Chicago Bears: Michael Vick
The Philadelphia Eagles have found themselves in the middle of the NFC North race as much as the NFC East race over the past month. Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears is their third game in a row against an opponent from the North.
Two weeks ago, the Eagles and Bears helped each other out. Chicago defeated the Dallas Cowboys, pushing the Eagles into first place in the East. The Eagles beat the Detroit Lions, opening the door for the Bears in the North.
They won’t be helping each other this week. ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss some of the issues facing both teams.
Sheridan: Like the Eagles, the Bears survived this season when a backup quarterback took over and played unexpectedly well. Unlike the Eagles, who stayed with Nick Foles, Chicago went back to Jay Cutler and sent Josh McCown to the sideline. So, Michael, how is that scenario playing out in the locker room, on the field and among the fans?
Wright: The reaction is quite a bit different between the fans and the players, obviously. In the immediate aftermath of Cutler’s ankle injury on Nov. 10 against Detroit, Bears coach Marc Trestman told the team and the media that Cutler would be the starter again as soon as he was medically cleared to play. The coach never wavered on that declaration, and that was apparent even among the players during McCown’s incredible four-game run. In answering questions about McCown during that stretch, Trestman and the players seemed to temper the compliments regarding the backup, making it a point to state that Cutler was still the starter once he would be able to return to action. So within the locker room, the message was always that Cutler would return, but among the fan base, as McCown flourished, the call to make him the permanent starter grew louder regardless of what Trestman and the players said on the record. Cutler certainly helped himself by bouncing back from a bad start at Cleveland to throw for three touchdowns in a win, but there’s certainly a segment of the Chicago fan base still calling for McCown to be the man under center.
Phil, Chicago’s defense simply can’t stop the run, so LeSean McCoy is poised to have a pretty big game if the Eagles decide to feature him. What was the deal with McCoy running the ball just eight times against the Vikings?
Sheridan: That was one of the head-scratching strategies Chip Kelly deployed Sunday. It was like stepping into a time machine and watching an Andy Reid-coached game. Kelly’s explanation was simple enough: The Vikings were missing four cornerbacks and the Eagles thought they could exploit the inexperienced backups. Then, he said, the Eagles fell behind and had to throw, but McCoy had run for 217 yards the week before, mostly in the second half as the Eagles staged a comeback win. Ultimately, there is no explanation or excuse for eliminating a weapon as dangerous as McCoy from your offense. That’s supposed to be the defense’s job.
The Eagles did a better job against Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson in recent weeks than against the Vikings’ deeper, less star-studded receiving corps. How much more dangerous are the Bears now that Alshon Jeffery has emerged alongside Brandon Marshall? Is Jeffery even better at this point?
Wright: In the past, teams focused most of their game plan on shutting down Marshall. That involved double-teams and shading coverage over to his side. Teams are now finding they can’t do that anymore because if you double Marshall, you put Jeffery in one-on-one matchups that he’s going to win the majority of the time. The Bears say teams are now starting to mix it up against those receivers, which makes it important for Cutler to be able to quickly recognize the coverage and distribute the ball accordingly. I wouldn’t say Jeffery is the better receiver overall at this point, but I will say that he tracks the ball in the air better than anybody else on Chicago’s roster, which has allowed him to make some unbelievable grabs in contested situations. I’d say one player to watch is No. 3 receiver Earl Bennett. With all the focus on Marshall and Jeffery, the Bears have made it a point in recent weeks to involve Bennett more in the offense. Remember, Bennett played college football with Cutler at Vanderbilt, so there’s chemistry. Bennett has hauled in a touchdown in each of the past two games.
How will Philadelphia’s secondary look on Sunday? I know the Eagles are banged up, causing something of a musical-chairs effect in the secondary. At this point, do you know which guys the Eagles will have available to face Marshall, Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett?
Sheridan: We don’t know yet, Michael. The larger problem is that, even when everyone is healthy, the Eagles' secondary isn’t equipped to handle a receiving corps as deep and talented as the Bears’ is. The Eagles have the 31st-ranked pass defense for a reason. During their five-game winning streak, they were able to give yards but minimize points allowed by forcing turnovers and playing well in the red zone. That formula fell apart in Minnesota. As for the injuries, the biggest loss would be nickel corner Brandon Boykin, who leads the team in interceptions and is a very good cover guy. It looks like rookie safety Earl Wolff will be back after missing four games with a knee injury, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be after missing that much time. If the Bears go three or four wide, the Eagles will be hard-pressed to match up with all those weapons. Their best hope would be to pressure Cutler, but they have struggled against guys who get the ball out as quickly as he does.
There’s a chance linebacker Lance Briggs returns Sunday night. What impact would that have on Chicago’s defense? Can the Bears clamp down on the Eagles or is this thing destined to be a shootout like their win over Dallas two weeks back?
Wright: I see this one being a shootout. I think Briggs will have an impact on the defense in terms of making sure the calls get in quickly and the defense is lined up correctly. Briggs should also be an upgrade over rookie Khaseem Greene, who has filled in on the weak side over the past seven games. But Briggs has been on the shelf for a month and a half, and there’s no way he’s in football shape yet. So you have to wonder how much he will actually be able to contribute from a physical standpoint. If Briggs plays like the Briggs we all know, then Chicago will have a much better shot at controlling Philadelphia’s rushing attack, but I’m not sure he’ll return as that guy. So let’s count on a shootout. The team with the defense that gets that one or two key stops down the stretch will be the team that comes out on top.
