NFL Nation: Earl Bennett

Ray Farmer does not rest.

The week after the draft, the Cleveland Browns' general manager signed Joe Haden to a contract extension and added two receivers.

As the world of folks who must keep track of the Browns turns, the team has almost completely remade its corps of receivers.

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Austin
Josh Gordon is facing a season-long suspension after another failed drug test, this time for marijuana. Let's assume that he is suspended, which is not a big leap -- especially after the news that Miles Austin agreed to terms and Earl Bennett signed. The talent of any one player does not approach Gordon's, but the Browns have more than they had at 3 p.m. Thursday. The fact that the Browns added two guys who have been on the market for months probably says all that needs to be said about Gordon's season -- and that is, he won't be with the team.

Austin immediately becomes a starter. Opposite him would be either Nate Burleson (if healthy) or Bennett, a productive slot guy who was stuck behind Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in Chicago.

Andrew Hawkins would be the third receiver, with either Burleson or Bennett seeing time as the fourth.

Bennett's situation is dicey. Most view him as a No. 3, though perhaps he's one of the guys Farmer had in mind when he said sometimes players just need a chance.

If -- and it's a gigantic and unlikely if -- Gordon can somehow reduce or avoid the suspension, the receiving corps might have more than something.

The problem is this: The hardest thing to do in the NFL is to bring a completely new group of receivers in with a new quarterback and expect it all to jell immediately.

The timing required is too precise, and understanding each other is too important to expect immediate results. Add in the fact that everyone involved is learning a new offense, and the challenge increases.

That reality should not, though, temper the reality that Farmer knew he had a need, and he tried to address it as best he could. He advised fans to be patient, and acted. And there's still time for him to address the position again.

Without Gordon, the Browns lose their best player and their big-play threat. They become a team dependent on defense and a physical running game.

But at least now the team has veteran receivers. Whether they can contribute remains to be seen.

At this point, this something is better than nothing.
IRVING, Texas -- Two veteran wide receivers went off the market Monday when Nate Burleson and Jason Avant signed with the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers, respectively.

Both were linked to the Dallas Cowboys by the media (hello, that's me), but sources indicated the Cowboys had some interest in Burleson, who played for their new passing game coordinator, Scott Linehan, with the Detroit Lions. The Cowboys just were not willing to pull the trigger on a deal now, continuing their patient approach in free agency.

Could it mean the Cowboys are as content at wide receiver as owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said?

[+] EnlargeTerrance Williams
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsTerrance Williams, a 2013 pick, started as the No. 3 receiver and also showed he could handle the No. 2 role. Is Dallas hoping for a repeat in the 2014 draft?
With Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, the Cowboys are set at the top two spots. Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley would settle in as the No. 3 receiver, splitting the job depending on role. Harris has more big-play ability. Beasley is better in the quick-game routes.

I've long said the Cowboys do not need a true No. 3 receiver over the years because they have tight end Jason Witten, and the running backs have always figured prominently in the passing game.

The best performance by a No. 3 receiver for the Cowboys in the past five years has been Laurent Robinson, who caught 54 passes for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011. But mostly the Cowboys need their third receiver to catch anywhere from 30 to 40 passes a season. Kevin Ogletree did that in 2012 with 32. Technically Roy Williams might not have been the No. 3 receiver in 2010, but he caught 37 passes. In 2009, Patrick Crayton caught 37 passes for 622 yards and 5 touchdowns.

So you’re looking for a No. 3 receiver to catch two or three passes a game when you look at the options available in how the Cowboys have constructed their offense.

But what if Bryant or Williams gets hurt? And there will be injuries. Can Harris be a No. 2 receiver and excel outside? Maybe for a few games. Beasley is just a slot receiver because of his size. That is why I thought Avant or Burleson would have been good fits. Other options remain, such as Earl Bennett and even Miles Austin, but that would be a long shot.

However, if the Cowboys were not willing to make a play for a free agent Monday, they're not going to get into the market Tuesday.

Last week, I wondered whether Gavin Escobar could be an option as the third receiver. The Cowboys like his athleticism and saw in glimpses his ability to make plays. His touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in the season finale was an eye-opener. With the way the tight ends are used these days, Escobar has more receiver skills to him than tight end skills. He needs to get bigger and stronger to be an on-the-line tight end, but that part of his game will never be his strength. His strength will be working the seams and his ability to go get the ball.

