ReFo: Bears @ Titans, Week 9

Very few games are conclusively won in the first quarter, but as the Chicago Bears scored a touchdown by almost every possible means in the first stanza, that was exactly what happened in Nashville.

Before the first 15 minutes were completed the Bears had scored on special teams, on defense and on offense — with both rushing and passing scores. The Bears’ defense refused to let up for the rest of the game and consistently put their offense in favorable situations to further extend their lead. Only an 80-yard touchdown run by Chris Johnson in the fourth quarter spared the Titans what would have been a five-touchdown defeat.

This was exactly what the Bears needed after a stumbling victory over the Panthers last week and sees them hit the turn at 7-1, in prime position to push for a division title and even the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Here are some of the performances that helped the Bears regain their momentum on a day that Titan fans will want to quickly forget.

Chicago – Three Performances of Note

Defensive Dominance

From the very first snap of this game the Bears’ defense had the Titans’ offense in a choke hold and never let them get up and back into the game. The only time the Titans managed a stern counterpunch was after the Bears had pulled their starters and Johnson reeled off that 80-yard score, a play on which he went untouched to the end zone. That score, however, could not undermine a fine defensive effort led by two of Chicago’s veteran stalwarts, Brian Urlacher (+4.9) and Charles Tillman (+5.5). After a tough season so far this was comfortably Urlacher’s best game of the year, as he registered a season-high four stops and a pick-six. Meanwhile, Tillman forced more fumbles in a single game than most defenders manage in a season. His two in one game against the Lions two weeks ago was an exceptional game but four in one game is extraordinary, both on his part and that of the Titans’ players who didn’t start covering the ball more consciously when carrying towards Tillman. Teams will surely instruct their ballcarriers to be more cautious around Tillman in the coming weeks.

Cutler to Marshall Fires the Offense

The Bears’ acquisition of Brandon Marshall for a pair of third-round picks could become one of the steals of this offseason. The reunited duo of Marshall and Jay Cutler has led the Bears’ passing game and, outside of one letdown game in Green Bay — the Bears’ only defeat — has contributed big plays or scores to every single Chicago victory. This week the pairing connected for three touchdowns, beat coverages, capitalized on collisions in the Tennessee secondary and put the Bears out of sight. Marshall has collected a 20-yard completion in six of the Bears’ eight games so far this season, and only a trio of drops last week against the Panthers have really dragged his season stats down. This is the connection the Bears have longed for ever since they acquired Cutler from Denver, and if the defense continues its fine vein of form the Bears have the makings of an extremely competitive playoff team with Cutler, Marshall and Matt Forte (+3.2, 148 scrimmage yards) leading the offense.

Pass Protection Concerns Remain

The darkest cloud hanging over those playoff aspirations for the Bears is still an offensive line that, while improved, is still an area for top-quality teams to exploit. The Bears’ struggled to keep a clean pocket for Jay Cutler, though he wasn’t unduly affected with a 115.3 QB rating when pressured. At tackle, Gabe Carimi (-3.8 pass block) was at times slow out of his stance and other times just struggled to stick with Derrick Morgan off the edge. Matters weren’t helped by Kellen Davis who allowed three pressures (1 Sk, 1 Ht, 1 Hu) and didn’t offer the kind of help the Bears are looking for with their tackles so notoriously weak in pass protection. Even Cutler didn’t help himself, and caused a sloppy turnover by holding the ball for too long looking for Marshall on a slant against double coverage with the entire offense setting up a screen on the other side of the field. There isn’t much that the Bears at present are giving to other teams, but a top pass rush can not only shut the Bears’ offense down, but force the turnovers to cancel out the work of their defense and special teams. This one weakness, if left unchecked, could completely derail the Bears’ season at a moment’s notice.

Tennessee – Three Performances of Note

Cover the Points

Carrying the football is a basic skill players are taught early in their playing careers, and one that is reinforced by coaches through high school, college and in the pro’s. The one thing you can’t afford to do is put the ball on the ground — nothing drives coaches mad more than sloppy ball carrying and fumbles. With that in mind then the Titans’ five fumbles, six including Zach Brown’s recovery then fumble of Cutler’s fumble, are likely to have taken years off Mike Munchak and the rest of the Titans’ offensive coaching staff. Three of the Titans’ most important offensive players put the ball on the ground, with Johnson doing so twice in the first half. What will be all the more galling is the manner in which the fumbles came about — the ball was being carried in one hand each time. The Texans, Chicago’s next opponents, would be well served to have three words plastered all over the offensive meeting room this week: High and tight.

Not the Usual Outcome

We have become accustomed to seeing Kamerion Wimbley profit from mismatches against inferior offensive tackles and, while he put in a solid day as a pass rusher and put the Titans’ first points on the board, this wasn’t the same level of dominance. Three times this season Wimbley has recorded nine pressures and in seasons past we have seen him destroy the likes of Brandyn Dombrowski in mismatches that allow him to really get after the opposing quarterback. This week, the Titans’ large deficit from early in the game limited Wimbley’s impact and, though he got plenty of opportunities (32) to rush the passer, his four pressures (1 Sk, 3 Hu) and two points drawn from a penalty by J’Marcus Webb could be construed as a disappointment from this matchup.

Finding the Right Role

In each of the past two drafts the Tennessee Titans have selected an outside linebacker with their second-round picks, and the challenge now is to find them the right roles within their defense. The Titans have been guilty of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole with Akeem Ayers, not getting the versatile defender into enough situations to use his skill set rushing the passer, while not necessarily getting as much immediate impact out of Zach Brown as they might have hoped for. This week the Titans’ got strong performances from both, though they would still be well served to get Ayers more snaps as a pass rusher. Brown collected seven defensive stops, drew a holding penalty from Webb and allowed only 8 yards on the two passes targeted to his coverage. With Colin McCarthy continuing to struggle inside, and guilty of some poor angles on some of Forte’s bigger runs, the Titans may need to get creative to extract more from Brown and Ayers and get the most from their linebacker corps.

Game Notes

– In the past two weeks Akeem Ayers has recorded seven pressures (2 Sk, 2 Ht, 3 Hu) on only 13 pass rushes. The Titans need to find ways to get Ayers more involved in the pass rush to give them an extra weapon attacking the QB, and remove a weakness from their pass coverage.

– For the first time since Week 15 of the 2010 season, Brandon Marshall caught every single pass targeted to him. On that day he caught 11 of 11 for 106 yards and a score in a Dolphins’ defeat to the Bills. This time, his three touchdowns on nine receptions ensured the Bears walked out of Nashville victorious.

– The Bears defense absolutely controlled the Titans’ short passing game. Allowing only eight completions on 13 targets, including Brian Urlacher’s pick-six, the Titans collected only 3.8 yards per completion on these passes.

PFF Game Ball

You can’t go against Charles Tillman in this game. Ballcarriers beware — Tillman now has seven forced fumbles this season, and six in the Bears’ past three games.