Early in the season, Philadelphia’s frenetic pace seemed to be the next new thing, the revolution. Now that the Eagles have basically an entire season under their belts, how have teams adjusted to their pace on offense? Is it still as big an advantage as it seemed to be early in the season?
Sheridan: It has been an effective tactic at times. The up-tempo approach is one of the reasons Foles replaced Michael Vick as the No. 1 quarterback. Vick is obviously a bigger threat in the read-option, but Foles is more comfortable with the pace Kelly likes. Hard to blame Vick, who had a career’s worth of offensive football to unlearn. But the pace can hurt the Eagles, too. When they have a couple of three-and-outs in a row, as they did against the Vikings, their defense is back on the field way too quickly. And when a team moves the ball as well as the Vikings did, the defense wears down. It was useless by the fourth quarter. The Eagles defense has been on the field for more plays than any team in the NFL. That is partly a side effect of Kelly’s up-tempo offense.
PHILADELPHIA -- Michael Vick just can't seem to figure out the Bears defense.
Vick is still without a win over the Bears as a starting quarterback after he posted a 60.5 passer rating in Monday night's 30-24 loss to the Bears. Leading the charge again versus Vick was Bears Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher, who recorded a team-high 11 total tackles to go along with a pair of broken up passes.
"Brian is getting better and better and getting faster as he gets older and aging," Vick said of the Bears' 12-year veteran linebacker.
"I don't know what it is. They play a great scheme. They did some things differently that we didn't expect. I think for the most part, we were able to handle it. They played good sound defense and they were able to keep me contained. The linebackers were running pretty good and made the plays that they needed to make and we didn't make enough."
Urlacher pointed to several reasons why the Bears historically fare well when they play the ultra-athletic Vick.
"We have Julius Peppers who's pretty good," Urlacher explained. "We're athletic on defense. We all can run ... every level ... defensive line, linebacker, safety, corner ... we can all run. We play a lot of zone. Get a lot of eyes on the quarterback and we run to the football.
"It's stressful playing these guys. You got to get your game plan ... you have to execute. You can't make mistakes because they'll make you pay with their speed. We executed for the most part tonight and got the win."
It wasn't a perfect performance by the Bears defense, especially in the second half, but Urlacher and company shut down Philadelphia's offense on all four possessions in the fourth quarter to cement the victory. Two of those four drives ended with the Eagles turning the ball over on downs. The final series consisted of one play where Vick threw an incompletion as time expired.
"I'm just glad we won," Urlacher said. "Michael is going to make plays. He always has, he always will. We made enough plays to win the game in every phases, offense, defense and special teams."
When: 7:30 p.m., Monday | TV: ESPN | RADIO:780 AM, WBBM & 105.9 FM
Career head-to-head record (including playoffs) vs. Andy Reid: 3-2
Career record (including playoffs) vs. Eagles: 3-2
Key stat: The Bears are 4-0 this season when they score 18 point or more and 57-10 under those conditions since 2004. The club is also 4-1 this season when it gains more than 301 net yards
Offense rank: 16th (337.4 ypg) | Defense rank: 23rd (380.6 ypg)
Offensive leader: The NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage (1,091), running back Matt Forte averages 155.8 yards from scrimmage per game, which currently ranks as the fifth-highest average in NFL history. Since coming into the league in 2008, Forte ranks third in yards from scrimmage (5,822) behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (6,266) and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson (6,068).
• The Bears have picked off at least one pass in five of the last six games.
• Eight of Devin Hester’s career return touchdowns have come in prime-time contests.
• Nickel corner D.J. Moore has picked off a pass in three of the last four games, and now has seven career interceptions, which ties for fourth in the NFL since 2010.
• Quarterback Jay Cutler has been sacked at least once in 29 consecutive games, the NFL’s longest streak over that span.
Career record against Bears: 6-3 | Last week: Defeated the Cowboys
Key stat: The Eagles have won each of their last three games on Monday Night Football, and are 27-22 all-time. Philadelphia’s 27 wins on Monday Night Football rank as the sixth-most in the NFL.
Offense rank:1st (449.3 ypg) | Defense rank: 11th (330.6 ypg)
Defensive leader: Defensive end Jason Babin is tied for fourth in the NFL with 9 sacks, and three of his nine multi-sack games have come in 2011. With 21.5 sacks since 2010, Babin ranks third in sacks over that span behind Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware and Minnesota’s Jared Allen.
• With a touchdown against the Bears, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy will tie Steve Van Buren’s team record of eight consecutive games with a touchdown.
• The Eagles are 3-0 this season when they hold teams to 17 points or fewer and 84-19-1 under those circumstances with Reid as the head coach.
• The Eagles are winless in 2011 when they allow a running back to rush for 100 yards or more.
