By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) More than any other professional sport, football has a unique way of exposing flaws. Whether your issues are schematic or a matter of individual talent, an opponent will identify and exploit them.READ MORE: Woman Critical, 1 of 6 People Wounded In Lawndale Mass Shooting
For 12 weeks, the 2015 Chicago Bears had been able to remain mostly competitive in an overwhelmingly mediocre league. With few exceptions, their coaching talent has been able to mask their talent deficiencies with conservative-yet-sound game plans. They put lipstick on a pig, but that cover-up has smeared.
The Bears’ lack of proven talent and depth has caught up with them. On Sunday, their bubble-wrapped offensive game plan popped and their bend-but-don’t-break defense broke at the wrong time.
The injuries they’ve endured to skill positions hampered their offense, and their lack of playmakers on defense was on full display during Sunday’s deflating 26-20 overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field.
Despite getting one of their strongest rushing performances of the season and a 13-yard advantage in average starting field position (35-yard line versus the 22 for the 49ers), the Bears’ offense sputtered and squandered several early scoring opportunities, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. Quarterback Jay Cutler had his least efficient game of the season, finishing with a season-low 64.2 passer efficiency rating.
From the outset of the game, it was clear that the 49ers had the Bears’ tendencies scouted and figured out. Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini lined his safeties up close to the line of scrimmage, frequently rotating them at the snap of the ball. He mugged the interior gaps to scramble protection calls and get the offense to check, which played right into the defense’s hands.
A prime example was early on in the game when the Bears were in a trips right formation. Cutler identified pressure from the slot and checked to a tunnel screen. Receiver Alshon Jeffery reduced his split, which gave the defense a formation identification alert that it capitalized on. The 49ers were bluffing with their blitz, and defensive back Jimmie Ward jumped the screen for a pick-six. To that point in the game, the 49ers offense hasn’t registered a first down, yet the game was tied 6-6.
The 49ers did a nice job mixing up their coverages throughout the game. They dared the Bears to beat them deep, which they were unable to do. Jeffery was targeted 12 times, yet only caught four of them. When your three-wide personnel in a game features Marc Mariani, Josh Bellamy and Cameron Meredith, you’re not scaring anybody.
The Bears ran the ball effectively with all three of their running backs. Matt Forte had his best game since injuring his knee. Rookie Jeremy Langford still has his lapses, but he and Ka’Deem Carey provided an encouraging glimpse of what the backfield might look like next season. They present a complementary smash (Carey) and dash (Langford) style.
The themes have been constant for the Bears’ offense this season — injuries at the receiver position have exposed their lack of depth, and they have missed far too many opportunities to score touchdowns. When you get the ball into your opponent’s territory nine times, you have to score more than 20 points, as the Bears did against the 49ers.
Defensively, the Bears held up for most of the game against a flaccid 49ers offense, yet two late miscues were the difference in the game.
For nearly four quarters, Blaine Gabbert was exactly the quarterback he’s been his entire career: timid and risk averse to a fault. He settled for check-downs and consistently threw short of the sticks.READ MORE: Young Woman, 18, Dies After Being Shot In West Elsdon
The Bears’ pass rush had a strong game. They punctured the pocket from the inside and collapsed the edge, finishing with four sacks for 26 yards of loss, two of which came on third downs. Outside linebacker Willie Young now has a sack in three straight games. He’s almost a full calendar year removed from his Achilles tear, and his first-step burst is back.
Rookie defensive lineman Eddie Goldman had his best game of the season. He’s gotten himself into NFL shape, flashing short-area quickness to fill a gap in the run game as well as evade blockers with quick hands to get to the quarterback.
The Bears played a lot of man coverage and challenged the 49ers’ receivers to beat them, which they couldn’t. However, the man look they used on Gabbert’s 44-yard scramble for the tying touchdown late played into the success of the run. In a Cover-1 man-free look, the underneath defenders have their backs to the quarterback. Thus, the only player with eyes on the quarterback is the deep, single-high safety.
Rookie Adrian Amos was the closest to stopping Gabbert in the open field, yet he drove downhill a bit too fast and got juked at the point of attack, leading to the game-tying score. Amos then had a coverage bust in overtime which ended the game. Prior to Torrey Smith’s 71-yard touchdown, Gabbert was averaging four yards per attempt.
Make no mistake about it, Amos is a keeper. This game and several others before it underscore how many needs the Bears have on the defensive side of the ball, particularly up the middle of the back seven.
The Bears’ special teams units figured heavily into the outcome of the game as well.
On the 49ers’ first punt, special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers paid homage to Dave Toub, successfully pulling off the fake return on the other side of the field. Mariani was able to draw the 49ers’ coverage unit to his side of the field, as Bryce Callahan fielded it on the opposite side and took it back for a touchdown. Alas, a holding call on LaRoy Reynolds wiped it out.
After the 49ers tied the game 20-20 and it seemed destined for overtime, Bears kick returner Deonte Thompson brought the kickoff back 74 yards to the 49ers’ 28-yard line, putting the Bears offense in business with under two minutes to play to close out the game.
Everything set up for the league’s third-highest paid kicker, Robbie Gould, to do his job. Yet, Gould yanked a 36-yard field goal — which is extra-point distance — wide left. It was an inexcusable outcome given that the operation — snap and hold — was clean and the flags atop the uprights were laying flat at the time of the kick.
Prior to the season, Vegas had the Bears as a 6.5-win team. I had them as a 6-10 team. At 5-7 now, they’re right on target. The flirt they gave fans on Thanksgiving in a win against the Packers was fun but fleeting.
This team is pointed in the right direction. It just needs more time. Even in a down year league-wide, the Bears don’t have enough talent to compete consistently.MORE NEWS: Chicago Fire Paramedic's Cap Grazed At Stroger Hospital; Man Killed In Shooting Nearby
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.