Chicago Bears: Buffalo Bills
Offensively, despite Santonio Holmes’ inexperience with the system, the Bears should be able to get him up to speed enough to contribute because the playbook narrows with the team game planning. Look for a crisp outing from Jay Cutler, who is now in Year 2 of Marc Trestman’s offense. He’s showing complete command of the system.
Buffalo’s defense will hold its own early on, but Chicago’s defense -- despite struggling in the preseason -- should be able to force Manuel into mistakes and turnovers that will put the offense in ideal situations.
My prediction: Bears 31, Bills 13
The Bears won 10-3, ending a four-game preseason losing streak. We all like to decry the meaning of a preseason game, especially the first and last ones, but it was pleasing to all to see football back at Soldier Field.
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Whether surrendering four sacks Saturday in the club's preseason-opening 10-3 win over the Bills qualifies as "falter", what's clear is the starting offensive line still needs extensive work to improve significantly upon what it did in 2010.
The offensive starters at the skill positions played just one series, while the offensive line remained on the field the entire first half.
"We wanted to play the offensive line the entire half just to get them some work playing together," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We were able to get that done. We're pleased, but we've got a long way to go."
Six plays into the Bears' first offensive series, Bills rookie Marcell Dareus dropped Jay Cutler for a 6-yard loss on what would be the quarterback's final snap of the game. Shawne Merriman sacked backup Caleb Hanie twice more on back-to-back plays to run the sack total to three, with Bills backup defensive end Spencer Johnson ending the first-half sack party with 1:30 left before intermission, slamming Hanie to the ground for another 5-yard loss.
"It was good for the line to go out there and see some different fronts and go against some different guys," Cutler said. "We have to go back and look at the film and see what we did good, see what we did bad, and learn from it."
What it means: That just like every other team in the NFL, the Bears still have plenty of work to do in several areas.
Although Tice claimed the offensive line was set unless "they falter," it's not unreasonable to expect the coach to tinker a little more with the combinations up front when the team returns to Bourbonnais on Monday. Look for the team to start trying to find a place for new addition Chris Spencer in the starting lineup; perhaps even at center, which is currently manned by Roberto Garza.
If that happens, Garza could slide over to guard to replace either Chris Williams or Lance Louis.
Forte plays: Seeking a new contract, Bears running back Matt Forte indicated he was considering sitting out the preseason opener because of injury concerns. But Forte took two snaps with the first team during its first series, and caught one pass for no yards.
Barber goes beast mode: Running back Marion Barber made a strong case to surpass Chester Taylor on the depth chart as the primary backup to Forte.
Showcasing the bruising style that made him a hit with the Dallas Cowboys, Barber ran seven times for 45 yards in one half of action, and played an instrumental role in the team's only score of the first half.
Barber carried six times for 37 yards (the scoring drive was nine plays, 52 yards) during Chicago's third possession, which was capped by Hanie's 4-yard touchdown run.
Okoye, Melton flash: Free-agent acquisition Amobi Okoye produced two sacks in the first half, and appears to be well on the way to earning a role in the defensive-line rotation. Although he's not a run stuffer, Okoye showed the ability to get upfield quickly with his penetrating style, which enabled him to sack mobile Bills backup Brad Smith and Tyler Thigpen in the second quarter.
Melton, meanwhile, lived up to the coaching staff's high expectations of him by making a pair of tackles in two series in the first quarter, including a stop for a 3-yard loss.
Defense not vintage: The starters on the typically stingy Bears defense allowed the Bills to convert 50 percent of third downs and rack up 67 yards in just two series.
The Bills took the early 3-0 lead on a 44-yard field goal by Rian Lindell with 2:05 left in the first quarter to cap a 10-play, 45-yard drive.
"We need to get better, that's all there is to it," said Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. "We're a defensive team and we'll get better every week. After a long layoff, it's fun to get back out there and play football again."
Knox contributes: Demoted receiver Johnny Knox lost repetitions on offense, but made the most of the situation by making an impact on special teams.
Knox returned a kickoff 70 yards from the Chicago's 1 to the Bills 29 to set up the Bears in prime field position. But Hanie was sacked twice in three plays on the ensuing possession, resulting in an Adam Podlesh 22-yard punt.
Injury watch: Defensive end Corey Wootton suffered a knee injury on the opening kickoff and didn't play the rest of the game. Defensive tackle Marcus Harrison dinged a shoulder in the second quarter, and was officially declared questionable by the team. Cornerback Zack Bowman sustained what the team is calling a "head injury" on a vicious collision with Bills receiver Paul Hubbard in the third quarter. Bowman appeared to have been knocked unconscious momentarily on the play.
