On the first day of padded practice during 2014 Chicago Bears training camp, the coaching staff put receivers and cornerbacks through 1-on-1 drills.
The first snap came between WR Alshon Jeffery and CB Kyle Fuller, the club’s first-round draft pick. Jeffery – coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he caught 89 passes for a team-high 1,421 yards – ran a quick slant over the middle of the field. Fuller immediately mimicked Jeffery to the inside and broke hard on the pass from QB Jay Cutler. Fuller reached smoothly around Jeffery and confidently knocked the pass away.
It became obvious at that moment, to me at least, that Fuller is the real deal.
“We knew it since Day 1,” Cutler said last night. “Day 1 he came out there and he was manning up [Brandon Marshall] and Alshon [Jeffery]. You could tell he could play. You could tell he was going to be really good in this league.”
Fast forward to the third quarter of last night’s game with the Bears down 20-14 on the road to the San Francisco 49ers. Starting cornerback Charles Tillman had left the game due to a triceps injury and Fuller was lined up out wide across from San Francisco’s No. 1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who ran an 8-yard hitch.
Like he did in training camp, Fuller exploded out of his back pedal and reached Crabtree at the same time as the ball. Fuller swung his hand in between Crabtree’s arms, ripped the ball away and had the awareness to corral the pigskin as he landed on his back.
Three plays after the interception, the Bears took a 21-20 lead.
On the very next drive, 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick rolled to his left on 3rd down and 12. Crabtree ran a 15-yard hitch near the sideline, yet Fuller was right over the top of him. 49ers tight end Derek Carrier ran a deep crossing route and entered the open zone 10 yards behind Fuller.
Kaepernick let fly a bullet on the run to Carrier, yet Fuller broke from Crabtree to the deep zone and undercut the pass for his second interception. Three plays later, the Bears took a 28-20 lead they never relinquished, capping an improbable comeback win.
“Going back to my rookie year, Elvis Dumervil came to me after one of our training camp practices and said, ‘Man, Champ Bailey is in there watching you in one-on-ones,’ because I beat him pretty bad. He was basically studying me,” Brandon Marshall said after the game. “And for Kyle Fuller, I had to do that this training camp. I had to go in there in the Weber Center and just watch what he was doing because he surprised us. I told him it’s not about starting, it’s not about making the Pro Bowl. For him, he needs to have Hall of Fame on his brain because that kid can play.”
Fuller emerged last night as the player we expected him to be coming out of Bourbonnais, although few predicted he’d flip the switch in just two games. With Tillman’s career in jeopardy, Fuller will step into a full-time starting role, which should be very exciting to watch this season.
Cutler goes Backpacking
Chicago’s offense tallied just 43 total yards through the first 26 plays against the 49ers. Cutler and the offense then took the ball down 17-0 at their own 20-yard line with two minutes left in the first half.
The Bears had punted the previous six possessions and could do nothing against San Francisco’s fundamentally sound defense. On a 1st and 10 from Chicago’s own 35, Cutler dropped back and again found no one open down the field. He stepped up in the pocket and tucked the ball away, out-racing 49ers defenders for 25 yards.
Three plays later, Cutler took a wicked shot from DT Quinton Dial as he was releasing a pass. Dial speared Cutler in the chest and Chicago’s signal caller was slow to get up.
“It just knocked the wind out of me so it was just a matter of getting enough time to get my wind back,” Cutler said. “[Coach Marc] Trestman understands that kind of stuff so he called a run play and then we were back to business.”
Three plays later, on 3rd down and 2, Cutler found Marshall in the end zone for a 17-yard score that cut the lead to 10 points and gave the Bears some much-needed momentum heading into the half.
“I said that in the locker room. That’s old news for us,” Marshall said. “I’ve been around Jay for a long time and I remember a couple years ago him getting criticized pretty heavily for not coming back into the game, but he’s one of the toughest guys I know. But you guys won’t understand that because whether it’s good or bad, his posture, his demeanor is the same. For me, it was just like, ‘Okay, get up and let’s roll.’”
The late score gave the offense the confidence they needed going into the second half.
