1. For a week, at least, the Bears' offensive line won’t face the heat at Halas Hall.
But understand that rushing for 224 yards as the Bears did Sunday at Soldier Field -- the best rushing effort by the club since 1988 -- won’t happen next Monday night when they face unbeaten Detroit (4-0) at Ford Field, where the Lions will have arguably the NFL’s best defensive line on display. More on that big challenge in a little bit.
For now, credit should go to a makeshift Bears offensive line that created some wide running lanes for Matt Forte, whose 205-yard effort tied Walter Payton and Gale Sayers for the second-most in franchise history. It was a brilliant performance by Forte and one that ought to have him digging in a little deeper in his stand-off with the club for a new contract. At some point, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo will have to decide if he needs to dig deep himself to pay Forte or franchise tag him, knowing that long-term investments in running backs have risks.
“Matt is amazing,” nickel cornerback D.J. Moore said. “You have to put some change in his pocket. There’s pretty much nothing else to say about that. Twenty-five carries for (205). You don’t see 200 too often.”
How big was the rushing effort? The Bears had 161 yards rushing combined through the first three games as offensive coordinator Mike Martz ignored the ground game in the previous two games, calling just 20 runs total in losses to the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers. They did 83 yards better than that against the Panthers, who were playing without their two best linebackers, the injured Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. Martz said last week the Bears would be a good running team, and offensive line coach Mike Tice swore the Bears could run the ball effectively if they committed to it.
No one is going to vote any of the Bears' linemen into the Pro Bowl this season. But the group played well as the offense averaged 7.2 yards per carry and quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked only once. Win or lose, the unit is consistently coming under scrutiny. At times, it’s warranted. Other times, it’s cliche.
“But it starts with the offensive line,” center Roberto Garza said. “If we don’t do our job, we don’t protect the quarterback, we don’t make those holes.
“Matt did a great job of making us look good. He’s able to showcase his skills, what he can do, he’s so explosive, so fast and he makes people miss. He did a great job out there. We made a commitment to it all week. We had a lot of fun out there.”
The Bears got Forte running downhill early in the game and then found daylight on the edges. They did well pulling the guards and left guard Chris Williams made a nice block on the 17-yard touchdown, springing wide to wipe safety Charles Godfrey out of the play while Garza sealed the back side.
But good, bad or mixed, guard Chris Williams says they do a good job of blocking out the reviews.
“Most of us don’t listen to what y’all say anyway, so it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “We’re just out here trying to win football games and regardless of what’s being said, everybody here’s working hard.”
He’d fit in well with former offensive line coach Bob Wylie, who the Bears will see next month. Wylie is coaching the offensive line for the Oakland Raiders now. He’s funny with a lot of things he does, and Wylie always has promoted a group he belongs to: The Mushroom Society. It’s the not-so-secret group of offensive line coaches. Wylie is also part of a group that holds an annual conference in Cincinnati known as the COOL Clinic. That’s COOL as in Coaches of Offensive Linemen.
Why do offensive line coaches associate themselves with fungus? Because mushrooms and line coaches are “both are fed a lot of (manure), yet both are expected to flourish,” Wylie said.
The clinic in May drew 378 coaches from 35 states, 240 schools and 14 NFL teams. Coaches came from Canada, Mexico and Scotland, according to Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News.
“I gave him his money back," Wylie told McDonald. “Anybody that comes from Scotland to listen to me needed to get their money back.”
There are no money-back offers for the Bears’ offensive line, but maybe Martz will keep the effort fresh in his mind in coming weeks as game plans are drawn up and more importantly when the action is live. The offense runs through Forte and with 25 rushes and five pass targets, 30 of the 49 snaps involved him. He has accounted for 634 of the team’s 1,231 yards. That’s 51.5 percent. Anything over 30 percent is considered a lot.
Fortunately, Forte remembered those who are like mushrooms.
“All the credit goes to the offensive line,” he said. “The holes were huge out there. Even toward the end of the game we just kept pounding them and pounding them. The offensive line wore the defense out.
