COMMENTARY | Throughout the Chicago Bears season opening, 24-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, it looked as though they were going to fall just short.
After the Bengals took a 21-10 lead following a BenJarvis Green-Ellis 5-yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter with 7:52 left, many Bears fans had to be thinking their predictions were right.
The Bengals defense was playing stout, led by a pass rush that was making QB Jay Cutler uncomfortable (despite not being sacked once) all afternoon and a punishing linebacker group that was playing well against both the run and pass. AJ Green was torching Bears CB Charles Tillman, who, despite his two interceptions, was beat numerous times on deep balls.
But the Bears hung tough and kept the game close, eventually taking the lead for good on a wonderfully thrown pass from Cutler to Brandon Marshall on a 19-yard corner route and handing new head coach Marc Trestman his first NFL victory.
So what to make of the Bears moving to 1-0 on this very early season? Here are three things that worked and a few things they need to work on entering their second straight home game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Cutler Spreading the Ball Around: Earlier this week, I wrote how the Bears needed to spread the ball around to receivers not named Brandon Marshall. Trestman, offensive coordinator Aaron Kroemer, and Cutler clearly emphasized that early and often in the game. Marshall led the Bears with 10 targets, but WR Alshon Jeffery (eight), TE Martellus Bennett (six), and RB Matt Forte (six) were also featured heavily.
It was especially refreshing to see Bennett featured, as he was essentially a non-factor in the preseason with only 1 reception (three total targets, all in week 3) for 16 yards. The Bears have lacked a dominant, consistent red-zone threat at the TE position since Greg Olsen was traded to the Carolina Panthers, so seeing Bennett produce in that regard is huge. If he's able to stretch the field over the middle all season long like he did today, that will only help the Bears offense continue to grow.
Trestman's Faith in Cutler: Things looked bleak for the Bears following Cutler's 4th quarter interception that gave the Bengals the ball on Chicago's 44 yard line.
It would have been easy for the Bears offense, following a Mohammad Sanu fumble that gave the ball back to them, to play conservatively and grind out a long drive a la the Lovie Smith era.
Instead, Trestman put the ball in the hands of his quarterback, calling five passing plays en route to that go-ahead scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Cutler showed great poise all drive, including on an 18-yard scramble on 2nd-and-20.
The Bears need Cutler to limit his mistakes all season in order to be a great offense, and the confidence his head coach and play-caller showed in him early on in the season could go a long way towards that happening.
The New Mix at Linebacker: Everyone knows what Brian Urlacher has meant to Chicago over the last decade plus. Nothing else really needs to be said. It was refreshing, then, to see the Bears linebackers blend together and turn in a solid performance in their first test as a group.
Despite missing all of the preseason with a calf injury, D.J. Williams played well in the middle. Lance Briggs was as steady as ever, accruing seven tackles and deflecting a pass. James Anderson, replacing SLB Nick Roach, was solid, especially in the passing game where he batted down two passes of his own.
Many Bears teams in the past have held their hats on the play of their defenses, and that all started in the middle with #54. No one is expecting Williams to be the second coming of Urlacher, so instead the Bears will look for a collective effort from all of their LBs to get the job done.
What didn't work:
The Disappearing Act of Julius Peppers: While the linebackers were able to blend together nicely, the defensive line for Chicago was almost nonexistent outside of a fourth quarter sack by DE Shea McClellin.
The Bengals were playing without starting LT Andrew Whitworth due to a knee injury, which should have resulted in a field day for Peppers. Instead, the Bengals used it to their advantage, choosing to run at Peppers and negate his ability to chase down plays from the backside.
The Bengals also used tight ends and running backs to help in pass protection. He ended the game without recording a tackle.
While Peppers wasn't alone in his subpar play along the defensive front for Chicago (DT Henry Melton & DE Corey Wootton were also largely ineffective throughout) the Bears invested a lot of money in Peppers in 2010 to help shore up their pass rush.
Teams always game plan to determine how to stop the all-pro DE, so it is often up to his teammates to pick up the slack if Peppers is taken out of the game. This group has played well in the past and needs to do so this year for the Bears defense to be the dominant force it was last year.
Inconsistent Play in the Secondary: While it would be easy to look at their three forced turnovers and say the defense was spectacular, one only had to look at A.J. Green's receiving numbers to say they weren't.
Everyone knows what kind of a talent Green is and he was able to put it on full display in Sunday's tilt. Green was a monster all over the field against the Bears secondary, catching six passes for double-digit yards (including two for 40+).
Defensively, Tillman did his best to stay stride for stride with Green and did a solid job on those two interceptions, jumping a slant pattern in the first quarter and catching a deflected ball off of Green's hands in the second. But he was pump faked badly on Cincinnati's first touchdown drive on a deep ball from Bengals QB Andy Dalton to Green.
Later on in the second quarter, two plays after Tillman left with a leg injury, the Bengals found Green on another double-move against CB Tim Jennings for a touchdown. The Bears appeared to have a miscommunication on the play between Jennings and SS Major Wright, something that cannot happen against a player as talented as Green.
Look, no one is saying Green should have been shut down completely; that's almost impossible to do when he's 100%. But with a schedule that includes pass-happy offenses such as the Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, and Dallas Cowboys, the Bears can't afford to give up 282 passing yards a game.
Their defense made enough big plays to give the offense a chance in Sunday's victory. Sooner or later, however, that may not be enough.
Billy Grayson is a Yahoo contributor from Chicago and diehard Chicago sports follower. He is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
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