What We Learned: Bears vs. Dolphins

The Chicago Bears have won three games in a row and still have a virtual lead over Green Bay in the NFC North. What did we learn Thursday in Miami? Start with these five observations:

1. Shutouts are all the more impressive in today's NFL
Yes, the Dolphins are a far-from-spectacular offensive team and were down to their third quarterback after dents to Chad Pennington and Chad Henne the week before, plus primary receiver Brandon Marshall left the game with an injury of his own, but getting a shutout on the road in prime time is newsworthy nonetheless. Miami still featured one of the best running back combinations around in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, and don't forget Tyler Thigpen is a very good athlete himself when under center, yet the Bears completely shut down the running game and forced an iffy Dolphins passing attack to lead what turned out to be an inept charge. When it was all said and done, the host team managed only 22:09 of possession, 187 total yards, 10 first downs and 1-of-11 on third down, and Thigpen was also sacked six times.

In a league dominated by offense and every rule designed to help put more points on the board, Chicago's 16-0 whitewashing of Miami is one of only three shutouts in the NFL this year, with all of them believe it or not recorded by the visitor.

2. Peppers was overdue for a breakout game defensively
Bears fans know how much of an impact Julius Peppers has made in the Windy City from the moment he put his John Hancock on that $91.5 million contract in March, although it may have been difficult for some of the outside observers to truly gauge his effectiveness. The stat sheet hadn't been overly generous to the five-time Pro Bowler, as he only had two sacks in the Bears' first nine games, and, fair or not, defensive ends in this league are sometimes measured by sacks alone. Finally, Peppers simply couldn't be stopped Thursday in Miami and registered three sacks of Thigpen, and he also came up with six total tackles and a pass defensed.

While he is not being mentioned as often as Packers linebacker Clay Matthews when Defensive Player of the Year conversations pop up, Peppers deserves the lion's share of the credit for what had been a mediocre Bears D from 2007-09 now being tied with Green Bay for fewest points per game allowed (14.6) through 11 weeks.

3. The Bears are stuck with Webb at right tackle for now
If there is one Bears player that had an especially disappointing performance in Week 11, it was rookie right tackle J'Marcus Webb. Matched up against Cameron Wake, Webb allowed a sack and a forced fumble to the pass-rushing phenomenon, and in addition to that he seemed to be whistled for a penalty at least once per quarter. On an offensive line that remains one of the worst around but has indeed shown steady improvement during Chicago's recent three-game win streak, Webb is the weakest link right now, which shouldn't be much of a surprise since the 6-7, 310-pounder is nothing more than a seventh-round selection out of West Texas A&M and originally wasn't expected to contribute much in Year 1.


OT J'Marcus Webb
Scott Boehm/Getty

Nevertheless, Webb sticks in the starting lineup for now because he's young and talented and should only get better going forward, plus Kevin Shaffer is more valuable off the bench as a swing tackle that can quickly patch a hole on either side should Webb or Frank Omiyale go down with an injury mid-game.

4. The coaching staff made the right decision on Gilbert vs. Melton
Both getting the proverbial redshirt year as rookies after coming to Chicago in the third and fourth round, respectively, of the 2009 NFL Draft, there was a lot of pressure on both Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton to live up to their billing and provide quality depth on a veteran defensive line. By the time it got sorted out in training camp and the preseason, there only proved to be enough room on the 53-man roster for one of them, and even though Gilbert was the top pick of that draft class and had developed into a cult hero because of his pool-jumping exploits on YouTube, the coaching staff instead decided to keep the anonymous Melton and let Gilbert hit the cutting-room floor. Moving back and forth between tackle and end, Melton has been a solid role player so far this year with 13 tackles and two sacks, the second of which came Thursday in Miami.

Meanwhile, Gilbert went on to sign with the Jets in part because some scouts thought he would be a better fit in a 3-4 than he ever was in the 4-3, yet he can't even get off New York's practice squad for any length of time and doesn't look to have much of a future in the NFL.

5. Special teams alone might win a game for the Bears
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Bears are perhaps better than ever on special teams, as they are fifth in the league in yards per kick return (26.2) and third in yards per punt return (15.0), plus they are one of only five teams in the NFL not to have at least one fumble in the return game. From a kicking perspective, it goes to show what kind of reputation Robbie Gould has when he's making 81 percent of his field-goal attempts (17 of 21) but somehow perceived to be having a down year, and although Brad Maynard's 39.0-yard average is far from eye-opening, he has dropped at least one punt inside the enemy 20-yard line in eight of 10 games and done it three or more times on four occasions. On coverage, Corey Graham leads the Bears in special-teams tackles by a long shot and is deserving of Pro Bowl consideration.

And just in case it ever comes down to the opponent lining up for a game-winning field goal, both Peppers and Israel Idonije have already recorded a block in the kicking game and are among the best in football doing so.


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John Crist is the Publisher of BearReport.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.


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