Friday, September 17, 2010

Game Day Friday: Chicago Bears

As we roll through an NFL season, there are weeks where the two teams are on completely different mental planes. For instance, this week, the Cowboys have been kicked around and doubted as anyone would expect following a game in which they 1) lost the season opener 2) in prime time 3) to a division rival 4) in somewhat self-inflicted fashion.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears have meekly accepted their win over Detroit knowing that they likely did not quite deserve their "W" since it took the dubious ruling of a Calvin Johnson Touchdown catch to make it so. Nevertheless, the 1-0 Bears visit the 0-1 Cowboys in a game that Dallas knows it must have with an intimidating trip to Houston in one week's time.

The Bears are in a constant state of reconstruction it seems, but they are also the only NFC North team to make the Super Bowl (2006) since Green Bay in 1997. They have had some wonderful years under Lovie Smith, but as he enters year 6 of his run, he is clearly under the gun to produce or else. And he knows that since 3 former head coaches are his assistants (Mike Martz, Rod Marinelli, Mike Tice), it would take roughly 30 seconds for the Bears to find his successor.

The Bears have much of the core of their Super Bowl team, but as we know around here, familiar names may not mean that the team's quality is still there. The Cowboys of the late 1990's demonstrated how sometimes you can fall in love with names and not notice the diminishing skills that age brings. Brian Urlacher, Tommie Harris, Charles Tillman, Olin Kreutz, Robert Garza, and Lance Briggs are all core members of that team - but only Briggs is still thought of as an elite player in most NFL circles from that team.

But, the Bears did make a very impressive signing in the offseason, when they put $91.5 million dollars in front of Julius Peppers with $42 million guaranteed. There is little question that Peppers is an elite talent, and although his motor does not always run, it was certainly effective enough to rack up 25 sacks in the last 2 seasons when he was playing for a contract with the Carolina Panthers.

Lovie Smith believes in the Tampa-2, and that is completely based on the front 4 getting pressure so that the Linebackers may work with the Defensive Backs in a very tightly defensed secondary. Well, Peppers should aid Harris and friends in that regard. Curiously, they allowed Alex Brown to exit to New Orleans (not to mention Adewale Ogunleye), so we could make the case they still only have 1 threatening Defensive End.

But, make no mistake - theme #1 for the Chicago Bears this season is to figure out how to use Jay Cutler properly. They need him to match QB play with Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre in the NFC North, and finally put to bed the crazy issues the Bears have had at the QB position for years.

This List shows the starting QBs for the Bears since the start of division rival - Brett Favre's career in Green Bay:

1992: Jim Harbaugh, Peter Tom Willis, Will Furrer
1993: Harbaugh, Willis
1994: Erik Kramer, Steve Walsh
1995: Kramer
1996: Kramer, Dave Kreig
1997: Kramer, Rick Mirer
1998: Kramer, Steve Stenstrom, Moses Moreno
1999: Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Jim Miller
2000: McNown, Matthews, Miller
2001: Miller, Matthews
2002: Miller, Chris Chandler, Henry Burris
2003: Kordell Stewart, Chandler, Rex Grossman
2004: Grossman, Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson
2005: Kyle Orton, Grossman
2006: Grossman
2007: Grossman, Brian Griese, Orton
2008: Orton, Grossman
2009: Jay Cutler

Simply amazing. I count 22 different.


Do you want to see the 1 thing that scares every coach and general manager in football more than anything? Here it is. 1 play where your franchise QB is not protected on the blindside and his shoulder is crushed because you didn't get one of the great pass rushers in this league blocked. Take a frightening look:

We are all critical of play calling. We all think we could do better. But, we must never forget that the season ends if Tony Romo is lost for the season. I just think it is important to remind people this week, where Jason Garrett is a being treated like a pinata. Now, I am not saying he doesn't deserve some level of critique (see below for that), but we had Deion Sanders on our show this week (And I also read the same ideas from Michael Irvin here at the DMN) and he suggested that they allow Romo to stay alive in the pocket and make plays with his feet so that he can throw downfield. I agree - to a point. And the point is when he gets "ear holed" from someone like Julius Peppers and is lost for 8 weeks. The trouble is that nobody knows what hit will knock their prized QB out for most of the year, so the only way to keep him upright is to protect him. And that is exactly why Jason Garrett was frustrating you with his quick passes in his game plan last week.

Understand that a play caller's goal is not to frustrate you. It is to move the ball down the field as effectively as possible without jeopardizing the players that win games for the Dallas Cowboys. It is a difficult balance, but the Lions now have to figure out what the "Shaun Hill" era will be like since Matthew Stafford will have his arm in a sling for more than a month.

