Rooting for the Packers
The Chicago Bears' 28-13 victory over the Arizona Cardinals yesterday keeps them in the playoff hunt in the NFC. At 9-6, the Bears will need to go on the road and beat the Detroit Lions next week, while the Minnesota Vikings must lose to the Green Bay Packers in Minneapolis.
Besides having to take care of their own business next Sunday, the Bears will have to root for the Packers, their NFC North rivals. It's a scenario that doesn't bother coach Lovie Smith in the slightest.
"I've always been a big Packers fan so it's not hard," Smith said after the game. "It's not hard at all for me."
"Hopefully we take care of business in Detroit and Green Bay can keep playing well," Jay Cutler said. "They put up 55 points today, so hopefully Aaron can put on another show next week."
While the Bears need Green Bay to win, not all the players are ready to call themselves Packers fans.
"No, I won't go that far," Tim Jennings said. "It's just that time of the year that we need some guys to fall off and lose some games. If that's who we have to root for that one time, then that's what it is."
RB Matt Forte
Injuries continue to pile up
The Bears have been bitten hard by the injury bug in the second half of the season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The club did get back Jennings and Shea McClellin yesterday, but they are still without Brian Urlacher and Henry Melton.
Things got worse yesterday, with Chris Conte leaving the game with a pulled hamstring. Even if it is a minor pull, he'll be out at least one week, and likely longer.
The club turned to Anthony Walters, a second-year player that was signed as an undrafted free agent last season. Before yesterday's contest, Walters had played just 13 total defensive snaps this year. He a solid special teams contributor but he's far from the ideal option heading into a must-win game against a division rival with the best wide receiver on the planet (Calvin Johnson).
Yet, what are the team's options? Even if they sign someone off the street, he'll need more than a week of practice to acclimate to Chicago's system. So either way, if Conte can't go, it's going to be the inexperienced Walters trying to shut down Detroit's passing attack.
Also on the injury report was Matt Forte, who sprained his ankle in the second half and did not return. It's the same ankle he first injured back in Week 2, which forced him to miss the Week 3 contest.
"It's not the worst that I've ever felt, but it's the third time. It's just getting a little aggravating," Forte said after the game. "I was feeling really good before the game today. We were running the ball well. You can't really try to expect injuries or avoid them when you're out there playing. You never know where everybody is coming from. Sometimes when you're in a pile, people fall down, land on you, and stuff like that."
It's a disappointing injury for the team, as Forte looked very explosive yesterday, racking up 88 yards on 12 carries (7.3 yards per carry).
The Bears turned to Armando Allen and Kahlil Bell to carry the rushing load with Forte out. Bell and Allen both have limited experience as full-time rushers, so again, it's not an ideal situation for the Bears to thrust those two into the starting role.
According to Forte, though, that won't be necessary. When asked if he'll be ready to go next week, he responded:
"Yeah, I'll play."
What has happened to Devin Hester? The player that was once the greatest punt returner in the game no longer exists. In his place is a scared, unsure 30-year-old who is just as likely to run backward as he is forward.
Hester holds the NFL record for combined kick and punt returns (17) yet hasn't sniffed the end zone since his last TD return on Nov. 13, 2011. Since Week 5, Chicago has ranked 21st or worse in punt return average and ranked dead last in the league in kick return average coming into yesterday's game.
On top of the issues with the return units, the Bears had a 20-yard field goal, a chip shot equivalent to an extra point, blocked and returned for a touchdown late in Sunday's contest. It was the first time since 2004 a Chicago field goal attempted has been blocked and returned for a TD.
Dave Toub, widely regarded as one of the best special teams coordinators in the league, has had a very poor season by his standards. Now in his ninth year with the team, Toub's units annually rank in the top 10, including finishing No. 1 overall in 2006 and 2007, according to the Dallas Morning News ranking system.
Yet this year, it's been a struggle. The coverage units have been great. The Bears are first overall in opposing punt return average and third in opposing kick return average. They also rank second in gross punt average and seventh in net punt average. So it's not all bad news but in Chicago, we've come to expect much more.
T Gabe Carimi
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports
The O-line wheel lands on a winner
Coordinator Mike Tice's offensive line shuffle continued this week, with the Bears trotting out their fifth different front-five combination in the past six weeks. Yesterday's lineup: LT J'Marcus Webb, LG James Brown, C Roberto Garza, RG Chris Spencer, RT Gabe Carimi.
Despite their first time playing together as a unit, they did an outstanding job. In pass protection, they allowed just one sack of Cutler against a defense that ranked fifth in the league in sacks (36.0) coming into the game, with a coordinator, Ray Horton, known for relentless blitzing.
"They blitz a lot, but we covered a lot of the blitzes up in practices, so it felt pretty good going into the game," said Carimi.
The line was helped by a lot of max protection calls, featuring one to two tight ends, and often a running back, staying in to block. At this point, Tice knows his line needs help and he's giving it to them.
In the run game, the front five opened up huge holes all day. As a team, Chicago rushed 153 yards, their third highest single-game total of 2012.
"The offensive line did a great job," said Matt Forte. "Great lanes out there. When there are running lanes like that, you can make moves in the open field and get extra yards."