“Once the offensive line takes care of the defensive line, I can get in the open field and the receivers make big blocks downfield. If you make somebody miss, there's a lot of yardage out there to get.”
2. When did the long-awaited commitment to the run actually happen? Center Roberto Garza said it’s something that started at the beginning of the week with practice. But the Bears don’t decide to run the ball Wednesday and only practice that. The balance in practice doesn’t shift, not like it can on Sundays.
“That happened today,” wide receiver Sam Hurd said. “Hut, hut, hut. It was just working. We practice everything because you never know what’s going to happen on Sunday. It could turn out to be a running game or it could turn out to be a passing game. As you see what was working for us, why turn away from that? It’s just smart football and (Mike) Martz is a smart coach. He put us in the right position and as a team we executed.”
The commitment to the run called for some different personnel groups, or ones the Bears haven’t used as much. Fullback Tyler Clutts played nearly the entire game. With tight end Matt Spaeth sidelined with a calf injury, Clutts was sure to inherit more playing time. He had no way of knowing it would be this much. Hurd also played a lot in run packages. The Bears like him as a run blocker because he’s 6-3, 200 pounds and physical.
“That was going to be part of me coming over here, I already knew that,” he said. “That was going to be part of the game and I wanted to make sure I could at least fulfill their wishes.
“That’s the old way to victory. Back in the old days, Jim Brown and all of them, punish, punish, punish and the big passes open. It was a lot of punishing. Plus, there were gaps and you’ve got to give credit to the O-line.”
Martz called a run on the Bears’ first nine offensive plays and showed the same kind of dogged pursuit of the ground game that he had for the passing attack in the losses.
“After that first drive when we were successful running all the way down the field, I knew that we were going to have to stick with it because it was working,” Clutts said. “I had a blast out there.”
3. The Bears have an extra day this week to figure out what they will do with the offensive line facing the Lions, who are stacked up front with tackle Ndamukong Suh and end Kyle Vanden Bosch. It’s possible Detroit will get first-round draft pick Nick Fairley, a tackle, back this week. He’s practiced but still hasn’t played since suffering a fractured foot at the start of training camp.
The Bears juggled the offensive line with right tackle Frank Omiyale getting benched at halftime. That move didn’t happen until right guard Chris Spencer, a center by trade, was sent to the locker room with a right hand injury. He returned in the third quarter with a cast on the hand and the fingers exposed. The extent of the injury isn’t known but a cast could signal he’s broken the hand. That’s the injury he suffered to the same hand as a member of the Seattle Seahawks in 2009 when he was moved from center to guard for the final three games because he was having difficulty snapping the ball. It’s not easy playing guard with one good hand, either.
So what do the Bears do? Right tackle Gabe Carimi has yet to practice since his Week 2 subluxtation of the right knee. It’s pretty much a pain tolerance issue for him and the guess is he returns this month. But can he be back in the mix to face the Lions?
“There is pain in the knee cap from everything,” Carimi said. “It’s a week-by-week, day-by-day thing. I honestly don’t know.”
Could he practice this week?
“We’ll see,” he replied. “It’s going to be a day-by-day thing.”
Lance Louis replaced Spencer at right guard in the first half while Spencer was being treated in the locker room. When Omiyale was sent to the bench, Louis moved out to right tackle, a position he last played as a senior at San Diego State.
“We’re going against better D-ends now,” Louis said while seated next to Carimi. “It felt pretty good. I got comfortable after I got going in there and things went pretty good. Yeah, I know, I ain’t no Gabe Carimi. I wish.
“You gain confidence with everything you do.”
So how does offensive line coach Mike Tice work it vs. the Lions, who also have defensive tackle Corey Williams and end Cliff Avril to worry about? Carimi is the key to the puzzle here but the Bears would probably prefer for him to play at home in his first game coming off the injury. They’d also probably prefer for Louis to debut at right tackle at home if he’s going to make a spot start at right tackle. Too bad for them the game is at Ford Field.
