Commentary

Finishing school

Bears couldn't close when game was on the line vs. Packers

Originally Published: September 14, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- For a while there, a long while there, it looked like what we had suspected all along.

That if the Bears' defense can just keep games close, no matter how many interceptions Jay Cutler hurls -- and you can take that pun as you wish -- the quarterback is going to give the Bears a better chance of winning than they have had in recent memory.

Except, you see, you have to close.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsBrian Urlacher's wrist injury puts a damper on the Bears' hopes for 2009.
Close on the streaking defender. Close with the pass to your own receiver in that final gasp. Close what would have been one of the uglier victories -- one the Bears gladly would have accepted -- had they pulled it out.

But they didn't. Couldn't. In the end, the Packers and the football gods would not allow it, would not allow Cutler to get away with four interceptions -- each one costlier than the last -- as Green Bay eked out the season-opening clunker 21-15 before 70,920 zealots Sunday at Lambeau Field.

And now, it very well might get exponentially more difficult, as five Bears players were injured in the game. Linebacker Brian Urlacher will require surgery on a dislocated wrist, according to the Chicago Tribune.

"It's always tough to have your leader go down," linebacker Lance Briggs said, according to the newspaper. "He knows the defense better than anybody, and he communicates everything to everyone else."

The implications surely are grave, although afterward, the focus was on a painful loss.

"You can't be fired up about anything when you can't finish drives," Bears coach Lovie Smith said when asked whether he could at least be proud of the defense he now oversees, which held the Packers to 76 yards rushing and 150 yards passing. "We're a good football team, but we didn't take care of business tonight."

You know it was not a good night when Bears fans had to be thrilled their team was down only eight at halftime, undoubtedly the germ of a rousing speech by Smith: "Look men, sure, the one beacon of hope for our entire organization, and the one player upon whom my own personal livelihood is resting, has basically made us all long for Rex Grossman. But don't despair. My defense is looking pretty good, don't you think?"

After that first half, it was tempting to dub the Minnesota Vikings the team to beat in the NFC North. After Cutler's third interception of the half, it was tempting to dub Detroit a threat.

But with most of us experts predicting an over-under of around 80 or so, it was the respective defenses that set the tone for the night. And for a while, this was not necessarily a bad thing.

At least we found out for sure that Danieal Manning, playing the nickel after struggling with a bad hamstring all preseason, will be just fine after his expert throwdown of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers for a safety in the second quarter.

We found out for a while what elementary football tells us -- that if the pressure is good up front, the secondary doesn't have to be All-Pro. And Adewale Ogunleye, with his two first-half sacks and five quarterback hurries, very nearly made us forget about the vulnerability of that secondary, until Rodgers found Greg Jennings for a 50-yard touchdown strike over corner Nathan Vasher and past safety Kevin Payne for the game-winning touchdown with 1:18 left in the game.

"I just kind of lost my footing a little bit," Vasher said. "But we have no room for error, especially on the back end. We had done a good job of containing them tonight. It's just really tough."

Charles Tillman, a late decision at right corner -- or at least a late announcement Sunday after missing all of camp following July back surgery -- was, like Vasher, fairly inconspicuous most of the night, which, like referees, is pretty much what you want from your cornerbacks.

But Tillman, like Smith, bemoaned the lack of takeaways by the Bears, which both ultimately blamed for the loss.

"My whole thing about playing is be in the game and not just at the game, making plays, doing things," Tillman said. "I felt pretty good, comfortable, but from a personal standpoint, I felt I could do better."

All things considered, Tillman was one of the healthiest guys in the locker room Sunday night, as the Bears might have lost more than one football game with Urlacher's injury and game-ending injuries to Pisa Tinoisamoa (sprained PCL in right knee), starting left guard Frank Omiyale (ankle), tight end Desmond Clark (back) and cornerback Trumaine McBride (knee).

Not good.

"Injuries can happen any day," Briggs said.

From the looks of the losing locker room, the pain went beyond those five.

What to make of Matt Forte and Greg Olsen?

Forte carried the ball just eight times in the first half for 15 yards, finishing the game with 55 yards on 25 carries for a 2.2-yards-per-carry average. And Olsen, anointed Cutler's favorite receiver based on good work in training camp and a budding friendship between the quarterback and tight end, had his first catch of the night with 7:16 left in the game for an 8-yard gain.

"Matt did some good things," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "It's a long season, and we talked about getting some other guys involved and spelling him a little bit. That was the plan going into it, so we did."

But they were not the only ones who did not live up to expectations. Cutler-Rodgers fell flat, as both quarterbacks looked anything but All-Pro caliber.

At 11:58 of the fourth quarter, the announcer in the Green Bay press box credited Brett Favre with a 10-yard completion to Donald Driver. Fortunately for the Packers, it was Rodgers who completed the pass and the drive, which ended with a 39-yard field goal by Mason Crosby to give Green Bay the lead at 13-12.

All that said, the Bears still led by two points with about two and a half minutes to play, which seemed like a pretty good place to be after the kind of night it had been.

"In a normal game, when we're up at the end of the fourth quarter, we keep the offense out of the end zone and we win the game, and that's what it comes down to," Briggs said. "They fought, we all made mistakes tonight, but we had a chance to win."

Which makes it all the tougher.

"Oh, it hurts, it hurts," Ogunleye said. "When you know it's a division rival, it's an NFC game, it's our rival, it's the first game of the season. You can just keep adding up how tough this loss is. The only positive thing about it, it's the first game of the season and we have 15 more to go."

Where have we heard that before?

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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