Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

After the Chicago Bears' 23-22 victory over the Carolina Panthers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. I don't care how favorable the matchups might have been, or the Bears believed them to be, against the Panthers' pass defense. It's hard to reconcile a game plan that called for more passes than runs in the first half. Jay Cutler was playing on a short week after his well-documented bruised ribs Monday night against the Detroit Lions. He also needed several moments to regroup after Panthers lineman Greg Hardy sacked him on the Bears' first play from scrimmage. At that point, if not before, the Bears would have been well-advised to feed a steadier diet of running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush than they did. Cutler had 15 drop backs in the first half and was sacked six times. Forte and Bush combined for 10 carries over that stretch. I understand not wanting to limit the offense based on an injury Cutler said he could play with, and there's no doubt Cutler could have thrown the ball away a few times. But it wouldn't have been criminal to flip that run-pass ratio given Cutler's condition.

  2. With that said, the Bears' offense deserves credit for taking exactly what the Panthers were giving it during its game-winning drive. As several have pointed out, including Panthers safety Charles Godfrey, Carolina never came out of its soft zone shell as the Bears took their yardage in small chunks on nearly identical plays. Cutler completed 5 of 6 attempts that gained between 4 and 12 yards, moving from the Bears' 22-yard line to the Panthers' 26 in two minutes, 16 seconds with only one timeout at his disposal. Cutler might be known for his aggressive downfield approach, but he smartly dialed it back on that final drive. It helps to know you have a reliable place-kicker in Robbie Gould, but there was a time in Cutler's career when he absolutely would have pressed the ball downfield against the Panthers' soft zone.

  3. The Panthers didn't dare test cornerback Charles Tillman after he shut down the Lions' Calvin Johnson last Monday night. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), quarterback Cam Newton targeted receivers Tillman was covering on three of his 39 attempts. (One was caught.) Cornerback Tim Jennings was obviously the Panthers' target, and according to PFF he was covering a receiver Newton threw to on 17 of his attempts. Eight of the passes were complete for 127 yards, but Jennings also intercepted two of the passes -- returning one for a go-ahead touchdown -- and deflected another away. As we approach the season's midpoint, I think we can safely say the Bears have the NFL's best cornerback tandem. Both are on the way to the Pro Bowl. But here's a real question: Should Tillman and Jennings be the NFL's first-team All-Pro cornerbacks?

And here is one issue I still don't get:

When will the Bears get to the receiver rotation we all expected when the season began? Brandon Marshall and Earl Bennett have long histories with Cutler and he clearly trusts them without reservation. Regardless of Devin Hester's big-play potential, I think it's pretty clear the Bears are best suited to use Marshall, Bennett and rookie Alshon Jeffery -- when he returns from a fractured hand -- as their three-receiver set. Sunday, Hester played 40 snaps (73 percent) and Bennett 37 snaps (67 percent) on offense. Based on what I saw, Bennett is healthy and ready to leapfrog Hester on the depth chart.