4. Chris Harris has looked more valuable in the last three games than he did last season when he tied for a team-high five interceptions. That’s no knock against his performance a year ago. With the veteran missing his third straight game with a pulled hamstring, the Bears were riddled with problems in the secondary, mostly at the safety position. There’s no way around it. The Panthers had 10 plays of 20 yards or more, the longest a 53-yard pass from Cam Newton to Steve Smith that was the result of an error in judgment by free safety Brandon Meriweather. It’s the second time in three weeks the top has been taken off the Bears' defense when they’ve been in their signature Cover-2 defense. Devery Henderson had a 79-yard touchdown in New Orleans on a similarly designed play with multiple vertical routes.
“Their offense is kind of tricky,” strong safety Major Wright explained. “They ran kind of a wash route where they've got three to one side and send Steve Smith to the single side. They bring a receiver back to the other side then and it's kind of putting pressure on the safeties.”
Tricky? It was a classic Cover-2 beater. The Panthers had two wide receivers aligned to the right and tight end Greg Olsen was also on that side on the line. All four receives ran vertical routes but Olsen bent his route across the field to the other hashmark, almost like a post route. Meriweather broke before the ball was thrown by Newton. Smith would have easily scored a touchdown if Newton hadn’t lofted the ball so high. As it was Meriweather arrived to tackle him at the 1-yard line. It’s a matter of basic fundamentals. The safeties in the scheme are instructed to play from the top down. There’s no way Smith’s name wasn’t pounded into the heads of the defensive backs all week in meetings. Meriweather freelanced, ignoring the rules of the defense.
It wasn’t the only poor play by Meriweather. He tried to make a big shot on Smith later in the game instead of form tackling. The safeties weren’t making plays on the ball. Combine a sluggish pass rush -- it was tough to buy Rod Marinelli’s explanation last week the rush against the Packers was solid -- with sloppy play on the back end and that’s how a defense gets torched for 543 yards, the most allowed by the franchise since 1982. Nine of the 10 plays of 20 or more yards were passes. You better believe Lovie Smith will be on his players this week as the Bears prepare for the Lions, who are averaging 33.8 points per game.
5. Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, who oozed cool when he was a wide receiver and returner in the 70’s and 80’s, predicted last year that Devin Hester will finish his career with 20 or more return touchdowns. He passed Brian Mitchell on the all-time list in 2010, and moved up another notch with his 69-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Panthers.
Clearly, Carolina punter Jeff Baker made a mistake. It looked like a rugby-style punt gone bad, an odd choice considering the field position. Hester fielded the low kick and had plenty of time to set up his return with a quick fake to the right.
“Whenever I get a kick like that I’ve got an opportunity to pretty much freeze the defense,” he said. “Guys, when they’re being blocked, see the first reaction of the returner and after that they really don’t get a chance to see the returner until a second later, so they go off the first move and I just want to draw everybody to the right side and hopefully get it back to the left.
“I’m glad they still punted to me and gave me more opportunities but at the same time this is the NFL, this is the greatest football competition in the world, so you don’t want to shy away from one person, and I hope the next team has that mentality that we’re going to go and we have faith on our guys on special teams that we can stop them.”
No team has proven it can stop Hester yet.
“The way he is going, I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up with 20 touchdowns,” said Johnson, the return man for the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team. “He's at a peak now where he just goes and he is in a zone. I'm sure he will be viewed as the best of all time, and rightfully so.”
Hester has 15 career scores now. He turns 29 next month but there’s no question he remains in the prime of his career. When returners lose it, they typically flame out in a hurry. That’s why Hester’s production -- he’s in his sixth season -- is unprecedented. Top returners rarely stay on top of their game for more than three or four seasons, at the most. It makes projecting a final number for Hester impossible. If Panthers kicker Olindo Mare didn’t take a good angle on him, his 73-yard kickoff return would have turned into a touchdown as well.
Maybe at this point White Shoes would like to raise the estimate.
6. There are big NFC North implications with the Bears’ trip to Detroit. The Lions are already two games ahead of them so it’s clear what the game means in the standings. Even after a comeback victory in Dallas, this is a major stepping-stone for the Lions, who get the opportunity in prime time. It’s the first “Monday Night Football” appearance for the Lions since 2001 when they called the Pontiac Silverdome home. Since, the Bears have appeared on “MNF” 11 times. The buildup will be intense and Ford Field will be alive.