• The Eagles own the best record in the NFC during the month of November (32-18-1) since 1999.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears' 2011 4-3 start to the season is better than the 2010 version.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The 2010 Bears limped into the bye week after consecutive home defeats to Seattle and Washington, which marked the low point of the season. This year the annual bye weekend came following wins against Minnesota and Tampa. Compared to last fall at this time, the Bears appear to be in better shape. Whether or not they can rip off five consecutive post-bye wins like in 2010 remains to be seen, but the vibe around Halas Hall is much different than last year. The only real negative is the Bears 1-2 record in the NFC North, compared to 2-0 after seven games the previous season.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. The Bears limped into the bye week in 2010, losing three of four; while this year’s team is on a two-game winning streak. Last season, there were questions about the run-pass ratio, and Jay Cutler’s protection (he’d been sacked 19 times in three games going into the bye). Running back Matt Forte had gained 100 yards in just one of the first seven contests, and rushed for more than 50 yards just once. But none of those are concerns coming out of this year’s bye. Certainly the defense hasn’t performed at its normal high level, but given the group’s experience and some of the adjustments made by the coaching staff, better days are on the horizon. It’s also important to note that the entire roster -- for the first time all season -- is now fully healthy, which should pay dividends down the stretch.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Better in every major offensive category statistically, certainly that side of the football is better this season. The offensive line a little more stable (which isn’t saying much); Forte exceeding the high expectations everyone had for him; and Cutler has overcome some weak protection and is generally running the offense more efficiently. Defensively, the 2010 team carried the Bears most of the season. But the Bears went into the bye this season with more momentum (two wins vs. two losses) and seemingly just as much to build upon.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. In 2010, we still didn’t know what to make of the Bears. At the bye, their future was unknown. Yes, unlike this edition, the 2010 Bears started 4-1 before a two-game skid, but their offensive problems were beguiling. Those Bears straightened things out, but at the time, we just weren’t sure how it would happen after the bye. These Bears, well, we don’t know what to make of them either, but at least they’ve proved that they can beat the bad teams and the ones at their level. It’s the great teams that have been the problem, a sure sign of a wild-card hopeful. We know what works with the offense, and we've already seen the worst of the offensive line. I feel more sure of what this team is capable of doing.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears' game plan should center around stopping LeSean McCoy, not Michael Vick.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Vick is a tremendous player, but the Bears historically have kept him in check. If McCoy goes off on Monday night, the Bears will have a tough time improving to 5-3. The key to stopping Vick is to keep him in the pocket and pressure him with the front four, while the safeties drop deep to eliminate the deep pass plays down the field. That strategy won't work if McCoy begins to hurt the Bears for big chunks of yards on the ground. If that happens, the safeties will be forced to pinch up, which could lead to disaster. If the Bears stop McCoy, and protect the ball on offense, they should be able to knock off Philadelphia.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. The main objective for Chicago’s defense -- regardless of the opponent -- is to snuff out the run first, and force a team to win the game through the air. By shutting down the run, the Bears know they can easily make teams one dimensional/predictable. Once that happens, defensive play calling is no longer a chess match for Rod Marinelli. At the same time, the defense can play faster because it’s not burdened by run responsibilities because the front four is rushing the passer, while the back seven drop back in coverage.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. It’s always a good start -- run effectively and stop the run. And considering the fact that McCoy, coming off an 185-yard rushing game, has carried the ball 58 times in the Eagles’ last two games for a combined 311 yards, not to mention his 107.7 yards on the ground per game and 5.6-yard average per carry, stopping him would go a long way toward stopping the Eagles. If you can contain Vick on the ground, he is capable of the bad game and the Bears have proven that.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Controlling Vick is the key, and the Bears know this, which is why they’ve had success against him. Now, especially with these starting safeties, the Bears really need to worry about Vick throwing the ball deep to Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, and down the middle to Cover-2 breaker Brent Celek. They also need to keep Vick from piling up yards. It’s not an all-or-nothing with Vick and McCoy. The Bears need to gameplan for both, but it’s a lot easier to stop a great running back when you’ve flustered the game-breaking quarterback.
Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler would be a much better quarterback in the Eagles' offense.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Not only would Cutler have weapons like Jackson, Maclin, Celek and McCoy, he would also get to work with Reid. Say what you want about Reid's inability to win a Super Bowl, he knows offense and how to work with quarterbacks. Cutler would be in much better hands with Reid and Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweig, than he is here in Chicago.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. This isn’t a fair hypothetical situation for Cutler, but I’ll play along. If you look at the first seven games, Vick hasn’t even performed at a perennial Pro Bowler’s level in the Eagles’ offense. So how/why would Cutler? Undoubtedly the most mobile quarterback in the NFL, Vick has been sacked 12 times, thrown eight interceptions and has fumbled eight times, losing three. Vick works with more weapons than Cutler, for sure. But if Philadelphia’s offensive line can’t prevent the game’s most elusive quarterback from taking 12 sacks, what would it do for Cutler, who isn’t as mobile? Philadelphia’s scheme is better suited for Cutler’s skill set than Chicago’s. But several factors come into play here such as the market, team chemistry (would teammates embrace the standoffish Cutler?), potential relationship with the coaching staff (would Reid put up with Cutler cursing at a coach?) that really make this unfair to try to gauge.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Why? Because the Eagles have Brent Celek at tight end, and Jackson, Maclin and Jason Avant as their receiving corps? They’re a strong group, no question, but Philly’s o-line has been slow to click and Michael Vick hasn’t had the easiest time of it. Andy Reid has been accused of not running a balanced offense. Regardless of Cutler’s talent, being a Pro Bowl quarterback isn’t exactly an easy feat to pull off.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. The Eagles are the kind of team a quarterback dreams about, with Jackson and Maclin, Celek and McCoy. The offensive line has only given up 10 sacks this season, though Vick might have something to do with that. Maybe it's just age catching up with him, or bad teams, but Donovan McNabb's post-Eagles career has been a train wreck. For all his faults, Reid put McNabb into a good situation to succeed. Cutler would look great in Eagles green.
