Week 7 Recap: Home Sick

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Well, one thing has stayed consistent at Soldier Field – the Chicago Blackhawks have still won more games on the lakefront in 2014 than the Bears.

The Bears’ inconsistent season continued as expected (or not) on Sunday with a pitiful 27-14 loss at home to the Dolphins. The Bears are 0-3 and minus 7 in the turnover battle at home this season, and 3-4 overall.

It was an overall lackluster effort on offense. For a group full of offensive weapons and firepower, it’s amazing to watch them consistently play with no urgency. They look relaxed out there, like they can just depend on their talent and assume everything else will just work out. Hell, we knew the defense wouldn’t be great this year, but at least they play with passion out there! I’d much rather watch a less talented group play with fire under their asses than a talented group play like they don’t need it – and that is exactly what the Bears have looked like on offense on multiple occasions this season.

Maybe we are starting to see that there is a reason Marc Trestman never got a head coaching job till now – like Thibs for the Bulls, sure he’s talented, but he’s close-minded. Yeah, Trestman is smart – the “Quarterback Whisperer,” maybe, but it seems he just can’t get it done, not as a head coach anyway. His game plans seem unprepared, he fails to make in-game adjustments, and he plays it safe, often to the Bears’ detriment.

I’ve asked all year for this team to define themselves, to create and harness an identity. But the truth is, this is who this team is – a middle-of-the-road, underachieving, .500 team. They’ll continue to give us false hope in certain games they aren’t supposed to win, (I’m predicting a win next week at New England) and let us down in easy ones like they have against Buffalo, Carolina and Miami.

They aren’t who we thought they were.

Week 6 Recap: Back on Track

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Week 6 is in the books and the Bears have returned to the win column, at least for one week. In a game we expected to be a shootout, the Bears defense – led by 3 mostly unknown linebackers – held the high powered Falcons offense, who had been averaging 46 points per game at home, to 13 points.

I’m happy to say that a win is a win, but, we wouldn’t be giving this game a fair look if we didn’t look at one important factor – the Atlanta Falcons defense stinks. Worse than the Bears. They really should have scored more, but, that said, the offense looked the best it has looked this year. Cutler didn’t make mistakes, Jeffrey and Marshall looked at full strength, and Matt Forte finally found the endzone – twice. This is as close as we’ve seen to the offense we’ve been expecting all year.

The defense should get a lot of credit here though. The young linebacker group was fast and all over the field – something we’re not used to seeing. Kyle Fuller was all over Julius Jones, holding him to only 4 catches. The defensive line was solid all game, and Jared Allen finally found an opposing quarterback. As I’ve said all year, this is what we need from the defense – to get the ball back to the offense and to keep them in the game.

In the world of sports, its easy to jump to extremes. Cutler plays well and he’s the pro-bowl quarterback we have been waiting for. He plays poorly, we lust for the “manage-the-game-and-don’t-lose” Kyle Orton era. And this was definitely one of Cutler’s best games as a Bear. He went 26-38 for 381 years, one touchdown and no interceptions. He doesn’t have to put up those kinds of numbers every single game, but we’ve seen a pretty obvious pattern so far – Cutler takes care of the ball, the Bears win. He turns it over, they lose. Take a look at Cutler’s stats in wins versus losses.

In the Bears’ 3 wins: 7 touchdowns, 0 interceptions

In the Bears’ 3 losses: 6 touchdowns, 6 interceptions

He needs to find a way to continue to be as effective as he’s been, without making those game-changing mistakes that take them out of games.

One other stat I think is worth noting: When the Bears score 27 points or more, they are 3-0. When they score less than 27, they are 0-3.

The defense will not always look this good – although I hope it is a sign that they can be better than we expected at time. But this offense needs to score and not turn the ball over if they want to find their way back into the playoff picture in the NFC.

Next week could/should be a win, and if they can follow those two positive trends, they can get themselves back over .500 and get their first win at home.

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Week 5 Recap: Are you there, Bears? It’s me, Eric

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Dear Chicago Bears,

Five weeks into the NFL season, you’ve delighted, confused, frustrated, disappointed, excited and teased us. We’re in a long-term relationship, this is bound to happen. But with a lot of football still left to play I’m concerned that my attraction to you, strong as it may be at times, may start to waver unless some unhealthy habits are corrected. We need to get back to the simple things that attracted to each other from birth. So here is some advice that may help us keep the flame lit and burning deep into the cold, cold winter ahead.