What's next: The Bears take the day off Sunday and head back to training camp in Bourbonnais, where they resume practices on Monday. The team travel to New York to face the Giants next Monday night.
Reportedly planning to sit out the preseason opener, running back Matt Forte played two snaps, catching one pass for no yards before leaving the game in favor of backup Chester Taylor.
Defensive end Corey Wootton became the team’s first injury casualty when he was declared out for the game by team officials after hurting a knee on the opening kickoff.
Receiver Johnny Knox, who had been rumored to be seeking a trade, took over Devin Hester’s return duties, and provided the team’s lone highlight of the quarter with a 70-yard return after Lindell’s 44-yard field goal.
The Bears were unable to take advantage of the field position, however, and punted after three unsuccessful plays.
Quarterback Jay Cutler participated in just the opening series, and was sacked by rookie Marcell Dareus, before giving way to backup Caleb Hanie, who was sacked twice.
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The Bears escaped the winless Buffalo Bills 22-19 at the Rogers Centre, delivering on promises for more offensive balance, better play calling from coordinator Mike Martz, in addition to improvements in protection, consistency on third downs, and fewer mistakes from quarterback Jay Cutler.
But let's face it: Chicago isn't a division-winning, playoff-caliber team. The fact the club knows that too, gives it a better chance of developing into that in the second half of the season.
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TORONTO -- Here are five things we learned following the Bears' 22-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
1. A smart Jay Cutler wins games: So what if Cutler's passing totals weren't eye popping. The most important number with this quarterback is the amount of turnovers, and Cutler had just one on Sunday. This is the type of football Cutler is going to have to play for the remainder of the season if the Bears want to make the playoffs and maybe win a game or two in the postseason. He did make a few borderline reckless decisions with the ball against the Bills. But for the most part, he took what was available, and threw the ball away when necessary. He also displayed the most underrated part of his game -- his mobility and ability to make plays with his feet. This was easily Cutler's best game since Week 2 in Dallas. Easily.
3. Charles Tillman is struggling: I've always admired Tillman's toughness and productivity over the years, but it's been tough to overlook his struggles at cornerback the past few weeks. The veteran is still causing turnovers -- he forced and recovered a fumble against the Bills -- but Tillman is routinely allowing opposing receivers to catch the football, often for first downs. Perhaps the rotation at cornerback should continue when Zack Bowman returns from a foot injury, but instead of Bowman periodically spelling Tim Jennings, maybe he should give Tillman a few series off. Can it hurt?
5. Bears should reward Brad Maynard: I realize this hasn't been Maynard's best season, but sometimes it's important to look beyond the numbers. Maynard's ability to pin teams inside the 20-yard line has been critical to the Bears' success, and no punt was bigger than his fourth-quarter kick that was downed at the Buffalo 1-yard line. Rarely, if ever, over the years have the Bears been forced to worry about their kicking game, because Maynard and Robbie Gould -- who had a rare off game against the Bills -- are so consistent. Maynard and Patrick Mannelly are set to be free agents after this season. There is no need for either to be allowed to test the open market. Despite all the labor uncertainty in 2011, awarding new deals for these two veteran leaders should be a no-brainer.
TORONTO -- Crazy things can happen in a country where the loonie is a form of currency, rather than simply a description of Mike Martz's playcalling.
Defying recent precedence, not to mention diminished expectations, the Bears proved they can still do the little things right.
In a 22-19 win over the feisty Buffalo Bills on somewhat-neutral ground, the offensive line actually blocked, Jay Cutler correctly recognized pressure, the Bears scored from the 1-yard line, scored in the third quarter -- both firsts this season if you haven't been counting -- and converted more third downs than they didn't.
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After taking a 7-0 lead on a Jay Cutler 4-yard touchdown strike to tight end Greg Olsen, the Bears offense got the ball back and proceeded to again march down the field, at one point facing first and 10 at the Buffalo 21-yard line. But the offense self-destructed in the form of three costly penalties that pushed the Bears back and forced Robbie Gould to attempt a 42-yard field goal, which he missed wide right.
Buffalo took over with under two minutes left in the half, and with the help of a Charles Tillman 15-yard penalty for a late hit out of bounds, the Bills were able to move the football and tie the game on a Ryan Fitzpatrick 14-yard touchdown toss to Roscoe Parrish.
For the most part, it was a very good half for Cutler, who completed 11 of 18 passes for 129 yards and one touchdown.
Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox each made three receptions, while Chester Taylor and Matt Forte combined for 11 carries.
The defense only allowed Buffalo to manage 114 total yards, with 68 of those yards coming on the final scoring drive of the half.