Fact or Fiction: I'd rather have Matt Forte than LeSean McCoy as my running back.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. You really can't go wrong with either guy. Forte gets the nod because he's shown the ability to carry the load on offense almost entirely by himself. McCoy has the luxury of being part of an offense with proven playmakers Vick, Jackson, Maclin and Celek. That's not meant to diminish what McCoy has accomplished over two and a half seasons in Philadelphia, he's a special player, but opposing defenses are forced to worry about stopping several things when they face the Eagles. When teams play the Bears, it's about stopping Forte, which nobody has really done besides Mike Martz.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. This is another difficult one to gauge. McCoy averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2010 and 4.1 as a rookie, and has caught 68 fewer passes than Forte -- who has never averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry through an entire season -- despite playing one year less. The difference in my mind is that Forte has put forth the majority of his production without the benefit of: A). A decent run-blocking offensive line most of his career; and B). A strong supporting cast of offensive weapons. Forte has pretty much done most of his damage to defenses alone. McCoy, meanwhile, is surrounded by a bevy of dangerous weapons (Maclin, Jackson, Celek -- even Vick is falls into the “weapons” category) that take off some of the pressure and make Philadelphia’s offense unpredictable. When teams face the Bears, the first two objectives are to stop Forte in the rushing game and to stop him as a receiver. But nobody has enjoyed consistent success at either, which makes Forte my running back in this debate.
Melissa Isaacson Fact. Tough one, but hard to ever argue against having Forte. Though he’s a bit older than McCoy (25 to 23), he is a more polished back just coming into his prime and at this point is a better receiver. You know what you’ve got with Forte. McCoy does have 10 touchdowns this season to Forte’s three and is no doubt an incredible talent. McCoy is also very durable and like Forte, has sure hands (neither have a fumble this season). But again, Forte has shown he is capable of carrying an offense and tough to bet against him.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction, but not by much. McCoy has more rushing yards per game (107.7-96) and grades slightly above Forte by the Football Outsiders’ statistical estimations -- always a good tiebreaker when the eye tests fails to discern a true separation (they both average around 5.5 yards per game). But really, both are great. Perhaps the greatest defining factor in choosing between the two is age. McCoy is a couple years younger, which in the NFL, means a lot.
Record: 10-6 Seed: No. 3
Last meeting: Bears 31, Eagles 26 on Nov. 28 at Soldier Field
On the other side of the ball, the Bears' defense did a wonderful job taking away the Eagles' dual vertical threats of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Sitting back in the Cover 2, the Bears safeties dropped so deep it was impossible for Jackson or Maclin to get behind the defense. Maclin did catch a touchdown, but Jackson was so ineffective -- two receptions for 26 yards -- he was reportedly called out by Philadelphia coach Andy Reid in the postgame locker room.
Chris Harris made arguably the biggest play of the game when he intercepted a tipped Vick pass in the end zone near the end of the first half. The Bears only allowed one Eagles' touchdown on five trips inside the red zone. Vick hit Brent Celek on a 30-yard scoring play late in the game, and even though the Philadelphia quarterback compiled impressive numbers (377 all-purpose yards), the Bears' defense held Vick and Co. in check.
Neutralizing Jackson and Maclin will again be critical, and the Bears cannot afford the types of breakdowns in deep coverage we saw in Green Bay. It's impossible to completely shut down Vick, but the Eagles are a different team when LeSean McCoy gets going on the ground. McCoy, one of the top multi-purpose backs in the NFL, was somewhat quiet in the regular season meeting, but averaged 5.2 yards per carry on the season, and is always a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield (eight receptions against the Bears, 78 on the season).
The Bears' coverage units limited Jackson to only 36 yards on punt returns, while Devin Hester and Danieal Manning gave the Bears solid field position on kickoff return. Those feats must be duplicated. Hester returned the opening kickoff of the second half 46 yards which set up a Cutler to Olsen 9-yard touchdown pass.
It's difficult to beat the same team twice in one season, but the Bears showed you the blueprint for how to defeat Philadelphia over a month ago. Can they do it again?
CHICAGO -- It was vintage Mike Vick. It was new and improved Mike Vick.
It was early in the first quarter Sunday on the goat track that is Soldier Field. Third-and-long and Vick was on the move, throwing in a spin move and a cutback as Henry Melton and Julius Peppers provided pressure and Vick continued to look for a receiver.