Tough Lesson to learn the hard way.


1) - Simplify the Plan - I think Garrett gets ripped way too often for way too many reasons, but he is far from perfect (as every coach is). In 16 NFL Cities this week, the Offensive Coordinator is a clueless, incapable, empty suit. And you know what? Next week, there will be 16 more. If they lose, he obviously didn't call the right plays. HOWEVER, I do think there is a very fair criticism of Jason Garrett after charting his games for several years. I can't help but think that he tries to do too much with this offense. To notice that, I try to watch other teams around the league who have great success. For instance, I chart the Colts quite a bit, and feel that although they have a very complex offense, they seem to do much of their damage from 1 or 2 personnel groups. The Colts do almost everything from "11" personnel, and while they go back and forth with Peyton Manning between shotgun and under center. But, 1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WR means that you have the same 11 players doing many of the same things over and over again. Conversely, I feel that Garrett tries to get 15 or 16 players in the game plan and tries to do it in many, many different ways. I think Garrett has many great ideas and I do think he is a very bright mind. But, I do wonder if there are too many toys in the toy box, and maybe he should identify the 11-13 players who he feels are the most important and just run the offense for them. Perhaps that would enhance the crispness of those groupings and show with a more efficient offense overall. It may cost Tashard Choice, Kevin Ogletree, Sam Hurd, Deon Anderson, and Martellus Bennett some snaps - this is not little league, so I cannot promise everyone playing time. But, If my best players are Felix Jones, Jason Witten, Miles Austin, and Dez Bryant (Marion Barber and Roy Williams, too) then I need to base my offense primarily around them.

2) - Welcome back #63 and #75 - It is not going to suddenly turn the Cowboys offensive line into Vince Lombardi's line, but it should really help for everyone to retake their positions. Kosier is very valuable as a capable interior lineman who does well in space. Colombo brings ability as a Right Tackle, but I also think he brings his attitude which at time sets the tone for the offensive line. He is ready for a street fight, and that is something that this group can sometimes use. But it is all predicated on him being right. Last year, he returned and we found out the hard way that his health was not helping him do his job against Ray Edwards. But, if he is right, they will be so much better than they are with Alex Barron. Rest assured, the Bears will be challenging Colombo's health very early with some determined edge rushing. By the way, I have been curious about this "leg whip" story between Colombo and Tommie Harris. So, we were able to find the video Here thanks to our reader AP.

3) - The Felix Experiment - This may relate back more to Objective #1, but the Cowboys need to figure out how to utilize Felix Jones properly. I suspect that the idea is to find his inner Reggie Bush and to use him all over the field to find match-up issues in the open field. He was drafted in 2008 (just ahead of Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson) and the idea was to have a very dynamic playmaker. He has made many big time plays, but because of his suspect health, they don't believe they can give him the traditional tail-back work load. So, now, they are trying to use him out in the slot periodically (as we saw in the final drive of the Washington game) but in order for that to work they have to demonstrate that they will throw him the ball past the line of scrimmage. If the entire plan with Felix is to throw a quick out to him or to just use him as a decoy, they will never create the issues that they hope to stress and stretch the defense.

4) - Test that Secondary - The Bears have had quite the revolving door in their secondary since their Super Bowl in 2006, and the Cowboys have a group of receivers that make you pick your poison if you can protect your QB. I have to admit I was quite impressed with how NFL-ready Dez Bryant appeared after missing all of preseason. He still needs work on his hot route recognition, but that is an issue for some veterans in this league as well. But, if Dez is what we think he is, and the Cowboys already have Austin and Witten demanding safety support, then I have little doubt that the Cowboys aerial attack is going to be formidable all season. But remember, it is all predicated on getting your QB protected. With Julius Peppers, Tommie Harris, and Mario Williams all on the menu in the next 9 days, we are about to find out.

ON DEFENSE: The big storyline in Chicago this winter was that they needed someone to come in and fix the offense that Jay Cutler struggled mightily in 2009. Enter passing guru Mike Martz. Since his work with the "greatest show on turf" and the Rams trips to the 1999 and 2001 Super Bowls, Martz has been hired repeatedly to show NFL offenses how to move on down the field.

And there is little evidence to argue with his ability to move the chains with his 3 and 4 WR spread offense which uses a ton of "11" personnel to make every defensive back demonstrate that he can cover. In Cutler's debut under Martz, Jay passed for 372 yards and the Bears offense did dominate much of the week 1 battle against the Lions.

