CHICAGO -- Week 1 marked perhaps the least anticipated Chicago Bears opener in more than a decade.
Two losses to the Green Bay Packers by a combined 62 points in 2014 might have had something to do with the lack of enthusiasm for Sunday's opener, along with a less-than-exuberant training camp and injury concerns for a team light on depth.
But a single-digit loss to Green Bay in which the Bears didn’t look like a middle school reserve team (shout-out to us middle school reserve football alums) created a minor stir around these parts.
Could the Bears not be a total embarrassment? Maybe. But as they say, I’d like to see more film.
After almost covering the spread in a 31-23 loss Sunday, the Bears are only 2-point underdogs -- 1.5 at some books -- to the visiting Arizona Cardinals. According to past point-spread data from covers.com, it’s the first time since 2011 that the Bears are underdogs in their first two home games. They will surely be favorite in their next home game, against the Oakland Raiders on Oct. 4. The Raiders would be road 'dogs to Northwestern.
The probable loss of Cardinals running back Andre Ellington pushed the line down a point, and frankly, I'd ride the Cardinals. I think the Bears are headed for another loss en route to an 0-2 start, which should become 0-3 after a visit to Seattle in Week 3.
It’s going to be a long march to 6-10, but unlike last season, it won't be like walking off a cliff. Yes, all losses are equal in the standings, but aesthetics do count in some sense. This is entertainment, so a modicum of entertaining football is better than nothing.
That's why I don’t fault the Bears players, or fans, who were faintly happy with what they saw in Week 1. After every Week 1 game, the players say the same things, focusing on building a foundation, improving on early jitters. That's how football players are taught to think.
And for veterans of last year's Bears, at least there is some hope. Yes, the object is to win, but no one is under the illusion that the Bears are competing with Green Bay for a playoff berth.
The reason Bears chairman George McCaskey was so quick to do away with Marc Trestman and Phil Emery was that the Bears had devolved into a joke. This team isn’t a joke. Yes, it’s a rebuilding outfit, despite the veterans’ reluctance to admit it. No, I don’t think a lot of these players will be on the next Bears playoff team. But John Fox's first Bears team should be competitive.
How competitive? Well, I wrote last week about seeing some questions answered in the opener, and that holds true for the second game.
Aaron Rodgers passed for fewer than 200 yards (189, to be precise) in the opener, but he threw three touchdown passes, only five incompletions, and could’ve played without a helmet given the lack of pressure he faced. The Bears cornerbacks took the heat during and after the game.
“Obviously, the most improvement we can make is just improving our pass rush and winning our one-on-one battles a little bit more than we did,” Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I thought we competed very well. We executed the defense. You didn’t see people running free or obvious errors to the naked eye to anybody. We were there. They were just a little bit better than us at the 50/50 balls in the air and they blocked us better in the pass rush.”
The problem, of course, is a common one in the modern NFL, in which teams are forced to play so much nickel. All that focus on the Bears’ shift to a 3-4 belies how little teams stay in their base defense.
“They were a team that played a lot of three wide receivers in the game, so we were in nickel most of the time, which is not unusual for anybody,” Fangio said of the Packers. “We didn’t play much base defense in that game because of the way they attacked the game. One game I don’t think gives you an identity, although I thought we competed at a high level and executed. We just didn’t make plays.”
Making plays, that extra effort, is what separates the Bears and the Packers. We’re still finding out who Chicago's playmakers are, aside from Matt Forte.
As for Jay Cutler, Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase got his introductory “Cover for 6” news conference out of the way this week.
Cutler went 18-for-36 for 225 yards. His 67.5 passer rating would have been his second-lowest last season. But his receivers were coming off injuries and his line was sketchy, and yadda yadda yadda.
“The interception, that was a bad call into that defense,” Gase told reporters Thursday. “[Cutler] did what was asked of him and Clay made a good play. The completion percentage, I felt we had more completions out there. We missed a couple throws, we dropped a couple passes. When that happens ... maybe we would have had a few less passes if we had less drops. As far as line-of-scrimmage management, managing the game, doing a good job of getting us in and out of run checks, being right on the protection -- for our first time out in our first game together, I think he did a great job.”
If Cutler is good at one thing, in particular, it’s adapting to new offenses. Between the injuries to his receivers and the new position for right tackle Kyle Long, this is going to take some time.
“I would say we're still thinking a little bit,” Cutler said Thursday. “I don't think it would be fair to say that all 11 guys, including myself, have everything hammered completely home. So we're still thinking a little bit. I think Adam does a great job during the week of really going through the plays that we like and going through everything that for the most part we're going to call. There's a few things that we'll talk about on the sideline that he does a good job with, if we do want to mix it up, of talking on the sideline and making sure everyone is on board.”
The Cardinals gave up 408 yards last week in beating the Saints, and only 54 on the ground. The Bears will make an early commitment to the run and then, once they’re presumably trailing by a score late, rely on Cutler and the passing game.
“You look at him,” Cutler said. “He’s 6-foot-1, 220 pounds and then he runs a 4.3 40-yard dash. You see him jam guys and then run with anybody on the field. He's got unbelievable ball skills. He’s a guy you have to be aware of and you have to know where he is at. He’s not a guy you really want to take a lot of chances with.”
So, I'm guessing one fourth-quarter pick for Peterson, or do you think he snags one earlier?
By design, Cutler didn’t take many chances in the opener. Will he get the chance to air it out Sunday?
“We’ll pick our spots when it’s time to go downfield,” Gase said. “We’ll wait to see who challenges us as far as taking away the underneath stuff first. I’m not going to just start dropping him back there and see how many times he can get hit. We have to make sure that the defense is giving us what we want. Maybe that’s when we start attacking down the field a little more.”
Don't expect too much this week, Bears fans, just another competitive game and another loss. It's all about the journey, right?