The Chicago Bears won today's regular-season opener in exciting fashion, coming from 11 points behind in the second half to beat the visiting Cincinnati Bengals 24-21 at Soldier Field. The Bears opened the scoring with an 8-yard touchdown strike to TE Martellus Bennett, yet Chicago trailed 14-10 at halftime. Things looked bleak after the Bengals took a 21-10 third-quarter lead after a five-yard TD plunge by BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
That's when the Bears said "enough's enough", with both the offense and defense stepping up their games and executing for 14 unanswered points. The game-winning touchdown came on a 19-yard strike from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall in the front corner of the end zone.
The Bengals had an opportunity for a late drive with less than a minute left, holding the Bears on third down. Yet Rey Maualuga incurred a post-play personal foul that sealed the game. The Bears start the season 1-0 and will host the Minnesota Vikings next week.
The Bears came out of this game unscathed. The only player to come off the field was CB Charles Tillman, although that was due to dehydration. The training staff stuck him with an IV, forcing him out for one series, and then he was back on the field for the rest of the contest. Other than that, Chicago couldn't be healthier.
Notes from Week 1
-The Bengals boast one of the toughest defensive lines in the league. They finished third in the league in sacks in 2012 and it was assumed that Chicago's offensive line, which features four new starters, would succumb in pass protection.
That couldn't have been farther from the truth.
Despite starting two rookies on the right side, the offensive line did not yield a single sack this afternoon. That is amazing considering the caliber of the opponent.
Cincinnati's most dangerous player – Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who led all DTs with 12.5 sacks last year – was shut down completely. He not only didn't have any sacks, he didn't even have a single tackle. The Bears made it a priority to keep Atkins at bay and the strategy worked.
"Their number one defender out there, I don't think he got any pressure. Atkins, he didn't get back there at all," said Martellus Bennett after the game. "The game plan was to leave me on the ends 1-on-1 as much as possible in pass protection and doubling down on [Atkins]. I thought the O-line did a great job."
This is a particularly impressive feat considering the inexperience of Kyle Long and Jordan Mills. The rookie duo did give up a few pressures and must work their blitz pickups but it appears they are the club's long-term starters.
I asked Long what it means to not give up any sacks against a pass-rush as deadly as Cincinnati's.
"It was a great job by Jay of getting the ball out and a great job of the receivers running their routes. Great job from the other guys in protection," Long said. "It's a team effort. It's not one person, one thing. There are five guys up front and six guys running routes and throwing the ball."
If the Bears can stymie one of the best pass-rush groups in the league, in the offensive line's first game together, the protection issues of the recent past could soon be a distant memory.
-The player of the game has to be Charles Tillman, who kept the Bears in the game in the first half with two timely interceptions. His first camp when he jumped a slant pattern intended for A.J. Green. Tillman returned the pick for a touchdown but it was ruled after the play that his knee was down. In the second quarter, Tillman snatched a tipped ball and returned it 41 yards, breaking at least four tackles along the way.
Green still got his, catching nine passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns, most of which came against Tillman. Yet without Tillman's two early picks, the Bears may have been in a hole too deep to crawl out of in the second half. It appears Peanut, now 32 years old, has no intentions of slowing down and will continue to be a turnover machine.
-If we're giving out game balls, let's hand one to Brandon Marshall as well. Targeted 10 times, the most of any player on the team, Marshall hauled in eight passes for 104 yards and the game-winning score.
It's obvious that, even in Marc Tretman's offense, Cutler is going to continue targeting Marshall on most passing plays. Yet Marshall wasn't the only one getting looks. Alshon Jeffery was targeted eight times, while M. Bennett and Matt Forte both had six targets. That kind of distribution is just what Trestman and the entire Bears offensive coaching staff have been preaching since April.
-The Bears need to get better on the ground. As a team, Chicago's rushers averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. That's not going to get it done. That lack of production can easily turn an offense one-dimensional. It worked out in this game but in the long run, failure on the ground will come back to bite the team.
