Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
7.) The Bears D-line was dominant
The Bears 8 man D-line rotation combined for 17 QB hurries, 11 QB hits, and 5 sacks (PFF) on Bucs QB Josh McCown. It was an all-around awesome performance by a line that has been criticized all year but has actually played very well the last few weeks. DT Stephen Paea was the most disruptive of the group with 2 sacks, 3 hits, and 5 hurries on McCown. Ever since rookie Ego Ferguson started playing well in week 5, Paea hasn’t had a bad game. Of course he’s in a contract year so that could have something to do with his improved play, or it could be that he is just finally healthy… Whatever the reason Paea has been a force inside the last five weeks and a big reason that the Bears defense is 12th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (quite an improvement from 32nd last year!). Paea is far from the only reason obviously; Jeremiah Ratliff played well again this week (1 sack, 1 hit, 2 hurries) and Willie Young had 2 QB hits and 3 hurries. The starting D-line has played pretty well the last few weeks and were given a surprising boost this week from two DEs that haven’t played much at all this season. 2nd-year DE David Bass and 3rd-year DE Cornelius Washington had played a combined 56 snaps this season but both had sacks on Sunday. Washington also had 2 QB hurries and 2 tackles near the line of scrimmage in just 8 defensive snaps, while Bass had possibly the biggest play of the game with a strip sack of McCown that led to a Matt Forte TD on the next play. For the first time since the preseason, the Bears had a deep group of D-lineman capable of getting consistent pressure on the QB. It’s probably a fluke, but a good sign all the same and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Washington and Bass on Thursday in Detroit.
8.) Special teams were just bad, not awful this week.
There was another missed field goal by Gould, another penalty on a punt return and two botched punts by the rookie Pat O’Donnell in the 4th quarter when the Bears were trying to put the Bucs away, but besides those fairly significant miscues it was the least bad game the special teams unit has had in weeks. It’s a sad statement, but that is where the Bears special teams are right now. New return man Marc Mariani is already the Bears leading kick returner for crossing the twenty yard line twice including a 30 yard return (!). Mariani didn’t do anything on punt returns but he didn’t fumble or screw up any fair catches either. The bar is extremely low but Mariani has the job on lock down if he can keep making good decisions on when to bring the ball out and at least get past the 20 when he does. Seems simple, but it has been an ongoing problems for the Bears returners this year. Canadian import Chris Williams clearly has the most speed and talent of the Bears returner options, but he’s hurt again and I don’t think the Bears brass trusts him to stay healthy enough to hold a roster spot.
Mariani, a former 7th round pick in 2010 had 2 punt return TDs and a 98 yard kick return TDs before making the Pro Bowl in his 2nd season with the Titans (2011). He broke his leg in the 3rd game of the 2012 preseason and was eventually cut by the Titans in final cuts this year. Mariani is the 5th returner the Bears have tried this year (Perry, Ross, Reynaud, Williams) but from what I saw on Sunday the Bears may have finally found a keeper.
The kicking game is still a mess. Gould missed another field goal, but it was a 57-yarder that hit the upright. Gould is now last in the league in field goals (8) with his lowest ever FG percentage so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried, but he’s been too good for too long to give up on Gould already. O’Donnell is a different story. His average punting distance on the day (40.8) is right around league average and he had a couple booming kicks early in the game, but when it counted in the 4th quarter with the Bears protecting a lead, O’Donnell shanked his last two kicks out of bounds for a pathetic 20 and 22 yards. Those are Adam Podlesh numbers! I wasn’t there so maybe the winds were howling, swirling, or whatever it is the Chicago winds do near the lake, but against a better team those botched punts may have cost the Bears the game. O’Donnell will have more chances to punt in the clutch but if he doesn’t prove he can be counted on by the end of the season than that 6th round pick in a loaded draft is going to be another bust on Phil Emery’s draft record.
Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
9.) The Bears young DBs, Al Louis-Jean & Demontre Hurst, stepped up on Sunday
When Kyle Fuller got hurt at the end of the first half, shortly after getting roasted for a TD by fellow rookie Mike Evans, the Bears briefly substituted the more experienced Sherick McManis to take his place. McManis played just 7 snaps and whether he got hurt again or the Bears just decided he wasn’t the right man for the job, 21-year-old rookie Al Louis-Jean took his place for the rest of the game (38 snaps). The last we saw Louis-Jean he was getting picked apart by Tom Brady in his first NFL game. I wouldn’t have been shocked if that was the last we ever saw of ALJ, but he played the whole 2nd half against the Bucs imposing WR combo of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans and ALJ held his own. He did give up a 40 yard completion to V-Jax but that was pretty much it and he also broke up a pass in the end zone on a key 3rd down play. Its at least a year before the Bears thought they would need ALJ, who made the team as a mimi-camp walk-on, and but he answered the call in the 2nd half Sunday and played better than anyone expected.
The other surprise DB is Demontre Hurst, who I have liked from the beginning, and wrote up last week for his solid play at the nickle corner spot. Hurst played even better in his second start, forcing a key fumble deep in Bears territory on Vincent Jackson and harassing QB Josh McCown on nickle blitzes that just weren’t effective last year when Isaiah Frey was coming off the edge. Hurst seems to have a knack for well-timed blitzes and he forced a key 3rd down incompletion on a blitz late in the game and was a force against the run for the 2nd week in a row (7 tackles). It’s just been two games, but Hurst is the best nickle DB the Bears have put on the field in the last two seasons. If Hurst keeps this up he could lock down a spot next to Fuller and Jennings in the defensive backfield next season.
10.) At least I won’t have to hear anymore fans complaining that the Bears should have kept McCown over Cutler
I’m sure you have heard at least a few Bears fans grumble in the offseason that the Bears kept the wrong QB. I hope all those fans watched Sunday’s game. McCown is one of the only QBs in the league that has close to Cutler’s collection of giant receiving options. Bucs rookie Mike Evans is a Alshon Jeffery clone but with better speed, Vincent Jackson is is a younger, faster (but less tough) version of Brandon Marshall, rookie TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins is a monster target at 6’5, 256 pounds, WR Louis Murphy is a 6’3 play-maker who is farther along in his career than the Bears 6’3 WR Marquess Wilson, and the Bucs rookie RB Charles Sims was compared to Matt Forte by no fewer than 3 respected NFL draftniks (and me). My point is that McCown has as many if not more weapons than Cutler this year and Cutler has clearly outplayed McCown this season by any conceivable metric. Even Sunday with Cutler arguably having his worst game of the season, his QB rating (87) and 1 turnover was significantly better than McCown’s rating (64.7) and 3 turnovers. It was a silly argument to begin with and I hope we’ve heard the end of it.
11.) If not Cutler, than who is the Bears QB next year?
There are a lot of Bears fan who would like the team to move on from Cutler, but what are the Bears options if they do? They could draft a QB in the early rounds like Teddy Bridgewater who we saw struggle last week? Or go with an NFL journey man like the guy we saw struggle this week, Josh McCown? Do either of the those options sound better to you than keeping Cutler? He’s not one of the 10 best QBs in the league, but he is in that next 11-16 tier. Half the teams in the league have a worst QB than Cutler and would probably be willing to take him off the Bears hands for a mid-round pick and some salary relief from the Bears, but then what do the Bears do at QB? Do you want to bring Orton back? Roll the dice with RG3 once the Redskins cut him? Sign Austin Davis who just lost his job to Shaun Hill? Try and trade for whichever QB the Browns don’t keep (Hoyer, Manziel)? For all of Cutler’s flaws and there are quite a few, on his good days he can put a team on his back and win games. There are only about 15 QBs in the league that you can say that about and the Bears have one of them so we might as well get used to the idea that Cutler isn’t going anywhere. That being said I will be profiling the top 8-10 QBs in the draft over the next week or so to give fans some QBs to keep an eye on during bowl season.