Blunder on 2nd Down
Christmas came early for the Chicago Bears in yesterday's contest against the Minnesota Vikings. After Blair Walsh won the game in overtime on a 39-yard field goal, the Vikings were called for a facemask penalty – a questionable call in which the blocker barely grazed Devin Hester's facemask – which nullified the points and pushed Minnesota back 15 yards. Walsh was wide left on his second attempt, giving the Bears the ball near midfield.
"Ho, ho, ho. Here's your gift-wrapped win," Santa could be heard saying somewhere in the Metrodome.
The Bears proceeded to run the ball six straight times, moving the ball to the Vikings' 32-yard line. Another 10 yards and Robbie Gould would have attempted a 39 yarder. For his career, Gould is better than 90 percent on field goals of 30-39 yards.
Yet Marc Trestman chose instead to send his kicking unit on the field on 2nd down to attempt a 49-yard field goal. Gould, who barely slept after his wife gave birth to their first child at 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning, pushed the kick one yard outside the right upright. Seven plays later, the game was over.
Trestman's post-game explanation for kicking on 2nd down, instead of taking an extra couple of downs to move the ball farther up the field, didn't provide much clarity.
"Well, there were a couple things," Trestman said. "We were definitely in range and I didn't want to, at that point in time, risk a possible penalty that would set us back, something similar to what happened on the other side, or a fumble or something unique. I felt that we were clearly in range and we could get the game over at that time. Certainly we were running the ball really well."
So if you were running well, why not use two more plays to put Gould in a better position to succeed?
"Well there's no guarantee that we would get any yards on second down or third down. There's no guarantee of that on second down so I just felt like we were in range and let's get it done," said Trestman. "I've seen it happen many times before. That's the situation that it was and we didn't get it done."
In Week 9, Trestman showed the ultimate faith in his offense by going for it on 4th down deep in his own territory late in the fourth quarter – a play that essentially sealed the win over the Green Bay Packers. But facing the Vikings' defense, against whom the Bears rolled up 480 total yards yesterday, Trestman showed no confidence in his offense to move the ball an extra few yards. That lack of faith cost the Bears the game and, most likely, a shot at the playoffs this season.
In reality, yesterday's game should have never gone to overtime. The Bears had the Vikings pinned at their 8-yard line on 4th and 11 and allowed Jerome Simpson to catch a 20-yard pass across the middle of the field.
Yet even that situation should have never occurred.
On the previous series, the Bears had the ball with a three-point lead and less than five minutes to play. On 1st down, Matt Forte gained nine yards. He was then stuffed at the line of scrimmage the following two plays in a row, forcing Chicago to punt.
If the Bears would have been able to get one yard, they likely could have killed enough clock to secure the victory. Instead, they ran Matt Forte right up the gut twice, a player who has struggled his entire career in short-yardage situations, and got nothing.
The problem is that Michael Bush, who is supposed to be club's power tailback, has been a $3.5-million disappointment this year, one who carried seven times last week on short-yardage runs for a total of -5 yards.
It's at those points in the game Chicago's offensive line needs to take over and get enough push to gain one yard. The front five has failed miserably in that task the last two weeks. Not surprisingly, the Bears lost both contests.
McCown not Producing Points
By the numbers, Josh McCown has been outstanding as the club's starter. In six appearances this season (four starts) he's completed 65.2 percent of his attempts for 1,461 yards, 9 TDs and 1 INT. McCown's 103.6 QB rating is seventh best in the league, better than Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Jay Cutler, among many others.
Yet McCown's solid play isn't translating into points. Minnesota's banged-up, mediocre defense had not allowed less than 23 points in any single contest this year. The Bears scored 20, and that's with McCown throwing for 355 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. We can't blame it on the run game either, which rolled up 135 yards on the ground yesterday.
The problem is that McCown and the rest of the offense aren't making plays when they need to most. Against Minnesota, the Bears moved the ball with ease between the 20s but were able to get the ball inside Minnesota's red zone just once, which resulted in zero points.
In McCown's four starts, Chicago is averaging 22.7 points per game. In the six games this year in which Cutler has started and finished, the Bears are averaging 28.7 points. That's a touchdown difference on the scoreboard, despite McCown's better overall numbers.
Julius Peppers had 2.5 sacks against the Vikings, deflected a pass and was third on the team in total tackles (8). It was a very impressive performance from a franchise player who has raised his level of play the second half of the season. From Week 1-Week 7, Peppers had just 1.0 sack but has racked up 5.5 the past six games.
If the Bears are going to make the playoffs this year, Peppers must continue on his current pace. The problem is that, even during his recent resurgence, the Bears have lost three of their past four contests. It's great to see Peppers come to life but he can't do it on his own.
And make no mistake, his strong play recently won't mean much in the long-term. His cap number next year ($18.1 million) makes it extremely unlikely he'll be on the team beyond this season, whether he finishes like a Pro Bowler or not.
In his first NFL action in more than a year, the Bears put DT Jeremiah Ratliff on a snap count. He got 23 reps against the Vikings, mainly at 3-technique, but failed to have much of an impact, with just one QB hurry and no tackles. He looked slow and tired on the field, although that should improve as he continues to work into game shape.
After Adrian Peterson ran for 211 yards yesterday – the third time an opposing team has totaled 200 or more rushing yards the past six weeks – expect Ratliff to see an uptick in reps next week against the Dallas Cowboys, his former team. The Bears need an interior defender to step up against the run and Ratliff is their last hope.
Long in a Boot
Guard Kyle Long was in a walking boot after the game. He said it was just precautionary but it's an injury that bears watching throughout the week.
Chicago has started the same front five all season. If Long can't go, James Brown would likely start in his place. Brown has been inactive every game this season.
One More Block
The second gift Chicago received yesterday came from Vikings receiver Rhett Ellison. With the Vikings driving to take the lead in the fourth quarter and lined up in Chicago's red zone, Matt Cassel fired a pass to Ellison, who was open on the slant route.
Yet Ellison bobbled the easy touchdown grab. The ball then popped up in the air and came down in Khaseem Green's hands. Chicago's rookie linebacker then took off down the field. He flew past three linemen and had just Cassel to beat. Running in front was Shea McClellin, who was in a perfect position to put a block on Cassel, the only Vikings player in between Greene and the end zone.
McClellin passed on the opportunity though and watched as Cassel took Greene down at midfield. Had Greene scored, the Bears would have been up by 10 points with less than five minutes to play. Even they couldn't have blown that lead.
The Bears (6-6) are a game behind the Detroit Lions (7-5) in the NFC North. Yet because Detroit holds the tiebreaker, Chicago is essentially two games back with four to play. The Lions face the Eagles, the Ravens, the Giants and the Vikings the rest of the way, which are all winnable games.
To make the playoffs, Chicago needs to not only win out, they have to hope the Lions go 2-2 to finish the campaign. If the Lions go 3-1, it won't matter what the Bears do, as 10-6 won't likely earn them a Wild Card spot in the tough NFC.
So what if the Bears lose out and finish 6-10? What would their draft spot look like next year?
There were three 6-10 teams in each of the past two seasons, all of which fell between the 8th and 10th picks in the draft. In 2011, seven teams finished 6-10, all with picks between 7th and 13th. So if the Bears completely collapse, they'll have at least a top 15, and likely a top 10 pick, in the 2014 draft.
That's a good spot to be in, as franchise players can be found in that range. Players chosen between 7th and 13th the last three years include Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, Nick Fairley, Ryan Tannehill, Luke Kuechly and Tavon Austin.
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.