Biggs; Ten Thoughts on Bears vs Titans Game...........
Biggs: 10 thoughts after Bears' rout of Titans
By Brad Biggs, Tribune reporter 9:30 a.m. CST, November 5, 2012
Ten thoughts after the Chicago Bears’ 51-20 rout of the Tennessee Titans that keeps them in sole possession of first place atop the NFC North at 7-1, the second-best record in the league.
1. Since 1987, the Bears have had five six-game winning streaks, something they accomplished Sunday with the destruction of the Titans. Three of those streaks have come under coach Lovie Smith. The Bears rattled off seven wins to begin the 2006 season and had an eight-game winning streak in 2005 after former safety Mike Brown infamously said, “We suck,” when a Week 5 loss at Cleveland dropped that team to 1-3.
The Bears also had a six-game winning streak in 2001, making middle linebacker Brian Urlacher the only starter to be a part of four of the team's long winning streaks.
“I don’t know if you can really compare them,” Urlacher said. “This is such a different team and we’re doing it in so many different ways. Back then, we ran the football and we stopped the run on defense. We were winning games 16-13, 14-12. We’re not doing that this year. We’re winning games pretty big. Except for the Carolina game, we’ve won most of them by a fair amount. There have not been a lot of close games.”
The victory over the Titans was the second by more than 30 points this season and the third by 20 or more. Five of the Bears’ seven victories have been by 16 points or more. That is the most in the NFL, one more than the Houston Texans (7-1) have. That’s just another reason to begin the hype for Sunday’s meeting at Soldier Field.
Here is a list of blowout wins of (16 points or more) for division-leading teams:
Bears (7-1): 5 wins of 16 points or more over Indianapolis, St. Louis, Dallas, Jacksonville, Tennessee.
Houston (7-1): 4 wins of 16 points or more over Miami, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Baltimore.
San Francisco (6-2): 3 wins of 16 points or more over N.Y. Jets, Buffalo, Arizona.
New England (5-3): 3 wins of 16 points or more over Tennessee, Buffalo, St. Louis.
Atlanta (8-0): 2 wins of 16 points or more over Kansas City, San Diego.
Denver (5-3): 2 wins of 16 points or more over Oakland, New Orleans.
N.Y. Giants (6-3): 1 win of 16 points or more over Carolina.
Baltimore (6-2): 1 win of 16 points or more over Cincinnati.
The common denominator on the list? A lot of teams are blowing out the Titans, who somehow are 3-6 despite a defense that is on pace to surrender 547 points. They’re on the list three times and it is not a surprise. But the Bears don't pick their schedule and you can’t knock them for it, not when they whip an opponent like they did the Titans, handling them in every phase of the game.
That is the point Urlacher is making: The Bears have an explosiveness to them now that makes them more multi-dimensional than those previous teams. That’s not to ignore some inconsistencies that are plaguing the offense. In the past, they didn't have a Brandon Marshall to attack defenses with when they go to an eight-man box and single-high safety look in an effort to stop the run. The Titans chose that approach in the second half and got smoked.
The Bears' opportunistic defense is on pace to set NFL records. With seven interception returns for touchdowns, the Bears are two shy of the record of nine set by the Chargers in 1961.
“The big plays, I have never been around anything like this, high school, college, any level,” Urlacher said. “Every week it seems like someone else is doing it.”
2. It looks easy. The way everyone talks about the punch Charles Tillman uses more times than not when he jars a ball loose for a forced fumble, you’d think more defenders would be doing it around the league. Tillman introduced the Titans to it on Sunday, forcing a career-high four fumbles, one more than he had vs. the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 22, 2009. He now has seven forced fumbles this season and 36 in his career, the most for a defensive back since the start of the 2003 season.
“He’s like a cat,” said free safety Chris Conte, who recovered the strip of Titans running back Chris Johnson that Tillman had at the end of the first quarter. “He’s got quick hands. He’s like a boxer.”
Conte says Tillman mixes it up and sometimes goes for the strip before the tackle. Defenders are taught to secure the tackle before trying to pry the ball loose.
“Sometimes he sees the ball and he goes for the ball first and then the wrap-up,” Conte said. “I don’t think guys are expecting that. I think guys are expecting the contact and then somebody to go for the ball. He reverses it and goes for the strip when guys aren’t expecting it. He’s the best at it. He’s got a talent for it. We are all just trying to take something from him and learn how to do it. Hopefully, one of us can get there.”
Why don’t more defenders ball their first and try to punch the ball out?
“It’s not easy to do,” Conte said. “He is the master. He’s obviously been practicing it for a long time and he’s really changed the game the way he does it. There has never been anybody that has been like him. It’s something special and it is pretty awesome to see.”
