Bears, They Are Who We Thought They Were

The immortal words of Dennis Green ring more true than ever. As we quickly approach Week 10 of the National Football League season, teams are coming to grips with who they really are. By this point, the kinks have been worked out, the new players have adjusted and acclimated to their new surroundings, rookies are no longer rookies, and team identities have taken shape. It’s around this point every year that we get a clearer picture of how good teams really are.

Teams like the Patriots now know that, due to their historically bad defense and non-existent running game, they must outscore their opponents by having Tom Brady sling it around the field for 60 minutes. Teams like the 49ers know that they must control the clock with their power running game and “game-manager” (one of my favorite terms for “limited” quarterback) Alex Smith in order to get a lead and let their defense do the rest. Even the Pittsburgh Steelers have discovered their style of recent years of a pounding running game and smash mouth defense has morphed into Ben (only his first name is required) doing his best Dan Marino impression, while the defense plays a “bend, don’t break” style.

So last Monday night, two enigmatic teams in the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles shared the field and revealed who they really are this season. The Eagles came into the season with lofty expectations after assembling the clichéd “Dream Team” in the off-season. By acquiring such forces as Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, their defense was re-made and was designed to strike fear in the eyes of opposing offensive coordinators.

Through nine weeks, however, that is not the case. They essentially tried to jam these players into a defensive system that masked rather than highlighted their unique and unparalleled skillsets. They have been unrelenting in their stance to maintain their Wide 9 scheme, staying outside the tackles on defense and funneling everything toward the middle despite giving up 22.8 points per game (which ranks 18th the NFL) and 124 rushing yards per game (23rd in the NFL).

While Babin has excelled as a speed rusher around the end in the Wide 9 system, Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie have been stuck in zone coverage, a scheme that both clearly are not comfortable executing. As a result, the Dream Team has become more of a Self-Induced-Haze Team.

The Bears on the other hand, have known their deficiencies from day one. They have an inexperienced offensive line that lacks continuity, a receiving corps that lacks a clear number one and a defense that was weak at safety and gave up too many big plays. Before the Monday night game, they had played to a fairly predictable 4-3 record. Their weaknesses had been exposed, but they in recent weeks they have made adjustments.

Mike Martz, notorious for his unwavering stance on running his system regardless of personnel, has relented and made changes to protect Jay Cutler from becoming just another part of the Soldier Field turf that is not firmly attached to the soil. They have kept extra blockers in to allow Cutler to stay in the pocket. This allows his undersized receivers to run the deep routes that Martz’s offense requires. Instead of throwing it 60 times a game, which Martz would prefer to do, they have adjusted to a balanced attack with their best offensive player Matt Forte, touching the ball on nearly every play.  Also, rookie Chris Conte and second year safety Major Wright are now the starting safeties after veteran Chris Harris was released. This now provides some clarity to a position that has seen a different combination of safeties nearly every week. These changes from the beginning of the year show the growth and maturity of a team over the course of a long, brutal season.

And these changes for the Bears, and lack of changes for the Eagles, were on display Monday night. While it was clear to me on my couch that the key to stopping the Bears would be to lock down their receivers on the outside with man coverage (with the Eagles three extraordinary man coverage defensive backs) and clog the middle with the other 8-9 guys in order to slow down Matt Forte. A strategy which was executed to perfection just a day before by the New York Jets in shutting down the Buffalo Bills wide receivers with man coverage and containing Fred Jackson with the rest of the defense.

However, the Eagles are who we thought they were. An extremely athletic and talent group of individuals that played their Wide 9 defense and allowed Jay Cutler to slice them apart like a surgeon. The Bears executed their game plan, which was to be extremely physical defensively with the speedy, but slight Eagles offense, and to establish the running game early in order to open the many options Cutler has to throw to.

The offensive line even prevented the Eagles from sacking Jay Cutler at all in the game, a feat that has not happened since 2009. The Bears are also getting healthy at the right time. Earl Bennett, former Vanderbilt Commodore teammate of Cutler’s, played his first game since injuring his chest in week 2 and his presence and rapport with Cutler was felt immediately. Bennett had 5 catches on 5 targets for 95 yards and a touchdown; proving there is a lot to be said about familiarity. Stephen Paea, the Bears’ rookie defensive tackle, was playing his second game back from injury and rookie offensive tackle Gabe Carimi is expected back this week against the Lions.

Speaking of the Lions, they come to Soldier Field this Sunday off a bye week looking to beat the Bears for the second time this year. These two teams played in week 5 on Monday night, a game in which the Lions used big plays to outlast the overmatched Bears. But five weeks later, a lot has changed. The Bears have made necessary adjustment and are getting healthy, while the Lions are dealing with injuries and playing with a target on their back. Jahvid Best, who broke a 77 yard touchdown run against the Bears on that Monday night, is still out with a concussion and Matthew Stafford has been slowed by an ankle injury.

The Lions lost back to back games after that victory over Chicago and in the process exposed some of their weaknesses. Their run defense, which was so feared early in the year anchored by Ndamukong Suh, has looked pedestrian in recent weeks. Their secondary, which had its deficiencies masked early in the year by their dominant pass rush, has allowed teams to move the ball down the field with ease. And without Best, their running game is not as feared, or even prominent, and that running game was key to buy time and space for Matthew Stafford and his talented wide receivers.

So among the many story lines this coming Sunday, I am most interested in finding out which team will show up on the shores of Lake Michigan for the Bears. Will it be the team that began the year running an offense that didn’t fit the personnel and the aging defense who gave up the big play to faster, more athletic teams? Or will it be the team that is coming into its own and finally beginning to feel comfortable playing together as a unit?

One thing is certain, there will be no love lost between these two teams. Not only is the natural rivalry between the two cities on display, as well as the battle for the wildcard in the NFC, but Chris Harris was signed by the Lions after being released by the Bears. This will be his first game as a Lion on Sunday. I assume there will be plenty of words exchanged that will not be allowed to be aired on Fox.

Let’s just hope that Lovie Smith doesn’t shake Jim Schwartz’s hand too hard at the post-game meeting at midfield…

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