Revving their engines
Bears' defensive speed slowed Michael Vick, set up huge rematch with Lions
PHILADELPHIA -- Yes, Michael Vick may scare the daylight out of the Giants and the Redskins and the Cowboys and the 49ers and the Saints. But the Chicago Bears have the one thing Vick hasn't yet solved: defensive speed. The Bears have faced Vick four times as a starter and beaten him four times: twice as a Falcon, twice as an Eagle. Wherever the games are played, Vick has less time when he plays the Bears, surely less space and absolutely no success.
Don't get me wrong; there were probably a dozen primary elements to Monday night's Bears 30-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles here in The Linc. The Bears' offensive line pitched a shutout: They not only prevented the Eagles from sacking Jay Cutler, they controlled the line of scrimmage to the point that Matt Forte could carry the ball 24 times for 133 yards. Beyond that, the Bears' receivers got so tired of hearing about Philly's receivers all week they came out and outplayed their more celebrated counterparts. And the Bears' defense, while giving up a lot of third-down completions, came up with a couple of critical turnovers that changed the tenor of the game. (And let's not forget that fake punt late in the fourth quarter that backfired badly on the Eagles.)
Still, the thing the Bears did that very few teams can do is get into a track meet with Michael Vick and the Eagles and win it. Most opponents don't even try. They spend half the week coming up with new wrinkles they can't master on game day, like employing a spy to exclusively follow Vick. And they worry so much about not staying in their rush lanes, they fret themselves into passivity and wind up chasing Vick like sprinters following Usain Bolt the last 30 meters. Not the Bears.
"We're athletic enough up front, fast enough up front," Bears defensive end Julius Peppers said afterward, "that we can rush Mike without being timid. Most teams allow him to dictate. But we have four athletic guys up front who can run, and we trust that we can."
Or, as Lance Briggs said, "We play fast. Tampa Bay's done it against him, but not many teams can. We attack him and make him roll to his right."
Standing three feet away, Brian Urlacher heard the conversation and said, "Look, Mike Vick's going to make plays. He always has and always will. But we can run, all of us, every level of the defense. They're a team that can run, but we match up with them very well."
Vick pretty much confirmed that when he talked after the game about how many times Urlacher and Briggs, in particular, could make plays by containing him. OK, giving up 24 points isn't exactly dominating an opponent. But in today's NFL, making a half-dozen plays to neutralize the primary playmaker then throwing in a couple of timely interceptions or turnovers is pretty much what passes for great defense.
We're athletic enough up front, fast enough up front, that we can rush Mike without being timid.” -- Julius Peppers
Shadowing Vick, plus darn near perfect offensive line play, plus the receivers coming through, equaled stealing a game on the road. On a night when Forte was openly thankful that his first two fumbles of the season didn't lead to a loss, on a night when Cutler needed some time to settle down and complete eight of his last 12, on a night when Devin Hester turned an ankle and wasn't available late, on a night when Peppers suffered what initially looked like it could have been a bad ankle sprain, the Bears came up with their most impressive victory of the season. (Urlacher said to Peppers while he was on the ground, "Which leg did you hurt, the one with the brace?" When Peppers answered "Yes" through a grimace, Urlacher shot back, smiling, "You'll be fine. Let's go.")
They're 5-3 and going home to play an opponent they've come to hate: the loud, brash, brawling, badass Detroit Lions. Briggs called it "a big-time, big-time, big-time game." The Lions whupped the Bears good in Detroit a few weeks ago, on "Monday Night Football," no less. The Bears were stung by the beating they suffered in Detroit, by the Lions' daring and strutting and talking. Bears-Packers is about how the fans feel about each other. Bears-Lions is about how the players feel about one another. As of this moment the Lions, 6-2, own the No. 1 wild-card spot in the NFC. The Bears have the No. 2 spot. A win Sunday at home and the Bears can reverse that.
Looking back, not ahead, the Bears finish the first half of the season with victories over the Falcons, Buccaneers and Eagles, three teams that figured to be in their way for getting to the playoffs, what with the Packers running away with the conference at 8-0. The Bears' three losses are hardly embarrassing: at home to the champion Packers, at New Orleans and at Detroit. Truth be told, 5-3 is about where the Bears should be, considering their troubles along the offensive line and at receiver when the season began.
But a new truth is emerging, if we're to believe what we've seen since they lost in Detroit. The line -- particularly Lance Louis, who moved from guard to tackle -- has made massive improvement. "It's gradual, constant improvement," Peppers said. "They're still a work in progress, but they've got 'want to' in 'em. They're accountable to each other and the team."
Lovie Smith went out of his way to compliment the linemen, as he should have, given the criticism we heaped on them after four games. (Hell, if they keep getting better, I might need to write an apology column to GM Jerry Angelo, who hasn't screamed "I told you so!" even if most of us would have by now.) Anyway, when the line gives Cutler the kind of time he's had in the past few games, he's going to burn most teams. Cutler was off early (rust, perhaps, from the bye week?) but settled into a groove late. Clearly, the return of Earl Bennett (who caught all five balls thrown his way for 95 yards and a big touchdown) is important and may become even more critical, depending on the state of Hester's ankle.
The Bears are going as far as Cutler and Forte take them. Smith went as far as to say, "Jay is as good as there is once he has time." Really, he is or close to it. Cutler threw only a couple of times off his back foot and stepped into throw after throw. He's no longer jittery in the pocket, concerned more now with finding receivers than with his personal health. Forte said of the new and improved line, "Jay had to run around and make a lot of throws off his back foot at the beginning of the season, but now he can step into throws. He's not looking over his shoulder; he's looking down the field. There was that one time he fell down tonight but had time to get back up and complete a pass. You can't have your quarterback taking a bunch of shots, and our guys have improved to the point that he's not."
Forte, meanwhile, was furious with himself for the two fumbles (though the first resulted from a terrific defensive play). I suspected that Forte, like Urlacher, isn't a fan of the bye week, especially considering the kind of groove he was already in, and considering all that he's playing for. "I don't like, as a running back, too much time off," Forte said. "I got careless. I know, I know, it was in traffic. Still, it's my job to hold onto that ball. I gave away two balls and 14 points. I just can't do that."
Actually, it's exactly what you want to see out of your team's best from-scrimmage player. Smith gave Forte one series to gather himself, then threw him back in the game for the stretch run, during which Forte returned to his sure-handed self.
Forte, Cutler, Urlacher and Briggs, Peppers, a place-kicker who can hit from 51 yards on the road, an improving line. It's not the Packers, exactly, but it's adding up to something promising just in time for the first rematch of the season. Beating Philly gives the Bears not breathing room, but snarling room. The rested Lions come to face a team that expended maximum energy at the start of a short week. Warp-speed Michael Vick on Monday night; flesh-eating Ndamukong Suh on Sunday afternoon. It's always something.
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.