Vick got the oohs, he got the aahs, but he didn't get the first down. Vick was stopped for a 6-yard gain and a three-and-out.
Read the entire story.
CHICAGO -- Chris Harris stared at Philadelphia’s offense as it lined up at the Chicago 4-yard line at the two-minute warning.
With his Bears leading 14-13, Harris winced at the thought of Philadelphia swinging the momentum with a touchdown just before intermission.
So Harris starting mumbling to himself -- almost wishing -- while standing in the end zone, his mind racing to diagnose what play might come from the offensive formation.
“Funny thing -- you're not gonna believe it when I tell you,” Harris explained, “I was talking to myself before that play. I said, ‘Chris, you’re about to get a tip.’ It happened. I can’t explain it.”
The sequence could be identified as the play that turned the game for the Bears, who went on to dominate the Eagles 31-26 with Harris serving as the defensive catalyst.
Six plays after the Chris Harris interception, Chicago scored on a 6-yard pass from Jay Cutler pass to Earl Bennett, which snuffed out Philadelphia’s momentum and allowed the Bears to go into the half leading 21-13.
“I’m serious, I was talking to myself,” Harris said. “I said, ‘Chris, this ball is about to get tipped, and you’re gonna get one.’ It doesn’t always happen that way, but it happened that time.”
Bears strong safety Danieal Manning, standing at an adjacent locker still in uniform after the win, called his teammate’s play the one “that changed the game.” The club was lined up in Cover 1 with Harris serving as sort of the center fielder of the secondary. The safety said he was reading Vick’s eyes and cheating to the side on which he picked off the pass.
With strong pressure coming from the front four, Tommie Harris had the presence of mind to get his hands up to tip Vick’s pass to McCoy.
“It was big, man. They were driving. We had more points than they did, but they were driving, gaining momentum,” Manning said. “If they would’ve scored, that would’ve put them up. Tommie [Harris], great rush, great getting his hands on the ball. Then Chris being Johnny on-the-spot… I think the only bad thing about that play was Chris didn’t have any speed [to get more yards out of the return on of the interception]. If Chris had some speed, he could’ve scored (laughing).”
Manning made that last crack within earshot of Harris as the two dressed after the game. Harris responded with strong disagreement, saying, “You saw me running,” causing both to erupt in laughter as reporters gathered near their lockers. Tommie Harris even walked over to Manning’s locker to crack jokes about the safety being in amazement of competing against Vick.
But all jokes aside, Chris Harris has been a strong, veteran addition to Chicago’s defense. Since rejoining the team, Harris has posted three interceptions through the first 11 games, which surpasses the one INT produced by all of the team’s safeties combined last season. Harris’ last interception came against Minnesota on Nov. 14 during the Vikings’ second-to-last possession.
“That interception was just deflating to us as a team,” Vick said. “When you have the opportunity to go up -- whether it’s by six points or two if we get a field goal -- then you’re up, and the momentum swings back your way. When you have the interception, it just changes the momentum of the game.”
It was the type of play the Bears have shown a tendency to make defensively, leading to whispers comparing the 2010 to the club’s Super Bowl unit of 2006. Harris smiled at the comparison, but quickly diverted the conversation. Harris finished the game with two tackles and two pass breakups to go with his game-changing interception.
“Big, big play there,” defensive end Julius Peppers said, “turning point of the game in my opinion. They were threatening to score right there. Chris was at the right place in the right time, caught it. It turned the momentum at that point.”
CHICAGO -- After Week 9, skeptics wondered how the Chicago Bears -- then 5-3 -- could scratch out the five additional victories it would take for them to reach the magic 10 wins required to make the playoffs.
The schedule looked tough: A road game against
Miami, and a home outing against Minnesota, followed by Sunday’s matchup at Soldier Field against the Eagles.
Three wins later, the Bears (8-3) -- after blasting the Eagles 31-26 -- are tied for the second-best record in the NFC, which could mean home-field advantage for the playoffs if the team finds a way to maintain its momentum.
But instead of going into detail about all that, let’s get into this statement victory by the Bears, who should no longer be taken lightly by national pundits. This team is for real.
What it means: The national perception of this team finally changes, because the Bears resoundingly proved themselves to be the real deal against a red-hot Eagles team that came into Soldier Field on Sunday with a three-game winning streak. More importantly, the Bears took sole possession of the NFC North lead by virtue of the win, and Green Bay’s 20-17 loss at Atlanta.
Perhaps it’s premature. But not only is Chicago eyeing a division crown, the club increased its chances of gaining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which would be huge. The Bears are now tied with the New Orleans Saints for the second-best record in the NFC.
Game of firsts: Bears defensive tackle Matt Toeaina posted his first career sack in the opening quarter, when he dropped Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick in the first quarter for a 7-yard loss. Vick, meanwhile, threw his first interception of the season in the second quarter, which was intercepted in the end zone by Bears safety Chris Harris, who returned it 39 yards. Vick had thrown 238 passes without an INT, which was his first since Dec. 24, 2006.
The pick also set up Jay Cutler’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett with 38 seconds left in the half, leading to Chicago’s 21-13 lead at intermission.