“It’s gonna be rocking,” said wide receiver Roy Williams, who was drafted in the first round by the Lions in 2004.
If Williams is happy for anyone, it’s long-suffering Lions fans.
“They have a team to cheer for this year,” he said. “It’s been building. Everybody wants to get on Matt Millen. I think Matt Millen built a great team. Somehow, someway, it just didn’t work with the players. They’ve got a team that’s opening people’s eyes.
“I’m happy for those fans. Now, they have something to cheer for. Those are the most devoted fans -- I’m not taking anything away from Chicago or Dallas or anywhere else -- those are the most devoted fans to go through what we went through and they still showed up.”
Williams was on board for the first five games of the 0-16 season before he was traded to the Cowboys. He knows what the faithful have been through.
“And they kept supporting team,” he said. “Now that they’re 4-0, being undefeated, I don’t know when the last time that happened (1980, when Billy Sims was a rookie).
“Oh yeah. It’s gonna be loud. It’s gonna be rocking. Division rival. Here we go.”
7. Marion Barber was a man of few words following his debut with the Bears. He sat out the first three games -- and more than a month -- after suffering a calf muscle injury in Week 3 of the preseason. Barber carried five times for 17 yards, scoring on a three-yard run in the final two minutes after Matt Forte broke off a 40-yard gain.
Asked about finally playing and scoring, Barber maintained a vow of silence he kept during his career in Dallas.
“I am good baby, thanks for asking,” Barber said. “I appreciate it. I don’t talk.”
Barber attempted a backward flip in the end zone to celebrate his score, but he landed on his helmet, something Forte predicted would get him all over ESPN. Told he could talk about that, Barber burst into laughter.
“You can write that,” he said. “Tell them I have to work on that, I have to tuck my legs.”
How about we talk about football?
8. For reasons unknown -- as we’ve pointed out here -- Lovie Smith called out special teams after the first two weeks of the season. The special teams unit was largely responsible for the victory Sunday with the Hester return and a block by Julius Peppers of a 34-yard field goal try by Olindo Mare in the third quarter. It was the 10th block of Peppers’ career and his second with the Bears after he got Green Bay’s Mason Crosby last season. He collapsed the middle of the Carolina line and got the job done. He ranks second among active players behind New Orleans’ Shaun Rogers.
The Bears have blocked 21 kicks since Dave Toub took over as special teams coordinator in 2004, the most in the league in that period. There’s a lot of work that goes into this planning and creativity is involved. The next time out? Peppers moved from the middle to the right side of the Bears’ line where he came off the edge.
9. Punter Adam Podlesh has an interesting perspective on the fake return the Bears ran in the final minute last week against the Packers. He believes it will aid the Bears moving forward this season for the simple fact that it will be in the back of the mind of every member of an opposing coverage unit as the season goes on. Is there a fake on for this play?
“When (Dave) Toub showed us this is a possible fake return, we said, ‘How do we defend against this if it was on us?’” Podlesh said. “Just scream out the other direction? It’s tough for them to hear that. The things is, (coverage players) have got so much on their plate trying to cover the punt and get down there and get a blocker off them, looking up for a punt is not exactly the easiest thing to do.”
Podlesh has seen plenty of fakes and gadget plays for special teams in five seasons in the league. There are plays the Bears have that no one has seen yet. Toub has one or two that are prepared every week depending on the opponent. Obviously, most games go by without the team using one. Where does the Devin Hester/Johnny Knox fake return rate?
“That’s right up at the top,” Podlesh said. “You see a bunch of different types of gimmicky, fake punts or field goals but a fake return, I’ve never really seen that before. (Throwbacks across the field) are very common and it’s one of those things, well, Tennessee already did that. This is pretty impressive.”
Even though Knox’s touchdown was wiped out by penalty, Podlesh is convinced it will bring the Bears good in coming weeks.
“It’s going to keep guys more honest,” he said. “It’s tough for these guys to get down the field and cover enough as it is without having to worry about where the ball is going to be dropping and if it gets these guys to look up just a little bit it’s going to give our return guys an edge. If it keeps them honest thinking, `Hey, they might do it,’ I think it’s going to help us in the long run.”