-That quarterback of yours can be good. He can be very, very good. But he has this silly habit of throwing the ball to players on the other team in meaningful moments. When three defenders are surrounding one receiver, maybe don’t throw the ball there. The odds may NOT be ever in your favor.

- The endzone does not close at halftime. Your team IS allowed to score points in the final 30 minutes of the game.  It would help. Give it a go.

-While the other team is on offense, opposing receivers are allowed to catch passes in the middle of the field. Yes, they are allowed to catch them anywhere, but your defense seems scared of covering that massive area.

-“Special Teams” is not a term given because they get to be in the special classroom with the colorful blocks. Still, this group sure has been special. Running kick returns out from 7 yards into the endzone to about the 12 yard line, hitting return men before the ball gets to them, leaving live balls just laying on the field, missing 35 yard field goals. You know, special. Can we get back to the “special” we used to be? Or just competent?

-All the money we spent on offensive weapons, a star quarterback and an offensive guru coach? Can we start to see some payoff from that? Like, more than 24 points in a game?

I want you to know, I’ll always love you no matter what. But you’re starting to get on my nerves. I’m very close to taking my football pillow and sleeping on the couch for a few nights. I’m not asking a lot. I know we can get the magic back. Let’s take the week to reflect, do a little “me” work, then we’ll get together next Sunday and see if we can’t find some of that ol’ spark.

Week 4 Recap: Packed Away

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If each game was decided by the offense’s opening drive, the Bears would be the best team in football. They  come out with a great gameplan for their opening drive, they execute, they get on the board, and they give us all a false sense of hope that we should know better than to fall for by now as Chicago fans. The big difference after their first drive Sunday against Green Bay was that the guy coming back to answer was Aaron Rogers. And Rogers made the Bears pay. In truth, the Bears had no answer for Aaron Rogers from the first snap. The defense put no pressure on him, and apparently didn’t assign ANYONE to cover the middle of the field. Rogers showed us what an elite quarterback really looks like, and ate them alive.

For one half, the Bears kept up. It looked to be a shootout, waiting to see which defense would step up first and make that big stop. And in the final drive of the first half with 9 seconds left, the Packers stopped the Bears at the goal line as time expired. This wound up being the turning point of the game. The Packers came out in the second half and outscored the Bears 17-0. There are a lot of places to put blame – Trestman, Cutler, the defense – none of them deserve all of it. It was a team loss. To put it bluntly, they got their asses kicked in the second half. Yes, the defense got picked apart, but we never expected this defense to be great. At best, we hoped for them to be mediocre. And you know what? They have been! And that was okay because last fortseason we put together an explosive offense ready to take the next step. This, to me, is the big issue. This has not happened. Where is this explosive offense we’ve all been expecting? The one that was supposed to allow the defense to just be serviceable to win games? This offense was supposed to be high powered and high scoring and so far the Bears have failed to score more than 28 points. That cannot happen if they want to have any chance of winning in today’s NFL. The defense is not as bad as last year, but lets not fool ourselves here, they’re still not good. But they are good enough to win games as long as the offense carries the load, which it has yet to do. Did they take their offensive dominance for granted? Are teams just figuring out Trestman’s schemes? Hard to say at this point, but so far they have not been able to get the job done consistently.

We also need to find out what happens to Jay Cutler when he goes from a cool, collected quarterback to one who gets behind and starts pressing. He becomes a different player. That more than anything needs to be corrected, and Marc Trestman needs to figure out how to correct it mid-game to avoid things getting out of hand fast the way they did on Sunday. The offense needs to control games in order for them to win, and they did not control this game, Aaron Rogers did. There was nothing they could do to stop him. Rogers did whatever he wanted the entire game. A lot of attention has been focused on mistakes the Bears made, but I think they did a lot well too. Forte was great. Bennett was great. And in the first half, Cutler was great. The issue was they played a team where the margin for error is non-existent and there was way too much error in too many areas.

All of that said, I actually think the Bears can win at least three of the next four against struggling teams. I really do. They are capable of playing the way they did on that opening drive, but they are also capable of playing the way they did in the second half of this game. That is the issue. We still don’t know which team to expect from week to week, or even from drive to drive. The pieces are there, the talent is there and the potential is there. The frustrating thing so far is their inability to put it all together at the same time. Now is the time for Marc Trestman to prove he belongs as an NFL coach and not just a glorified coordinator the way Lovie Smith was for so many years on the other end.

