A few general observations from the Chicago Bears' 39-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night...
After last week's disaster in Detroit, the Bears seriously altered their protection concepts for this game. On their first drive, in which they went 68 yards in three plays, the Bears set up in two-TE sets on the first two plays, and TE/FB in the third. On each play, the extra blockers either stayed on line to protect, or chipped and ran short routes. This was very atypical for offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who's been famous for years for leaving his quarterbacks out to dry with multi-receiver sets and limited protection concepts. Because Jay Cutler had more time, he could go with longer drops and progress through his reads.
The 48-yard touchdown to Devin Hester on that first drive was a great example — out of I-formation, Cutler had time to run a five-step drop, look to his left, look off the coverage, take two more steps back, and zing the ball to Hester for the score. He threw a perfect ball to Hester over double deep coverage, which is the Jay Cutler you get if you allow him enough time to throw the damned ball. The Bears also set up their tight ends very well to block inline for Matt Forte; they ran lead and sweep blocks very well. In fact, the first time I saw the Bears try to run something with Forte that didn't involve at least one extra blocker came with nine minutes left in the first quarter. Forte tried to go to his right, cut back, and got a few yards more than he might have … because Cutler executed a perfect cut block on Jared Allen.
Anyone else want to question his toughness? I didn't think so.
On their second drive, the Bears went with fewer blockers, and Cutler had to respond with shorter screens and a misfire out of shotgun. Through the game, it became readily apparent that with even one extra blocker, Chicago's offense is a very different story than it is when Martz's protection concepts hang everybody up. The right kind of balance could propel the Bears to a playoff berth down the road, but they'd better hurry up — the Packers look unbeatable, and the Lions aren't going away just because they lost one close game.
Later in the game, Martz called plays that had tight ends inline, but had them release more immediately. Ostensibly, this would still drive pass rush away by occupying an extra defender, but the Bears' offensive line isn't stout enough to handle a line like Minnesota's (or anyone else's) without consistent help at this point.
Two more offensive notes: Much-maligned left guard Chris Williams did a nice job with pull and log blocks, and Matt Forte got to show off the fact that his patience makes him an excellent draw and delay runner when he's given the chance. This was a watershed game for the Bears' protection; I just hope they see it as such.
Adrian Peterson ran for just 39 yards on 12 carries for two reasons — first, his own offensive line didn't play very well. Second, the Bears' linebackers did an outstanding job of filling gaps and creating run fits. They did a lot of what looked like run-blitzing, where the idea is to get extra defenders to the ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage. It worked as a strategy, because the Vikings' receivers are clearly not on the same page with Donovan McNabb for whatever reason. Early in the game, both Visanthe Shiancoe and Bernard Berrian dropped easy catches in zone pockets.
The Vikings' passing offense seems to have no sense of itself, or at least that's the impression I got from this game. They're setting McNabb up for the traditional short-drop West Coast offense routes, but they don't have strong yards after catch receivers — the receivers they do have don't get separation on a consistent basis and don't seem to be able to break contact for extra yardage (this year, rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph appears to be the exception to that rule). Running Joe Webb in for an occasional hoped-for splash play, or seeing if Percy Harvin can gain a few yards on the ground out of a full house backfield when Adrian Peterson can't get any traction … well, those are questionable strategies. The Vikings went three-and-out six times, and two-and-out once, when McNabb was tackled for a safety.
The Vikings no longer have the offensive line to account for longer plays like draws, delays, sweeps (a favorite play with Harvin) and more complex route concepts downfield. McNabb was under siege on longer-developing plays, and he frequently had to check down as an adjustment. And asking him to roll out as he did five years ago … well, Julius Peppers showed us how effective that is these days when he caught up to McNabb on a rollout right with five minutes left in the third quarter and easily took him down. On the next play, McNabb was sacked by two Bears, and that was his day. Chicago put on a tackling clinic, but they had a lot of help.
In limited activity, backup quarterback Christian Ponder showed good pocket mobility and a sense for pressure. He moves more quickly than McNabb in and around the pocket (sometimes to the point of freneticism), and he is able to drop passes into tight windows downfield with some reasonable consistency. You have to wonder if it's time to make the switch, and see how much Ponder can develop this season. The Vikings are looking way up at three teams in their division, and that's the way it's going to stay. Yes, Ponder misfired more than he should have, but he's going to do that whenever he finally gets under center on a regular basis. Might as well get the growing pains out of the way now.