The questions keep coming for Tillman about his special skill. His previous career high was six forced fumbles in 2009.
“It is always on my mind,” he said. “I am very conscious of it. I speak it. I believe it. I practice it. It happens. I really couldn’t tell you why all of a sudden I am getting more.
“I don’t get it out every time. I don’t punch the ball out every time. Sometimes I miss. Sometimes they do a good job of shielding it. I got lucky on a couple.”
It’s more than luck at work for Tillman, that's for sure. T-shirts emblazoned with “Peanut Punch” are even being produced.
3. The 51 points scored by the Bears was the most since they scored 61 in a 1980 meeting with the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field and the most on the road since they scored 52 at the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 13, 1963.
The offensive performance left a little to be desired in the first half, despite the Bears' rare halftime score of 31-5. The Bears produced only one drive longer than 27 yards in the first half and didn’t mount long drives until the third quarter, when 58- and 66-yard drives ended in field goals.
So there will be corrections to make when players review game film with the coaches Tuesday. But a bright spot has to be the continued success the offense is finding on the ground. Have the Bears run over anyone? No, but Matt Forte is building a head of steam and the ground attack is looking better. Forte rushed for 103 yards on 12 carries before getting an early rest with Armando Allen doing some nice things at the end of another blowout, similar to what he did last month at Jacksonville. All of a sudden, Forte has carried for 376 yards in the last four games, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. That’s productive running.
“We’re not there yet,” Forte said. “But we are taking steps forward, I think.”
Center Roberto Garza was a little more harsh in his assessment.
“We left a lot of plays out there,” Garza said. “We are still all over the place with our technique. Matt is doing a hell of a job of hitting those holes and making big plays, but offensive-line wise we have to be better at run blocking. We’re just not quite on the same page yet.”
Quarterback Jay Cutler talked this week about hoping to get the screen game going more and Forte gained 47 yards on one with help from a big block by right guard Lance Louis.
“We like screens,” Cutler said last Wednesday. “We would like to get them called more. We would probably like to be a little more successful at them; called a few in the Panthers game, caught the wrong coverage. You know it’s a feel thing for an offensive coordinator of when to dial it up and when not to and I think Mike (Tice) is getting better and better. With our backs and getting Matt on the outside like that, it’s something we need to incorporate more.”
The timing worked for the big play on second-and-14 from the Bears’ 26 yard-line, even though second- and third-and-long situations are places defenses look for screens.
“It was a great call because it was second and long and they played off a little bit so I got out on the screen, Lance made a great block and then I had a couple guys running downfield, blocking downfield and then I made the safety miss so you do that and you can get a big play out of it,” Forte said.
It looked like a middle screen was called to Forte three plays after his long screen. On first-and-10 from the Titans’ 14-yard line, the linemen released and Forte was in the middle of the field when Tennessee defensive tackle Jurrell Casey came through and stripped Cutler on a sack, leading to a turnover.
Cutler and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates had a heated discussion as Cutler came off the field.
“It was a good exchange,” Cutler said. “You know, I just tried to do too much and I think he was just trying to emphasize that point — to play within the play, trying to get 'B' (Brandon Marshall) the ball. We had single coverage with him, but timing-wise that play didn’t allow for the time I needed. We just have to play within the play, and we just have to limit that stuff, especially down in the red zone.”
Whether playing within the play means throwing to Forte when a screen is set up, who knows? Either way, Forte was a weapon in the running and passing games and that bodes well moving forward. He’s getting going at just the right time.
4. Lovie Smith said on multiple occasions during the first half of the season that he wanted the special-teams units to begin scoring as they have in the past. Dave Toub’s unit broke through, with Corey Wootton returning a punt blocked by Sherrick McManis five yards for a touchdown. It was the first blocked punt taken back for a score by the Bears since Garrett Wolfe returned one 17 yards for a score against the Minnesota Vikings in 2008 after a Craig Steltz block.
The Bears thought they could get pressure up the middle because in their preparation they noticed personal protector Jordan Babineuax released early to get downfield and cover. That is exactly what he did. Steltz ran a stunt in the middle of the line and the Bears figured he or maybe Wootton could get pressure on punter Brett Kern. It turned out McManis was unblocked off the edge, allowing him to pick the ball off Kern’s right foot. Wootton scooped it up and carried Kern into the end zone.
“Normally, we are more of a return team but we saw something that we could exploit them on,” Wootton said. “We went after it. Sherrick wasn’t even supposed to be the guy that comes free. That is why you always rush hard.”
Wootton suffered a knee injury on the opening kickoff of the preseason opener in 2011, something that derailed a strong training camp and put him in a difficult spot to begin last season. But he has come to embrace his role on special teams.
