TAMPA – Any positives that may have been taken from the 20-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings were swept away in less than the first half of Sunday’s Bears 36-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Positives surrounding quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a similar fate.
Two weeks ago Cutler was being credited with leadership and a level of performance that galvanized a shaky team and inspired the collective to an upset win. On Sunday the exact opposite occurred, with dire consequences.
(And with something of an odd Cutler comment. The Bears rushed for 122 yards, a rate of 6.1 per carry. They had 102 rushing yards in the first half. Yet Cutler began an answer as to why they didn’t play as well as in their previous game with, “We didn’t play well,” before adding, “I didn’t play well.” The roots of Sunday’s debacle lay in the passing game, period.)
The Cutler credited with rallying the entire team with his return in the Minnesota game was nowhere to be found as he lost the football three times in four possessions in the first half, four times overall, including throwing an interception returned for a touchdown and losing a fumble out of the end zone for a safety. Tampa Bay came into Sunday with just 14 takeaways through eight games and were given five by the Bears in less than three quarters.
The problems indeed were more than simply Cutler. A question for coaches will be why the offense stayed so much in Cutler’s hands when those hands were having major issues and he simply was not playing well from the outset. The Bears ran just nine total plays in the first 24 minutes in the second half as the offense that couldn’t hold onto the football in the first half collapsed completely in the second. Needing to regain momentum, the offense managed a total of two yards in three third-quarter possessions and seven on a fourth, all while going three-and-out on all four of those “drives.”
After a turnover-free game against a good Vikings defense, the story of this game was Cutler turnovers against a Tampa Bay defense that was among the NFL’s worst in multiple categories. The apparent progress in ball security that Cutler made last season and in the Minnesota game unspooled with three turnovers in barely the first quarter, with a fourth coming on a strip-sack in the third quarter on which the football went out of the end zone for a safety.
“Too many turnovers,” Cutler said. “When you have that many turnovers, it is going to be hard to win.”
Cutler turned the football over those three first-half times in the span of four possessions, all in critical situations and field positions. He gave the Buccaneers seven points with a sloppy toss toward tight end Logan Paulsen that was intercepted for a TD by Chris Conte, then costing his offense points with a fumble at the Tampa Bay 4 on a strip-sack in the second quarter.
Cutler never appeared to get in synch, either with his own game or with teammates. He started slowly with a couple of poor throws early, incompletions to end a promising opening drive, but ones that were in no danger of interception. But his play began to really spiral down with an interception thrown toward Alshon Jeffery into coverage on the second possession, followed by the Conte interception one snap later.
“I talked to Al [Jeffery] about it,” Cutler said. “We’re on the same page. I hope it doesn’t happen again.”
Running back: B-
Jordan Howard was again a force with 89 yards on 13 first-half carries (6.8 ypc). The rookie repeatedly showed great burst to reach the second level and post three runs of 10-plus yards in just the first quarter. He lost a fumble at the Chicago 20 to set up a Tampa Bay touchdown in the second quarter.
“I was going to the ground and [defensive lineman William Gholstron] punched it out,” Howard said.
Jeremy Langford picked up 13 yards on his one first-half carry. But killed a second-half drive when he dropped a basic screen pass with blockers in front of him, then came back two snaps later to be brought down by a single tackler in the open field when a breakaway was desperately needed.
Ka’Deem Carey caught one pass for 16 yards but was stopped on his two rushing attempts for minus-1 yard.
Bears receivers were non-factors throughout, with the exception of Cam Meredith ending the first half with a catch for a 50-yard Hail Mary TD, the Bears’ only touchdown of the game.
“I was running down the sideline, I did a one-on-one with the corner and he came off on Alshon,” Meredith said. “So when he went up with Alshon, they both kind of tipped it and I was at the right place at the right time.”
It was the only catch of the game for Meredith. Jeffery tied for team high with four catches but needed nine targets to get those. Jeffery was flagged once for a false start and once for holding and had no catch for longer than 16 yards.
Zach Miller caught four passes for 32 yards, no catch longer than 12. No other receiver had more than one reception.
Offensive line: C-
The line began Sunday with Pro Bowl guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton back in the lineup together for the first since Oct. 16 but suffered the loss of Long in the first half with an ankle injury that saw his right leg placed in a blow-up cast and him carted off the field. That was followed by right tackle Bobby Massie leaving with a concussion, as the Bears finished the day with Mike Adams at right tackle and Ted Larsen at right guard and no other offensive linemen available.
“It didn’t affect us too much because we’ve got guys like Ted and Mike to step in,” said left tackle Charles Leno.
The blocking overall was strong early in the run game as Bears backs averaged 7.3 yards per first-half carry. The overall play level declined with the backups against Pro Bowl three-technique Gerald McCoy and facing a deteriorating game situation in which the Bears were too far behind to do anything but pass.
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None of the coaches turned the football over but the overall collapse of a team on the brink of restarting their season starts at the top. The Bears were never in any kind of control of a game against what should have been a weak opponent, yet were unable to exploit opportunities on any side of the football. Discipline gradually broke down as the Bears were penalized nine times in the game, eight of those coming in the second half and five in the fourth quarter.
The commitment to the run that was key in the win over Minnesota appeared to be in place again early. But then whatever game plan there was disappeared in the turnovers by Cutler, who was clearly ineffective even when he wasn’t losing the football. The Bears called nine runs and 10 pass plays in the first quarter but then dialed up just five runs vs. nine passes in the second.
The defense was against stout against the run but inconsistent in pass rush. Jameis Winston was sacked four times but hit on just one other occasion (other than Pernell McPhee’s roughing-the-passer in the second half).
Special teams made mental errors as well as physical, putting the offense in holes on a day when it was beyond incapable of digging out of them.