CHICAGO -- Mike Martz never deviates from the message.
In the quiet, dark meeting rooms at Halas Hall every week, the offensive coordinator delivers one of his favorite sayings over and over again: You don’t know how good you can be.
Perhaps now the Bears know by way of their 27-13 victory over Minnesota in arguably the most crucial game of the season thus far, against a talented -- albeit struggling -- Vikings defense that featured a dominating front four. In generating the first complete performance of the year in every facet (play calling, blocking, passing, and running), Chicago's offense finally came on board with the team's usually-strong defense and special teams to deliver the type of total-team knockout reflective of its first-place standing atop the NFC North.
“We knew we hadn’t put a total game together,” left tackle Frank Omiyale said. “We got close today, but we’ve got a lot more to go towards getting to where we want to go.”
Certainly, they’re off to a promising start. The performance seemed long overdue considering the high expectations associated with Martz’s offense coming into the season, not to mention the steady play by the defense and special teams through the first eight games.
Having given up 32 sacks coming into Sunday’s contest, the offensive line continued its turnaround against a Vikings defensive line that featured three players in defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, and defensive end Jared Allen with a combined 11 Pro Bowls between them.
“We understand how good they are on that defensive line,” center Olin Kreutz said. “They’ve got three all pros. We know that. It does mean a lot, but we still have to keep improving. We have not arrived yet. We’re not near where we want to be, and if we don’t go back next week and perform, this game doesn’t matter.”
Although quarterback Jay Cutler had been a victim of 19 sacks over three consecutive outings between Oct. 3 and Oct. 24, he’s suffered only one sack in each of his last two contests. Cutler wasn’t dropped Sunday against the Vikings until the third quarter, after he’d already thrown two touchdowns in leading the Bears to a 17-10 lead.
The protection, combined with diverse, yet balanced play calling (38 to 35 run-pass ratio) helped Cutler complete passes to nine different receivers as the Bears converted 58 percent of third downs against a Minnesota defense ranked in the top 10 against the run (7th) and pass (10th), while limiting opponents heading into the contest to a 39-percent conversion rate on third down.
“The offense did a great job all day long giving us time when we needed it,” said Cutler, who completed 22 of 35 for 237 yards and three touchdowns. “We’re just creating some matchups. That’s what this whole game is about when you boil it down -- and Mike [Martz] -- he’s the master of that.”
The Bears averaged just 3.4 yards per rush against the Vikings, led by Matt Forte, who finished with a team-high 69 yards on 21 attempts. They now own a 3-0 record this season when finishing with 100 or more total rushing yards. But the yardage wasn’t near as important as the attempts.
The commitment to the run set up Chicago’s playaction passing game, which played a role in slowing down Minnesota’s rush, in addition to keeping the Vikings’ secondary off balance.
“We were getting ripped about too much pass and run [earlier in the season],” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “It’s hard to get anything going when you’re not converting third downs.”
It’s even tougher when you’re predictable; a trait the offense finally seems to have shaken over its last two outings.
Cutler completed six pass plays for gains of at least 17 yards and scrambled 25 yards for the team’s longest run of the afternoon. The receiving corps, led by Johnny Knox’s five catches for 90 yards, made key plays in the passing game.
Still, there’s plenty of work to do on offense to catch up to the consistency of the defense, and electric game-breaking ability of Chicago’s special-teams unit. Cutler needs to make better decisions, the receivers need to do a better job of catching the ball consistently and there are still things to clean up on the offensive line and with the running backs. What’s encouraging, though, is the fact the Bears know that, and acknowledge it.
“We went out there and fought hard, but we’re far from being what we want to be,” said left guard Roberto Garza. “It’s still a building process, you know. But this is not the time to look and try to figure out how good you’re gonna be. You’ve got to go out there and prove it.”
The Bears' eighth-ranked defense has done that all year, for the most part. The Bears forced four turnovers: interceptions by D.J. Moore, Lance Briggs, and Chris Harris, in addition to a fumble recovery by Tommie Harris. On special teams, return-man extraordinaire Devin Hester burned Minnesota for 100 yards on kickoff returns, in addition to tacking on another 47 yards on two punt returns.
So it was overdue for the offense to step up and push the Bears, overall, to a level of play reflective of where they stand atop the NFC North.
“When your special teams and defense play like that, on offense you better not mess it up [after they’ve given you] that field position and those turnovers,” said tight end Greg Olsen, who caught three passes for 31 yards and a touchdown. “The defense pretty much stifled a great running back, great quarterback, and those receivers. Special teams, we’ve all seen for a couple of years how good they are.”
Chicago’s offense finally joined the party against the Vikings, and its strong performances in two consecutive games bode well for the direction the Bears could be headed as teams look to position themselves for a playoff run.
Arguably the league’s healthiest team at this point in the season (cornerback Zack Bowman is still slowed by a sprained foot) in terms of injuries, the Bears face Miami in a Thursday night game on the road before hosting Philadelphia on Nov. 28, and visiting Detroit on Dec. 5 for the second meeting between the teams.
Back in his street clothes at a lectern just minutes after the game, Cutler acknowledged the importance of not only the win, but how the Bears delivered it.
“It was a big game for the whole team,” Cutler said. “The defense did another stellar job; they’ve carried us all year long, and did it again today. We’re starting to be more dangerous with our ability to run, with the offensive line really coming together and being able to pass protect. We’re creating packages for different guys. I’m just trying to use everyone’s talents as best as possible.”