“We had to have it,” said Cutler. “We struggled early on. I think they had a really good plan on defense. We liked our plan as well, but it was just a matter of figuring them out and getting our play-calling situated.”
Cutler then completed 13 of 14 passes in the second half, including three more touchdowns. He finished the game 23 of 34 for 176 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions and 119.2 passer rating.
Think about it, the Bears came into the game without two starting offensive linemen, two severely hobbled wide receivers and Josh Morgan on the shelf. The run game could get nothing all night – Matt Forte finished with 12 carries for 21 yards – and Chicago fell behind 17-0 to start the game.
Yet Cutler put the team on his back, took advantage of the short fields and played a nearly perfect second half on the road against one of the toughest defenses in the league in a borderline must-win contest.
“It’s hard to win every week, especially on the road,” said Cutler. “We knew they were going to be amped up with opening up the new stadium and all of the Hall-of-Fame guys coming back. We just kind of had to weather the storm and we have to take a look at this film on Tuesday, break it down, and then we have to move on. We can’t really dwell on this. There’s a lot of football left, so we just have to kind of keep building on this and get better and better each week.”
For as poorly as he played in the regular-season opener against the Buffalo Bills – and for as viciously as he was attacked by the media for it – Cutler more than made up for that debacle by putting the offense in his backpack last night and carrying them to a victory.
“I mean, today I think anyone is looking to beat up anybody in the press,” Cutler said. “In the locker room, we stick together, we know those guys can play. I think [GM] Phil [Emery] did a good job of bringing in guys to help that defense. The defensive line is better which is going to help the secondary, that’s just how it goes in this league. When the offensive line gets better it’s going to help the quarterback, the running back and the receivers. It starts up front and whenever we’re improving up there you’re going to see an effect on the back end.”
One for the Ages
Marshall didn’t practice all week leading up to last night’s game and wasn’t cleared to play until after his on-field workout a few hours before kickoff.
“It came probably an hour and a half before the game,” said Marshall. “Friday we tried to give it a go and it didn’t feel great. I just tried to stay positive and speak positive things into existence. I knew once I got to the game if I could at least jog, adrenaline will kick in and I would be able to run a little bit.”
Both Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who is recovering from a hamstring injury, were visibly hobbled on the field. Neither had much burst and they appeared little more than decoys through the first 28 minutes of the game.
Yet Marshall didn’t let a gimpy ankle stop him from having a career-defining performance: 5 catches, 48 yards and 3 TDs.
His first score, a 17-yarder before the half, was one of the best catches you’ll ever witness. Running down the left seam, Cutler threw the ball back shoulder, forcing Marshall to leap and contort his body backward. He then reached out with one hand and snatched the ball out of the air before falling in the end zone for the score.
“I would’ve made it easier for myself if I stayed outside, but I went inside,” Marshall said. “Once I saw one-high [safety] I felt the ball coming my way, and when it was in the air I just threw my hand out there and it stuck.”
“We fell apart in all three phases [in the first half] and couldn’t get anything started and we got in our own way,” Trestman said. “I think it was incredibly important to have something to hang our hat on [going into the half].”
Marshall went on to score the final two touchdowns of the game, which put the Bears ahead for good. It was a performance by a wide receiver few Chicago fans have ever witnessed and one the Hall-of-Fame voters should watch closely when it comes time to vote in Marshall.
Overlooked in his three-touchdown performance: Marshall was the player who raced back to recover the botched snap in the second quarter, which saved the Bears seven points.
A $3-Million Steal
Little fanfare was given to the three-year, $9 million deal DE Willie Young signed in the offseason. Yet at this point, he looks like the biggest steal of free agency.
Young played 39 snaps against the 49ers, racking up four tackles, two for loss, and 2.0 sacks, both of which came in the final, game-clinching drive.
“I just had a vision coming off of the ball,” said Young. “I want to take advantage of my opportunities. We had guys getting doubled on the inside, which left me no choice but to be one-on-one. It’s my job to win that one-on-one matchup every time I get it.”
Starting defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen – both of whom were signed for much bigger contracts than Young – have combined for zero sacks through the first two contests. Young now has 3.0 sacks, the same amount he tallied in 15 starts for the Detroit Lions last season.