But here is a thought: This is considered one of the deeper drafts in memory for wide receivers. Could the Cowboys be looking for their No. 3 receiver, who could be the No. 2 receiver, in the early to middle rounds of the draft?

Williams, a third-rounder last year, caught 44 passes for 736 yards and 5 touchdowns and showed he could handle the No. 2 role when Austin missed games with a hamstring injury. Williams' development played a part in the release of Austin.

If a Mike Evans fell, or if a Marqise Lee is there in the first round, could they be targets? It sure seems as if the draft is the Cowboys' preferred method to find their No. 3 receiver.

Bears release WR Earl Bennett

March, 18, 2014
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Chicago Bears receiver Earl Bennett had his contract terminated, the team announced.

ESPNChicago.com reported earlier Tuesday that Bennett was expected to be released after he refused to trim his salary for a second consecutive year, according to a source.

Bennett
Bennett took a pay cut in 2013 and lowered his salary by $1 million.

Bennett had a cap number of $1.35 million (after the reduction) last year, but was scheduled to count $2.45 million against the Bears' cap in 2014 and earn a total of $2.45 million (that included a $100,000 roster bonus).

Bennett finished 2013 with 32 receptions for 243 yards and four touchdowns, but he had to miss the final game of the year versus the Green Bay Packers to be with his ailing brother who tragically died in the offseason.

When healthy, Bennett was a reliable target throughout his Bears career. After not catching a single pass his rookie year (2008), Bennett had 185 receptions for 2,277 yards and 12 touchdowns over the past five seasons in just 78 regular-season games.

Bennett is now free to sign with another team.

The Bears also have asked veteran kick returner/wide receiver Eric Weems to take a pay cut from the $1.1 million total salary he is scheduled to earn in 2014, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Weems is expected to be released if he declines the proposed salary reduction, per the source.

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 15
Preseason power ranking: 13

Biggest surprise: The Chicago Bears' offensive line didn't exactly set the world on fire, but for the first time in recent memory the group wasn't the weak link of the team. The Bears revamped the offensive line by adding four new starters: Kyle Long, Jordan Mills, Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson. The group's efforts, combined with a more quick-hitting passing game, resulted in just 19 sacks for QB Jay Cutler, his lowest total since 11 with Denver in 2008. The offensive line in 2013 displayed more consistency than any at other time in Cutler's time in Chicago, but the group struggled at inopportune times and often was aided by Cutler and Josh McCown getting rid of the ball quickly. Still, this year's group laid a foundation it can build on.

Biggest disappointment: New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will unfairly take criticism for the defense's failures in 2013. Coming off a 2012 campaign in which the defense ranked No. 5 overall and in the top 10 against the run and the pass, the unit in 2013 surrendered the most rushing yards (2,583) and points (478) in franchise history. Injuries played a major role. They cost the team a combined 72 missed games, 43 among starters alone. In recent history, the defense was the one facet that Chicago could always count on. But that wasn't the case in 2013. What's most surprising is how quickly the defense's decline came after being the team's backbone for so many years.

Biggest need: The defense is badly in need of a total makeover, and the bulk of that work should be done on the defensive line. It's safe to say now that former first-round defensive end Shea McClellin hasn't lived up to expectations and franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton is overrated. The Bears also have to decide whether to move forward with Julius Peppers, who is expensive and starting to show his age (will be 33 on Jan. 18), while finding a way to bring back Corey Wootton. The back end needs help, too. The deals for cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are up, as is the contract for safety Major Wright. The Bears also need to bring in competition to push underperforming safety Chris Conte.

Team MVP: Running back Matt Forte quietly put together his best season as a pro, accounting for nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage (1,933) and career highs in rushing (1,339 yards) and receiving (74 catches, 594 yards). Receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery may have made flashier plays, but make no mistake: Forte is what makes the offense go. Cutler called Forte the best all-around back in the league, and he definitely made a strong case for it in 2013. A true three-down back, Forte threatened defenses as a runner and a receiver. On passing downs, Forte was also key in the team's protection schemes.


Earl Bennett out for Chicago Bears

December, 29, 2013
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CHICAGO -- Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman called the likelihood of Earl Bennett's availability “questionable at best” on Friday, and the scenario played out Sunday as the team listed the receiver among its inactives for the matchup against the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North title.

Bennett missed practice all week leading into Sunday’s game, and another workout last week as he’s currently out of town dealing with a personal family issue.

