Bears

Bears facing important test against New Orleans

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Bears facing important test against New Orleans

Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011Posted: 10:55 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
This one matters a whole lot more than the last one, for a whole lot of reasons.

The Bears got the NFLs attention by thumping the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1. But that was in Soldier Field, and Lovie Smith Bears teams are a combined 27-15 at home against NFC teams.

Sunday is on the road. It is in a dome, where Smith's Bears are 10-9. It is also against a team that one a Super Bowl two years ago and leads the NFL in yards per game since 2006, when Sean Payton took over as head coach.

So as impressive and significant as the Atlanta win was for the Bears, what the Bears now have to deal with in New Orleans is even more difficult. Add to the equation the fact that the Saints were out-pointed by the Green Bay Packers in their opener and the Bears are going into the home arena of a desperate team.

Youre supposed to win most of your home games, Smith said. But good football teams win on the road. For us of course, going in a dome, and were just playing a good football team. The Saints are one of the best teams in the NFC. So I talk a lot about improvements you make that second game.
Where to improve

With Tampa Bay going to Minnesota and the Falcons at home against a good Philadelphia team, the entire NFC South is suddenly wobbling and in danger of seeing its supposed elite teams become bottom-feeders at this early point in the season. Losses by Atlanta and New Orleans would leave the two playoff qualifiers of a year ago with 0-2 marks and trailing the rest of the NFC in tiebreakers.

But the issue for the Bears is both to prove that Week 1 against the Falcons was no anomaly and that they can play with the best on the road. In all three of the playoff seasons under Smith, the Bears have lost no more than two games on the road.

The expectation is that the offense should improve weekly as coordination develops, particularly on the offensive line. But the line will be without the right guard (Lance Louis, knee) who started every preseason game and Week 1; the backfield will not have hammer-back Marion Barber (calf) for a second week; and the receivers are expected to be minus Roy Williams (groin), although Williams was officially only questionable late in the week.

The Bears got past the Falcons despite missing TD opportunities twice in the red zone. The results were still field goals but against the scoring likes of the Saints this week and Packers next, those project to be the difference between starting 2-0 and coming home 1-1.

I think that we were very close on two, coordinator Mike Martz said. We had some penalties inside of there. We just missed the screen to a wide-open Kellen Davis a little bit. In terms of the first game, we had some very minor things happen to us that kept us from being even more a little effective down there. But that will come. We got better at that last year, too.

Dominating defense

The organization and the defense in particular were rocked this week by the death of Brian Urlachers mother Lavoyda. Urlacher was at practice Thursday and Friday and the expectation is that he will play against New Orleans and probably at an extremely high level.

Urlacher will indeed get by with a lot of help from his friends.

The team genuinely loves each other, said newcomer and safety Brandon Meriweather. That surprises me more than anything. They take up for each other, bend over backwards for each other. That inspires me a lot.

Meriweather is expected to get his first Bears start at free safety, with Major Wright sliding from free to strong safety in the absence of Chris Harris (hamstring). Meriweather, with rookie Chris Conte on the brink of increased playing time, brings a speed upgrade in the deep middle but his key will be playing within the system, not always his trademark because of his exceptional athleticism and fun in using it.

The bigger, literally, problem for the Bears is the Saints offensive line, a huge step up in class from the Atlanta front five that allowed five sacks last Sunday. Former Bear Olin Kreutz is undersized but flanked by Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. Kreutz may be a weaker link physically but he has powerful friends and hes a great player and he is smart, said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

We know that. Weve got our own checklist and make sure were on top of our stuff when youre going against a guy like that," Marinelli said. "Even if he wasnt here and you were playing him as an opponent, you have to be on top of it. Hes so bright and so sharp, so itll be a challenge for us.

The Bears defeat of the Falcons was due in large part to the play of the front four, which got two sacks each from tackle Henry Melton and end Julius Peppers and the fifth from tackle Amobi Okoye. If the Bears get close to that level of impact from the front, without blitzing, Drew Brees and the rest of the offense will be pressed to score at the level to which they are accustomed.

And the Bears are 42-9 under Smith when opponents score 17 or fewer points.

Special edge

Robbie Gould was a one-man coverage team with five touchbacks on seven kickoffs. Added to those starts at their 20, the Falcons started at the 15- and 6-yard lines on the two kicks they did return.

Atlanta started all 13 of its possessions in its end of the field, while the Bears defense was giving the ball to the offense either points (Urlacher TD fumble return) or the Chicago 28 or 40.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

Adam Jahns (Chicago Sun-Times), Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Cornette (The U/ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel. Justin Turner hits a walk-off 3-run HR off of John Lackey to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the NLCS. So why was Lackey even in the game? How much blame should Joe Maddon get for the loss?

The Bears run the ball over and over and over again to beat the Ravens in overtime, but should they have let Mitch Trubisky throw the ball more?