The Panthers sure looked a step slow trying to cover Hester and poor tackling didn’t help. Carolina coach Ron Rivera wanted to hire former Bears assistant special teams coach Chris Tabor but as the Bears’ playoff drive went on last season, the Panthers needed to make a move. Fortunately for Tabor, he landed the top special teams job in Cleveland where he inherited another dynamic returner, Joshua Cribbs.
10. HGH testing for NFL players hasn’t materialized yet because the NFLPA and NFL have yet to agree upon the step-by-step procedures for the testing, something that caught the attention of Congress last week with commissioner Roger Goodell, NFLPA boss DeMaurice Smith and the chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency invited to a meeting on Capitol Hill.
That’s the last place the NFL wants to be, but if it leads toward an agreement being pushed through, it will be a good thing.
“I think we’ve got to implement it at some point in time,” said Bears kicker Robbie Gould, the team’s representative to the NFLPA. “The players aren’t against it. We just want to make sure the testing process is valid and that there really isn’t any way to get around the testing to make sure that it is done correctly.
“There is really no deadline. Everyone wants to put it in place. I think the NFL wants to be the first major professional sports league to implement HGH testing into its drug testing policies. Both sides are meeting heavily to try to find what the perfect process is going to be. But at the end of the day, I think it will get done it’s just a matter of making sure we don’t rush to put something in place that will either hurt the players or the league. The last thing we want is some system that is broken.”
The league has criticized the players for dragging their feet on the issue.
“We are disappointed in the union's failure to follow through on its commitment to HGH testing to ensure the integrity of competition on the field, protect the health of NFL players and send the right message to young athletes," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the Associated Press in a statement last week. "We appreciate the (House Oversight and Government Reform) committee's interest and look forward to cooperating with the members on this matter."
10 a. If you think Steve Smith was difficult for the Bears, totaling 181 yards on eight receptions as he frequently was open, imagine what it will be like in Detroit when Calvin Johnson is covered. The Lions are feeding the ball to Megatron with defenders on him and he’s still making plays. The tale is Roy Williams is the one who dubbed Johnson Megatron when they were teammates.
10 b. D.J. Moore has some fast hands. All four of his interceptions last season came off tipped passes and that was the case again with his 20-yard touchdown. Lance Briggs deflected an ill-advised Cam Newton throw for Legedu Naanee and Moore was opportunistic once again.
10 c. Lovie Smith said “today our defense outplayed their defense. That’s the way you look at it.” Sure, the Bears scored a defensive touchdown and they won the game. But nothing in meetings this week will reflect much else positive about the effort.
10 d. Paging the pass rush.
10 e. On a personal note, Lions week will not be as enjoyable as it’s been in the past as beat reporter Tom “Killer” Kowalski died Aug. 29 at age 51. Kowalski, as anyone who follows the Lions can attest, was a fountain of information as he covered the franchise for 30 seasons, most recently for MLive.com and Booth Newspapers. The Lions honored Kowalski before their home opener, named their press room after him and are supporting some charities he was heavily involved in throughout the community. He is missed.
The very first comment about the defense that stuck out to me concerned that long pass to an uncovered Steve Smith. Many thought that it was Jennings screwed up while I said it was Meriweather's cover.
It was Meriweather's cover but according to this he chose to play the TE instead. I knew Jennings would never have let him run free if he didn't think that the Safety had deep cover. The statement; "Meriweather freelanced and ignored the rules of the defense" tells us exactly why NE let him go. That was one of their biggest bitches about him. He loves to hit but he doesn't always tackle well or follow what he's supposed to do in coverage. His streak of independence cost us six points and I'm sure it won't be the only time that happens.
Meriweather is one of those guys Lovie is gonna need to kick in the ass a few time if he's gonna change his ways.
I'm getting to that age where a lifetime warranty just doesn't mean as much to me anymore as an afternoon nap.
Honey Badger Don't Care. Honey Badger Don't Give a Shit.