Trestman plans to divvy up Bennett’s repetitions against the Packers between veteran Eric Weems and rookie Marquess Wilson. Wilson was inactive last week, and has caught only one pass this season for 3 yards. Weems, meanwhile, is mainly a special-teams contributor who has logged one reception for 8 yards.

A sixth-year veteran, Bennett is the club’s No. 3 receiver, and possesses chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler because they played ball together in college at Vanderbilt. Bennett has caught 32 passes this season for 243 yards and four touchdowns.

Other Bears inactives included quarterback Jordan Palmer, offensive tackles Joe Long, Jonathan Scott, and James Brown as well as defensive end Cornelius Washington and receiver Chris Williams, who was recently added to the active roster.

Packers inactives included receiver Chris Harper, cornerback Jumal Rolle, linebackers Clay Matthews and Brad Jones, along with guard Lane Taylor, center/guard JC Tretter and defensive end C.J. Wilson.

With starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers returning from a broken collarbone, the Packers made all three of the quarterbacks on their roster active for the matchup against the Bears.

WR Earl Bennett could miss finale

December, 27, 2013
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The availability of receiver Earl Bennett remains in doubt with the team prepping for the season finale Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

Bennett
Bennett missed another day of practice Friday as he deals with a personal family issue, and Bears coach Marc Trestman said "it's questionable right now at best" that the receiver will play after missing an entire week of practice.

"The fact he hasn't practiced is evidence of where we're going to have to go on this," Trestman said. "We just want to leave ourselves open [to the possibility that Bennett will return]. We don't want to close the door on it yet."

The team excused Bennett on Friday of last week to tend to the personal matter, and he returned to play in Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Bennett caught two passes in that outing for 12 yards.

But when the team returned to Halas Hall to begin preparations for Green Bay, the Bears excused Bennett again.

Officially, Bennett is listed on Chicago's injury report as questionable while linebacker Lance Briggs (shoulder) is probable.

If Bennett is unable to play, Trestman plans to divvy up the receiver's repetitions between veteran Eric Weems and rookie Marquess Wilson. Wilson was inactive last week and has caught only one pass this season for 3 yards. Meanwhile, Weems is mainly a special teams contributor who has logged one reception for 8 yards.

"Eric and Marquess both would be in position to get more work if Earl doesn't get back," Trestman said. "They've got to know where to line up. They've got to know what to do, and we assume they are capable of doing that. We're excited for both of them to play. They've done very well at practice. We can count on them, and we think they'll do well and fit in. If Earl's not with us, we're certainly going to miss that in the locker room and on the field. But we feel very confident in those two guys."

A sixth-year veteran, Bennett is the club's No. 3 receiver. He possesses chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler because they played ball together in college at Vanderbilt. Bennett has caught 32 passes this season for 243 yards and four touchdowns.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears excused receiver Earl Bennett from Thursday’s workout at Halas Hall to deal what the team describes as a personal issue.

Bennett was also excused from a practice last week to deal the same matter.

Bennett
“The best I can do in respect to Earl, he’s got a family issue back home,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “It’s day-to-day, and we’re leaving it up to him how he wants to handle it. It’s a very personal issue. So I’ll leave it at that.”

Chicago started its session on Thursday outside before heavy snowfall forced the team to move inside the Walter Payton Center. Bennett and linebacker Lance Briggs (Briggs) were the only Bears listed on the injury report. Briggs participated fully in practice.

For the Green Bay Packers, linebacker Clay Matthews has been ruled out (thumb), while linebacker Brad Jones (ankle), running back Eddie Lacy (ankle) and tight end Ryan Taylor (illness) were held out of practice. Defensive end/linebacker Mike Neal (ankle), linebacker Nick Perry (foot) and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (knee) were limited.”

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (collarbone) participated fully, and will start on Sunday.

In other Bears news, the team signed receiver Chris Williams from the Saints' practice squad and waived defensive tackle Christian Tupou. Williams entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Dolphins in 2009 out of New Mexico State.

As a rookie, Williams spent time on the Browns' practice squad before signing in 2010 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Williams set a CFL record in 2012 with six return touchdowns, while gaining 1,117 yards on punt returns and catching 83 passes for 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns.

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.

CHICAGO -- Jay Cutler experienced a rarity Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. He posted a passer rating of 100 or better, and his team lost.

