A veteran scout called late Sunday night with a couple questions about the Bears-Bills game.
Then he started talking about the Bears' season and he kept hammering the point that they're 5-3. It doesn't matter how you get there, he said, it's getting there that matters.
There weren't any style points earned with a 22-19 victory over the down-and-out Bills on Sunday at Rogers Centre. Just like the NFC North-leading Green Bay Packers didn't earn any in a 45-7 whipping of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night. A win is a win, and the Bears are in solid position at the midway point of the season.
Where they go from now depends on how much they can improve. It's easy to pick out a handful of areas where the Bears need to get better Here are three that are most essential (plus seven more thoughts about the aftermath of the Bears' win over the Bills):
1. Run the ball more effectively. They took the first step, and apparently the most difficult, when offensive coordinator Mike Martz balanced out the game plan and 28 running plays were called. That kept the Bills off balance and prevented them from teeing off on the offensive line. It also kept the line out of some of the bad positions it has been in this season. You can't deploy five receivers into the pattern every time and expect the line to hold up. But the running game has to improve. Matt Forte and Chester Taylor combined on 24 carries for 62 yards and that's rough sledding no matter how you analyze it. It's a small wonder Martz stuck with the running game, considering its struggles.
2. Get better on third down. The worst offense in the NFL on third down was much improved against the Bills as the Bears converted 7-of-12. It kept drives alive, kept the defense off the field and led to better production all the way around. The Bears were in manageable situations on third down and getting proper down and distance is another thing offenses can achieve when they run on first and second downs. After a rough start on the first two series, Jay Cutler and the offense converted seven of the final 10 third-down opportunities, hitting some big plays in the process, such as a 24-yard completion to Johnny Knox, a 26-yard completion to Earl Bennett and an 18-yard pass to Greg Olsen. Cutler also twice scrambled for first downs.
3. Rush the passer more effectively. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has dialed up the blitz more in the last two games and came with a good mix against the Bills. Ryan Fitzpatrick was sacked only once, but the Bears were credited in press box statistics with 12 quarterbacks hits, four by Julius Peppers and three by Israel Idonije. Peppers left the game with what folks in the locker room said afterward was something minor. They claimed he had the wind knocked out of him. Hard to say if that can happen when a lunging defensive player appears to take a knee to the helmet while he's trying to make a play in the end zone. No one wants to talk about head injuries and the hope is Peppers didn't have his bell rung. The defense needs him because the line is having enough trouble getting to the quarterback with him on the field. Without Peppers, the Bears would be in a pass-rushing world of trouble. Their hope, of course, is the big investment is back on the practice field Wednesday.
And seven more thoughts from Sunday's game:
4. The big interception by cornerback Tim Jennings with nine minutes remaining and the Bills leading 19-14 marked the second time this season he has been beaten on a play and recovered to have a takeaway. Jennings was beaten in the Green Bay game by wide receiver James Jones and hustled back to recover a fumble downfield. In this instance, he bit on a stop-and-go move by Steve Johnson. Jennings hustled back downfield and got a hand on the underthrown pass from Fitzpatrick. Once the ball was deflected, it felt like an eternity.
"It felt like slow motion because I couldn't let it hit the ground," Jennings said. "I was able to regain it. It was huge."
Some wondered why the winless Bills (0-8) didn't try to chew some clock after taking over on their own 29-yard line with the lead. With nothing to lose, they went for the kill shot and Johnson told reporters afterward that if the throw was on target he would have outraced safety Chris Harris to the end zone. Even if he didn't take it all the way, the Bills would have had the ball in Bears' territory with an opportunity to make it a two-score game.
The Bills had been setting up that play with short passes to Johnson and Roscoe Parrish. That is why Jennings went for the fake.
"We had the opportunity and we just didn't make the play," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "I wasn't going to be conservative there. I wasn't going to do that. The guys have worked too hard and we had the chance to make the big play. If we ended up in one-on-one (coverage), it was one of those plays where you throw it. We just didn't make the play."
5. The Bears blocked their second kick of the season when Idonije deflected Rian Lindell's extra-point attempt in the third quarter, a critical play in a game in which both teams scored three touchdowns. Peppers was right alongside him as they crashed through the Bills' line. Earlier in the season, Peppers picked up a block. They're two of the very best in the league at blocking kicks, giving special teams coordinator Dave Toub a 1-2 punch that is difficult to contain. So I asked veteran long snapper Pat Mannelly about facing two big linemen with athletic ability and long arms.