“That is a big part of the game,” he said. “I am not a starter so I have to do anything I can to play special teams. At this level with coach Toub, special teams are real fun. In college, I never did it. When I came here, I knew to be active I had to be a part of special teams. I really enjoy it, especially punt return. That is one of my favorites.”
It was the first touchdown Wootton has scored since he was a junior at Don Bosco Prep School in Rutherford, N.J., when he returned an interception to the end zone.
“I used to be a tight end so I had to show the power,” Wootton said.
5. I was talking with Toub about Titans special teams standout Tim Shaw, the former Bear, last week. More on Shaw a little later on. I also asked about Corey Graham, who left after last season for the Baltimore Ravens. Graham had six tackles for Baltimore on special teams entering Sunday’s game at Cleveland after representing the Bears in the Pro Bowl last year. He is also playing nickel back for the Ravens.
“I saw Corey make a tackle,” Toub said. “He was on our highlight reel. We look at everybody across the whole league. Big special teams plays and he was on there making a nice tackle.”
Toub, with help from the club’s video department that is headed up by Dave Hendrickson, produces a highlight tape each week and shows it to the players in a meeting on Saturdays.
“We learn a lot,” he said. “We see what they’re doing across the league and we are always learning stuff. Whether it’s a stupid block, or a guy should have picked the ball up or a guy ran out of bounds. The learning is unbelievable what you can get out of that stuff.”
Toub gives Hendrickson and his staff criteria for plays he is seeking and they pull them. Toub then whittles the list of plays down and winds up showing 30 to 50 to his players.
“The game plan is in at that point and we sit back and look at big plays,” Toub said. “Then guys picture themselves making big plays, the whole deal.”
The Bears got some in the win over the Titans.
6. What sets apart Dave Toub’s operation from many others is how he has adapted with a shifting roster on an annual basis. That’s not something unique to the Bears – special-teams turnover is a major issue for everyone. But Toub repeatedly has lost top-caliber players and replaced them without missing a beat. Corey Graham and Brendon Ayanbadejo both were Pro Bowl players that departed. Tim Shaw should have been to a Pro Bowl after the 2009 season when he set a Bears club record with 30 special teams tackles.
The Bears picked up another ace this season in Blake Costanzo and word in the Bay Area is that his departure has hurt the coverage units for the San Francisco 49ers. Where the Bears have been able to pick up and move on, the 49ers are struggling. Costanzo was extremely valuable for them last season and that is why the Bears targeted him.
Shaw, meanwhile, signed a $3.3 million contract to return to the Titans this season after visiting the special teams needy Detroit Lions in free agency.
“Tennessee feels like home,” he said. “I was really honored that they chose to pick me up right off waivers. Chicago cut me (in 2010) and the next day I got a phone call from coach (Jeff) Fisher and I made that move down here right away. So, it was almost like I didn’t skip a beat. Just like any time you go to a new team, you have to prove yourself all over again and I just jumped in here and tried to take this special teams of the Titans to a whole new level and the Titans play great special teams and they value those positions. I am just really happy to be part of a team that looks highly on those spots. You know, it’s been a process.”
7. The coming offseason is going to be full of decisions for general manager Phil Emery, and the Tribune's Dan Pompei did a nice job of pointing out one of the many tricky decisions that must be made. Cornerback Charles Tillman is signed through 2013 but his contract for next season is $7.95 million with a $50,000 workout bonus that makes it an even $8 million for him. It’s certainly a situation that could lead to a restructuring and extension.
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is coming out of contract, as are five other starters from Sunday’s game – defensive end Israel Idonije, defensive tackle Henry Melton, strong-side linebacker Nick Roach and guards Chilo Rachal and Lance Louis. Nickel cornerback D.J. Moore is also in the final year of his contract. Add to the mix the biggest deal there is waiting to happen -- quarterback Jay Cutler is only signed through 2013 and should be in line for new paper – and you can see it’s going to be a busy February and March.
The question is can some work be done before then? The latest figures show the Bears are $4.216 million below the salary cap for this season. They’re going to need some wiggle room for potential moves in the coming weeks. But that leaves a chunk to apply to a contract for a player and use up some space. We’ll see if there is a deal to be made in the coming weeks. (I last had it at about $3.6 mil and change so that wasn't far off. This also why we don't want to be releasing guys and eating salaries of vested vets or needing to roll up unamortized portions of signing bonuses. What little we have left we may need for higher and better uses)
8. Rookie safety Brandon Hardin, on injured reserve after the neck injury he suffered in preseason, fields questions about his health and availability all the time on Twitter. He will not play this season but is “100 percent healthy” right now in his own assessment.
“I am physically strong,” Hardin said. “There are always things to work on.”
