In anticipation of this Sunday's match-up between a scruffy-beared quarterback versus a quarterback thrust into action because of untimely injuries, I wanted to look back at another game in which we saw the Neckbeard take on a questionably-prepared quarterback. The last time around, however, Kyle Orton was one of the good guys and Cody Pickett the woefully unprepared opponent. This game was a mixture of horrible mistakes, amazing plays, and some of the worst quarterbacking I have seen on an NFL field, but is a good lesson in how (and how not) to win without a Jay Cutler - or even a Rex Grossman - under center. Travel below the fold to feel nostalgic for Kyle Orton's record-setting rookie season and with the hope that Lovie can recapture some of that 2005 magic against our old pal.
Going into the game, it didn't look good on paper for the Bears. With Rex Grossman out before the regular season even began and Thomas Jones, Bernard Berrian, and Mark Bradley all ruled out for Week 10's game, the Bears' offensive roster was looking thin in the skill positions. That said, 49ers head coach Mike Nolan and offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy probably envied our position: with his first-round rookie QB Alex Smith and backup Ken Dorsey both sidelined, he had to go with his seventh-round rookie Cody Pickett for a third week. Combine the lack of offensive experience on the field with one of the gustier games in Chicago history - winds were blowing up to 35 mph for most of the day - and you had all the makings of what you could either call a defensive struggle or an offensive disaster.
A struggle it was, although the Bears seemed to slowly be getting the better of the 49ers over the first quarter. The Bears came out passing, at least on the first play, a short swing route completion to fullback Bryan Johnson. Even with San Francisco loading up the box against the run, Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson were still able to find some holes, racking up two first downs before running up against a third and long. The wind took Orton's pass to Justin Gage and sent it well into the Bears' sideline, and after the punt, it was time for the Bears defense to do its part. The 49ers, with even less trust in their quarterback than the Bears had, put their hope in running backs Kevan Barlow and rookie Frank Gore. At least for now, this hope was put on ice by Mike Brown. On second down, Brown hit the gap perfectly and made a devastating hit on Barlow to set up for the inevitable three-and-out. Walking off the field, Urlacher signaled to the sideline that San Francisco was 0-1 on third downs, a down payment on their final 2-16 mark for third downs.
After Orton led another three-and-out notable only because his one passing attempt once again blew off into the bench, the defense once again held its own. Ron Rivera wasn't even bothering to pretend to sit back in coverage, and routinely stacked up the box with eight or even nine defenders to stop the inevitable run play. On this drive, it was Tommie Harris with the big play. He worked past three (!) blockers with a great combination of moves and was able to hit Barlow in the backfield to once again stop the 49ers in their tracks. With the Bears now finally getting some good field position, it was time for another heavy dose of Benson and Peterson. Three runs were good for two first downs, and it was time for the biggest offensive play of the first quarter. Kyle Orton faked the handoff to the left and rolled right on a naked bootleg to the left. With a wide receiver deep and his fullback on the short route, the zone was split open for the middle receiver, Dez Clark, who converted the pass for a whopping ten yard gain. 49ers defensive tackle Anthony Adams was able to get a hand on Orton's next pass, but the Bears were in range for what seemed to be an field goal for rookie Robbie Gould. The wind had other ideas, however, and the kick sailed almost over the sideline as it blew off its mark.
While they didn't even attempt a pass in the first quarter, San Francisco had to at least try one in the half for form's sake. The pass didn't get past the line of scrimmage after a blitzing Bear got a paw on it, and one run-stop by Alex Brown later, the 49ers had to punt again. Bobby Wade, eager to make something happen, scooped up the bouncing punt, and made a nice move to get past the first defender. The second defender made an ever better move, however, and popped the ball loose to force a fumble that the 49ers recovered. The Bears gave up some yards on the ground, but made the stop with the 49ers on the edge of field goal position. Nathan Vasher jumped offsides on the fourth and four field goal attempt, and after some deliberation, 49ers coach Mike Nolan took the points of the board with the hope of getting seven. Brian Urlacher and Chris Harris weren't about to let that happen, and made back-to-back tackles for loss to set up an even shorter field goal for San Francisco. It was once again good, and the 49ers creeped out to a 3-0 lead.