“Overall, when we look at the tape and we ask ourselves, was it the play or the player, was it us or them, we’ve found it’s on us to clean up our football and become more efficient doing it on a play-by-play basis,” Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman said.

Cutler
Cutler’s statistical anomaly served as proof of that. Before the Bears' 26-18 loss on Sunday, Cutler had lost only one of 27 games as a starter (including the postseason) in which he finished with a passer rating of 100 or better. That loss came courtesy of Seattle last December, when the Seahawks marched 97 yards at the end of regulation and 80 yards in overtime to best the Bears 23-17.

Against the Saints, Cutler completed 24 of 33 passes for 358 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, for a passer rating of 128.1.

But mistakes still doomed the Bears. In the first quarter, the offensive line struggled to pick up the New Orleans blitz, resulting in three sacks and a Cutler fumble that the Saints turned into a 19-yard field goal. But even before that, running back Matt Forte short-circuited the team’s opening drive when he fumbled a pitch on the first play from scrimmage.

“There were a few downs that we missed. There was a big fourth down going in that we missed. We weren’t as efficient in the red zone,” Cutler said. “A few plays here and there against a team like that, the way they played offensively and ate up the clock, it’s hard to rebound if you miss three or four plays.”

Earl Bennett demonstrated that in the fourth quarter on the final play of a drive that started at the Chicago 4-yard line and ended at the New Orleans 25. With 8:45 left to play and the Bears behind 23-10, Bennett dropped an almost perfectly thrown pass on fourth-and-2.
Alshon JefferyNuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Getty ImagesAlshon Jeffery had five catches for a career-high 107 yards against the Lions.

RISING

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Jeffery
1. Alshon Jeffery, WR: Jeffery did a little bit of everything in the Week 4 loss in Detroit. He came up with a tough touchdown catch despite blanket coverage (he dropped a sure touchdown the play before), showed the ability to beat a defense deep with a 44-yard reception, and proved he can also be a weapon in the run game with a 27-yard end-around. With the exception of the Bears' win against the Vikings on Sept. 15, Jeffery has been a reliable target for Jay Cutler the entire season. Jeffery figures to reach 60 catches in 2013 if he continues to avoid injury -- he missed six games his rookie season. Jeffery's confidence seems to be growing every week.

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Julius Peppers
2. Julius Peppers, DE: The Bears' failure to sack the quarterback is still alarming, but Peppers had his best game of the year on Sunday, by far. According to NFL statistics, Peppers finished with six tackles and the Bears' lone sack and quarterback hurry. Peppers also dropped Reggie Bush for no gain on the Lions' first offensive play from scrimmage, and overall, the defensive end appeared to be moving better than in previous weeks. With the Bears' depth on the defensive line tested due to injuries, it's vital Peppers contribute some impact plays to the defensive effort moving forward.

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Earl Bennett
3. Earl Bennett, WR: Bennett's role in the offense is expanding. The wide receiver participated in 49 plays and caught a late fourth-quarter touchdown from Cutler, Bennett's second score in the past two weeks after hauling in the Week 3 game-clincher versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bennett isn't targeted often, he has seven catches on the season, but when the ball does come his way, the wideout generally makes a play. Bennett is clearly the fifth option on offense, but he is sure-handed and dependable.

FALLING

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Jay Cutler
1. Jay Cutler, QB: The Bears lost to the Lions for two reasons; (1) Cutler turned the ball over four times, and (2) the defense failed to tackle Bush. Cutler will throw interceptions. That is a fact. Sunday marked the seventh time since 2009 that Cutler tossed three or more interceptions in a game. The Bears claim Cutler's mistakes were all physical, that his decision-making was sound in the 40-32 defeat. If that's the case, then all of Cutler's miscues are correctable. But these performances are always a concern with Cutler. The Bears might be able to beat a bad Minnesota team at home when the quarterback turns the ball over three times, but on the road against a quality opponent, the Bears have no shot to win if Cutler gives the ball away at such an alarming rate.

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Mel Tucker
2. Entire defense: The whole group gets the nod for Bush rushing for 112 yards on 11 carries in the first half alone. The Lions seemed to have a solid gameplan for how they wanted to attack the Bears, but that does not excuse the poor tackling. Bush was making Bears defenders miss all over the field. The Bears have allowed way too many big plays on defense this season. The turnovers and defensive touchdowns are great, but this group is expected to produce better results. Even without Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli, Brian Urlacher and now Henry Melton, there are enough Pro Bowl-caliber defensive players on the roster to prevent these kinds of breakdowns. And where is the pass rush? This all better improve in a hurry with Drew Brees coming to town on Sunday, otherwise the Bears' 3-0 head start to begin the season could evaporate over the next month.