Cutler uncorks arm: Cutler had completed only one pass for more than 30 yards headed into Sunday’s game, but through the first three quarter, the quarterback had connected on three.
Cutler hit Bennett for a 30-yard completion, and Devin Hester for gains of 34 and 39 yards. With 4:35 left in the game, Cutler had registered a passer rating of 151.5 after completing 14 of 20 for 247 yards and four touchdowns.
If he’s on your fantasy team, we hope you started him because Cutler carved up Philadelphia’s blitz, too. Against five or more rushers, Cutler completed 8-of-10 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and 16.9 yards per attempt, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Cutler generated a passer rating of 152.1 against the Eagles’ five-man blitz.
Tommie Harris sighting: Defensive tackle Tommie Harris lost his starting job earlier in the season, and has logged just two starts all year. But he’s been quietly stringing together solid performances, and could find himself back in the starting lineup at some point.
Harris averted a potential touchdown pass in the second quarter, when he batted Vick’s pass intended for LeSean McCoy into the hands of Harris, who picked off the pass in the end zone. Harris hasn’t started in a game since Sept. 19 at Dallas.
Healthy Bears: Amazingly, once again, the Bears came out of Sunday’s game injury free, which bodes well about the club’s chances moving forward. Chicago is arguably the NFL's healthiest team this late in the season.
In Week 12 what team goes without listing one player on its final injury report headed into the week’s games? Chicago did just that headed into the game against the Eagles. There’s a good chance the club’s injury report stays blank this week.
Sacking Vick: By the 4:18 mark of the fourth quarter, the Bears had managed to sack Vick four times. Israel Idonije and Henry Melton registered half sacks, while Toeaina, Julius Peppers and Anthony Adams generated one apiece.
Vick played well for the most part, hitting on a 30-yard touchdown to tight end Brent Celek with 1:48 left to play to make the score 31-26 after a David Akers extra point. Vick completed 29 of 44 for 333 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 94.2.
Big day by Forte: Matt Forte rushed 14 times for 117 yards against the Eagles, which goes down as the best performance of the year by any running back against Philadelphia’s defense. Coming into the game, the Eagles were allowing an average of 73.8 yards over their last six outings.
Forte now has two 100-yard rushing performances on the season.
What’s next: The Bears, now on a four-game winning streak, travel to Detroit (2-9) to take on the struggling Lions, who are coming off a short week, having played the Patriots on Thursday.
But it wasn’t enough to extinguish the Bears’ offensive firepower. Chicago went into intermission leading 21-13 on the strength of a 6-yard touchdown pass from Jay Cutler to Earl Bennett with 38 seconds left in the half.
Defensively, the Eagles limited the Bears to three and outs in their first two offensive possessions of the quarter, in addition to sacking Cutler three times with Mike Patterson, Brandon Graham and Trent Cole.
In capping a 10-play drive spanning 65 yards, Michael Vick squeezed an 8-yard pass through the second level of Chicago’s defense for a scoring strike to Jeremy Maclin to make the score 14-10 after an Akers extra point kick.
Headed into the quarter, the game showed the makings of a shootout. At the end of the first quarter, Vick had registered a passer rating of 106.5, while Cutler’s passer rating sat at 156.2. But Philadelphia’s defense tightened significantly in the second quarter. Offensively, Vick remained in a groove.
Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, defensive tackle Tommie Harris and safety Chris Harris deserve credit for preventing the Eagles from gaining a halftime advantage. Chicago’s defense forced Philadelphia to walk away from two red zone drives empty-handed.
With the Eagles holding possession at the Chicago 3, Peppers sacked Vick for a 16-yard loss on third down, forcing the club to settle for Akers’ 36-yard field goal.
Tommie Harris averted what appeared to be another Eagles scoring drive by tipping a Vick pass, with Chris Harris coming up with the interception -- Vick's first INT since 2006 -- in the end zone. Harris returned the interception 39 yards. Then, a 30-yard completion from Cutler to Bennett set up the Bears in scoring position.
Four plays later, Cutler hit Bennett for a 6-yard touchdown to make the score 21-13 at the half, after Robbie Gould’s extra-point kick.
Win turnover battle: The Eagles lead the league in turnover ratio at plus-13, while the Bears are at plus-3. The clubs are a combined 11-1 on the season when they win the turnover battle, which means the team that comes out on top in takeaways is likely to triumph in this contest. Although Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has thrown 191 passes without an interception (and lost his first fumble last week), he’s shown a tendency to improperly protect the ball on the move. Teams just haven’t exploited the situation because none have been able to get to Vick. Eagles running back LeSean McCoy shows the same tendencies.
Disciplined safety play: Vick’s strong arm and scrambling ability combined with Philadelphia’s speed outside at receiver with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin make it paramount for safeties Danieal Manning and Chris Harris to play smart, disciplined ball. In fact, there’s a good chance the safeties play a step slow in run support. But that’s not a bad thing as long as Manning and Harris handle their responsibilities as deep defenders, and avoid biting on playaction fakes. The duo also can’t concern itself with the threat of Vick scrambling, because one misstep could result in a big play. Look for the Bears to find a way to get Major Wright on the field so they can take advantage of his athleticism.