"We line those two guys up next to each other and when you've got that many blocks coming at you, they're very effective," Mannelly said. "They got a great push from the guys behind them and they got a great push themselves and the other thing they've got is great timing knowing when to go up for the ball."
How would the Bears defend such skilled defenders?
"You have to be ready for it," Mannelly said. "The tackle needs to get a lean and the center has to lean that way to help. You have to account for them."
6. The Bears wasted no time getting rookie safety Major Wright involved. He got in on the third series and played eight snaps. There wasn't really any action that came his way. Fitzpatrick threw one ball deep to Wright's side of the field, but it was out of bounds. Still, it's clear the Bears want to get the third-round pick from Florida involved. He replaced Harris for the series, and while it would be surprising if a wholesale change happened soon, it's clear the Bears want to do what secondary coach Jon Hoke talked about last week, and that's getting Wright up to speed.
"I just got my feet wet," Wright said. "I am happy with that one series. There wasn't much that came my way. I just go back out to practice and keep getting better."
Wright has a total of 22 snaps on defense for the season, including the opener against the Detroit Lions. Look for his role to expand a little bit Sunday against Minnesota.
7. No was more critical of Brad Maynard's performance than the punter himself after the game. Maynard told me he was aiming to kick the ball out of bounds when the Bears were forced to punt with 75 seconds remaining. Instead, the ball hit along the sideline and rolled down to the one-yard line. Maynard said the game overall was another "poor performance" for him, but not when you consider that dangerous Bills return man Roscoe Parrish was limited to six return yards for the game on a total of four punts. Maynard also had a 40-yard net average. Not a bad day's work.
8. No surprise that the Bears targeted tight ends with nine passes, as the Bills entered as one of the worst defenses in the league defending the position. Greg Olsen is again a focal point of the offense after going two games without a reception. How he ever disappeared in the game plan ought to be investigated. He's a valuable target and that was proven in the red zone and on third down. Olsen caught the four-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter on third down and then his 18-yard reception on third-and-10 at the Bills' 23-yard line in the fourth quarter helped set up the game-winning touchdown pass to Earl Bennett.
9. Another solid game for nickel cornerback D.J. Moore. He just makes plays. Moore was credited with four solo tackles in press box statistics. That was to go with one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit and two pass breakups.
10. The Green Bay Packers officially parted ways Monday with veteran cornerback Al Harris. He'd been on the team's physically unable to perform list, but the Packers have gotten sold play from some of their young corners, including Sam Shields, who had an interception in the win over Dallas.
Harris played an integral role with the Bears, and I'm not talking about his interception of Cutler at Lambeau Field last season. General manager Jerry Angelo drafted Harris out of Texas A&M-Kingsville in the sixth round in 1997. Angelo loved Harris, but couldn't convince then Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy to use him. Finally, the Bucs let him go and the Philadelphia Eagles quickly scooped him up and made him into a nickel cornerback.
That move got Bobby DePaul hired as the Bears' former director of pro personnel. Angelo noted that DePaul, then an Eagles scout, moved immediately to bring in Harris, who became a major contributor for the Eagles. And when Angelo assembled his staff in 2001, he hired DePaul as his first move.
Here's where it gets more interesting. The Packers traded the Eagles a second-round draft pick for Harris and a fourth-round draft pick in March 2003. Before that deal went down, the Bears had a trade of their own worked out for Harris. They were going to get Harris for a swap of third-round draft picks, according to a source familiar with the situation. Think about that. The Bears could have had Charles Tillman and Harris paired together for years.
Angelo certainly still has great respect for Harris. The Bears don't look to have need at cornerback, and Lovie Smith told reporters Monday he liked the team's depth at the position. If they did, I'd expect Harris would be at the top of their list of players to check out .
I think the Bears need to seriously consider signing Al Davis just for the reason stated above - depth. If he can still effectively defend against the pass, why not make the move?
Otherwise, this article rings true. The running game is an issue, as is the OL, which, in recent weeks, has seen improvement. We need to utilize our passing game more in the area of tight ends. And Brad Maynard is just critical of himself because that's what excellent players tend to be.