts (27) than Forte had touches. No Bears receiver went for more than 40 yards for the day or averaged more than 11 yards a catch.
It was just enough to beat a terrible Tampa Bay team, but that doesn’t matter. What mattered in that locker room Sunday was that Chicago’s playoff hopes are still alive. It makes Thursday a bit more interesting than just turkey and dressing.
What I heard
“We got in the locker room, and we knew we had to perform better. That’s how it went.” — Jay Cutler
If you’re the type of person who likes the great, angry locker room scenes we see in TV shows and movies, then the Bears’ locker room was apparently the place to be Sunday. After posting zero points and a measly 68 yards in the first half, there were some loud, passionate voices speaking up. I can’t say if that’s what mattered, but it did happen.
It seemed that Trestman put the mittens on Cutler, but it worked. Cutler didn’t really attempt any “hero throws.” Most of his completions came on secondary and tertiary reads or check-downs. They moved the chains and ran the ball in the red zone, where the Bears converted all three visits inside the 20 for touchdowns.
“You want to compete against the best, and it’s a little different without him being out there.” — Lovie Smith on Bears linebacker Lance Briggs getting injured
Briggs left the game with a groin injury, and it’s hard not to wonder if that’s the last time we’ll see him in a Bears uniform. The last two seasons have been far below his standards of himself and our standards for him. That being said, Briggs is one of the best linebackers in Bears history. That shouldn’t be forgotten. It was almost poetic (in a sad way) that the last two longtime “Lov-e Smith guys” — Briggs and Charles Tillman — weren’t able to be a significant part of a win over Smith. It felt like the turning of a page for all three.
What I was told
“We had some five-man stunts up front that created holes in the O-line.” — Bears defensive tackle Stephen Paea
As Paea was talking, I couldn’t help but think about a staple of the Bears postgame show with Doug Buffone and Ed O’Bradovich — “Line stunts, Doug!”
We hear OB shout it all the time. The Bears do it every week, but it was extremely effective Sunday. (Disclaimer: The Bucs’ offensive line is terrible, and they have a first-year coach calling plays.) Paea led the way with a heckuva game in which he registered two sacks, three hits on the quarterback and a forced fumble. For the season, Paea now has six sacks. His career-high coming into the season was 2.5.
When Paea is healthy, he can be a menace in the middle of the line. His work along with Jeremiah Ratliff (one sack) flushed Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown outside and allowed Cornelius Washington and David Bass to make plays. Bass told me that the way it worked Sunday is the way it should always work: inside guys making it easier for the outside guys and the outside guys trying to force the quarterback to climb the pocket with outside pressure.
“I did pretty well today. It should open up one or two eyes.” — Bears defensive end Cornelius Washington
Remember him? Washington is the 6-foot-4, 265-pound freak who the Bears drafted last year in the sixth round of 2013. He’s been used primarily as a core special teams guy, but lately he’s been getting work on the defensive line. He has incredible speed and good body lean.
The question on Washington has always been whether he can develop as a pass rusher. He had a nice day Sunday. Along with his sack, he had two tackles (both for loss), almost blocked a punt and got in on a special teams play. He strikes me as the type of guy who can flourish with the right coaching. He definitely looks the part.
“It gives us a chance.” — Bears tight end Martellus Bennett
I had a nice chat with Bennett after the game. He wanted to talk more about how his little girl is walking and how he’s having a hard time keeping up, but don’t let the daddy act fool you. Apparently, he was one of the loudest voices in the locker room at the half.
Cutler described the scene like this:
“Verbally, we questioned guys. Made sure everyone was in this for the right reasons. Made sure when we left that locker room, everyone’s mind was right on what we wanted to accomplish.”
I’m told Bennett was instrumental in this. After improving to 5-6, the mercurial tight end was contemplative about the Bears’ future. There was no celebration, just the reality that Thursday’s game against the Lions allows them the opportunity to get back to .500. It allows them to entertain the idea of playoffs if they win. What’s interesting to me is that a guy who’s commitment to the team was questioned in training camp found himself in a leadership position in Week 12.
Side note: I started covering football regularly in 2003. In those 12 seasons, I’ve never come across a player as interesting as Bennett. The difference between who he is on the field and off the field is fascinating.
Laurence Holmes hosts the Laurence Holmes Show on 670 The Score and is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow him on Twitter @LaurenceWHolmes.