On Further Review: Controversial calls
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Bears escaped the Lions 19-14 in the season opener on Sunday, but two coaching moves could've led to the team's undoing.
The staff's decision to try for a touchdown instead of kicking a field goal with the team down 14-13 and less than 10 minutes remaining came under fire a day after the win, as well as the blitz call that put the Bears in man coverage against Calvin Johnson on a play in which the receiver appeared to score the game-winning touchdown for the Lions.
Chicago overcame the questionable moves with Matt Forte's game-winning reception, and an official's ruling (on a bad rule that needs to be changed). But were the coaching decisions really as bad as they seemed?
Perhaps that's simply a matter of perspective.
"Same way," said Bears coach Lovie Smith when asked if he felt any different a day later about the decision to go for it on fourth down. "Like we talked about yesterday, in these few hours between [making that decision], nothing has changed."
Taking possession at Detroit's 1, after a Lance Briggs sack and fumble recovery, the Bears failed on four-consecutive plays to punch the ball in for a touchdown. But the club could've gone for a field goal, which would've given it a 14-13 lead with 9:04 left to play. Instead, the Bears walked away with nothing after Kyle Vanden Bosch stuffed Forte for no gain on an off-tackle run to the right side.
In explaining the decision in the moments after the game on Sunday, Smith said, "I felt like we were playing great defense. Every call that's made is: ‘What if I hadn't done this?' That call helped us win the game at the end."
Actually, coach, it didn't. It almost cost the Bears the ballgame, which should never have come down to Forte's 28-yard catch with 1:32 left to play.
Kicker Robbie Gould already had nailed field goals of 20 and 31 yards when the Bears made the decision to go for it on fourth down. So a chip shot from 18 yards out seemed almost automatic, and would've put the Bears in position to make a defensive stand -- since Smith said the unit was playing "great" -- on Detroit's next possession.
The club then could have choked out the clock on its next offensive series.
"That's the call everyone is probably gonna look back upon. Realistically, if you look at the situation, it's a coach's call," Gould said. "What I was thinking is if I have to go out there and kick a field goal, I'm gonna kick a field goal. I'm gonna be ready whenever called upon. It's his call.
"The defense played really well. I think up to that point [Detroit] had like 98 yards of total offense. So he thought maybe if we put one in the end zone, create more momentum for our team, it would make it a little harder on the Detroit Lions. It would've been tougher for them to potentially win the game."
Gould's thought brings about the other side of the argument: Maybe Smith's call was actually the right one?
Having already rolled up 368 yards through the first three quarters, surely the Bears could gain one more with the game potentially on the line. Smith said Monday the Bears went for the TD because "I thought we could get it."
The club should've gotten it.
Looking at the decision from the perspective of the offense, had Smith elected to kick the field goal, what would it say about the coach's faith in the unit? Players want to know their coaches believe in them. Besides that, had the Bears scored: A) It would have ignited the defense to perform better down the stretch; B) This wouldn't even be a topic up for debate.
That's not to say that going for the touchdown was the correct decision. But it's important to look at both sides in looking for answers.
Smith also defended the blitz call -- which left Zack Bowman in man coverage -- on Johnson's controversial play.
"We played man to man on him, and he did a phenomenal job," Bowman said after the game. Some of his teammates privately questioned the call, but also commended the staff for having the courage to make it.
Prior to Johnson's play, though, the Bears defended him most of the time with double teams, before going to the blitz and a Cover 3 look on the near-touchdown reception. In that coverage, the corners are manned up on the outside, the free safety -- Major Wright -- blitzes, and strong safety Danieal Manning is "free", which means he'll read the quarterbacks eyes to decide which side to help in coverage.
If the ball is thrown outside the numbers, Manning isn't responsible for helping out the cornerback because it's near impossible for a safety lined up in the middle of the field to get over in time to make a difference.
Second-guessed on the call, Smith raised his voice in defense, saying he'd do everything all over again, given the same scenarios.
"I'm gonna do the same things we did all of the game," he said. "I love our game plan that we had throughout. This is what we did, defensively: we gave up 168 yards. We had three-and-outs eight times. We kept them defensively under 30 percent on third down. I like our plan, and we'll have a good plan this week."
Like the fourth-down decision, the coverage call could've gone either way, which isn't to say whether Smith made the right or wrong decision.
The Lions marched from their own 17 to the Chicago 25 in four plays and 37 seconds ticked off the clock with the Bears playing soft two-deep coverage, allowing Detroit to complete passes to Bryant Johnson, Jahvid Best, Tony Scheffler and Johnson.
Pretty much everyone in Soldier Field expected the Lions to try a couple of jump balls to Johnson with 31 seconds left on the clock. But the Bears had already been lit up on four of the previous five plays while playing soft-zone coverage.
So from Smith's perspective, why not take a chance and pressure Lions backup quarterback Shaun Hill, which possibly could've led to an interception or sack?
"[I] thought [the corners] did a pretty good job on [Johnson]. There at the end they started going to him a little bit more," Smith said. "We play double coverage quite a bit. It seems like every time we play double coverage [you guys ask], ‘Why do you play two deep?' So on that play, we had a blitz on. [You ask] ‘Why don't you blitz more?' We had a blitz on that play. And when you blitz, you can't double cover everybody each play -- Football 101 -- can't do it. On that play, we didn't. The next two, we did."
It's interesting to note that on those last two passes to Johnson, a safety came over in time to help the cornerback break up the play.
Had that not worked, though, perhaps everyone would ask why the Bears didn't blitz.