Over the five weeks that Jay Cutler was out due to an injured thumb, the Bears put up yardage and even occasionally some points. On Monday night against what was the NFL’s best defense, the offense delivered its best all-around performance, and teammates on all sides of the football “blamed” Cutler.
Getting Cutler back “was huge,” said linebacker Sam Acho. “Obviously we’re a team but defensively we have a mission and offensively we have a mission. We can’t be phased by what happens good or bad on the other side of the football.
“But seeing him out there and seeing him execute fueled us, got us [on defense] feeling, ‘Ok, now we got to go out there and execute.’ And then that fuels [the offense], too.”
The Vikings brought to Soldier Field a defense, allowing 14 points per game. The Bears nearly equaled that in just the first half (13) and piled up 234 yards in two quarters against a unit that was allowing an NFL-best 279.5 per full game. Three of the five longest plays allowed by the Vikings were put on them Monday night by the Bears – a 69-yard run by Jordan Howard and 34-yard receptions by Howard and Alshon Jeffery.
Jay Cutler came out with obvious rust after missing five games and made some shaky throws and decisions. He threw into coverage a few too many times but escaped without an interception.
But the overall was a dramatic infusion of energy as well as basic production that sparked the offense, and arguably the defense as well, as defensive players talked last week about the feeling at getting one’s No. 1 quarterback back.
“He’s the emotion on the football field,” said tight end Zach Miller. “Our ace is back. You get a playmaker back who makes plays.”
Cutler finished with 20-of-31 passing for 252 yards, one TD, no turnovers and a passer rating of 100.5. Cutler also showed poise and mobility, sliding away from pressure, moving up in the pocket, then dropping a shovel pass off to Jordan Howard for 34 yards.
His play fake on the third-quarter touchdown pass froze the Vikings secondary and linebackers and allowed Alshon Jeffery to gain a step inside his defender for the score.
“It was an unbelievably well-designed play,” Cutler said. “We kind of buried the fake in there and ‘22’ [safety Harrison Smith] came flying down and Al ran a great slant right behind him.”
Running back: A
The offense did get the football into the hands of three different running backs but Jordan Howard established himself as the “chairman” of the Bears’ running-back committee, with his third 100-yard rushing game (153), with pass receptions for another 49 and a total of 202 yards from scrimmage.
Howard’s 69-yard burst on the Bears’ second snap was a tone-setter, even if the offense (again) settled for a field goal. Howard showed excellent situation awareness and instinct to turn a scrambling shovel pass into a 34-yard gain in the second quarter. He added to that with a 21-yard reception later to set up a goal-to-go situation.
Howard also used his zone blockers perfectly on repeated occasions, letting a run-left develop for a six-yard gain to the Vikings 11 in the third quarter to set up an eventual touchdown.
“I’ve been very impressed with him since the outset,” said coach John Fox. “He’s a rookie running back who has grown pretty fast. He got thrown into the fire.”
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Alshon Jeffery had his guy back with Cutler starting but the connections were not there, on both parts. Jeffery had a TD opportunity but lost the one-on-one contest in the end zone to force the Bears to settle for a field goal in the second quarter, and had one ball go off his helmet. “I mean, it was accurate,” said Cutler, laughing.
But Jeffery’s grab for 34 yards in the third quarter was vintage go-up-and-get-it stuff by the big wideout, who then finished off the Bears’ first third-down possession with a tough grab on a slant for a TD.
Zach Miller led the Bears with seven receptions for 88 yards, consistent possession catches with none longer than 21 yards. “It feels great, man, really just a great team effort,” Miller said. “We played well across the board. We fought our butts off.”
Tight end Ben Braunecker caught his first pass to set up the Bears’ second-quarter touchdown. Logan Paulsen delivered a perfect seal block on the right edge for Jordan Howard’s subsequent two-yard TD run.
Offensive line: A
A line missing both starting Pro Bowl guards (Kyle Long, Josh Sitton inactive) performed very well throughout. The Bears averaged 5.4 yards per run and allowed only one sack of Cutler.
Zone blocking by the entire line, with backside efforts by guard Ted Larsen and Bobby Massie, sprung Howard for his 69-yard run. Larsen also got into a front-side stack to help get Howard in for a TD on a two-yard run in the second quarter, with Massie also completely stalemating the Vikings’ left side.
“The last time Bobby and I played Minnesota was when we were back in Arizona, and we ran the ball really well on them,” Larsen said. “So we wanted to come out with the same mindset, run the ball and keep us out of third-and-long. And we did that.”
Minnesota managed just one sack of Cutler and five other hits. “Their strength is rushing the passer,” Larsen said, “and I think we did a really good job at stopping that.”
With a makeshift offensive line, missing the starting nickel receiver and still without some key defensive players, the Bears put together a complete, 60-minute game – no small accomplishment for a team languishing and possibly looking forward to a week off. The suddenly disciplined Bears committed no turnovers and a season-low penalties.
The offense, while still settling for a couple of field goals on drives inside the red zone, attacked early for a lead and controlled the tempo and the overall game.
“It starts with the game plan,” Cutler said. “Dowell [Loggains, offensive coordinator] and the rest of his staff. When we first saw the game plan, we really liked it. As the reps progressed through the week, we liked it even more.”
The need for rush pressure against Sam Bradford was obvious and that pressure in the form of sacks by four different players in addition to four tackles for loss.
“Our key is what Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] always says, and it rings true: ‘Execution fuels emotion,’” said linebacker Sam Acho. “So it’s not about just doing whatever you want to do; it’s executing and you saw us executing our assignments. You saw the big guys like ‘Corn’ [Washington] and Akiem [Hicks] able to dominate inside, and the guys on the edge executing their rush plans on the outside.”
Special teams accounted for three of five Pat O’Donnell punts inside the Minnesota 20, another effort indicator.