"I still feel like we're in the mix. If we can correct a lot of things, a lot of the small things, really they're not small. They're turning into big things that we have to take care of.''
Those were the words of Bears coach Lovie Smith Sunday night after the Bears fell to the Philadelphia Eagles 24-20 at Soldier Field, their fifth loss in the last six games and one that all but ends their postseason hopes. No, the Bears are not mathematically eliminated from anything, but there's no way anyone at Halas Hall can say with any level of confidence that this team can go on a run to finish out the season. Nope. Not the way things are going.
Using Smith's glass half-full approach that the Bears are "in the mix," let's set off to identify the small things that really aren't small any longer as we react to the loss.
1. Jay Cutler has gone from throwing passes to the other team to flat overthrowing his receivers. It was good to see him launch one pass out of the end zone when the play was covered up in the red zone (then again, earlier he tried hitting tight end Greg Olsen who was blanketed by your basic triple coverage) but Cutler missed long all game. He overshot Olsen, Devin Hester and Johnny Knox on throws that would have been sure touchdowns. The Knox pass was most deflating. It came with just less than four minutes remaining in the game, and would have been a go-ahead score. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner made the right call, Knox blew past cornerback Sheldon Brown and there was nothing but clear field ahead of him. Turner said they are throws Cutler has been hitting in practice. He throws a good deep ball. It's what we saw all during training camp. Have things become so bad that the Bears can't hit the open man deep?
2. What did we learn on Kahlil Bell's 72-yard run? Well, for starters it's apparent that Knox is a whole heck of a lot faster. The wide receiver showed great speed in getting downfield to throw a block that created extra yardage. The Bears have another running back who isn't a home run threat, but it was nice to see someone bust one long. What Bell's long run is going to do, though, is send fantasy players running to make a waiver claim and increase the questions for Matt Forte, who had another ho-hum effort, 34 yards on 14 rushes. Here are Forte's last six games:
at Atlanta 15 carries, 23 yards
at Cincinnati 6 carries, 24 yards
Cleveland 26 carries, 90 yards
Arizona 5 carries, 33 yards
at San Francisco 20 carries, 41 yards
Philadelphia 14 carries, 34 yards
That's 86 rushes for 245 yards, a 2.85-yard per carry average. The idea was that putting Josh Beekman in for Frank Omiyale at left guard was going to bolster the running game. That doesn't appear to have happened. Forte's sophomore slump has Anthony Thomas written all over it right now, and what's becoming apparent is the Bears may need to add a position they never thought they would, running back, to their offseason need list. Smith's said it, some of the running game struggles are on Forte too. This isn't all a creation of a struggling offensive line. When Forte was drawing great approval last season, he still only averaged 3.9 yards per carry, hardly elite back territory.
3. I thought the defensive line played with pretty good energy and did a solid job getting after Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, but where was the big stop when the Bears needed it? It was far too easy for the Eagles to march the field on their go-ahead touchdown drive. They faced just two third downs on the drive with McNabb sneaking on a third-and-one and then hitting DeSean Jackson on a quick slant on third-and-six that set the Eagles up with first-and-goal at the 10. When the Bears needed their defense in the game's biggest moment, it let them down. No Brian Westbrook was supposed to be a real boost for the Bears and LeSean McCoy rushed for 99 yards on 20 carries. So what if he'll get ball-carrying tips all week after being stripped by Charles Tillman?
4. Smith talked about small things turning into big things? Well, let's talk about small things. The Bears' receivers didn't come up big against a battered secondary. Philadelphia was missing two corners in Ellis Hobbs (neck) and Joselio Hanson (suspension) and then Asante Samuel was knocked out of the game with a stinger. The only one of the Eagles' top four corners remaining, Sheldon Brown, was playing on a bad hamstring. They needed to do better than they did, specifically Devin Hester and Knox. Earl Bennett played a pretty solid game and showed some moxie. This was an opportunity to dominate against a cast of reserves and it was squandered.
5. What in the name of Mike Brown happened to Al Afalava in deep coverage on DeSean Jackson in the third quarter? Leading 12-10, the Bears were in their signature Tampa Two defense with the Eagles facing first-and-10 at the Bears' 48-yard line. McNabb faked a handoff to McCoy, who was in an I-formation, and set up in the pocket while Jackson ran a deep post. Tillman released him to safety help and Jackson simply ran past Afalava, the safety on that side of the field. Free safety Danieal Manning was supporting on the other side against Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles simply split the safeties deep. That shouldn't happen. The rookie Afalava hasn't made a lot of glaring errors in 10 games (he hasn't shown up a lot either) but this was one of them. No, I'm not suggesting the Bears should have made a move top keep Brown, either. His time had run its course here and the durability issues were too great to overlook. But I am suggesting the Bears have done little right in terms of a longterm solution at the position since drafting Brown in the second round in 2000.
6. Afalava starts and Knox contributes but the top four picks from the 2009 draft remain absent. Defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert, their top pick, was inactive for the eighth time in 10 games. The next pick, wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias, was inactive for the 10th time. Cornerback D.J. Moore was inactive for the ninth time. Defensive lineman Henry Melton is on injured reserve. Smith believes Gilbert will contribute this season. Iglesias is clearly the sixth wideout on the roster and when No. 4 Devin Aromashodu struggles to get playing time, well, it's going to be real tough to reach No. 6. Moore looks too small to play regularly on defense. Smith is high on Melton for next season, and he may get a look as a three technique. As far as help this season, well, Cutler was the 2009 draft. And he's a big part of the 2010 draft.
7. The more you see of linebacker Tim Shaw on special teams, the better he looks. He made a huge hit and was credited with three tackles in press box statistics. Shaw was a nice find for a unit that was in need of a boost, and he looks to have leadership qualities moving forward.
8. Opposing defenses are converting third downs 42.8 percent of the time after the Eagles were 7-for-15. That's a sign that the Bears lack playmakers on defense right there, although don't discount the continued improvement of cornerback Zack Bowman, who made an interception for the third consecutive game. Bowman leads the team with four and the Bears have 10 as a team after netting 22 last season.
9. Opposing quarterbacks have an 88.8 passer rating vs. the Bears and it would be higher if their Tampa Two didn't generally lead to a lot of dink and dunk (not the 48-yarder by Jackson). Cutler's mark stands at 74.5. The Bears went to the Super Bowl in 2006 when Rex Grossman was at 73.9. Really, Cuter's number is right in line with what the Bears have been accustomed to for decades.
10. Weeks ago, the Bears talked about having two games remaining with the Minnesota Vikings. The idea was that, yes, they trailed their division rivals at the time, but there was time to play catch up. Down five games to the Vikings (9-1) with six to play, that's not going to happen now. They have a chance to get reacquainted with old friend Brett Favre and the Bears might find out how much of a gap there is between them and Minnesota come Sunday afternoon at the Metrodome.