-GM Phil Emery made a heavy investment in M. Bennett this offseason. After the failures of his predecessor Kellen Davis, the Bears knew they needed a talented pass-catching tight end. Bennett is just that. He did drop his first pass, which he attributed to nerves, and had two holding calls, so there is work to be done. But Bennett is a weapon in the passing game, particularly in the red zone.
On his touchdown, Bennett was covered like a glove in the back of the end zone. Yet Cutler just threw the ball high and Bennett made a play, leaping over the linebacker and keeping his feet in bounds. It was a play that Davis could have never made. Also, Bennett came through on a crucial 3rd down late in the game. With 8 yards to go, Bennett ran an 11-yard crossing route and made a diving catch. The play kept the drive alive, a drive that would go on to kill the clock and seal the victory.
Yeah, he's worth the money.
-Credit has to be given to Cutler in this game. He struggled in the first half, completing just 10 of 19 passes for 70 yards. Yet in the final two stanzas, Cutler was on point. He was crisp with his reads and on target with most of his throws. And when protection broke down, he showed great awareness in knowing when to pull the ball down and run.
One play truly stood out. After going down 21-10, the Bears were faced with a 3rd and 7 near mid-field. The Bengals brought the kitchen sink and Cutler was under pressure immediately. He quickly assessed the situation and took off through a crease in the pass rush. Just before he reached the line of scrimmage, Cutler lobbed a pass to Bennett for a 30-yard gain. The drive resulted in a 1-yard TD plunge by Matt Forte. If Cutler doesn't make that play, the Bengals would have gotten the ball back with an 11-point lead and tons of momentum.
Cutler finished the day 21 of 33 for 242 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT, good for a 93.2 QB rating.
-Throughout offseason activities and the preseason, Trestman has utilized hurry up plays, even in practice. That continued today. After the Bears' first play from scrimmage, Cutler rushed the offense back to the line of scrimmage and ran a quick count. Trestman seemed particularly inclined to go no huddle after failed run plays, which never allowed the Bengals' defense to get comfortable.
This continued throughout the game and forced Cincinnati to use up all their timeouts through three quarters. This cannot be understated, as it allowed the Bears to run the clock out at the end of the game. It's was a very effective tactic by Trestman, one that opposing defenses are going to have to get used to.
-Now for the bad news: there are some serious issues on defense. The Bengals have a great pass-blocking offensive line but Chicago was unable to pressure Dalton the entire game. Up until late in the game, the Bears didn't have a single sack or quarterback hit. And Shea McClellin's sack, that was due to a Bengals tight end falling down during his cut, leaving Dalton with no one to throw to.
-LB James Anderson is a beast, plain and simple. He was strong against the run today and phenomenal in coverage. Twice Anderson was able to knock away crucial third down pass attempts that shut down Cincinnati drives.
His first pass deflection came in the first quarter against a three-receiver set. The Bears did no go to their nickel package, instead flaring Anderson out to the slot receiver. Cincinnati tried to exploit the matchup yet Anderson undercut the quick-out route and knocked the pass away.
In the fourth quarter, on arguably the most important third down of the game, Anderson again was lined up against the slot receiver. The Bengals tried another out route and Anderson again knocked the pass away. Cincinnati never got the ball back after that.
People want to talk about Lance Briggs and whether D.J. Williams or Jon Bostic will play middle linebacker, but folks better start paying attention to Anderson, as he's arguably the best linebacker on this team.
-One of the biggest plays of the contest came with time winding down in the first half. With less than a minute in the half, Chicago's offense took the ball in Bengals territory but failed to gain a first down. In desperation, the Bears trotted out Robbie Gould for a 58-yard field goal attempt. Gould banged through a kick that would have been good from 60 yards out.
Not surprisingly, the Bears won by just three points.
-In the third quarter, Tim Jennings was beat badly by Green on a double move that resulted in a 45-yard touchdown. Yet Jennings didn't pout and made up for it late in the game by stripping Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu, who was inside the Bears' 20-yard line at the time of the fumble. Without that turnover, the Bengals likely would have gone up at least 10 points with around 10 minutes to play. Instead, Chicago's offense marched down the field and scored the game-winning touchdown, so Jennings deserves a lot of credit for a timely turnover.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.