No question has been asked more since the Bears' 48-24 victory over Detroit this afternoon than whether or not Johnny Knox crossed the goalline on his 102-yard kickoff return before flipping the ball to the ground.
I wondered the same thing aloud to Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald when the play happened, and I've watched the play over and over now. The first thing that should be mentioned is it was a terrific call by special teams coordinator Dave Toub. He said the Lions had been overplaying returns to the left in the first half, so when the Bears opened the third quarter they called a naked--the blocks would start out left and then Knox would cut it back right. There was nothing but daylight, and some key blocks from Corey Graham, Jamar Williams and Josh Bullocks, active for the first time this season, helped spring Knox.
I can't tell you with certainty whether the ball reached the plane of the goalline or not before he released it. Unless you have a better camera angle than what was provided on television, you won't be able to tell either. Frozen near the goalline, it looked darn close. Knox flipped the ball backward with his right hand. It landed a yard into the end zone. That right there makes me believe he probably did reach the goalline. He didn't flip the ball forward. Obviously, no official was in position to make a definitive call on whether he pulled a DeSean Jackson or not. The Lions were smart not to challenge the play because the television replays showed nothing in the way of indisputable evidence. Moreover, a successful challenge would have meant the Bears had the ball first-and-goal at the one.
It's fair to say Knox will get a short chat from Toub. Other than that, it's a fun sidenote to the second-longest kickoff return in franchise history. It marked the fourth consecutive year the Bears have had a kickoff run back for a touchdown, and it's their sixth since 2005.
Now to some game observations. It was a good win for the Bears to get to 3-1 entering the bye week, but I think the way the Lions really outplayed them, especially in the first half, raised some valid questions. Let's go through five positives and five things to work on:
1. Jay Cutler was advertised as a gunslinger when he arrived from Denver and didn't do anything to quell concerns over his decision making in the opener at Green Bay. He's thrown just one interception since and looked comfortable as a "game manager" and someone who wasn't bent on forcing the ball downfield. I'm not always sold on the passer efficiency number, but it does punish a quarterback for interceptions and reward him for yards per attempt. Cutler didn't fare well in the yards department, gaining just 141 on 18-of-28 passing, but he posted a 100.4 passer rating to hit triple digits for the third straight game. He is the first Bears quarterback since Jack Concannon in 1970 to have three straight 100-plus passer rating games. Concannon was all sorts of inconsistent, though, because he finished the season at 61.5.
2. The defensive line continues to play well. It didn't make much noise in the first half when Matthew Stafford had all kinds of time to set up in the pocket, but as the momentum shifted in the third quarter, the pressure arrived. The Bears notched five sacks to give them 14 on the season, half as many as they had in 2008. Adewale Ogunleye's early contract drive is going well. He leads the
NFL NFC with 4 1/2 sacks, and tackle Tommie Harris was disruptive again.
3. All the difference in the running game for the Bears was two long runs--61 and 37 yards by Matt Forte--to jump start what had been a grounded rushing attack. The Bears created some space for Forte and he did what he does best, make a single cut. He absolutely faked out Lions safety Louis Delmas on the 37-yarder, which went for a touchdown. The numbers for the season are still off, he's at 3.8 yards per carry on 71 rushes, but one more big game and he ought to be on track. Forte finished with 121 yards on 12 carries.
4. Charles Tillman did a nice job locking down on wide receiver Calvin Johnson after he tore the Bears up in the first half, but Johnson made plenty of those yards on Tillman too. What made perhaps a bigger difference was a change in the play calling. It looked like the Bears went to more cover two to provide some help. Stopping the Lions' running game cold helped too.
5. He might have gone overlooked in press box statistics--Tim Shaw was credited with just one special teams tackles--but special teams coordinator Dave Toub said he made four. Special teams is a major reason why this game got lopsided in the second half. The Bears' average starting field position was the Lions' 46.
1. As much stuff as was open in the middle of the field during the first half, the Bears probably needed more help from their safeties. Stafford's numbers were nuts at halftime--14-of-23 for 221 yards--and when the defense began getting pressure on him in the second half, some of those issues went away. The Bears know the strength of the defense is in the front seven, but there were some significant gaps exposed.
2. Speaking of coverage, right cornerback Zack Bowman didn't cover himself in glory. He got an immediate introduction to Johnson on the first play from scrimmage when the receiver motored by him for a 45-yard deep ball. Later, Bowman was called for a pass interference penalty that went for 18 yards. It wasn't his best day.
3. Rookie safety Al Afalava was offside on Jason Hanson's 40-yard field goal in the first quarter. The Lions took the points off the board on fourth-and-four and move ahead five yards for first down at the 17. They eventually scored a touchdown on Kevin Smith's one-yard run. Rookie mistakes like that can make a world of difference in close games.
4. The offense was only 2-of-10 on third and it is now 19-for-53 on the season (35.8 percent). With a tight end like Greg Olsen, a solid pass-catching back like Forte, and Cutler, the Bears should be better. I think in time they will be.
5. One of Johnson's big catches, a 21-yard pass along the Bears' sideline, was challenged by Smith. He felt Johnson was out of bounds but replays clearly showed the receiver's knee came down in bounds. The play happened right in front of the Bears' bench. It ended up being a complete nonfactor, even the loss of the timeout, but too often it seems Smith gets caught up challenging with his heart, not his head. The Bears need to know they have a challenge right when the play unfolds right in front of them.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention:
1. Danieal Manning didn't look like he missed any time as the kickoff returner, running back his try 43 yards. With a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, are the Bears better off using Garrett Wolfe? They really can't afford to lose Manning on defense right now. It's got to be tempting though as he led the league in kickoff returns last season.
2. Another solid game for defensive end Mark Anderson. Nothing fancy, but he had the pressure that led to the Tommie Harris interception, and he was credited with a tackle for loss.
3. Alex Brown absolutely did not get the facemask on the personal foul he was given. Bad call.
4. One of these games soon, the Bears will run it in at the goalline. Right now, they're pretty content with the short passes to the tight ends. It's a very difficult play to defend, especially vs. a quarterback like Cutler.
5. Lions safety Louis Delmas ran his mouth a lot, but he also made some plays. Looks like a nice building block for the future on defense in Detroit. He might be the only bright spot in that secondary right now.
6. There is no question the NFC North is loaded with quarterback talent now. Stafford looks legit. He moves around better than I expected, and he's got a great arm. Hopefully the reported dislocated knee cap he suffered is not serious. It will be fun to watch him progress from afar.
7. It was great to see so many players from both sides take part in the Breast Cancer Awareness initiative by the league and wear the pink--cleats, sweat bands, towels, etc. Much of that equipment is available via auction with the money going to the fight for a cure. One in eight women in the United States suffers from breast cancer at one point in their life.
8. And finally, the quote of the day courtesy of Detroit coach Jim Schwartz after he was asked about being visibly upset following the loss:
"We lost a football game,'' Schwartz said. "You saw the second half of the game, you saw the first half, you saw the second half, it's hard for me to come up here and point to positives in the second half. You can't say our arrow is [pointing] up, or any other happy stuff. We got out-played in the second half, we played poorly. There is a lot to be ticked off about in the second half of football."