In a season that has invited criticism from Week 1, the Bears have made a cause of insulating themselves from the “noise” outside of Halas Hall. But do they ever listen to themselves?
You had to wonder after hearing Marc Trestman and Mel Tucker extol the virtues of the Cowboys’ increased commitment to their running game this season.
“It’s had a big effect on Tony Romo,” Trestman said. “He’s thrown the ball much less than he has. They’ve got a whole list of runs, of different types of runs. They’ve got the line that they’re able to do that.
“They’re doing all different kinds of run-game plays. It’s helped their action. He’s got a 100-plus rating, which is excellent. He’s throwing the ball less, which is helping this football team. I think that’s just the direction they decided to go, and it’s worked out. They’ve got more balance in their attack.”
And this from Tucker on the difficulty in defending a team so committed to the run:
“You just know that you have to stop the run — and that’s regardless of the situation,” Tucker said. “Second-and-long, they’ll run the ball. First-and-10 they’ll run the ball. They can be down two scores and still look to run the ball. It makes their play-action very effective.
“They just do an excellent job with that. Also they have really good weapons — the tight end and receiver, with an outstanding quarterback. It puts a lot of pressure on a defense.”
That sure sounds like a template the Bears should have followed at some point this season. The Cowboys have a better quarterback than the Bears. They have a running back who was no more productive last season than Matt Forte. Yet the Cowboys increased their emphasis on the run with DeMarco Murray, took the pressure off the quarterback and made Romo more efficient than ever. Romo has a career-low 247 passing yards per game, but a career-high 106.2 passer rating. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Romo is 8-3 as a starter after going 25-28 the previous four seasons.
Sounds like a plan that might work for the Bears and the disappointing Cutler. But the Bears don’t seem to be that flexible under Trestman. Even when they seem to know what they need to do, they struggle to actually do it. While Murray’s rushes per game have increased from 15.5 last season to 24.0 this season, Forte’s have dropped from 18.1 to 16.8.
And now a little bit of the noise is seeping into Halas Hall. “You can’t just sit back there and throw 50 passes a game and expect to win,” Forte said, four days after Cutler threw 48 passes in a discouraging 34-17 loss to the Lions at Ford Field. Jay Cutler is not the most effusive guy at Halas Hall, but his enthusiasm for moving the pocket is palpable every time he’s asked about it. Even when he wast asked about it this week, he mentioned it.
“You want to throw for big yards. But you definitely want to win football games,” Cutler said, “and I think anyone who has been doing this for a while realizes that you’ve got to have the best of both worlds. You’ve got to move the pocket … be able to run the ball, You’ve got to do some play-action … mix it up. There’s no one who can drop back 40-50 times consistently and win football games. It’s really hard.”
But although the Bears acknowledge the advantages of having Cutler moving the pocket, the Bears do it like twice a game. It’s as if they have to reinvent their offense to make things like that happen.
And therein lies arguably the most ominous issue with Trestman’s offense and Tucker’s defense — neither appears capable of zigging when the opponent zags. Last week the Bears scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives. But once the Lions took away what the Bears were doing effectively, it was all over — punt, punt, field goal, punt, punt, interception, punt, interception.
Unless a team plays right into their hands — as the Falcons and Vikings did — the Bears never seem to have an answer. Especially on defense, when things go bad, they too often get worse. That’s how you lose 51-23, 55-14, 38-17 and 34-17. The Bears are on pace for their worst points-differential (currently minus-84) since 2000 — when Dick Jauron went 5-11 in his second season.
Somehow, Jauron was able to turn it around — albeit briefly — and go 13-3 in 2001. At this point, Trestman might or might not have to earn the chance to get that third season. Failing with Plan A isn’t necessarily a fireable offense. The lack of a Plan B is a much more serious issue.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Bears WR Brandon Marshall was quiet and focused this week. He looks primed for a big game on a big stage. He could use a quick start — the Bears rarely play well on offense when Marshall is not heavily involved. Cowboys CB Brandon Carr has not had an INT in his last 16 games and has just 3 pass breakups this season — none in the last six games.