Of course, not all is rosy when it comes to Martz. As great as his offenses are at completing passes, they all struggle in the Red Zone. Look at his teams in the last 6 seasons - notice how great their passing offense is and how mediocre they become in the Red Zone.


Year/TeamPass OffenseOverall OffenseRed Zone Offense

HTML Tables

The obvious conclusion is similar to that of many "spread" offenses in all levels of football. The closer you get to the goal-line, the tighter things get. In the red zone, safeties aren't worried about being beat over the top and it is way more difficult to find openings. Also, without the aid of a determined running attack all afternoon, it is difficult to just decide to run the ball when it is 3rd and Goal. And as we know in Dallas, all the yards in the world don't mean anything if they aren't resulting in points.

The odd thing? The Bears were 27th in the red zone last season. And to fix that problem, they went to find a coach who traditionally finds scoring somewhat difficult. Hmmm.


1) - Jay Cutler Must Be Hit - In 2009, no QB was hurried as much as Cutler. And, in 2009, nobody threw more interceptions that Culter's 26. In fact, nobody else in the league threw more than 20. Amazing, right? Well, there surely is a connection. Now, as we discuss the Cowboys defense, everybody has said that they played well enough to win on Sunday Night, and they surely did. But, I need that Cowboys pass rush to be much, much better than it was against the Redskins. DeMarcus Ware had a very impressive evening against Trent Williams, but other than his 1 sack, the Cowboys only totaled 3 QB Hits against McNabb. Anthony Spencer was relatively quiet on the other flank. I remember that in 2009, the Cowboys pass rush started very slowly with 0 sacks in the first 2 games, so maybe they just get out of the gates a step slow. But, if the calling card is pressure for this defense, and if you are playing an offensive line that is well below average, then I expect to see a sustained and powerful pass rush on Sunday at noon. Lots of pressure will turn into big plays.

2) - Watch the Screens - The Bears showed last week that they were very proficient at the screen pass from a number of different angles. My fellow football nerd, TC Fleming has written a fine summary of how they do what they do that I think you should check out. Here is just a taste: They are plays that take advantage of the defense overplaying one aspect of the game, thereby discouraging the defense from relying on that aspect. The screen lets pass rushers get near the quarterback before the quarterback flips the ball to the space the pass rushers just vacated. In order to defend the screen, pass rushers have to be patient and stay aware of potential screens. That prevents them from focusing entirely on attacking the quarterback. However, screens lose their effectiveness if the defense can quickly recognize that the play is a screen. A defender is nearly always assigned to the player who is supposed to catch the screen. On a screen pass, one of the offenisve lineman will allow his pass rusher to run himself out of the play as that lineman goes block for the man catching the screen pass. If all of the defenders know that's coming, it's fairly easy to avoid letting it happen that way. Further, if the defenders feel comfortable that they know when the screen is coming, it negates some of the pass-rush-slowing effect the screen game is supposed to have. So in addition to just throwing screens, an offense has to throw well-hidden screens.

3) - Catch Those Picks - If we know anything about Cutler, it is that he a) will try to fit the ball in tight spots and b) has accuracy issues. So, can you catch the ball in the secondary? With a reputation of not being able to make a play, it would sure be nice to get the offense a short field for a change. I hate to harp on this every week, but you cannot expect your offense to march 75 yards routinely for TDs. Don't be afraid to get them the ball in "plus" territory this week.

4) - Expect Devin Hester to Be Featured - This week in Chicago there has been plenty of discussion about the comments of Jay Cutler when he was asked why he threw 1 ball to Devin Hester against the Lions: "If Devin would have gotten open I would have thrown him the ball,'' Cutler said without hesitation. Wow. I guess Cutler doesn't worry about being political. But, we also know how this league works. If you have a player with skills that nobody else on your offense has, you figure out ways to make the defense respect him. The only way the Cowboys worry about Hester is if it appears he is a real threat. He is certainly not the terror he was in 2006 as a return man, but he is still quite dangerous if they can get him loose in the secondary. Alan Ball was not pressured much last week with the Redskins receiving group. And this may be the 2nd straight week the Cowboys play a team without a true #1 WR, but expect an effort to throw the ball down the field repeatedly. And, with this Cutler/Hester storyline, I would not be shocked to see 7 or 8 balls heading for the Hurricane speedster.


I believe the Cowboys are the better team on both sides of the ball. I also believe the urgency that they feel knowing that Houston is next going into the bye week. Most every projection is predicated on the idea that Marc Colombo is healthy to help protect Tony Romo, but with what should be a very winnable match-up between the Cowboys front 7 and the Bears sub-par offensive line, I feel the Cowboys should be able to get to 1-1.

Cowboys 27, Bears 17

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