They say running the ball early in the game sets up for longer run plays as a defense wears down, and with the second quarter already halfway gone, it was time for the great play of the Bears' offensive line to pay dividends. Dez Clark and John Tait blew open a huge hole for Benson on first down, and he gobbled up eighteen yards before a safety could bring him down. On the next play, Adrian Peterson was almost as lucky, blasting straight ahead for eight more yards. With the ball already in San Francisco territory, it was time to take another shot. San Francisco came on the left side with a run blitz, but Dez Clark made a quick chip-block and released downfield. Kyle Orton found him wide open for a second time, and Clark made it all the way to the 13 before finally getting brought down. The drive came to a screeching halt when Cedric Benson went down with a knee injury after getting dropped for a loss, but the Bears were set up for a very makable field goal. It was the long snap that got caught in the wind this time, and Brad Maynard, unable to get the ball down in time, was lucky to be able to throw the ball away and at least give the 49ers a slightly longer field to work with on this second botched kick.
It was another three-and-out for the 49ers, this one set up by a nasty tackle-for-a-loss by Alex Brown on first down that they couldn't recover from. Bobby Wade's game went from bad to worse on his next attempt at a punt return, once again coughing up the ball and giving it back to the 49ers. The defense held again, and with two seconds left, San Francisco opted to go for a 52 yard field goal. The Bears lined up ready to go for the block, but Nathan Vasher bailed out at the last second with the hope the kick went short. It was short - by a mere two yards - and after thinking the better of taking a knee in the end zone with no time left on the clock, he ran it out. He started up the left hash, got a couple of blocks, and then changed his tack over to the right sideline. Picking up blockers as he switched fields, Vasher ended up running full-speed down the visitor's side of the field with a fleet in front of him. Vasher got the final block he needed from Brian Urlacher and collapsed into the end zone having just made the longest scoring play in NFL history. After dropping a goose-egg on offense, this crazy play gave the Bears a 7-3 at the half.W
Having tied a team record by throwing for zero passing yards in the first half but now trailing, San Francisco had to take their chances, even if they didn't want to. At first, the chances paid off, with Pickett finding Brandon Lloyd for a 28-yard catch-and-run to change fields. Combine that play with their biggest run of the day, a seventeen yard run that left Alex Brown swiping at air in the backfield as he lost containment, and San Francisco was able to close the margin to one point with another field goal. And while Orton was able to make a nice eight yard pass on a quick slant, it was three-and-out again for the Bears. The D couldn't have been happy about losing the turnover battle and giving up points so early in the half, but they knew how to make it right. After two San Francisco runs that went nowhere, poor Pickett had to pass it. The pass was tipped before it made it to Lloyd on the slant, and both Vasher and Charles Tillman came up with the ball. If the Vasher return was one of the most crazy plays, this was one of the most humorous - the two Bears, perhaps not realizing they were both on the same team, actually fought for possession for a second before simply going down to the ground together to secure the pick.
Orton was due for his interception of the game, and he obliged the 49ers by missing an open Mushin Muhammad in the end zone. Pickett was almost as bad on the next possession, although his one pass at least did him the favor of sailing out of bounds. With the Bears once again deep in their own territory and down to their last running back, Lovie was probably just hoping to run out the clock for a one-point win. But given the chance to shine, Adrian Peterson had bigger things in mind. Olin Kreutz blew open a huge hole for him on the first play of the drive, and Peterson surged straight ahead for 33 yards. Orton made his best "pass" of the day on the next play, overthrowing Dez Clark on the out route but getting the ball just close enough to him that the ref could call pass interference on San Francisco. Orton earned the Bears some more free yards by taking a cheap shot after making a quick completion to Mark Bradley, and Adrian Peterson drove the ball in from there, giving the Bears an eight point lead they would maintain for the rest of the game. While Brandon Lloyd gave the 49ers some hope of making it a closer game, two well-thrown passes went through his hands when he looked away from the ball to see Mike Brown bearing down on him. Hard to win when even the passes that are close to the receivers end up on the turf, I suppose.
The two teams did trade field goals, but there was little other excitement in the fourth quarter other than two more turnovers off of punts, one of which finally was in the Bears' favor. Lovie Smith and Bears fans, however, couldn't have been happier about such a boring ending: when the team is winning because of a strong run game and a brutal defense, it's hard to complain when the team does everything it can to run time off the clock as a game winds down. Orton, for all his flaws, didn't get enough credit for what he did do well, which was to make less mistakes than the other guy. Even if he didn't win games for us in 2005, he didn't lose them, which is what we need Hanie to do now. What we really need, though, it the defense to do to the Orton what it did to the Cody Pickett in 2005: make Orton look every bit the part of the quarterback with less than two weeks of practice with the team. While it breaks my heart to root against Orton, we have to find ways to make him the lesser of two quarterbacks this Sunday. The whisky Lovie Smith left in the visitors' locker room can only help.