Clock running for Bears to figure it out
To keep up, Lovie's crew has to fix uncharacteristic errors and leaky defense
DETROIT -- The performance would suggest the Chicago Bears were locked out of this week, banished from the practice fields back home, from the video and meeting rooms. What else is there to conclude when a professional football team can't successfully snap the football?
Somebody tells you before the game that Matt Forte is going to carry the ball 22 times for 116 yards in essentially three quarters, that the Bears are going to double-up the Detroit Lions in time of possession, and that Jay Cutler is going to throw for 249 yards, check in with a passer rating of essentially 100 and commit zero turnovers against the Lions' flesh-eating defense, you figure they're going to hang the first loss of the season on Detroit, right?
Well, figure in 14 penalties, including nine false starts, a suddenly stinky defense that can't do the very things a Cover 2 is designed to do, and instead of a win you've got the Bears now trying to explain a loss that was so chock full of unforced errors coach Lovie Smith almost got angry in public.
Forte, except for a costly dropped pass, was great. Cutler, who was running for his life from start to finish, somehow threw the ball with alarming accuracy and held onto it despite the Lions' defensive front using him as a speed bag. And pretty much everything else Chicago-related was a disaster in a 24-13 loss to Detroit that seemed tons worse.
Lovie, who won't commit to much of anything in the aftermath of a win, loss or tie, said afterward, "You play football like that it's going to be hard to win," and "That was not a good game played by us," and "We've gotta get it straightened out, and fairly quick."
Most of us would start with the nine false-start penalties, but considering the team in question is the Bears and not the New England Patriots or San Diego Chargers, Lovie was right to start with the defense, which allowed Jahvid Best to run like Jim Brown. Best never had a 100-yard rushing game in his two years as a pro, yet wound up carrying the ball 12 times for 163 yards on Monday.
You know who has the Lions' longest TD run the last 60 years? Billy Simms? No. Barry Sanders? No. Jahvid Best, 88 yards on a nothing run, little more than a dive play up the middle. As Lovie said, "For a base run to go untouched is kinda hard to swallow." Well, how about swallowing twice since Best went 44 yards on another one while in essence just laughing at the Bears' defense late in the game.
It's one thing for Calvin Johnson, perhaps the NFL's MVP, to get behind the defense and catch a 73-yard touchdown to open the scoring, but another for Best to just have his way. Wait until next week's running back, Adrian Peterson, gets a load of the Bears' defense on film. At least guys like safety Chris Harris weren't looking for excuses; that's what will have to pass as good news for now.
"We've got to look in the mirror and do some self-evaluation," Harris said. "OK, Calvin is a game-changer; he might be the best receiver in the NFL right now. But we have to fix some things, starting with myself. I wasn't deep enough in the Cover 2."
The holes in the defense are somewhat shocking, particularly because it's the D that needed to hold things together early in the season while general manager Jerry Angelo's patchwork offensive line figured out what it's doing, which isn't happening. Anybody who tries to tell you Cutler is holding on to the ball is either a liar or a fool who wants you to believe something that isn't true. Cutler doesn't have time to hold on to the ball. It's like he's got four guys trying to block six guys named Suh.
Lovie tried to avoid publicly criticizing the offensive line by saying afterward of Cutler, "Jay's a big boy; he'll be fine." But how can we believe that when guys such as Cliff Avril, Willie Young and carnivorous Ndamukong Suh are scheduling tee times every week to get to Cutler?
We've got to look in the mirror and do some self-evaluation. OK, Calvin is a game-changer; he might be the best receiver in the NFL right now. But we have to fix some things, starting with myself. I wasn't deep enough in the Cover 2.” -- Bears safety Chris Harris
Seriously, Cutler threw at least one lefty. "I think a couple," he said afterward. There looked to be one over-the-shoulder, which is OK for something in an evening gown but not your franchise QB. Tom Brady would simply go on strike if he had to play behind Angelo's line every week.
Thankfully, Cutler wasn't settling for the nonsense of why there were nine false-start penalties, including one on a punt, which happens, like, never.
"It can't happen," Cutler said, mentioning in the next breath that the Bears really do practice snapping the ball to silent count and in noise. In the one other game played here at Ford Field this season, the out-of-conference Kansas City Chiefs committed one false start penalty.
"We have speakers on the field for practice," Cutler added, confirming, I guess, that they really did practice last week. Yes, the Lions front four, led by Suh, do get, as Cutler called it, "an incredible surge." But allowing the Lions to simply wreck the offense is inexcusable. "To get that out of [Forte] and not get the W is kinda wasteful," Cutler said.
Look, these Lions aren't your daddy's Lions or even your granddaddy's Lions. These guys maul. They're 5-0 and really have a chance to be 10-0 on Thanksgiving Day. They hit you in the mouth (ask Brady about that preseason game when they turned him into Cutler with rings), they run the ball, goodness knows Johnson and Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew catch the ball. They destroy teams after halftime, they're quite happy to come from behind.
When I asked the Bears' Chris Harris if it's possible the Lions are as good as the Packers, he said, "Wow. Well, it's hard to argue that they aren't. You can say no, but they're 5-0, they've won three games on the road, they've played great."
You might think the Detroit Tigers, playing in the American League Championship Series, are the biggest story here. You'd be wrong. The Lions are. The locals have seen the Tigers win it all, seen 'em come close lately. They've seen the Pistons win championships, the Red Wings win championships, the University of Michigan basketball and football at least play for championships.
You'd have to be 65 years old to clearly remember the Lions winning anything. Hell, you'd have to be at least 15 to remember the last time they played on "Monday Night Football." They were 0-16 just three years ago. And this recovery is a big reason why the Lions are the No. 1 story here, which is saying something considering how well the sporting teams in Michigan are playing these days.
"Some of our guys," Best said, "were on that [0-16] team. They know what the city has been through and know what the team has been through. I've been fortunate to come on the upside of things. I can definitely feel a sense of how hungry the city is and how hungry this team is."
And there's not much as sweet to them as rolling over the boys from Chicago, which the Lions surely did Monday night. Of course, they will take a helping hand. The Bears were a false-start, timeout-wasting mess the first half. Once again, Mike Martz couldn't get plays in to Cutler in a timely manner and the Bears had to burn timeouts. Again, why can't a professional outfit get the plays in on time? This isn't optional stuff. You think Bill Belichick's assistants or, more to the point, Mike McCarthy's assistants, fail every single week to get the plays in on time?
Right now the Bears are a solid third in the NFC North, behind the Packers and Lions or Lions and Packers. And Minnesota could turn them into a basement dweller next week in another prime-time affair. It's one thing to lose to a really good team; I'll even say a better team. It's another to stink the joint up, to fail at the game's basic plays and where the team is supposedly strongest.
Lovie and every Bears player who talked Monday night called the problems correctable. They've got a short week and another division opponent, one not nearly as good as the Lions. If the primary issues aren't corrected by Sunday night that sound you hear could be the season beginning to slip away.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.