“We are built [with an edge],” Young said. “These are the kind of guys the coaches brought in, and that is the kind of guys we are going to be. None of us have the history of being pushovers or push arounds. We’re going to ball until we fall.”
Outside of his three-sack performance against the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 last season, LB Shea McClellin last night had the best game of his young career. He tallied three tackles, one for a loss, and picked up a sack.
McClellin was active as a blitzer and had two QB hurries. He also did a great job setting the edge as an outside linebacker and stringing plays outside. In addition, he may have tipped the ball before Fuller’s first interception and surely got in Crabtree’s line of sight.
McClellin took a big step forward in just his second regular-season game as an NFL linebacker. If he continues to improve, the experiment may just turn out a success.
Conte an Asset on Defense
Like it or not, Chris Conte is a playmaking safety and the best option the Bears have on the back end. Conte picked up another interception against the 49ers – his third interception in his past three games, dating back to Week 17 last year – on a play not many NFL safeties can make, undercutting a Kaepernick missile 30 yards down the field.
Conte isn’t perfect and he’s going to miss his fair share of tackles but he’s obviously much improved over his disappointing 2013 campaign. He left the game with a shoulder injury and the Bears better hope it’s minor, because Conte gives the team the best chance to win at his position.
Vereen in the Slot
With both Tillman and CB Sherrick McManis (quad) getting knocked out of the game, the Bears were left with just two cornerbacks in the second half.
The team used mainly base sets for the first few series following Tillman’s exit but then turned to fourth-round rookie safety Brock Vereen to fill in at nickel cornerback. Vereen ended up playing 18 snaps in the slot and was very active as a blitzer, picking up a QB hurry in the 4th quarter.
Vereen is a converted safety who played corner in college at Minnesota, yet he hasn’t taken a snap at the position since his junior year.
“No, I haven’t. It was an opportunity and I was fortunate to make something of it,” Vereen said. “Before I went out there, [defensive backs] coach Hoke, as well as the other vets, made sure I knew what I was doing and that everybody was on the same page.”
The Bears will likely activate Isaiah Frey off the practice squad to take Tillman’s spot on the roster. He started all 16 games last year as the club’s nickelback, so the drop off in production shouldn’t be dramatic.
That said, it’s good to know Vereen can step in and play multiple positions if called into duty.
Allen on the Board
Jared Allen has yet to pick up a sack this season but he had an impressive forced fumble in the second quarter against San Francisco.
The 49ers ran a zone-read with Kaepernick faking to RB Frank Gore in the left B gap. Allen crashed down on the running back and rocked Gore to his knees. Allen then flared out wide and smacked Kaepernick in the chest as he tried to turn the corner, forcing the ball loose.
“The guys that might not have been on the stat sheet tonight, there’s a lot of guys that just did their job and were where they were supposed to be, forcing plays,” said Allen. “That’s how you beat teams like this. That’s how you beat these read-option teams with so many moving parts. Everybody has to be sound in their responsibilities.”
It was an impressive play that shows Allen has some gas left in the tank.
Finally, we left the worst for last. Chicago stalwart cornerback Charles Tillman, one of the faces of the franchise the past 12 seasons, may have played his last game as a member of the Monsters of the Midway.
On a non-contact play, Tillman came up lame holding his arm. He left the game with a triceps injury in his right arm, the same injury that ended his 2013 season. Tillman was seen on the sidelines crying, obviously overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment.
“He’s one of the reasons why I came here,” said Allen. “He’s a great guy, he’s a great teammate, he’s very dependable and accountable. If we lose him, that’s a huge blow.”
Tillman is arguably the greatest cornerback to ever don the navy and orange and will surely be considered for Canton. If his career in Chicago is over, then it was a sad day for the organization.
Yet before everyone starts preparing for life after Tillman, remember that the Bears originally put Tillman on IR with a designation to return in Week 11 last year. Obviously, they thought there was a chance Tillman would heal by the time the playoffs started seven weeks later.
It’s only Week 2, and if this is an injury that only takes a few months to heal, Tillman could be back in time for a late-season playoff push.
We’ll know more about Tillman’s future as the week progresses but for all you Tillman fans out there, keep your fingers crossed.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.