By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) In the wake of the Bears’ 37-13 win against the Rams in St. Louis on Sunday, I took a moment to reflect on where this team was just one calendar year ago.
At Lambeau Field last November, I witnessed a thousand-yard stare on the face of then-coach Marc Trestman, shell-shocked as he staggered through a dejected locker room. For the second-straight week, his team had surrendered 50-plus points and had become a national embarrassment.
I’m not trying to pick at scabs. Rather, I’m appreciating the present. I’m commending Bears coach John Fox and his staff for the turnaround they’ve orchestrated in 10 months.
On Sunday, on a short week, Fox took the undermanned Bears on the road and they put forth the most comprehensive team effort in years.
As masterful as the game plans were on both sides of the ball, so was the execution. Players are believing what they’re being taught, and confidence is building. It remains a building year in Chicago, but what seemed like a lost season suddenly has a different feel after the Bears improved to 4-5.
Heading into Sunday’s matchup, the Rams defense was the consensus best unit on the field. Yet, Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase took a patchwork group that was missing its starting running back (Matt Forte) and second receiver (Eddie Royal) — and with a top receiver (Alshon Jeffery) playing nowhere near full strength — and hung 37 points on a team that had given up only two touchdowns over its previous three games.
In the passing game, Gase got the ball out of quarterback Jay Cutler’s hands quickly and used the Rams’ over-aggressiveness against them with screens and bootlegs. In the running game, he neutralized their speed by attacking straight ahead with zone-read and inside-zone runs.
As the Rams’ linebackers and safeties started to cheat toward the line of scrimmage and let their eyes get into the backfield to stop the run, Gase used play-action and check releases to get the ball into the hands of his running backs and tight ends.
The Bears knew the Rams liked to bring pressure and play man defense behind it. While Jeffery wasn’t at full strength, his presence on the field still dictated safety coverage over the top.
Knowing he would draw two defenders, Jeffery was used as a decoy. The extra attention created one-on-one matchups for others, players like tight end Zach Miller and running back Jeremy Langford, both of whom used their speed in space to turn low-risk, high-percentage throws into explosive 80-plus-yard touchdowns. Credit also must be given to the Bears’ downfield blocking. Effort is a choice, and the Bears are choosing to show plenty.
In two games in a featured role, Langford has established himself as a dual threat out of the backfield. He has excellent hands and is a gifted open-field runner. On his screen play, he showed vision and patience to allow his blockers to set up, then his timed speed kicked in to break away from the pack in the open field. Even if Forte returns, Langford has become one of the team’s best offensive playmakers and a building block for the future.
Miller has gained Cutler’s confidence and trust. He’s done the dirty work as an in-line blocker and lead back, but he’s also shown a knack for finding creases in the defense and the quickness to separate. He’s become a three-down player for the Bears and another trustworthy weapon.
Statistically, Cutler turned in the most efficient performance of his career, posting a 151 passer efficiency rating. He wasn’t asked to make many throws down the field, but his command of Gase’s offense is evident.
Cutler checked out of potentially negative plays and put the offense in a position to succeed. He made throws on the run and plays with his feet. He’s playing the best football of his career. In a league starved for quarterbacking talent, Cutler’s finally playing up to his full potential, which bodes well for the Bears’ short- and long-term future.
Defensively, the Bears traveled without their best defensive player, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee. Even so, they limited rookie phenom Todd Gurley to his lowest rushing output of the season — 45 yards on 12 carries.
The first drive of the game, the Rams had the Bears on their heels. The Bears had coverage busts, alignment issues and missed contain on misdirection plays. The Rams marched 80 yards into the end zone on seven plays to take a quick 7-0 lead. After that, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio adjusted, and his unit held the Rams to just three first downs from the end of the first quarter until 4:40 left in the game.
The group sold out to stop Gurley and wisely put the game into Nick Foles’ hands. He couldn’t deliver. Undoubtedly, the Rams were undisciplined and went away from Gurley too quickly. But the Bears defensive line held the point against the run, and the linebackers fit their gap responsibilities. In the first quarter, inside linebacker Shea McClellin made his presence felt quickly, with three stuffs in the hole and a forced fumble, which he recovered.
With Gurley neutralized, Bears cornerbacks were able to sit on routes. Throw in Foles’ virtual slow-motion decision making and mechanics with scatter-plot accuracy, and the secondary was able to read his eyes and aggressively break on the ball to challenge its arrival, which led to several passes defended by Kyle Fuller, Tracy Porter and Bryce Callahan.
After struggling out of the gates, Fuller has turned the corner over the past few games. He’s being targeted less, and when he is, he’s making plays on the ball. He’s been a sure tackler in the open field. Porter has been rock solid and has stabilized the secondary.
In a league mired in mediocrity, games are typically decided by a handful of plays. In most cases, the winning team is simply the team that makes fewer mistakes. Fox recognizes this and has the Bears in a weekly staring contest in which the loser blinks first in the fourth quarter.
With a soft second-half schedule and a lackluster NFC, possibilities that didn’t seem real a few weeks ago for the Bears now do.
Just don’t blink.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.