Commentary

Not great, but good enough

Bears thrilled with win, but not their play

Originally Published: September 20, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

There was absolutely no reason for the Chicago Bears to feel good.

Rashard Mendenhall
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenThe Bears yielded 4.8 yards per rush and a 39-yard gain by Rashard Mendenhall, but they still made enough stops to win.

Not after the way quarterback Jay Cutler played in Green Bay last week. Not after the team lost Brian Urlacher for the season, and Pisa Tinoisamoa and Desmond Clark for their home opener. Certainly not after the Bears' defense allowed Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers to march 92 yards on their opening drive, eating up more than eight minutes and scoring effortlessly.

The Bears were set up for another loss Sunday, and no one would have been surprised if they had taken the bait. In fact, if that first Pittsburgh drive was any indication, the Bears were set up for an ugly loss that could have reverberated for weeks to come.

It is far too early to tell just what kind of a team the Bears will be this season. But successful teams often win games they're not supposed to win. They win when the opposing team's kicker misses field goals he should not miss. They win after tolerating a lousy week, when they're playing the defending Super Bowl champs and when their franchise quarterback does little more than play it safe.

Sometimes they win as the Bears did when they pulled out a 17-14 victory over Pittsburgh at Soldier Field, simply because the alternative is unacceptable.

Or, as Bears defensive end Alex Brown said afterward, "We played well enough to win because we won."

More often than not, statistics make cowards out of athletes and fools out of sports writers, but the one the Bears were staring down Sunday was worth acknowledging.

In its long and storied history, no Bears team has ever made the playoffs after a 0-2 start. Making it all the more daunting was the Bears' trip to Seattle next week to play in as tough an environment as there is in the NFL.

"It was very important to win," said Brown, who had two sacks before twisting his left ankle late in the fourth quarter but was able to bear weight on the leg on the sideline. "A lot of people said we were going to lose this game, but in this locker room, we believe we have what it takes to win. If you keep winning, it builds confidence and beating the defending champs, that's really good. But we have to understand that's one game. That's it."

And for now, it's good enough, despite the missed tackles and missed opportunities on defense, the dropped passes and 43 yards rushing on offense. The Bears have place-kicker Robbie Gould on their side, and his 44-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining made the difference. You get the feeling he will be put in that position again and again this season.

The Bears won, said several defensive players, because head coach Lovie Smith made the necessary adjustments throughout the game, which is not something we could have said about the Bears' defensive coordinators of recent vintage.

"This was a great cat-and-mouse game," said Danieal Manning, who was part of that game when he was moved to starting free safety for Kevin Payne and blitzed, by Manning's count, 16 times Sunday.

"[The Steelers] came out with some things we've seen before, but they got into formations and ran certain plays out of certain formations that we were like, 'Oh OK, this is what they're doing now.'"

It helps, as Smith pointed out last week in Green Bay, when you create turnovers, and the Bears showed at least some improvement by forcing two -- an interception by Charles Tillman at the Bears' 5-yard-line early in the second quarter to stop a drive that began at the Steelers' 10, and a fumble forced by Jamar Williams and recovered by Craig Steltz to seal the victory on the last kickoff with 9 seconds remaining.

Yet the Steelers crossed midfield on five of their nine offensive possessions, and had runs of 39, 15 and 13 yards by three different runners.

"As a defense, we didn't completely understand the level we had to play at, at first," Brown said. "After that, we picked it up. … Everything goes when you get pressure. Then we get interceptions, tipped balls, we get the quarterback to rush a little bit and we get big plays. We were able to make enough to win."

"While we were successful," said Urlacher's replacement, Hunter Hillenmeyer, "that wasn't a dominating performance by our defense. It was a total team win."

Offensively, the Bears' run game, which was and is supposed to be Chicago's staple, was once again oddly ineffective, with Matt Forte rushing for just 29 yards on 13 carries. Instead, Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner allowed Cutler to dink and dunk to the tune of 236 yards passing on 27-of-38 passing to seven receivers for an average of 8.7 yards per catch.

"That was part of our plan, throwing the ball a high percentage of plays like a running play," Turner said. "We talked about wanting to stay ahead of the chains. We didn't want to get into second-and-long, third-and-long. You do that against this team, you're in trouble. We wanted to do it by running the ball, then get a lot of high-percentage quick passes, three-step, five-step [drops], getting completions.

"If we get 4, 5 yards on it, that's good. Pick our spots and take some shots."

The long shots were nonexistent and so were the Cutler turnovers after his four-pick game last week. Still, he found rookie Johnny Knox six times for 70 yards. And though the Bears' offense crossed midfield only three times, each one was a scoring drive.

Hard to imagine Cutler being satisfied with playing it safe all season, but Sunday, it was what was required and a 104.7 quarterback rating said he did it very well.

"There are going to be games when you're going to have more opportunities to make big plays," Turner said. "And there are going to be games when you're not, so you have to execute with great efficiency."

If you're really lucky, there are also going to be games when the opposing team's kicker misses field goals of 38 and 43 yards in the fourth quarter.

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.