Fact: no player in the NFL has ever sacked Michael Vick as many times as Julius Peppers (7). After years of playing in the same division - Vick with the Falcons and Peppers with the Panthers - they will meet for the second time in their new uniforms. Just like last year, the match-up will be a featured game, and just like last year, both teams have the same record and win streak going into the game. While the Eagles made themselves into a so-called "Dream Team" this offseason and the Bears were left to dream of a better team, I think it will be a close one this Sunday. Follow me below the fold to look back at how the Bears decimated the Eagles by beating them at their own game and how we can do it again this time around. Onwards!
While many teams came after Mike Vick with the blitz, the Bears played him in their traditional style. They were content, for the most part, to send only four men on the rush and fall back into a deep cover 2 shell to stop the big play potential of the Eagles offense. At least through three quarters, this plan worked well on the front end of the D. The Bears ended up with eight hits and four sacks on Vick, all of which came from the defensive front. Better still, on the rare occasions they did blitz, it worked well: DJ Moore had a nice tackle for a loss on Lesean McCoy on a nickel blitz, Chris Harris blocked a pass on a red-zone blitz, and Brian Urlacher had an uncredited assist on a strip-sack of Vick. The other key was, strangely enough, holding back the rush just a little bit. This strategy was evident on a key play in the first quarter, when Israel Idonije came free, stutter stepped while Vick faked a hand-off, and the shut down the play for a measly gain when Vick ran the ball himself. By having the defensive ends contain Vick to the inside, the Bears were able to keep him in check as a runner: he only gained 44 yards as a rusher on the day. All told, it was a superb game by the front four against the often-elusive Vick.
The Eagles' run game wasn't much of a factor in this game. Their lead rusher on the day - McCoy - had only 53 yards on 10 carries, which gave him a nice average but little else. The Bears, who always put a premium on stopping the run first, did just that. While I'm guessing the game plan was focused more on Vick than on McCoy, the same strategies the Bears used against Vick also helped to stop the run. By containing the edges of the pocket and forcing rushes by a RB or QB to go inside, Briggs and Urlacher were able to clean up most of what the D-line did not.
While the run defense was solid, things didn't go quite as well against the pass. Vick's receivers and tight ends were able to find space in between the coverage zones, the biggest weak spot being the soft spots in the middle of the field between the linebackers and safeties. While none of these 15-20 yard passes racked up huge yards after the catch, this is my single biggest concern going into this week's game. The Bears' biggest defense against these kinds of plays - consistent pressure to force the ball out before deep routes can be completed - worked well, but if the Eagles' offensive line can hold up against Peppers and company, it could be a long night. The other defense against these kinds of plays - clogging up throwing lanes and getting hands on the ball in flight - also worked well. This brings me to the...
Play of the Game
With time running down in the first half, the Bears were nursing a one-point lead that looked to quickly become a six-point deficit. The Eagles had stormed down the field and had goal-to-go. With the run going nowhere on first down, Vick dropped back to pass and made a clean throw despite the pocket collapsing at the edges. Tommie Harris, however, was able to get just enough of a hand on the ball to turn the spiral into and end-over-end duck that flew right into the heart of the Bears' secondary. Chris Harris was able to secure the ball, and proceeded to run in out of the end zone. 38 yards and one devastating block by Brian Urlacher on Mike Vick later, the Bears had the ball with good field position and just enough time to make it 21-13 at the half.
Player of the Game
My lede already gave it away - I have to go with Julius Peppers for this one. Simply put, he was in Vick's face all day. If he can continue to build on his already-impressive stats against Mike Vick, Peppers will be an awfully big spanner in the works of the Eagles offense.
The biggest question going into this week's game is if the Bears' defensive front can perform as well against the Eagles' line as they did last year. If they rack up pressures and sacks like they did last year, it could be another beat-down. If, however, the Bears are forced to blitz or sit in coverage for too long, the tables might be turned. The play of Chris Conte could also be key, as the Eagles' speed on the outside will require him to make good reads and play tight coverage on those deep routes. Lovie was content to start his safeties out a good 20 or more yards off the line last time, but they will have to come up and make some plays if the Bears are going to shore up the gaps in their zones and shut down the passing game. The Bears were able to rack up enough points on the other side of the ball to make up for the D only generating one turnover, but with Cutler not having the benefit of going against two backup corners this time, the D will need to do better than that. I am confident that we can hold the Eagles to 28 or fewer, but we shall see if that is enough to notch a win.
While Jay Cutler and company were the beneficiary of an injury-depleted Eagles defense, they had a great game by any standard. While everyone expected the Eagles to be the team to put up big plays, it was the Bears who had five plays of thirty yards or more. Better still, Jay was 14 for 21, with 247 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. The Eagles' overhaul of their defense makes talking at length about how we sliced them apart somewhat irrevelant, but I will give the quick summary. Matt Forte was his usual beastly self, accumulating nearly 100 of his 139 all-purpose yards on two long runs. Still, he was stopped far too many times for little to no gain, but such is life when you field an offensive line as lackluster as the Bears'. The Eagles linebackers are their biggest weakness on defense, and if Forte can get a block and break through the front four of the Eagles' D, he can once again get some highlight-reel runs against the Eagles this week. Having a fullback who can actually block will only help, but if the offensive line allows too many Eagles in the backfield, we will see a lot more of those goose-egg runs come Sunday.
