Riding the crest of a five-game winning streak, Chicago's longest in a single season since the first five games of 2006, the Bears can point to several positive signs as the playoff race heats up.
Despite a poor first half Sunday, the defense is still among the league's best in most categories, and the offense has made strides. But the Bears also are aware of one problem that has plagued them all season: sacks.
Jay Cutler remains the most sacked quarterback in the NFL after being taken down four times for the second straight week. Cutler has been sacked a whopping 41 times, even though he missed one and a half games with a concussion, which was the result of a sack. As a team, the Bears have been sacked a league-worst 45 times, five more than the next-worst team, the Cardinals, and three times as many as Sunday's opponent, the Patriots.
Ironically, Cutler and the offense have begun to flourish. Cutler's 92.8 passer rating, if maintained, would be the highest of his five-year career. Despite hitting the canvas eight times in two games, during that stretch he has thrown five touchdown passes, no interceptions and completed 35 of 47 passes (74.5 percent) for 481 yards and passer ratings of 146.2 and 117.0.
It's the first time in his two years with the Bears that Cutler has been interception-free in back-to-back games and only the second time in his career.
"Of course," Bears coach Lovie Smith said, "you don't want your quarterback to get hit at all, But they have scholarship players on the other side, too. You do have to live with that a little."
Cutler has done a remarkable job, especially during the win streak, of minimizing the damage that could have resulted from a sometimes-porous offensive line. As many times as he's been sacked recently, Cutler has bolted from the pocket to pick up significant yardage.
During the five-game winning streak, Cutler has been dropped 14 times for 106 yards in losses. But he has run 15 times for 132 yards, an 8.8-yard average. That doesn't include 11 kneel-downs for minus-12 yards at the end of halves that are included in his rushing statistics.
"It's good to have a guy like Jay who still can be productive [as a runner]," Smith said. "[If] you look at most of the games, quarterbacks are running a lot of the time trying to get away from the pressure. We'll continue to try to take care of him."
"There are always a lot of factors involved with it, but of course we don't want to give up that many," Smith said. "We'll continue to get better on the offensive line. You have to give Cliff his due also. He had a heck of a game. Those three sacks were big."
Just before the current winning streak started, the Bears suffered through a four-game slump, which included three losses, during which Chicago allowed 23 sacks. In the next two games, the Bears permitted a total of just three sacks, and it appeared progress had been made.
But after 11 sacks in the past three games, there are still concerns. The final two regular-season games are against the Jets and Packers, who are 13th and fifth, respectively, in sack percentage. And in two weeks, there's the rematch with the Vikings and defensive end Jared Allen, who has 7.5 sacks in his last five games against the Bears.
NOTES AND QUOTES
Four of Bennett's receptions came on third down, and all four resulted in first downs.
"He's a security blanket, I guess you could say," Smith said. "He's reliable with where he'll be, and of course just making the catches. Earl has definitely taken advantage of his opportunities."
Bennett missed all of the preseason and the regular-season opener because of a hamstring injury, but he's got 26 catches for 377 yards in the last seven games, quickly reuniting with Cutler. When Bennett was a freshman at Vanderbilt, he caught 79 passes from Cutler for 876 yards.
"The Commodore Connection," Smith said. "We're definitely seeing results from it. Earl played a great game again. Just look how far he's come, starting off a little bit slower, but he's really picking up steam lately, just like our football team. He's becoming one of the go-to guys." ...
Strong-side linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa is expected back on the field soon after arthroscopic knee surgery, but not this week.
The Bears' sixth-leading tackler tried to play through the injury but missed two of the past three games, including Sunday in Detroit.
"He had a minor scope. Hopefully, we'll get him back before long," Smith said. "He needed it done right now. He had been trying to play through the pain, but the doctors felt like, and Pisa felt like, this was the time to do it, and we'll always do it that way."
Nick Roach started in place of Tinoisamoa, but he suffered a hip injury in the first quarter and did not return. Rod Wilson filled in, seeing his first extended activity of the season. Wilson is listed as the Bears' No. 2 middle linebacker on the depth chart, and Brian Iwuh started Game 7 at weak-side linebacker when Lance Briggs sat out with an ankle injury, but Smith said both are versatile.
"He definitely can play either the Will (weak side) or the Sam (strong-side) position," Smith said of Iwuh. "Rod can do the same. It's the same type of athlete we're dealing with. They both can play out in space and make tackles." ...
After coaches' review of the game film, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher was credited with 19 tackles, a team best this season, topping the 16 tackles Briggs had in the season opener.
"Brian Urlacher was outstanding," Smith said. "That's the way he's played all year."
It was the most tackles in a game for Urlacher since he had 25 against the Cardinals in Arizona on Oct. 16, 2006, and tied for the third-highest single-game total in his 11-year career. ...
Safety Chris Harris estimated the volume of Smith's voice at halftime Sunday as a 9, way above normal.
Smith was displeased that the defense allowed 253 yards in the first two quarters, including 91 on a two-play TD drive at the end of the half.
"We weren't happy with how we played the first half," he said. "Guys realize that. I'm a 5 most of the time. [I] try to be."
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