Hardin is in the same position defensive tackle Henry Melton found himself in as a rookie in 2009. Melton suffered an ankle sprain in preseason and the Bears used the injury to stash the fourth-round draft pick on injured reserve. Coach Lovie Smith told him he envisioned a move from defensive end, where he was at the time, to tackle. He told Melton to use the season to bulk up for a move inside. It worked. Hardin isn’t being asked to switch positions or re-shape his body. But he’s busy in the weight room and classroom. He just cannot practice.
“The coaches know I am in there with a notepad, taking down notes, watching film,” he said.
Safeties coach Gill Byrd has given Hardin the task of breaking down the opponents’ running game each week. Hardin examines how the plays are blocked and then presents a report in Saturday meetings for his position group.
“I’m doing extra time with film work we watch probably two to three hours a day,” Hardin said. “And then it is going home on our iPads and all that. Looking up their runs and watching film. I go home and watch film, not only on the runs but on the team in general, because a lot of these teams, I know I am going to face them, especially with the division teams. I am essentially getting ahead. I am not going to waste this year by not watching film, not preparing for these teams.”
Hardin’s time investment has caught the attention of the coaches.
“Gill is the one having him doing those reports, keeping him involved,” secondary coach Jon Hoke said. “It can be very easy for a player in his situation to drift but Gill is not letting him drift. He’s making him stay involved, make calls in the meetings so he’s done a nice job of keeping him involved.”
9. Sacks sell when it comes to major awards in the NFL. Just look at a list of winners of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Typically, a player that sacks the quarterback often or is a versatile linebacker collects the award. Cornerback Charles Woodson of the Green Bay Packers won the award in 2009. Before him, the most recent cornerback to collect the honor was Deion Sanders in 1994 with the San Francisco 49ers.
Charles Tillman’s teammates are pushing him for the honor.
“Right now, I can tell you he is the Defensive Player of the Year,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “I think hands down right now there is no one playing better than him. I think we are all seeing history being made. I’ve never seen anybody who’s been able to do the things he’s able to do and to do it so consistently.”
Said middle linebacker Brian Urlacher: “I have never seen anything like it. A defensive lineman, I can understand getting sacks (and forced fumbles). But as a corner to get four like that, it’s unbelievable.”
Urlacher was named DPOY in 2005 and Mike Singletary got the honor twice in 1985 and 1988. They are the only Bears to ever win. Five cornerbacks have won the award all-time. Pittsburgh’s Mel Blount (1975), Oakland’s Lester Hayes (1980) and Pittsburgh’s Rod Woodson (1993) also are cornerbacks to collect the award.
Overall, a linebacker has won the award 15 times, followed by defensive end (9), defensive tackle (7), cornerback (5) and safety (5).
10. It didn’t look good early in the second quarter when defensive end Israel Idonije and linebacker Nick Roach had Titans running back Chris Johnson wrapped up. Cornerback Charles Tillman dove into the pile and wound up bending Idonije back over. The injury sent the game to a television timeout as concerned teammates and staff circled around Idonije.
“It sounded bad,” middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “Anytime you have one of your teammates down there screaming like that, it’s not a good thing. I think he is going to be OK hopefully. It was scary when it first happened.”
Idonije expects to be fine and the Bears continue to have good fortune when it comes to health.
“I got hit in the back of the legs and then hit back (over),” Idonije said. “But I’m all right. Whenever you feel things popping and stuff, you are never sure. The good thing is I was able to walk it off. It’s going to be sore for a little bit. That is the game of football. Welcome to the game we play.”
Idonije doesn’t expect to miss any time.
10 a. Speaking of missing time, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery should be back in action soon, maybe later this week. He’s been sidelined with a broken hand since the Oct. 7 Jacksonville game.
“Hopefully a week or a day,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We are closer to getting Alshon back.”
We’ll see come practice on Wednesday if he has any shot at playing Sunday against the Houston Texans.
10 b. Talk about a statistical day for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. He recorded an interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery in one game for the first time since Oct. 7, 2001 at Atlanta. Urlacher’s interception was the 22nd of his career, tying him with Dick Butkus for second all-time among Bears linebackers. Doug Buffone tops the list with 24.
10 c. The Bears scored four ways in the first quarter on a rushing play, a passing play, an interception return and a blocked punt return. They are the first team in NFL history to score those four ways all in any quarter of a game.
10 d. The Bears opened as a 1 1/2-point favorite over the Houston Texans for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field.
10 e. LP Field sounded like a home game at time for the Bears as fans descended on Nashville for the game. It was similar to road crowds at the Jacksonville and Dallas games and even Titans players took notice.
“The Bears have great fans,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “They follow them. We expect that they travel well with their team.”