Sunday, February 4, 2007 Updated: February 6, 2:01 PM ET
Bears simply, surprisingly get outmuscled by Colts
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
MIAMI -- Asked whether the suddenly smashmouth Indianapolis Colts finally had dispelled the widely held notion that their offense was strictly a finesse-based design, center Jeff Saturday, the leader of a blocking unit that dominated the Chicago Bears to the tune of 191 rushing yards Sunday, broke into a knowing smile.
"I think we stunned a lot of people around the world tonight," Saturday said after the Colts' 29-17 victory in Super Bowl XLI. "And I know we stunned a few people in this here corner of the world."
Indeed, the proud Chicago defense, mauled for 430 yards and 24 first downs and forced to stay on the field for nearly 40 minutes as the Indianapolis running game controlled the tempo throughout, was knocked back on its collective heels.
Literally and figuratively.
Even after the game, during quiet interviews in the media center and in a locker room where disappointment was the prevailing sentiment, Chicago defenders had problems describing what had just transpired. But while some players took the time to attempt to explain their shortcomings at length, the reasons for the bitter defeat were not particularly complicated.
Brian Urlacher and Lovie Smith had no answer for the Colts.
Dare we say it? In one of the great ironies of recent Super Bowl history, the growling, menacing, big, bad Bears were actually the softer of the two teams, both schematically and in execution.
After Indianapolis struck in the first quarter on a 53-yard touchdown pass to fleet wide receiver Reggie Wayne, the Bears were focused on trying to eliminate the big play. A timid Chicago defense played right into the hands of patient Peyton Manning and, sadly, the unit was rendered the Bad News Bears.
One of the great myths of the week was that the Bears had been a textbook Cover 2 team throughout the season. In truth, Chicago played nearly 45 percent man-to-man coverage over the second half of the regular season and in two playoff contests.
But in the season's biggest game, the Bears became almost too fixated on avoiding the deep pass and reverted to the Cover 2 scheme of earlier in the season. And the Colts, as has been their wont of late, ran right at it, with Manning determining there were easy pickings to be had against a defense aligning its tandem safeties 12 to 15 yards off the line of scrimmage.
"We talked all week about not [surrendering the big play] and, as a result, we felt like we could back off some and make them earn it," Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher said. "But they played it smart. I mean, Manning is a brilliant quarterback, and he's going to take what you give him. We thought we could stop the run with our front people, and it didn't turn out that way. We didn't take many chances. We didn't come after them as hard as we have some teams in the past. And they were just systematic in the way they chewed us up."
The Indianapolis offense got an incredible 81 snaps and, by unofficial count, the Chicago defense was aligned in a Cover 2 or some spin-off of the two-deep zone on 52 of those plays. Speculation all week had been that the Bears would rely heavily on a nickel scheme, with No. 3 cornerback Ricky Manning charged with covering Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark, who had been the Colts' leading receiver in their three previous playoff victories.
There were times, mostly on third-and-long situations, when Manning covered Clark in the slot. For much of the night, however, the Bears aligned strongside linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer over the Indianapolis tight end. On occasion, Chicago used Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs in coverage on Clark.
But in winning the battle -- Clark, who entered the game with 17 postseason receptions for a league-best 16.5-yard average, managed six quiet catches for 64 yards -- Chicago actually lost the war. Girded to cut off the Colts at the pass, the Bears surrendered 191 rushing yards on 42 carries.
Chicago ran a few blitzes early in the game, and the long touchdown pass to Wayne came against a strongside stunt on which Manning barely unloaded before being knocked down. In the second half, forced to play catchup, the Bears tweaked their game plan a bit and went to a few more man-to-man coverages.
But if there was a theme for the Chicago defense, it was that the Bears were too content to sit back in the Cover 2. And the corresponding theme for Indianapolis was that Manning just kept calling plays designed to run right at it.
"Our eyes get big when we see defenses backed off like that," said Saturday, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. "And no one's eyes get any bigger than Peyton's do. He's smart enough to know that's money in the bank, as long as we just stay patient."
Running fewer of their trademark off-tackle stretch plays, because they sometimes take too long to develop, and opting for more inside belly-type plays and blasts, Indianapolis tailbacks Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai ran for 113 and 77 yards, respectively. With only seven defenders in the box, Chicago was helpless to stanch the onslaught.
"You can second-guess our [strategy] all night, and I'm sure some people will, but the bottom line was, we didn't stop the run and we didn't knock their offense off the field," said Bears defensive end Alex Brown. "And against an offense like that, I guess you kind of have to pick your poison a little, and we thought we did the smart thing. But Manning outsmarted us, I guess, in the end. I never thought a team could wear us down like that, but they did."
There is little doubt that, as the game wore on, the Chicago defenders wore out. The Colts had six possessions that lasted seven snaps or more and five series of three minutes or more. At one stretch that began about midway through the second quarter and lasted well into the third, Indianapolis ripped off 35 plays to just four snaps for the Bears. At the end of the third quarter, the Colts led the snaps 65-28, a preposterous margin.
Indianapolis had a similar stretch in its AFC Championship Game victory over New England, which also played a lot of Cover 2. In their four postseason wins, the Colts averaged an impressive 151.0 rushing yards per outing. Clearly, the Chicago defense felt it could do what no one else had been able to in the playoffs.
Just as clearly, the Bears were wrong.
"We just couldn't knock them off the field," middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "They made plays, they converted third downs, they turned a lot of simple things into big drives. Maybe, with the way we played, we fell into a trap. I don't know. But I know that whatever we did, it didn't stop them very much, did it? I never like to say that we were outmuscled by any team, but "
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.