Commentary

Truths starting to add up for Bears

Whether Cutler Coaster Bears realize their Super Bowl potential is up to them

Updated: October 8, 2012, 11:35 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In the sweat lodge that is EverBank Field, the Chicago Bears found that intense heat can bring clarity.

After a sweltering, listless first half, the Bears found a spiritual inner peace, scoring 38 second-half points in a dominating 41-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesJay Cutler passed for 292 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars on Sunday

Here are some essential truths after a 4-1 start that finds the Bears tied atop the NFC North:

• The defense is as dangerous as ever, causing takeaways and scoring points like it's 2006 again.

• The Jay Cutler Coaster is open for business.

• Brandon Marshall is the key man on the offense, even as Matt Forte chugs along.

• Ol' reliable Lovie Smith still doesn't need to curse to get his point across.

So what's new? Nothing. The offense is a little worse than we thought it would be after the preseason, and the defense a little better. The Chicago Bears: Keep calm and carry on.

On a day when the pass rush was slow to develop, the Bears' defense got two touchdowns on interceptions by the same two players who did it last week, setting an NFL record. And they took the will out of an inferior team. On a day when the offense was slow to click, the Bears got into gear when Cutler focused on Marshall in the second half and the defense got them a lead.

Smith yelled at his team after a woeful half -- "He basically cursed us out without cursing," cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman said -- and they responded. The Bears didn't come to Jacksonville to see the sights, though the city's famous bridge was visible from the team hotel. (After the game, cornerback Kelvin Hayden joked with a still-dressed safety Chris Conte, "Don't you want to get out of here?")

While Forte had a solid game -- 107 yards on 22 carries (he's averaging 4.7 yards a carry this season) -- the key to the offense playing at a Super Bowl-caliber is still the thrill ride that is the CutlerCoaster.

Always the focus whether he's under center or on the sidelines, Cutler dipped in the first half -- 10-for-20 for 110 yards and an interception -- and soared in the second half -- 13-for-19 for 182 yards and two scores. Marshall caught 12 passes for 144 yards, both season highs, and a touchdown, with most of his damage coming in the second half.

In five games, Cutler has three very good ones, one mediocre one and one awful one. He has seven touchdowns and seven interceptions, a 57.7 completion percentage and a 78.7 rating. Anyone who says he's been rock solid is lying. But with a defense playing at this level and room to improve, Cutler can be the Cutler we've been waiting for. But it will come down to Cutler and Marshall connecting.

In Cutler's three good offensive performances, wins over Indianapolis, Dallas and the Jaguars, Marshall caught 28 passes for 401 yards and three scores, one in each game. Football is a complicated game to analyze, but the correlation here is pretty simple.

Marshall was targeted 40 times in those games, including a season-high 17 on Sunday. That much attention will lead to interceptions and bad passes, like in Cutler's first-series interception. But it could also lead to New Orleans in February.

Marshall said he got mixed coverage, from straight man to the two-man that vexed this team against Green Bay. But he kept the chains moving, specifically in the third quarter when he caught seven passes for 76 yards. He scored in the fourth quarter on a 24-yard pass into the end zone that made it 27-3.

"You know what, they brought me here to be a No. 1 receiver," Marshall said. "But in our offense we have the ability to game plan around different guys. They brought me here to make big plays, but when guys want to take me out, we can adjust."

While the offense looks to find stable ground, the defense continues to amaze with its consistency. "Super Veterans" Lance Briggs and Tillman each scored on an interception return for the second straight week. Two teammates scoring interceptions on consecutive weeks has never happened before. Of course it would happen to the Bears, who have majored in takeaways under Smith.

While everyone tries to be proactive in worrying about an aging defense, the continuity is a positive right now. There is no learning curve when you're a 10th-year Ph.D. student. That's why Smith doesn't need to curse. He just needs to remind.

"We are who we are," Tillman said. "We've been doing the same things since Coach Smith got here. The same defense, the same [core] players mixed in with a couple new players. We don't change. Everyone knows what we do, but I think what we do, we do it well."

After those two picks and Corey Wootton's forced fumble, the Bears lead the league with 17 takeaways. Five have gone for touchdowns. Tillman now has the Bears' record with eight defensive touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeCharles Tillman
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackCharles Tillman turned in his second straight game with an interception return for a touchdown.

Tillman's game-changing play came at the right time. The Bears had just settled for a 31-yard field goal and a 6-3 lead after a 17-play, 76-yard drive -- consecutive Gabe Carimi false starts pushed them back from the Jaguars' 3 to 13 -- and on the second play of the ensuing drive, a miscommunication between Justin Blackmon and quarterback Blaine Gabbert led to an easy catch along the home sideline and a 36-yard return that made it 13-3. Given the way the Jaguars were playing, it felt like the game was over, even with 20 minutes left.

Tillman said he was thinking about a former Bears ballhawk as he ran toward the end zone.

"Mike Brown was on my mind as I was running," he said. "Because he was the king of returns, in my opinion, setting up blocks and things like that. 'What would he do? OK, run, cut it back, come back to their sidelines,' and they did a great job setting up the blocks."

Briggs scored his touchdown, also 36 yards, with about eight minutes left in the game to make it 34-3.

"I know they know how important it is to take the ball away, but after a while, you see one guy doing it and you want to join in on that action," Smith said.

The Jaguars only had 45 net yards in the second half and 10 first downs overall, two by penalty. The Bears held Maurice Jones-Drew to 56 yards on 12 carries, with 27 coming on one run. The forgettable Gabbert (Odds that Julius Peppers even knew his name?) completed 17 of 34 passes for 142 yards. But in the second half, he was sacked twice, threw those picks and had 22 yards passing.

The Bears have a lot to be happy about in the next two weeks before facing the Detroit Lions at home on Monday Night Football. This is a team that has shown it has what it takes to make a Super Bowl run. Aside from unpredictable injuries, whether the Bears realize their potential is up to them.

Asked about seemingly improving with age, the 31-year-old Tillman sagely spoke what should be a mantra for this defense, if not the entire team.

"I don't want to be on the top yet," Tillman said. "I always want to keep peaking. Once you felt like you've arrived, you've failed. I constantly want to go up, take my game up to the next level. Keep going, keep peaking."

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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