IN THE AIR
The opportunity is there. The Cowboys’ have allowed an NFL-high 71 pass plays of 20 yards or more, including 7 plays of 50-plus yards. But the Bears’ passing game is in a rut. With Jay Cutler unusually inaccurate on deep balls, the Bears’ long pass play in the last two games is 26 yards. Alshon Jeffery’s sore hamstring (he’s questionable) makes the situation even more problematic. Marquess Wilson has 3 catches for 11 yards in 3 games since returning from IR — this could be his big opportunity. Seven QBs, including Austin Davis and Mark Sanchez, have had ratings of 98.0 or better vs. the Cowboys.
ON THE GROUND
After Marc Trestman was beat up from all angles, even taking a few indirect shots from within Halas Hall, for abandoning the run against the Lions — a franchise-low 7 carries for 14 yards — the Bears likely will return to a more standard style of football vs. the Cowboys. The circumstances are more favorable — a cold night outdoors at Soldier Field against a Cowboys defense that is ranked 22nd in the NFL against the run after allowing 256 yards on 45 carries in a 33-10 loss to the Eagles last week. Matt Forte (201-828, 4.1, 5 TDs) should be well-rested after rushing 5 times for 6 yards vs. the Lions.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Cowboys WR Dez Bryant is a big-time, big-play player. He has 779 yards (97.4 per game) with 8 TDs in the Cowboys’ 8 wins and 173 yards (43.3 yards) and 3 TDs in their 4 losses. After getting torched by the Lions’ Calvin Johnson last week (11-146, 2 TDs), Bears CBs Kyle Fuller — who is still recovering from a broken right hand — and Tim Jennings are on the spot.
IN THE AIR
Tony Romo is one of the finest QBs in the NFL, but has a knack for tough luck — he is 1-3 against the Bears and lost a shootout to Josh McCown last season, when Romo couldn’t keep up with the Bears’ backup in a 45-28 loss at Soldier Field. Still, he threw 3 TD passes and had a 109.2 rating in frigid conditions. It’s the Cowboys who undermine him more than the other way around. Romo has thrown at least one TD pass in an NFL-record 38 consecutive road games. He is good against the blitz, but falters under pressure more than most quarterbacks of his ilk, so it’s up to the Bears’ front four to make a difference.
ON THE GROUND
The Bears are 10th in the NFL against the run and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season , but they haven’t seen anything really close to DeMarco Murray, who leads the NFL in rushing with 1,427 yards — 381 yards more than runner-up Le’Veon Bell. Murray, who averages 5.0 ypc and has scored 8 TDs, has rushed for 100 or more yards in 10 of 11 games. And he usually starts fast — Murray averages 5.4 yards per carry in the first quarter in his career. Ex-Cowboy Jeremiah Ratliff is questionable with a knee injury. The Bears missed him last week, though rookie Will Sutton is making progress.
While the Cowboys still are fighting to get in the playoffs — they play at the Eagles and the Colts at home in their next two games — the Bears have only a miniscule chance of the playoffs and are all but playing for pride. There’s no telling how this team will react to that scenario based on how this season has gone so far. “I’m trying to win every game I plan in,” DE Jared Allen said. “We can still have a winning season (9-7) if we win out. You gotta look at the positives. I refuse to be the guy that let’s my team down.” The big question, on a team that seems to have a leadership void, is how many teammates will follow Allen’s lead.
Joe DeCamillis’ special-teams units have made progress, but there’s always something — PK Robbie Gould is doubtful with a right quad injury. The Bears signed veteran Jay Feely, who has 13 years of NFL experience, but has not kicked this season after being cut by the Cardinals in training camp. Feely, 38, who never has attempted a FG in a regular-season game at Soldier Field, was 30-for-36 for the Cardinals last season, including 3-for-5 from 50 yards or longer. The Bears have attempted only 3 FGs in the last 6 games. Rookie punter Pat O’Donnell has been solid the last two weeks, with a season-high net of 45.7 last week.