 

Week 3 Recap: Good, or Good Luck?

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I finished last week’s piece by saying I still didn’t know who this Bears team was. And after Week 3, another nationally televised road victory, I still don’t know. And what I mean by that, is that I don’t know what I can count on seeing each week from the Bears. I have seen individual performances that have stuck out and specific concerns I see going forward, but as a unit I don’t know yet what type of team this is. And so early in the season that might not be a big deal as long as they are able to pull out wins the way they have been doing while they discover and establish their identity.

Jay Cutler has done a nice job bouncing back from a Week 1 that saw him making all of the Cutler-esque mistakes we’ve grown weary of seeing from him, and have questioned if they would ever be fixaible. The last two weeks Cutler has been accurate, avoided turnovers and managed both games effectively. He has thrown 6 touchdowns and no interceptions. Now I am aware that there have been several “almosts” in terms of turnovers, and Cutler is and always will be a guy who makes impossible looking throws with very little margin for error, but he has been completing them – including an incredible throw to Martellus Bennett on the first touchdown of the game Monday night. But the big difference is now seeing him throw the ball away and take sacks in those situations where his tendency is to force the throw. But what he has not done is turn the ball over, which I believe has been a major factor in these wins. And he has done it with his two top receivers at less than 100% and an ineffective run game.

But the thing that has struck me in these first few weeks has been the improvement of the defense. Still nowhere near the dominating defenses of the Lovie Smith era, but forcing turnovers, making red zone stops and putting the offense in a position to win games. They are taking the ball away at such a higher rate than they did last year, and many of the new players they brought in have been making significant impacts. Most notably for me, Willie Young and Kyle Fuller. The former currently leads the league in sacks, the latter in interceptions. That I did not see coming. And while this defense still isn’t dominating, some of these individual performances are doing enough to win these games until they can come together as a unit.

The biggest issue has been and continues to be injuries. Like I said, Marshall and Jeffrey are still not playing at 100%, and probably won’t be all year. The offensive line is still missing significant pieces, as is the defensive line. And in this game, the secondary was depleted to the point where we almost didn’t have anyone to put out there in the fourth quarter. And while these aren’t exactly Pro-Bowlers getting injured, they are significant role players on a team where depth is not exactly a strength. Its hard to develop an identity when you have a revolving door at this many positions.

So after three games the Bears are 2-1, and things don’t get any easier anytime soon. The next three weeks the Bears have the Packers at home, and then go on the roiad to face Carolina and Atlanta, all teams with playoff potential and explosive offenses. These last two games may have been won with a lot of luck, and they may need more in the coming weeks to stay over .500 heading into the bye week. Nobody is running away with the division right now. As we have learned, early season success doesn’t always mean playoff appearances. I can see this team putting together an 11 win season, and I can also still see them finishing the year 8-8 or 9-7 and missing the playoffs. They need to continue to improve on offense (particularly in the run game), find consistency on defense, win the turnover battle and most importantly, they need to get and stay healthy.

This week I’d like to see a step forward from the defense. They need to put pressure on Aaron Rogers and continue to stop the run, which starts with the defensive line. I want to see the rookies continue to progress as they will need to be a big part of that success. Cutler needs to continue to play smart – but most importantly, flawed as they may be, they just need to keep finding ways to win. It doesn’t have to be pretty.

Week 2 Recap: Bears Fight Back and Hang On

 

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If before the season started someone told me the Bears would be 1-1, I’d say that sounded about right. But I’d assume that meant a win at home against Buffalo and a loss in the new stadium against San Francisco. And even after losing in Week 1 the way they did, I did not count the Bears out on Sunday night. Going into Sunday, it didn’t look good for us – Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall were still questionable, the defense was coming off a pathetic performance against an underwhelming offense, and the 49ers were prepared to run all over us on opening night of their new digs. The script sounded like it had already been written. And as the game started, it sounded pretty accurate. After a “just don’t F it up” first three-and-out drive, the Bears’ punt was blocked and the 49ers very quickly made it 7-0. Yup. I rushed home, avoided all social media and normal human interaction for this? The hazards of being a Bears fan.