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Adam Podlesh
3. Adam Podlesh, P: He had a rough afternoon at Ford Field, there is just no other way to put it. Despite punting in a controlled climate, Podlesh averaged only 40.2 yards per kick with a net average of 28.8 yards. Heading into Week 4, Podlesh had been averaging 44.6 yards per punt with a 42-yard net average. Punters will have bad games from time to time. Podlesh had a mild slump last year but finished the season exceptionally strong. The hope is he puts the Lions game behind him and bounces back against the Saints. Field position figures to be at a premium against the high-powered Saints' offense, so Podlesh pinning the Saints deep in their own territory whenever possible will be an important key to victory.

PITTSBURGH -- Rookie right guard Kyle Long described Jay Cutler as “reptilian” and “cold blooded” Sunday night in the aftermath of the quarterback’s clutch play in leading the Chicago Bears to a 40-23 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the background, rookie right tackle Jordan Mills whispered: “He’s Mr. Fourth Quarter.”

“He has that ability, when everybody’s nerves are kind of on edge and people have that heightened sense of whatever, Jay’s just cool, just flatline out there,” Long said. “In the huddle, on the sideline, in practice, Jay is a cool cat."

He just caught fire at precisely the right moments Sunday at Heinz Field.

Aided by a defense that produced five turnovers and a couple of touchdowns, Cutler slammed the door on a potential Steelers comeback early in the fourth quarter with three game-clinching plays.

Having gained some momentum on a 44-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham that cut their deficit to 27-23, the Steelers looked to shut down Cutler and make their move to avoid starting 0-3. And it appeared the Steelers would be able to do so. On the Bears' final two drives of the third quarter, Cutler hit on 3 of 6 passes for 8 yards in addition to absorbing a sack for a 6-yard loss.

Through the first two quarters, Cutler had completed 12 of 18 for 75 yards for a passer rating of 75.0 and a sack in the face of seemingly constant Pittsburgh pressure.

[+] EnlargeChicago's Jay Cutler
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesJay Cutler completed 20 of 30 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers.
“This could have been a very frustrating night,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “There were some people in his face. He had to scramble. But we knew going in that it wasn’t going to be simple. It wasn’t going to be clean on every play, and we tried to give him the quick stuff and get it out of his hands. At times, we took some [seven-step drops] and it made it tough. The pressure was coming, and it was coming from different places each and every time.”

But Cutler stepped into the thick of it and delivered when the Bears needed it most. With 9:15 remaining in the game, on third-and-10 from the Chicago 26, Cutler scrambled 13 yards and nearly ran over safety Robert Golden to gain extra yardage. Three plays later, he fired a 41-yard completion to Brandon Marshall.

“Really, it’s all Jay,” Marshall said. “Jay threw a 50-yard back-shoulder [throw]. I’ve never seen that happen before. The guy’s arm is amazing. Jay put it in the right place.”

Cutler did it again three plays later when he found Earl Bennett for a 17-yard touchdown with 5:48 remaining. The play was initially ruled an incomplete pass, but Chicago successfully challenged to get the call reversed. Bennett’s score capped a nine-play, 74-yard drive, and with the extra point Chicago had a 34-23 advantage.

The drive essentially extinguished Pittsburgh’s chances for a comeback, while notching another outing in which the Bears received strong play from Cutler with the game on the line. Prior to Sunday’s contest, Cutler had led the Bears to consecutive come-from-behind victories over Cincinnati and Minnesota.

This time -- despite the Bears building a 24-3 lead in the second quarter -- Cutler found himself trying to hold off a comeback on the road that started with Ben Roelthisberger’s 33-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown just before intermission.

Cutler admitted it was difficult to remain patient with the Steelers starting to rally. But by doing so, he finished the game having completed 67 percent of his passes, with no turnovers and a passer rating of 90.8.

