Bears’ cleanup job is much bigger than they think

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Jay Cutler fumbles as Whitney Mercilus strips the ball Sunday in Houston. | Bob Levey/Getty Images

HOUSTON — This was the kind of game that had you thinking about a scheduled team the Bears surely can beat this year.

There’s … well, let’s see … the Titans at Soldier Field on Nov. 27. And then … uh … looks kind of cloudy.

Hey, Mr. Goodell, can the Bears get a do-over?

The Texans won the 2016 opener 23-14, with the most poignant part for Bears fans being President Barack Obama’s big-screen elegy to the 9/11 victims from 15 years ago. (Memo to Colin Kaepernick: As far as this scribe could see from the top of NRG Stadium, there was not a single able-bodied person in the arena sitting or kneeling during the national anthem while a massive flag waved.)

It was nice the Bears took the early lead, intercepting Brock Osweiler in the first quarter and turning it into a long drive and one-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Langford. The Bears were even ahead 14-10 at the half.

But this youngish, barely acquainted team now knows that there are two halves in the NFL. As Osweiler reminded all afterward, “It’s a 60-minute game, and you can’t live or die on one play.”

Actually, the Bears must know that last part because they died slowly on multiple plays.

It’s the reason they didn’t put up a point in the second half. They had 187 yards of net offense in the first two quarters, 71 in the final two.

There were key sacks of Jay Cutler and three-and-outs and an offensive pass-interference call and a couple of series in which the Bears went backward. Oh, and let’s not forget a key fumble credited to Cutler on a failed fourth-and-one sneak at the end of the first quarter.

No, that wasn’t in the second half, but it stopped a drive in field-goal range, led to a Texans field goal and put a hairball in the Bears’ drying throat.

“That’s on me,” said rookie center Cody Whitehair of the fumbled snap. “Obviously, there were a few mistakes, but we’ll get those cleaned up.”

Like the Bears are a linoleum floor, and all that’s needed is a soapy mop.

No, we’ve seen this before. Heard it before.

Stupid stuff happens with the Bears — or dangerous stuff, like Cutler getting crushed on five sacks — and we always hear that it’s just details, dust mice in the corners, a spilled soft drink on the chair, mustard underfoot, and it’ll all be clean and spotless by next week.

Will the Bears’ defense realize by the home opener next Monday night against the Eagles that third downs really matter? Letting the Texans convert 12 of them (60 percent) argues against quick education.

Indeed, the Texans converted three third downs in a row on the way to their go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown, an 18-yard pass from Osweiler to receiver Will Fuller to make the score 20-14.

“It’s arguably the most important down other than fourth down,” Bears coach John Fox said of third down.

Duh. Way to go out on a limb, Coach.

You see, teams generally punt or kick on fourth down, so third down is about a million times more important. OK, at least a little more important.

It’s possible the Texans are a really good team, with bonus baby free agent Osweiler and a defense with J.J. Watt, the immense Vince Wilfork and the rejuvenated Jadeveon Clowney being of Super Bowl quality.

Who knows? Who cares? (At least in Chicago.)

The question up north is whether these Bears will come together and show some life on offense (we miss you Matt Forte, Greg Olsen, Martellus Bennett and Matt Slauson) and whether the defense will be able to stop teams when it matters. It’s still not too late to have a defense-only mixer at coordinator Vic Fangio’s house, name tags required.

It’s also worth asking if newly uninjured receiver Kevin White will realize speed is nice but running routes as drawn up in the playbook (that’s right, the ones burnished in your quarterback’s brain) is better?

Fox is the cagey man who always makes his teams better in his second year at the helm. It’s Year 2, boss.

“We just got to play better,” said receiver Eddie Royal, who caught a touchdown pass.

Yup. Or head for the hills.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.


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