OL play made Bears winners vs. Giants

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- No doubt, the New York Giants housed the Chicago Bears here at New Meadowlands.

Yet despite the ugly 41-13 score, bumbling play from defense and special teams -- not to mention a few dropped balls by the receivers -- Chicago walked away from this game as victors by virtue of a strong performance from the highly-scrutinized offensive line.

That’s not how a defensive-minded coach mired in critical self analysis reconciles a loss like this one, despite it being a meaningless exhibition game. But based on this team’s recent history, this one small positive might just trump the myriad negatives.

“From time to time, you’re gonna have a bad night at the office,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We had that tonight. Hopefully we won’t see many more.”

That’s the right thing to say. But let’s take a closer look at why what transpired on the offensive line Monday night -- if it continues -- should give the Bears an optimistic outlook about their prospects in 2011.

The fact is, despite horrid performances Monday night by the defense and special teams, we’ve seen the Bears shut down opposing offenses on a consistent basis, and we’ve seen the team’s special teams unit make game-changing plays in the return game and pin opponents with the coverage units like it’s second nature.

The Bears allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game in 2010, and have forced the highest percentage of three-and-out drives (26.56 percent) in the NFL over the past six years, while the special teams group boasts a record-breaking return man in Devin Hester (14 total return touchdowns) and the NFL’s fifth-most accurate kicker of all time in Robbie Gould.

The offensive line, meanwhile, can’t claim such merits. But recent history says if it manages to limit opponents to only one sack per game, the Bears will be playing -- in the words of offensive line coach Mike Tice -- "winning football.”

“We needed to see the group take a step,” Smith said Monday night. “I thought we did that. I thought [quarterback] Jay [Cutler] put in a solid half as far as passing the ball.”

That’s what happens when the offensive line gives him time to find targets.

In 2010, the Bears gave up multiple sacks in all but three games. But in those three outings -- Week 2 against the Cowboys, Week 9 against the Bills, and Week 15 against the Vikings -- the offensive line surrendered only one sack.

It’s no coincidence the Bears won each of those games, averaging nearly 30 points (29.6) -- surely sufficient offensive output to give the defense cushion to carry home victories. What’s more is Cutler passed for eight touchdowns in those games -- including two three-TD performances -- while throwing only one interception.

Cutler’s lowest passer rating in those three outings -- 97.6 -- came, coincidentally, in the closest game of the three, a 22-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills.

So it’s simple: give the quarterback time. He’ll orchestrate fireworks.

That’s not really what happened Monday night against the Giants, but the one time Cutler led the Bears into the red zone, his receivers couldn’t make a play. On back-to-back snaps from the Giants 5 in the first quarter, Devin Hester fell down on a route in the end zone, and was unable to come up with a seemingly catchable ball on the very next play.

Receivers dropped at least four Cutler passes in the first half.

“The thing we’ve got to work on is our red zone [offense],” running back Matt Forte said. “We got to the goal line a couple of times and didn’t finish. So that’s obviously something we need to work on, too.”

At least for one night, the Bears established the foundation up front conducive to producing sustained success on offense.

So given the Chicago’s rich history on defense and special teams under Smith and special-teams coordinator Dave Toub, it’s important to not put too much stock into those groups performing badly, because past performances indicate Monday night was an aberration.

“I guess I better stop and go to something else,” Smith said after criticizing the defense and special teams. “I can keep talking about how we played defensively; special-teams wise, same thing. Defensively [and] special teams, I just didn’t think we played the way we normally do.”

The offensive line didn’t either.

That’s a good thing.