“It’s not something I’m used to,” Cutler said. “We have been practicing ball security a lot. We were sitting pretty good early on and we didn’t want to give them anything easy, especially when they started getting a little momentum. We didn’t want to force the ball. We didn’t want to give them positioning in our territory. We just wanted to be patient, and we caught man [coverage] there that last play, and we were able to get a big one to Earl.”
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- We've spent the better part of the past 24 hours talking about the Minnesota Vikings' defense of the Chicago Bears' touchdown with 10 seconds left in Sunday's game, and we'll move on from there after we hear from the defender who was the closest to the play: cornerback Chris Cook.

Cook
Cook
Cook declined to talk to reporters after the game on Sunday, saying "I'm in a bad place right now" after Martellus Bennett's 16-yard touchdown. Cook apologized for that on Monday, saying he was emotional after the game. Though linebacker Erin Henderson said the called defense was a surprise to the Vikings and coach Leslie Frazier suggested he should have altered the call, Cook said he should still have been able to keep Bennett from catching the touchdown pass.

"It was a play that I could have made, should have made," Cook said. "I've made it before. It hurt more being as it was in the end of the game and we were in position to win it on defense."

Cook was motioning for a defender to slide over to his side of the field before the play, when both Bennett and wide receiver Earl Bennett were on his side of the field. He initially went with Earl Bennett, opening his hips and allowing Martellus Bennett to get behind him and catch Jay Cutler's back-shoulder throw for a touchdown.

Safety Harrison Smith, who didn't talk to reporters on Monday, said after the game that he thought he put Cook "in a bad spot" on the play, and took the blame himself. The Vikings also had safety Jamarca Sanford showing a blitz before the play, and he wasn't able to get deep enough after the snap to cover part of the end zone. But even after Cook initially went with Earl Bennett, it still took a precise throw from Cutler to connect for the touchdown.

Both Bears coach Marc Trestman and Frazier said they had run the respective offense and defense they used on that play earlier in the game. The only change was the "twist release" the Bears ran, sliding Martellus Bennett behind Earl Bennett and connecting once Cook turned his hips.

"A few guys were off," Cook said. "And when guys are off, other guys try to cover it to help them out, and things happen. It's football, man. It's a fast game."
Here are five things to watch Sunday when the Chicago Bears host the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field:

Faster start from the offense: The Bears started off slowly in Week 1 because Marc Trestman wanted to first see whether the offensive line could adequately protect Cutler, before potentially exposing him to punishment. So after the protection proved sufficient in the first two quarters, Trestman decided to open up the offense, and the results were near immediate. After putting up 97 yards of offense in the first half, the Bears racked up 226 more in quarters Nos. 3 and 4.

The Bears will go into this game looking to open things up offensively from the onset.

“Early in the game especially against a front like [Cincinnati’s] there’s a little bit of uncertainty about what’s going to happen,” Cutler said. “We had two new guys on the right side, four new guys in general. As we progressed through the game I got more comfortable. Marc [Trestman] got more comfortable calling plays and being able to trust them. Even looking at the film on Monday there were times whenever I was moving around or I could have stepped up and I didn’t. That’s just gaining trust in those guys and not only throughout a game, but throughout a season I’m going to get more and more trust with them.”

More pressure from the front four: Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton fired the ball quickly at the end of his drops, but Minnesota will be looking to connect on more home run balls than the Bengals, in part, because the Vikings expect the Bears to be overly focused on stopping Adrian Peterson. The Vikings will give the Bears a big dosage of Peterson, and then look to get the ball deep off play-action to Jerome Simpson or Greg Jennings. But for those types of plays to work, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder will have to hold onto the ball for a while to let the routes develop.

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers, Stephen Paea and Nate Collins
AP Photo/Greg TrottThe Bears are making it a priority to generate more pressure with their front four against Minnesota.
“They live off of play-action,” Bears safety Chris Conte said. “Their running game is what gets them going, and we really just have to be prepared for [Ponder] on the move. He’s really good outside the pocket. So boots and play-action really is the big thing against them.”

That means players such as defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Henry Melton might be poised to nab their first sacks of the season.

“We’ve got to generate the pass rush with [the] four [down] linemen,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said.

More production from the rushing attack: Rookie right tackle Jordan Mills put together a strong NFL debut, as did veteran left guard Matt Slauson, but the rest of the offensive line -- which played fairly well -- needs to step up its game a notch.

Matt Forte finished the season opener with 60 yards on 19 attempts, and as a team the Bears rushed for 81 yards, averaging 2.9 yards per attempt. Obviously, that’s not good enough.