With the inconsistency of the O-line this year, don't be surprised if Tice sticks with the current group for at least one more week. After yesterday's performance, they've earned that much.
Marshall breaks another record
With his first catch in yesterday's contest, a 30-yard grab early in the second quarter, Bears receiver Brandon Marshall broke the franchise record for receiving yards in a single season. Marshall now has 1,466 yards on the year, which breaks the old mark of 1,400 set by Marcus Robinson in 1999. Marshall has 113 catches on the year, which is also a franchise record.
Despite his numbers this year, and the fact the Bears won the game, Marshall was not happy after the game.
"I stunk the field up," he said. "Throwing around that word accountability, I can't do that especially in this situation in this part of the season."
Marshall dropped a beautiful touch pass during the club's first drive, which would have gone for 32 yards, as well as a third-down pass in the second half. He finished the game with six catches (on 14 targets) for 68 yards.
"I was looking forward to this matchup, and dropping the ball on the slant and having an opportunity down the sideline on the left, I have to make those plays," said Marshall. "I left way too many plays out there. I'm disappointed in that, but when you get a win and you look at where we are sitting at right now, it definitely overcomes what I was doing on the field."
Game plan? What game plan?
With 2:18 left in the first half, Jay Cutler had completed just one pass. At that point, he was 1 for 11 for 30 yards. Much of that had to do with a number of poor throws – he had a pair of overthrows and two skipped passes in the first half alone – but he also appeared uncomfortable with the play calls and the looks he was getting from Arizona's defense. His hesitancy led to the bad tosses.
"I had a lot of missed passes. It wasn't pretty," Cutler said. "We had to make some plays, and I thought the offensive line did a great job. I missed a lot of throws. Wish we had a few back."
Yet why was the ball in Cutler's hands so much in the first two quarters? Against the Cardinals' 28th ranked run defense, the Bears came out throwing the ball on eight of their first 11 plays, resulting in 14 total yards. For some reason Tice felt throwing the ball against the 4th best pass defense, with a secondary that leads the league in interceptions, was the best plan of attack.
"I was very surprised. I was expecting them to come out here and try to establish a run game," Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell said after the game. "It was one of those things where they came out doing something different than we thought they were going to do, and we had to regroup and figure it out."
The Bears did pound the rock later in the game, but that was after they had a big lead. Once again, Tice's game plan and play calling comes into question, which has been a recurring theme for the first-time coordinator all season.
QB Jay Cutler
When the Bears took the ball with 2:18 left in the first half, they immediately went into their no-huddle, two-minute offense. In that scenario, Cutler said he works with Tice to get the right play on the field, although Cutler has final say.
"We go back and forth. If we're moving along, he gives me some ideas," said Cutler. "If I like it, I like it, and if I don't, I change it a little bit before the clock stops."
On that drive, Cutler went 5-for-5 for 76 yards in the no-huddle offense, completing passes to four different receivers. It appears the fewer distractions Cutler has – timeouts, huddles, coordinators – the better he is. Going forward, the Bears might be better off just letting Cutler call the plays on the field.
Peppers matches career high
Julius Peppers had 3.0 sacks in yesterday's game, which matches a career high for the 11-year player. He now has a team-high 11.5 sacks on the year, the most in a single season since he joined the Bears in 2010.
"I can't explain why we were able to get sacks today. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't," Peppers said. "We executed the game plan, we had good rushes, we had good pressure inside, and we just rushed from the edge and were able to get to them a couple times."
Peppers now has back-to-back double-digit sack seasons – he had 11.0 in 2011.
"In my eyes it's not anything special, it's expected," he said. "For myself every year it's a goal to get 10 sacks, and I'm happy to celebrate that. But in the big scheme of things it's just a small individual accomplishment and we have to win a game next week to get what we really want."
Tillman scores again
Charles Tillman's interception for a touchdown in the second half was the ninth defensive return TD of his career, which is a Bears franchise record. It was his third pick-six of the season.
"He's an incredibly talented player," said Israel Idonije. "He's just one of those guys that everyday comes to work. He really lives what this defense is based on: effort, hustle, and taking the ball away. He does it everyday. He knocks out the ball every practice. Whenever you need a big play, you can count that he is going to be one of those guys to step up and make a play. Today he did that."
Urlacher returning next week?
When asked about the potential for Brian Urlacher to return next week from his hamstring injury, Lovie Smith sounded optimistic.
"We are definitely thinking that way," Smith said. "I would just say he's making a lot of improvement."
Urlacher worked out on the University of Phoenix turf before the game and did not show any noticeable limp or discomfort.
"We didn't want him to let anyone see him running out there," said Smith, "but I know he's feeling pretty good about where he is. If he's ready to go, good, and if not, Nick Roach is doing a great job."
(Holiday Bonus) Christmas comes early for Bowman
In the first quarter, with the Cardinals pinned at their own 3-yard line, Beanie Wells took the handoff in the end zone and promptly slipped and fell down. The ball squirted loose and Zack Bowman, who was in for a rare defensive snap, was able to fall on the pigskin for Chicago's first of two defensive scores.
"I just came around the corner and happened to take a peek down, and there was the ball," Bowman said. "Look it's Christmas time, the time of giving. I got my gift for the year."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.