ATLANTA–How much you want to bet Jay Cutler is willing to wait a long while before his next road Sunday night game?
That’s six interceptions for the quarterback on Sunday nighters away from Soldier Field, and the Bears have three more prime time games coming up–Nov. 12 at San Francisco, Nov. 22 vs. Philadelphia and Dec. 28 vs. Minnesota.
But blaming another inconsistent effort on the kickoff time and the venue is ignoring some of the issues the Bears can or should do something about. Atlanta is a solid football team, one that plays well in the Georgia Dome, but this wasn’t the class of the NFC the Bears just ran into in their 21-14 loss. The Falcons entered ranked 23rd vs. the run and they stopped the Bears cold. They didn’t generate much of a pass rush without blitzing all out, and the Bears didn’t hit them with the dagger. Atlanta’s secondary has issues and Cutler threw for 300 yards in exposing some of them, but it was the giveaways he had that cost the Bears 10 points–three in the way of a Robbie Gould field goal, and seven in the touchdown the Falcons turned the second pick into in the second quarter.
So, I’ll roll through some rapid reaction to this game before packing my bags here:
1. Third-and-one. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner had to be feeling pretty good about things. The Bears entered the game a miserable 2-for-5 on third-and-one conversions through their first four games. It was something they struggled with last season, and the addition of Cutler with a run/pass element was supposed to make things better. The offense encountered two third-and-ones in the first quarter and picked them both up with Cutler throwing to Greg Olsen for a five-yard gain, and then sneaking for two yards. They came out in the third quarter and Cutler picked up another with a sneak and then Matt Forte found a hole by left guard Frank Omiyale for a five-yard game to quickly make the offense 4-for-4 on third-and-one.
Once the Bears got to the goalline, that was a different story. Forte’s dive on second-and-goal from the one wasn’t close to the end zone and linebacker Curtis Lofton knocked the ball out. Somehow, Forte recovered the ball. Turner went to him with a run left on the very next play, also from the one, and he was stripped by defensive tackle Jonathan Babineuax. It’s the hard yard to pick up and when the Bears have had success, they’ve gone play fake. It’s what Cutler tried on first-and-goal from the one and the Falcons had everything covered up. They haven’t been able to impose their will on a defense, and Forte’s upright running style makes it difficult for him to get that tough yard at times. Fumbling isn’t an issue with him. He did it only once last season. But the combination of the line and Forte’s lack of explosion has got the run game bottled up right now. It’s a combination of both. It should be noted when facing fourth-and-one at the Falcons’ five their in the waning seconds, they were going to run another sneak to Cutler before left tackle Orlando Pace lunged forward in a run-blocking effort for a false start. There’s no success with the Power-O like they used to have. Turner is going to have to adapt, and do so quickly.
2. While we’re mentioning Cutler, those interceptions were game killers for them here. In a lot of ways this was Green Bay all over again. Babineuax was bearing down on him when he tried to hit Devin Hester on a crossing route on the first pick. Never should have thrown the third-down pass. If he tosses it away, Gould drills a 30-yard field goal. It was a momentum killer at the end of a 13-play drive that was taking the antsy crowd slowly out of the game. The second pick was bad any way you slice it. Olsen was covered pretty well and the ball was badly overthrown. Another pick he should have never attempted.
3. The defense accomplished the No. 1 task of stopping running back Michael Turner. He had only 30 yards rushing on 13 carries (2.3 per attempt), and when you look at the numbers it’s not like Matt Ryan picked them apart–19-for-33 for 185 yards. But Ryan made the big plays when he needed them, like the 16-yard completion to tight end Tony Gonzalez on third-and-six from the Bears’ 37 in the fourth quarter. That set up the go-ahead score.
4. But the defense could have been so much better. Lance Briggs should have fallen on a fumble forced by Pisa Tinoisamoa in the second quarter. He tried to scoop it and go and Ryan recovered at the Falcons’ 27. That would have been bonus field position. Danieal Manning dropped a pick on the next play.
5. Speaking of Tinoisamoa, it doesn’t look good with his right knee. He had trouble moving afterward and that is the same knee he injured in Week 1 at Green Bay. He was bringing a physical presence to the game. If he’s out longterm–as in the rest of the season–do the Bears consider another move before Tuesday’s trade deadline? Kansas City might move Derrick Johnson, but he’s more of a weak side guy. It could mean when Hunter Hillenmeyer returns from two broken ribs that he’s back in the mix right away. It’s not good and Brian Urlacher’s absence was highlighted on Gonzalez’s 10-yard touchdown catch when Nick Roach broke the wrong way on coverage leaving Gonzalez open at the back of the end zone.
6. Anybody seen Manning and strong safety Al Afalava? It’s been some super quiet play from the safeties. On the one hand, that means they haven’t been beaten deep or really blown a big play. On the other hand, they’re not making big impactful plays either.
7. Word is Marcus Harrison got his first career start at nose tackle because Anthony Adams has been slowed some by turf toe. I thought they both did some decent things in the game.
8. Tight end Desmond Clark made two huge catches with a 24-yard grab off his back shoulder in tight coverage, and a catch at the goalline of a perfectly thrown Cutler pass. He landed hard on his back side on the first one raising concern he could have re-injured his fractured rib, but said it was more of a tailbone landing.
9. Cutler was the Bears’ leading rusher with his 30-yard sprint. It’s one yard short of his career long with the Broncos. Garrett Wolfe looked decent in limited duty too.
10. Nice to see Nathan Vasher come up with a pick in his only play on defense during the game. He was spelling Charles Tillman, who needed a breather. Say what you want about Vasher, but he’s been a stand-up guy through losing his starting job.
10 a. Zack Bowman needs to learn ball protection when he’s running with an interception.
10 b. We’re not going to let special teams off the hook. The coverage units left plenty to be desired.
10 c. Tillman did good shadowing Roddy White, that is for sure. Four catches for 56 yards isn’t going to beat you. Again, the defensive effort was good enough to win with.
10 d. The 41-yard shot to Olsen deep down the seam is the kind of pass he was catching in tight coverage routinely during training camp. That was good to see for him.
10 e. What’s really confounding right now about the struggles of the running game is Cutler is having success. It should open up holes in the running game. When the Bears go three wide with a tight end and a single back in Forte, they’re facing a nickel look from the opponent. They should be able to successfully run the ball against nickel defenses. They’re not going to gash the defense every time, but there should be some holes. I know a lot of people have been on Omiyale, and he had a penalty here like Pace, but this isn’t a one-man breakdown on the line by any stretch of the imagination. The line looks fine at times, but it’s been plain inconsistent. The pass protection held up good enough, and that hasn’t been a trouble spot since the Green Bay opener. They’ve got to go back to work.
10 f. Once you’ve digested this one, start gearing up for the Benson Bowl, the Bears first meeting with running back Cedric Benson at Cincinnati on Sunday.