Two reasons why the Bears could finally start stacking wins

Two reasons why the Bears could finally start stacking wins

The Bears winning a road game against a perennial playoff contender, one with a winning record coming in – that’s great.

Winning in Baltimore with a rookie quarterback in only his second NFL appearance – that’s terrific.

Generating more takeaways than giveaways and netting points from them – that’s just outstanding.

And now what?

Because too often under John Fox the Bears have posted a victory and failed to have it mean much of anything because of what followed a week later – a largely self-inflicted loss. The Bears have not posted consecutive wins since midway through the 2015 season, and even then proceeded to unravel on by squandering opportunities sitting squarely within their grasp.

Why should this time be any different? Because if it’s not, and the Bears again fail to stack even one win on top of another, then a dominating performance against the Baltimore Ravens (leaving out special teams, which surrendered in two plays more points than the defense did in 14 entire Baltimore possessions) becomes another meaningless afternoon in the overall for a team determined to reinvent itself.

Coaches typically divide seasons mentally into quarters, and clearly in Fox’s mind, Sunday was part of a different quarter from the 1-3 first quarter. “Really it takes almost four games, it’s almost like the preseason anymore, where you kind of get it figured out,” Fox said. “So just developing that confidence, usually good things have to happen to gain that confidence. And we did some good things.”

But the Bears have done “some good things” in games past and it becomes much ado about nothing, sound and fury signifying less than nothing. So again: Why should this time be any different?

Two reasons, actually. Neither absolute, but neither very complicated, either.

Reason No. 1: Trubisky

Without making too much out of one individual player, the chief reason arguably lies in the person of Mitchell Trubisky, a quarterback who already has palpably changed the psyche of a previously languishing team.

“The team didn’t make nearly as many mental errors this week because of his patience,” said wide receiver Kendall Wright, who supported Trubisky with a leaping catch of 18 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

Unlike Mike Glennon, Matt Barkley, Brian Hoyer and 2016 Jay Cutler, each of whom won one game and one game only over the past 22, Trubisky delivered the ball security of Hoyer with added impact that none of his predecessors did manage, or arguably even could have managed.

Put simply, the Bears do in fact have a quarterback who even at this point appears able not only to make plays as drawn up, but also to create something out of nothing or at least avert catastrophe.

“Mitch made some great plays,” Fox said. “I mean, if you look at the snap over his head in the end zone, there’s probably only five or six or seven quarterbacks in this league that could get out of that. I go back to the touchdown pass to Dion [Sims, tight end]. He flushed [from the pocket], we adjusted and he dropped a dime in the end zone for a touchdown. And the play obviously at the end where more than likely if we don’t get that, we’re probably punting, the play he made to Kendall. I think Mitch played outstanding… .

“Those are really good decisions. It beats six interceptions, for sure. There’s a 3rd-and-3 play in the red area, low red, sprint out to our left. It wasn’t all perfect but he did the next best thing and that’s throw it away. So those are really, really good decisions that I think sometimes the casual or un-casual fan does not see.”

The noteworthy element in Trubisky’s game was the impact achieved by a Bears quarterback who completed all of eight passes. The reality is that Trubisky doesn’t need to attempt more than 20 passes a game (including the four sacks his protection allowed, which absolutely needs to be fixed).

For perspective purposes: Ben Roethlisberger in his first two seasons averaged 17.4 and 15.9 passes per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers reached the AFC Championship game and won the Super Bowl in those two seasons, running an offense that was just short of 60 percent runs.

Reason No. 2: Mistake reduction

A mistaken notion as to how improvement happens is the belief that it comes from just getting better and better, skill sets rising to the loftiest heights.

Not necessarily. Anyone who has had the good fortune of working their golf handicap down knows that the stroke reductions come less from suddenly adding 30 yards to drives or developing a draw on a 200-yard three-iron, than from eliminating the fluffed pitch shots, the approach shots pushed into traps, the drives into the woods. Cut down the mistakes and good things happen.

So it is with the Bears, who effectively lost the Minnesota game by allowing a 58-yard TD run by Jerick McKinnon, and sealed it with a poor Trubisky pass on a possession with a chance to tie or win. They lost the Atlanta game simply by dropping passes. They aren’t as good as the Green Bay Packers – at least not until Trubisky reaches full extension and proves to be a challenge to Aaron Rodgers.

But only in the Atlanta near-miss did they self-destruct with fewer penalties (four) than they did at Baltimore (five). Sunday was the first time since Atlanta that they threw zero interceptions. And the defense limited the Ravens to three third-down conversions out of 18, one indicator of fewer breakdowns on the most important down.

“As long as we eliminate those mistakes that we’ve been making,” Fox said, “we’re gonna be right there going into the end of the game.”

The Bears have had positive spikes in the past and then collapsed; even after winning three of four in late 2015, the inept home losses to San Francisco and Washington were arguably a tipping point in the Fox era.

The point next Sunday against Carolina is to determine if the Bears are through with their one-and-done ways.