As I already mentioned, Cutler had a great game through the air. He was sacked more times than any Bears fan would like to see, but when he had some time to settle in the pocket he played some of the best football of his Bears career. Two of his touchdown passes were of the "Why did you just do that Jay, here comes the interc... touchdown!" variety, one a laser that split double coverage and found Earl Bennett, the other a pass that Greg Olsen quite literally stole out of the hands of the safety before he could get the interception. Cringing aside, these are the types of throws Jay will have to make this week to outfox the much-improved Eagles secondary. We also saw the big advantage we have against any secondary - pure speed - work to our advantage last time around. In what is the only example of it that I can think of right now, Devin Hester put up huge yards on a perfectly-executed bubble screen, and was able to outrun everybody on a third quarter catch-and-run that would have been a touchdown except for a horse-collar tackle by the Eagles. Knox also had his moments, showing good presence of mind in making catches in the middle of the field, and pure speed when he converted a three-yard pass into a twenty-yard touchdown.
With the amount of pressure he saw from the Eagles last time, Cutler will also need to draw on his improvisational skills. He had some good rabbit-out-of-the-hat plays last time around, converting a key third-down on the Bears' final scoring drive by miraculously flipping the ball out of a gaggle of Eagles defenders to find an open Matt Forte. Cutler also was willing to tuck the ball and run when he had to, and while three of those runs went for little or no gain, he did gain another first down with an eleven-yard shuffle in the second half. If Jay is able to keep plays alive using his feet, he can negate some of the effects of the Eagles' pass-rush and continue to rack up big plays against the Eagles.
Play and Player of the Game
Dual honors for dual touchdowns: Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett. Bennett had his first two-touchdown game of his career, the first being a mind-boggling pass into double-coverage that Bennett was in exactly the right position for. Words cannot describe how happy I am that he will be back for this week, and I can imagine that Cutler feels pretty much the same. Cutler gets bonus points for getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for telling a ref "What the f**k were you looking at?" when they missed an obvious defensive holding call on Forte in the fourth - a dumb move, I suppose, but it was good to see him fired up.
In regards to Earl Bennett being back, I think his presence on the field will be key. With their vastly improved secondary, the Eagles will probably play a lot more press coverage than they did last time around. While the general complaint is that the Bears don't have a physical receiver, Earl Bennett is the closest thing they have to one. Last year, he showed just what I mean when he made a catch in tight coverage, shoved the trailing cornerback to the ground, broke another tackle, and continued on for a 32 yard catch-and-run. The Bears will need that kind of play out of him if we are going to have a solid aerial attack. Along with that, I expect that Mike Martz will take advantage of our lack of a true #1 receiver to wear down the Eagles secondary. By mixing around his wide receivers, he can force Nnamdi Asomugha and company to run with the likes of Johnny Knox and Devin Hester on one down, and face up against the more physical Bennett and Roy Williams the next. Martz would also be smart to use three-or-more receiver sets to allow Bennett and the rapidly developing Dane Sanzenbacher opportunities in the slot against weaker coverage. Matt Forte lined up in the slot a few times last year as well, and we all know what happens when he is covered by a linebacker in coverage: easy yards for the Bears.
On that note, the key will be the play of #22. If the Bears are able to establish the run, all the shutdown coverage the Eagles can put on our receivers won't matter. It will certainly help that Forte isn't backed up by Chester Taylor, who was simply horrible - 6 runs for -3 yards horrible - against the Eagles last year. Marion Barber should be back to 100% with the extra time off, and while I wouldn't start him on my fantasy team this week*, he should at least be able to spell Forte more effectively than ol' No-gain did last year.
*I might actually have to start him since Payton Hillis did not prove immune to the Madden Curse, but that's a different story altogether.
Desean Jackson is good, but last time I checked, he did not hold the record for most combined kick returns in NFL history. This fact bore out in the game last year, as the Bears were able to break some big runs on kick returns and won the special teams battle overall. While we gave up one nice return to Jackson - a 35 yard punt return - the big kick returns by both Hester and Danieal Manning both helped put points on the board by setting up short fields. Short story even shorter, we will win the special teams battle nine times out of ten, and I would bet on this being one of the nine.
Honorary Award for Bad Coaching Performance
While Lovie Smith is the master of the pointless challenge and the prevent-you-from-winning defense, Andy Reid was not to be outdone in the department of bad coaching. He wisely went for it on fourth and short at the edge of field goal range with his team down 13-31 in the fourth, but mere minutes later, he decided to take the field goal facing fourth and goal from the two. To be honest, I stopped rewatching the game after that, as the game was over - the Eagles were simply not going to be able to get two touchdowns in one quarter after having gotten one in the first three. Not sure what he was thinking when his team hadn't even seen the red zone in the third quarter and the Bears had been executing long drives good for points all day. Yes, there was still 11:51 left in the game, and the field goal did make the game a two-score affair, but still, bad call.
The record and my eyes agree that these are two evenly matched teams. The real question is who wants it more, and I can only hope that the Bears want it more. Not having home-field advantage this time around certainly won't help our chances, and while I won't be putting my money where my mouth is, I think the Bears can squeeze this one out if the D plays like they did last year and Cutler can make a little magic on offense. Here's hoping that I'm proven right on Sunday night, and see you back here next Wednesday when I try my best to go 2 for 2 in annoying Lions fans.