In this week’s edition of Grizzly Details (we’ll have another one Friday after the Thursday night game), we take a look at what went right for the Chicago Bears’ offense on Sunday afternoon, and we also examine the missteps that ended up costing them their game against the New Orleans Saints.
Third Down Offense Much Better in Week 5
It took a while for the Bears’ offense to get going against the Saints on Sunday, as they only had one first down in their first five drives of the contest, but once they did, they looked pretty solid all-around.
Most of the focus is going to be on Jay Cutler’s fumble deep in Bears territory that set the Saints up in the first quarter, but much more of the focus should be on the way that Cutler withstood the early onslaught from the Saints’ blitz packages (more on that in a minute) and delivered some really good balls during the course of the game.
Most of those did go to Alshon Jeffery, including two in a row on the Bears’ first scoring drive. On the first play, Cutler’s ball over the top of two Saints defenders and between the two safeties deep for New Orleans was a thing of beauty, and Jeffery’s catch on the play was equally good. Then, on the very next play, Cutler was getting set to throw the ball near the goal line, but then instinctively pulled the ball down when the crossing route that Jeffery and Earl Bennett were running was slow to develop. After Jeffery cleared the traffic, he was wide open, and Cutler floated in a perfect ball to get the Bears back in the game.
Add in the other moments in the game where Cutler stepped up in the pocket after feeling pressure (something he did NOT do on the fumble) and was able to complete passes, and you could see that Cutler was more in control of his skills Sunday than he was last week.
Cutler’s improved play was a big part of the reason why the Bears were able to improve so much upon their lackluster third down play from a week ago. In that game against the Lions, the Bears didn’t convert a single third down until the fourth quarter of the contest, and even then they only ended up going 1-for-13 in those situations.
Against the Saints, the Bears converted 4-of-10 chances in that department, and while 40% still isn’t perfect by any stretch, it still presents a marked improvement over the game against the Lions. When coupled with Cutler’s better execution and decision making, it is even more impressive.
Offensive Line Starting to Show Weaknesses
In the first three weeks of the season, the Bears’ offensive line was the talk of just about every broadcast team that covered the team. Rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, along with veteran left tackle Jermon Bushrod, were toasted as saviors for keeping Cutler upright in the pocket, and rightfully so, as the team got out to a 3-0 record.
Week 4 against the Lions changed that script a bit, as Cutler was sacked three times and took a couple of other big shots against Ndamukong Suh and company. Rather than being the exception to the rule, this may become a trend going forward, as Cutler was sacked three more times against the Saints and was under a constant barrage of pressure throughout the game because of the unique schemes that the Saints were employing against him.
So what changed between the first few weeks and the last two? For starters, the Bears seem to be having trouble picking up on blitz packages. In the first quarter of the game, Bushrod cut across to the B-gap in the line to help Matt Slauson on a block, and Malcom Jenkins came across the C-gap (Bushrod’s left shoulder) untouched and blasted Cutler, knocking the ball loose and picking up the sack.
While some will be quick to point out that Cutler should have gotten rid of the ball sooner (and he should), that doesn’t excuse the fact that Bushrod cut across too early and didn’t make sure that the edge was secure before engaging in another block. It wasn’t the worst play in the world, but it certainly wasn’t the best.
The BIG mistake for the line came on a play in the second quarter, when the Saints ran the exact same plan to the same part of the line, and once again Bushrod was out in space and not covering the blitz of Kenny Vaccaro. On this play, Matt Forte was also partially to blame for not picking up any blitzers, but the fact is that the Bears didn’t make the adjustment to cover that gap.
Those weren’t the only two plays that the offensive line seemed to have trouble figuring out blocking assignments, and finger pointing has been going on in all directions, with some players blaming the exotic looks that they weren’t prepared for, and Marc Trestman saying that the team WAS prepared for it and just didn’t execute.
Whatever the case may be, the fact is that the line needs to do a better job both of protecting Cutler but also of adjusting on the fly to the various schemes that they are seeing, and the onus for that is both on offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and on the linemen themselves.
Defensive Role Players Need to Step Up More
Most of the focus on the defense in this game will fall on Lance Briggs’ horrible encroachment penalty in the fourth quarter that gave the Saints a first down and might have cost the Bears a chance to win the game, but that isn’t the full story.
The fuller story is that the Bears have had to deal with a rotating cast of characters at various spots on the defense, and those guys are going to need to step up big after the events of Week 5. The first and foremost of those guys is going to be Stephen Paea, or, if he can’t get back into the lineup after missing the Saints game, is Zach Minter, who hasn’t seen the field yet for the Bears. After losing Henry Melton to a torn ACL, the Bears also lost Nate Collins to a leg injury in Week 5, and even though the severity of the injury isn’t known yet, it didn’t exactly look great on TV.
Obviously, the defensive line not having tackles with much NFL experience isn’t a good thing, but the Bears also have to deal with a secondary that has been showing some vulnerability lately. Major Wright has largely been good this season, but fellow safety Chris Conte looked dreadful on Sunday afternoon, getting beaten on a deep pass to New Orleans WR Nick Toon on one play, and then got away with a blatant pass interference penalty against Robert Meachem on the next throw.
It is a pattern of behavior for Conte, who has been a thorn in the side of Bears fans all season long. He is simply going to have to do a better job in pass coverage as the Bears face more teams with elite passing games, because if he doesn’t, the offense may not be able to keep up.