NFC North: 2011 Week 6 Rapid Reaction

CHICAGO -- Quarterback Jay Cutler campaigned earlier in the week for plays featuring quicker releases to alleviate the beating he’d been taking.

Granted that request, the quarterback unleashed a beatdown of his own Sunday night in throwing for two touchdowns and finishing with a passer rating of 115.9 in a 39-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field.

By implementing shorter drops with quicker throws, offensive coordinator Mike Martz might have found a way to relieve some of the pressure on the club’s beleaguered offensive line, which actually pieced together one of its best showings of the season.

The Bears took the field with their fifth combination of starters along the offensive line, this week using Lance Louis at right tackle and Chris Spencer -- playing with a broken hand -- at right guard. The unit allowed only one sack. Surprisingly, the offensive line has given up only one sack in two of the past three games.

With the latest tweaks on offense, perhaps the Bears are onto something they can use in the coming games.

Let’s take a closer look at what transpired in this shellacking:

What it means: The Bears learned that flexibility -- especially on offense -- might be the best way to protect Cutler in the long run. More importantly, the club evened its record to 3-3 and gained a game on the Detroit Lions -- 25-19 losers to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday -- in the NFC North standings.

Obviously, Chicago still has quite a bit of catching up to do to get back into the division race. But the team needed some momentum headed into next week’s outing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the Bears can come out victorious against the Bucs, they’ll be sitting at 4-3 headed into the bye.

Curious inactivity: Benched during the week of preparation for Sunday’s game, Bears veteran Chris Harris also mysteriously found himself on the club’s list of inactives.

Prior to the team’s official announcement of the move, Harris used Twitter to send out a couple of seemingly cryptic messages.

“The majority of the time adversity paves the way 4 success.”

Harris later tweeted: “How big/diff ur situation appears 2 b is a matter of perception. Most difficulties we face r pretty insignificant in the big scheme of things.”

The club made the decision to move Harris and two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather out of the starting lineup earlier in the week in favor of rookie Chris Conte and second-year man Major Wright. In the final year of his contract, Harris doesn’t believe he’s a part of the club’s future plans. With the team’s latest move, it appears Harris might be correct.

Rookie showings: Conte made his first career start Sunday, and rookie defensive tackle Stephen Paea finally made his NFL debut.

Starting at free safety in place of Meriweather, who was benched earlier in the week, Conte played a relatively mistake-free game, contributing five tackles through the first three quarters. A healthy scratch through the first five games, Paea was activated against the Vikings because of a sprained knee to veteran Matt Toeaina.

Paea posted two tackles in limited action, including a sack of Donovan McNabb in the first quarter for a safety.

Sack parade: After notching just one sack in the first half, Chicago utilized the trio of Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije, and Amobi Okoye for four sacks of McNabb in the third quarter alone.

Hobbled by a sprained left knee, Peppers sacked McNabb twice and Idonije and Okoye chipped in sacks, too.

Record-setting Hester: Devin Hester extended his return touchdowns record to 16 with a 98-yard TD return on a third-quarter kickoff return.

Hester appeared close to breaking for another score the next time he touched the ball, but was run out of bounds at the Minnesota 38 after a 27-yard return. Hester gained 134 yards on returns.

What’s next: The Bears travel to London to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium. The club desperately hopes to move to 4-3 going into the bye because tough matchups are on the horizon. After the week off, the Bears face the Philadelphia Eagles on the road, followed by the Lions and San Diego Chargers.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 25, Lions 19

October, 16, 2011
DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' first loss of the season:

What it means: The Lions lost for the first time since Week 12 of the 2010 season, missing an opportunity to start 6-0 for the first time since 1956. The end came dramatically in a seesaw game: The San Francisco 49ers' Delanie Walker scored on a 6-yard pass on fourth down with 1 minute, 56 seconds remaining. Officials reviewed the play to determine whether Walker's right knee hit the ground before the ball crossed the plane. I saw no angle to suggest that it did.

MegatronWatch: It's time to launch an investigation. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson didn't catch a touchdown pass for the first time all season. He did, however, haul in six passes for 102 yards, including a 41-yarder that set up a go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown.

"Process" call redux? Surely you remember the touchdown that Johnson lost against the Chicago Bears in Week 1 of the 2010 season. I honestly thought the Lions would fall victim to the same "process of the catch" rule Sunday when receiver Nate Burleson caught what appeared to be a 5-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. Burleson got both feet in bounds, but he used the ball to brace himself as he stepped onto the netting behind in the end zone. The ball remained on the ground, and referee Mike Carey ruled the pass incomplete. Carey reversed the call after a challenge from Lions coach Jim Schwartz. As much as I hate the rule, I'm not sure how Carey viewed the Burleson play differently than the NFL viewed Johnson's noncatch last season. Maybe we'll learn more after the game.

StaffordWatch: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had a great start to this season, but Sunday was probably his worst game of the year. He was sacked five times, including once for a safety, and looked tentative in the pocket thereafter. I didn't like how many sidearm passes he threw, which told me he was trying to squeeze the ball into too-small targets, and had at least two balls slip from his hand in the pocket. Consider it a learning experience.

Ford FieldWatch: By my count, the 49ers had five false-start penalties on offense. That brings the two-game total at suddenly raucous Ford Field to 14. There were some nervous moments Sunday in Detroit, but the numbers are the numbers.

What's next: The Lions will host the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field.