THREE KEYS FOR THE EAGLES
Test Cover 2: There are weaknesses in the Cover-2 scheme that Vick can exploit. What are the chances the Bears corners get a good jam on the receivers all day? That’s not likely to happen. So when Jackson and Maclin come off the line clean, Vick has the ability to throw with enough velocity to consistently hit the “honey-hole ball” (in the area between the coverage responsibilities of the corners and safeties). If the receivers catch the ball with enough room in front of the safeties, they’ve got enough elusiveness to turn the completion into a big play. The Eagles should also try the seams with the slot receivers, too, and continue to test the discipline of the safeties with playaction and bootlegs.
Go after Cutler: Philadelphia comes from everywhere, so it’s no surprise that 10 different players have at least one sack. By getting to Jay Cutler consistently, the Eagles have a good chance of forcing the quarterback to make ill-advised throws (he’s shown a tendency to make one or two a game), which ups the chances for turnovers. It’s no secret the Bears are 10-25 in recent years when they fall on the wrong side of the turnover ratio, and Cutler has thrown seven interceptions in his last four games.
Score on opening drive: Chicago’s raucous crowd plays big in games at Soldier Field, so it’s important to take the fans out of it early. Besides that, the Eagles are 5-0 this season (51-13 under coach Andy Reid) when they score on their opening drive, and were 8-1 last year when they scored on the first drive. The Eagles have outscored opponents 48-0 in the first quarter over their last three games. So Philadelphia needs to continue the fast starts to have a chance against this red-hot Bears team.
Chicago’s best defensive lineman against Philadelphia’s top offensive lineman: it appears the teams acquired Julius Peppers and Jason Peters for a matchup just like this.
The Eagles probably won’t deploy much help to Peters’ side to help with Peppers, and it’s unlikely the offensive tackle can handle the defensive tackle consistently for an entire game. It’s important that Peppers applies enough pressure to make Michael Vick throw sooner than he wants. The Bears will also look to use Peppers to flush Vick -- a lefty -- to his right side (the quarterback scrambled to the right three times against the Giants and couldn’t throw the ball).
BY THE NUMBERS
35: Wins for the Bears compared to just seven losses under Lovie Smith when the club finishes a game with a positive turnover ratio.
6: Passing touchdowns allowed by the Bears which ranks as fewest in the league.
5.4: Yards per carry for the Eagles which ranks as the best average in the league.
124.4: Passer rating for Vick against the blitz, which ranks him first in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 45 attempts.
Here are five storylines to follow in this coming Sunday's Bears-Eagles contest.
1. The methods the Bears use to defend Vick
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick destroys the four-man rush. But he hasn’t yet faced a defense such as the Bears, which thrives on pressuring with the defensive ends and defensive tackles.
Interestingly, Vick -- according to ESPN Stats & Information -- owns a league-best 113.9 passer rating against the four-man rush, with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. The Bears, however, appear to be the best in the NFL at rushing with just four defenders. The Bears have gobbled up 12 interceptions, in addition to limiting opponents to a league-worst 64.4 passer rating when they’ve rushed fewer than five.
Perhaps that’s why the Bears' staff and players continue to say they won’t change what they normally do schematically Sunday against Vick. But don’t be surprised if Chicago throws in a couple of wrinkles (such as more nickel blitzes) to pressure the quarterback and force him to make quick decisions.
Because of Vick’s scrambling ability -- combined with Chicago’s desire to minimize his potential gains --it’s extremely important for the secondary to remain in coverage until the quarterback actually passes the line of scrimmage on runs. The Bears can’t afford for the secondary to play the guessing game when Vick appears set to scramble. If Vick can lure a defensive back one step toward the line of scrimmage by threatening to scramble, the result could be disastrous for the Bears given the quarterback’s strong arm and the speed of Eagles receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.
2. How the Bears handle Vick’s weapons
Because of the impressive arsenal of offensive weaponry at Vick’s disposal, the Bears won’t be able to devote all their attention to containing the MVP candidate. So in the truest sense of the old adage, Chicago will have to play the Eagles honestly, which isn’t a bad thing because it’s what the Bears do best out of their Cover 2 heavy scheme.
Because of the scheme itself, aggressive corners, speedy linebackers and athletic defensive ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije, the Bears appear to be well suited to snuff out the screen game, which is arguably the hallmark of Philadelphia’s passing attack.
On the outside, the Eagles possess game-breaking speed with Jackson and Maclin, making it important for Chicago’s corners to disrupt their releases off the line to give safeties Chris Harris and Danieal Manning a better chance of staying over the top to prevent big plays.
3. How turnovers decide the outcome
Under Smith, the Bears own a 35-7 record when finishing on the positive side of the turnover battle, and the club is 10-25 when it winds up on the negative side. The Bears are 14-15 under Smith when the turnover ratio is equal, while the Eagles -- under coach Andy Reid -- are 23-21 given the same circumstances.
The encouraging news is that Vick, and running back LeSean McCoy have shown a tendency on tape to improperly secure the ball (especially Vick when he’s scrambling). If we noticed it on tape, there’s a good chance the opportunistic Bears defense saw it, too, and will look to take advantage.