But the problem is the run isn’t quite working out according to planned. The Bears called eight runs in a scoreless first quarter for both teams, but didn’t start moving the ball until they took to the air. Matt Forte and Chester Taylor combined for 15 yards on seven attempts in a fairly fruitless first quarter in which the Bears didn’t move the ball until quarterback Jay Cutler completed three of his last four passes in the quarter for 40 yards.
The Bears closed the first quarter just outside of the red zone, and appeared to be in scoring position.
Run the ball
Fingers are cramping from typing this week after week, but it’s true: The Bears need to run the ball to eliminate predictability, and improve on time of possession, which in the process helps out the passing game and prevents the defense from being on the field too long. Since Buffalo’s rush defense ranks last in the league, this appears to be the perfect opportunity for the Bears to get running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor going. Considering the club has invested $9 million guaranteed between the running backs, perhaps it’s time for the Bears to start getting their money’s worth.
Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to light up opponents. He’s passed for 605 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions in his last two outings. So it’s important for the Bears’ front seven to put pressure on him and for the secondary to maintain tight coverage. Interestingly, Fitzpatrick has shown a tendency to be reluctant to slide to avoid contact when he scrambles out of the pocket. Instead, Fitzpatrick puts his head down and fights for extra yardage in those situations. So when Fitzpatrick gets out on the loose, the Bears’ front seven -- especially the linebackers -- need to punish the quarterback with hard shots to discourage him from scrambling, which in the past has allowed him to find open receivers down the field.
Stop being stubborn
At the slightest sign of trouble, offensive coordinator Mike Martz calls for an aerial strike almost without fail. Stop it, coach. It’s not only killing the team, it’s jeopardizing the long-term health of quarterback Jay Cutler because of the offensive line’s inability to protect him. Martz needs to diversify the play calling to include a mix of both passes and runs; long pass drops and short drops. The club also needs to diversify its personnel groupings to get more touches for little-used weapons such as Earl Bennett and Devin Aromashodu, who have proven adept at gaining yards after the catch.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BILLS
Some teams have shown the ability -- not consistently -- to handle Bears defensive end Julius Peppers with just one blocker. The Bears are counting on teams double- and triple-teaming Peppers on occasion, and have tailored the defense to account for such a possibility. But the Bills can throw a curve ball at Chicago by rolling the pocket away from Peppers, and deploying just one blocker to handle him, which frees up more receivers in routes and takes away some of the one-on-one blocks the Bears anticipate in other areas. If the Bills try such a tactic, it’s important for Fitzpatrick to get rid of the ball quickly, which shouldn’t be a tough proposition, considering the Bears play so soft on the outside.
Mix it up on the ground
Buffalo’s backfield duo of Fred Jackson and rookie C.J. Spiller presents significantly differing styles, which can throw a defense off balance. The problem is the Bills don’t distribute the workload evenly enough for it to be impactful. Jackson is the clear-cut feature back, handling the bulk of the carries. But the Bills need to get Spiller -- a dynamic threat to go the distance on any play -- more involved in the attack. Spiller carried just six times in the club’s last game, which clearly isn’t enough for the rookie to develop a rhythm.
Bears’ starting right guard Roberto Garza is coming off Oct. 15th surgery on his left knee, and it’s almost a given his range of motion won’t immediately be the same, nor will his cardiovascular conditioning. Add that to the fact he’s playing alongside a rookie in right tackle J’Marcus Webb, and you’ve got a matchup situation definitely worth testing. The Bills need to bring most of their stunts and blitzes to the right side of Chicago’s line, and use lots of twists that will force Garza to have to move laterally. Moving consistently between their 4-3 and 3-4 fronts would be a good idea for the Bills, too.
Kyle Williams has emerged as one of the league’s more dominating defensive linemen, and it’s a sure bet Olin Kreutz will need plenty of help handling him. A nose guard in Buffalo’s 3-4 fronts and a defensive tackle in the 4-3 fronts, Williams has benefitted tremendously from the club’s move to more 4-3 looks, because of the penetrating nature of a four-man front.
Since Buffalo switched to a predominantly 4-3 alignment, Williams has racked up 19 tackles over the team’s last four games, including three sacks and six stops for lost yardage. More than likely, Williams will shut down any attempts by the Bears to run between the tackles. Williams is currently third in the NFL in tackles among defensive linemen with 37.
Kreutz, who is somewhat undersized, won’t be able to handle Williams one-on-one consistently. So look for the Bears to deploy plenty of double teams on Williams.
BY THE NUMBERS
17: Takeaways by the Bears this season, with eight coming on fumble recoveries and nine on interceptions.
4: Punt returns of 20 yards or more by Devin Hester, which ranks as first in the NFL.
13: Bears younger than 25 years old.
39: Career tackles against the Bills in three games by Brian Urlacher.