The Bears were playing not to lose. Partially paranoid about making some of the bad mistakes they made last week, and partially because of their injured receivers who, even though they played, looked slow and allowed the 49ers defense to focus on stopping the Bears’ short game. But despite the tough start, the defense was actually keeping them in the game. The turning point came with under two minutes left in the first half, when Jay Cutler took a helmet cannon to the sternum that left ME short of breath and clenching my chest. But there was something about Cutler’s face when he got up that struck me. I said out loud at that moment, “this is the turning point”. The next play was one of the most incredible catches I’ve ever seen, a one-handed grab by Brandon Marshall that looked like it could only have been made with “Stick um” like Rashid “Hot Hands” Hanon from “Little Giants”.

From that hit to the sternum on, Jay Cutler went 15-of-16 for 138 yards, four touchdowns & 0 interceptions. But it wasn’t just that. The Bears defense grew some kahones and ultimately kept the Bears in this game. Willie Young was Kyle Fuller, Derek Carrieroutstanding – Chris Conte made an interception flying through the air – rookie Kyle Fuller had two picks – Jared Allen was pressuring the quarterback. This was the defense we hoped to see. Not great, but forcing turnovers and doing enough to keep them in the game.

Now, we cannot talk about this game without at least acknowledging the fact that the 49ers accumulated about 800 yards in penalties. That didn’t hurt. They got some big breaks. But a win is a win, the Bears are now tied at 1-1 with everyone else in the division, and its all about what you learn. And I do think they learned some things this week. But I still have concerns. The special teams is atrocious on both ends. Injuries are starting to get out of hand on both sides of the ball – just before writing this it was reported that Charles Tillman will be out for the rest of the season. And the Bears still have a really difficult schedule ahead of them where the margin for error will be non-existent.

The Bears have an extra day off this week to recover, and then are back on the road and in prime time again on Monday night. I still don’t know what to expect from this team week to week. They have yet to establish an identity. But for at least the time being, they have given us all permission to take our collective heads out of our ovens.

New Year, New Look, Same old Bears

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears

Week 1 of the NFL season is in the books, and I needed to move beyond “Over-reaction Monday”. I needed to get past “Cash-in-the-season Tuesday”. I thought I’d be fine, but then came “When-does-hockey-start Wednesday”. Yes, it has been difficult recovering from the Bears’ Week 1 loss to the Bills. With such a front loaded schedule, this one was supposed to be the “gimme”. A new-look defense, an offense ready to take the next step after a break-out season and a quarterback finally ready to take the next step to elite. What we got was, new faces aside, the same old Bears.

So what went wrong this week? In a word, everything. It wasn’t a step back, it was something worse. It was a team showing no progress from last season. The run defense was non-existent, as were the linebackers. I mean, seriously. Did the Bears suit up any linebackers? The new defensive line couldn’t get anywhere near EJ Manuel. Jared Allen took over right where Julius Peppers left off – a shadow of his former self. This against a team that isn’t even expected to make the playoffs, and who didn’t even play that great of a game. This was absolutely unacceptable. For the first time maybe ever, this is a Bears defense without an identity. And that should concern us.

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The offense started the game off great. First drive of the game Cutler looked sharp and they utilized all of their weapons on that drive leading me to think this was what we were in store for the rest of the day. But that did not end up being the case. Matt Forte, who played the best game of anyone on either side of the ball for the Bears, was a major factor in the short passing game, but they went away from him too early in the run where he was not being stopped. And then the injuries started piling up. Roberto Garza and Matt Slausen left the game early with ankle injuries, and then Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey couldn’t stay on the field. So as much as I want to just blame Cutler for everything, he did have two new linemen and question about who would be lined up at receiver every time they left the huddle. But any hope of seeing a “new” Jay Cutler was quickly wiped away. For better or for worse, this was the same old Jay Cutler. The player who showed more poise and patience in the pre-season was no longer, replaced again by the erratic quarterback who in one moment made passes few others could make, and in the next decisions so dumb you’d never think you were watching a nine year veteran.

We thought we’d be getting a more predictable team coming into this season. A high-powered offense and a quarterback finally ready to reach his potential. A defense that wasn’t going to set any records, but would at least be an upgrade from last season. So should we be genuinely concerned? Or does this team still have hope of being the championship team we all hoped just hitting an early season speed bump? Well we won’t need to wait long to find out, as they’ll be tested by one of the elite teams in the NFL this Sunday night in Santa Clara. And sure I don’t see the Bears winning on the road in prime time against the 49ers, but doing so certainly restores hope back here in Chicago. Win or lose, we need to see a better team out there on Sunday.