4. Jay Cutler in the red zone
Chicago needs to recognize its predictability on offense in the red zone and adjust accordingly; Philadelphia’s turnover-generating defense could easily exploit the situation. Cutler currently ranks 31st in the NFL in red-zone passer rating (83.8). But what’s more concerning for the Bears is the pattern he’s established.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cutler has thrown to tight Greg Olsen and receiver Earl Bennett on 21 of 38 attempts in which he didn’t throw the ball away in the red zone, with Olsen being targeted nearly a third of the time for three of the team’s nine touchdowns.
5. Mike Martz’s play calling
Martz’s decision after the bye to alter the club’s penchant for passing to a more ground-oriented offense resulted in three consecutive outings in which the Bears ran the ball 30 or more times. Overall, the club is 5-0 when it rushes 30 times or more (137.8-yard average).
But it’s important to note that Philadelphia -- after giving up 138.8 yards per game on the ground through the first four games -- has tightened against the rush over its last six contests, limiting opponents to a 73.7-yard average.
So will Martz continue to call a more rush-heavy game against a Philadelphia defense likely to shut down Chicago’s rushing attack? Or will the coach grow impatient with minimal gains, and look to grab big chunks of yardage through the passing game, which in turn would raise the chances for turnovers while subjecting Cutler to more punishment?
How Martz reacts to Philadelphia testing his patience will go a long way toward determining the game’s final outcome. You can count on that.
Yet Vick didn’t come to the conclusion that full immersion in every aspect of preparation was Step 1 towards greatness until “I finally got my second chance to come back and play,” he said. Philadelphia (7-3) certainly isn’t complaining about the eight-years-late epiphany, as it prepares to face Chicago on Sunday at Soldier Field with arguably the hottest quarterback in the league under center.
“It didn’t have anything to do with the [Atlanta] coaches [being enablers]. It was pretty much me,” Vick explained of his six years with the Falcons. “You have to have the desire to be great. Your coaches can only talk to you about it and inform you on things you can and can’t do. It’s up to you at the end of the day. Basically, I didn’t take advantage of the time that I had; the opportunities I had. I just had to start from ground zero.”
“He’s doing a nice job,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said. “He has plenty of room to improve. We’re running the same plays that we did with [former starter] Donovan [McNabb], and Kevin [Kolb]. I said this before: they all kind of put their own personality on the plays. Michael has the escapability part of it.”
That’s obvious by looking at Vick’s 53.6-yard rushing average. In addition to being a candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player award, Vick currently leads the NFC in Pro Bowl voting. Vick attributes his turnaround to patience and the tutelage of Reid, Philadelphia offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and quarterbacks coach James Urban.
“It’s been great to be considered one of the best in the league right now. It’s an amazing accomplishment, not only to myself, but to all the people who helped me get here,” Vick said. “I’m going through my progressions, keeping my eyes downfield, staying balanced when I throw the football, and making good decisions with the football. They completely changed me as a quarterback fundamentally, [and taught me] things that help as a passer [to] make me into a complete quarterback. When you take it all, put it together and practice it -- you hear it every day -- and you go out and implement that into your game, you have no choice but to change as a player.”
Having played for Dan Reeves, Gregg Knapp and Jim Mora Jr. in Atlanta, Vick came to Philadelphia with a solid foundation, Reid said. But the coach said Vick’s new approach to preparation made the staff’s job easier when it attempted to break down the quarterback before building him back up to his present state.
“The thing he did was he took a little more mature attitude towards it, and the fundamentals, and then there’s Marty,” Reid said. “He’s our offensive coordinator, but he’s also a phenomenal quarterbacks coach. Whether it’s a right hander or a left hander, Marty can relate to you because of his experience with [Hall of Fame quarterback] Steve Young. Steve had mobility and was very accurate in this offense. Marty broke it down for him fundamentally. James Urban was kind of the foot soldier there. But it really comes down to the kid wanting to do it, and that’s what Michael wanted to do. He wanted to get better fundamentally.”
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said he could relate somewhat to the difficulties Vick may have faced in the preparation department, adding that as a player, “you don’t know” whether you’re ever adequately prepared to face a defense.
“Those first couple of years, you’re still trying to figure out the offense,” Cutler said. “He’s got Andy Reid over there, which is probably one of the better coaches in the league offensively. So he’s not going to let him go into a game unprepared [now].”
The same could be said about the Bears defense, which coach Lovie Smith said “will know where [Vick] is” and the club will “have a “plan that we feel pretty comfortable with” to defend him.
“We know that we’re playing one of the best offenses in the league and we’re anxious to see how we match up with them,” Smith said.
Vick, meanwhile, looks forward to facing Chicago’s defense, which he described as “one of the best, if not the best” in the league. Since his amazing turnaround, Vick says he’s been humbled by the compliments he’s received around the league from players who say they’re not surprised about how well the quarterback is playing.
“Win or lose, I felt I always made it a competitive game,” Vick said of his days in Atlanta. “I don’t think they’re shocked because I’ve always been able to make plays when needed in crunch time. I think they’ve just acknowledged that, and I think they have seen the potential. It’s great to get compliments from the guys around the league. I can’t say enough about it. I think it’s something we all can enjoy right now.”