“We thought we would run the ball better [in the opener]; we didn’t,” Trestman said. “We didn’t run the ball as effectively as we’d like to be able to.”

Will secondary targets step up if Brandon Marshall is neutralized? They’ll certainly have to, but it appears the Bears are equipped to handle the Vikings taking away Marshall. In the opener, Cutler targeted three receivers (Alshon Jeffery, Forte and Martellus Bennett) other than Marshall at least six times, which is promising considering last season, the quarterback completed more than five passes to only one other receiver not named Marshall in a game (Forte).

With another week of practice under his belt, Earl Bennett might wind up playing a more prominent role in the offense. Trestman said Bennett is ready after catching one pass in the opener. It’s also important to note the chemistry Bennett shares with Cutler.

“Oh he’s caught up,” Trestman said of Bennett. “He’s had catches in practice, and been one of the targets in practice and that bodes well for us.”

Devin Hester on returns: Of Hester’s 19 touchdowns on kickoff or punt returns, four have come against the Minnesota Vikings. So he’s victimized Minnesota more than any other team in the NFL, with his last touchdown coming on a 98-yard kickoff return on Oct. 16, 2011.

“The first kickoff return (against Cincinnati last week), obviously, he gets it out to the 31. I blinked my eyes, and all of the sudden, I was like, ‘Wow, he’s at the 31,’” special-teams coach Joe DeCamillis said. “So he’s still got the speed, no question. Hopefully we’ll get more opportunities with the guys we’re playing.”

So if Hester is poised to finally break a TD return, the Vikings would seem to be the mostly likely opponent to do it against.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman announced Friday that receiver Earl Bennett, linebacker D.J. Williams and defensive tackle Henry Melton will play Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, but declined to say how much.

Trestman said the team would meet later Friday to “make final decisions” on how to distribute repetitions among the trio, which all recently returned from injuries. The Bears completed the week leading into Sunday without a single player listed on the injury report.

“We’ll make some decisions on how much and who will start at the end of the day,” Trestman said. “So I’m not ready to make a commitment there to who will be the first linebacker, or the first wide receiver to go out on the field. But we’ll certainly know by the end of the day. I just want to talk to our coaches one more time about that.”

All indications are that Bennett will play sparingly as the third receiver, while Williams and Melton are expected to start. Bennett and Melton were recently cleared after suffering concussions, while Williams returned to the practice field on Monday after missing virtually the entire preseason due to a calf injury.

“I think Earl will play this game,” Trestman said. “I don’t know how much, but he’ll play and certainly continue to play more as he works himself into things. How much he plays will just be relative to how he feels out there and what his conditioning level is. He’s very confident he can go the distance. We’ll watch him closely and see.”

Because of William’s injury, the Bears played the entire preseason with rookie Jonathan Bostic at middle linebacker. But all week, Bostic and Williams have rotated with the starters, according to a source.

Similar to Bennett’s situation, there’s concern as to whether Williams can play an entire four quarters after missing so much of the preseason.

“I think he’s in good condition,” Trestman said. “I don’t know if he’s in great condition. I don’t know if we’ll know until we see whether he can take a significant amount of action. We’ll see how things go on Sunday. I believe he’ll play. How much will be relative to game-like conditions, where it’s physical out there, and we’re running sideline to sideline.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A league source confirmed Friday that Chicago Bears wide receiver Earl Bennett recently took a $1 million pay cut to reduce his 2013 base salary from $2.25 million to $1.25 million, but the source added that Bennett can earn the money back if he reaches a certain amount of receptions this season.

Bennett
The move opens up an additional $1 million worth of salary-cap space for the club.

Brian McIntyre first reported the news.

Bennett inked a four-year extension with the Bears in 2011 that included a $6 million signing bonus and $8.5 million worth of total guarantees.

The veteran receiver returned to practice this week after missing the majority of the preseason with a concussion he suffered on Aug. 3. Bennett said Thursday that he expects to be active for the Bears' regular-season opener Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Selected by the Bears in the third round of the 2008 NFL draft, Bennett has 153 career catches for 2,034 yards and eight touchdowns in his past 53 games after not catching a pass his rookie year. He set a career high with 109 receiving yards in the Bears’ 2012 regular-season finale in Detroit.

The Bears have now freed up $3 million worth of salary-cap space in the past week after the team restructured the contract of defensive end Julius Peppers, which equated to a $2 million savings.

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