What could have been the Bears at .500 heading into a Thanksgiving rematch with the Packers turned into an uphill battle against a strong Broncos defense and an offense that wouldn't go away, coupled with their own mistakes.
And that was in no small part due to the Broncos' offense dictating the flow of the game from step one. We'll get into the game itself in a minute, but Brock Osweiler's first NFL start realistically couldn't have gone much better than it did today. The ground game gave him a ton of help; he took his first read when he could, at times locking and sticking with it too long, but oftentimes he could hit his man wide open after a wildly effective play-action game, or even firing a hard missile into a tight window. The Broncos didn't have a great offensive showing behind their new signal caller, but it was enough for them to win the game when their counterparts in navy and orange couldn't convert when they got in the red zone.
We can start where we usually do, at the beginning, but a three-and-out by the Bears offense isn't that exciting, so let's go to the Broncos' first drive, where Osweiler got a huge boost from his running game right away as Ronnie Hillman took the first play for 29 yards; on the fourth play, Osweiler took advantage of play action to catch the Bears' linebackers out of position and hit a wide open (I'd put emphasis, but the sheer caps lock usage and italics, coupled with an infinite number of extra "I"s in "Wide Open" would make it a nightmare on your eyes) Demaryius Thomas for a 48-yard touchdown strike.
The Bears' first points didn't come until their fifth drive; this one saw Ka'Deem Carey take advantage of a sequence to pick up 20 yards on five carries and a good catch and run by Marquess Wilson to advance the ball downfield before stalling out in the red zone on incompletions to Martellus Bennett and Jeremy Langford.
After another punt, the Bears again got into field goal range, thanks to a long reception by Josh Bellamy, before again stalling out in the red zone. The Broncos ended the first half on a 13-play, 82-yard drive that saw only one third down and a lot of easy marching down the field - not a great way to go into the half.
The third quarter saw Jay Cutler's first interception in about a month, as Marquess Wilson was bracketed, Cutler threw anyway, and Danny Trevathan snared the pass easily and returned it to the Bears' 25 yard line. It was simply a throw that shouldn't have been made, though I imagine it's a weird circumstance for both Cutler and Wilson for Wilson to have bracket coverage. (This is sarcasm; yes, Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal both missed and right now, nobody is afraid of Martellus Bennett.)
Fortunately, the Broncos couldn't do anything with it; they attempted to punch it into the end zone on fourth down and it was shut down by Christian Jones at the 2 yard line. The Bears came back down the field, thanks to Shane Ray committing an offside penalty, Brandon Marshall committing a defensive pass interference penalty against Bennett, and Cutler finding Wilson for a short toss and long gain of 29 yards, before again stalling out completely in the red zone and settling for another field goal.
The very next drive, Osweiler found Cody Latimer with enough room to fire a ball at for ten yards and a touchdown to push the game to 17-9, which set up a contentious John Fox decision on the next drive. After Cutler scrambled for 18 yards and picked up another 15 on a TJ Ward helmet to helmet shot, Cutler found Wilson for 40 yards - a better thrown or better adjusted-to ball and that could certainly be a touchdown. Three plays later, it's fourth and goal at the four.
Earlier in the game, at 4th and 1 at about the 45, the Bears elected to punt; here, they chose to go for it. After the snap, the play just looked incredibly confused, with Cutler looking like he wanted to run twice before lobbing the ball in the direction of Jeremy Langford, buried between a couple Denver defenders.
I'll give my full thoughts on the sequence of going for it versus going for the three points a little later when I hit the bullets, but I didn't have an issue with the decision to go for it at that time. Things always look more clear in hindsight, but the final score being what it was isn't a justification of the merits of one decision versus another.
The Bears next drive was originally credited an interception, but upon further review, it was changed to a fumble, and rightly so. It wasn't an interception as the ball was swatted out of the hands of Cutler and the throwing motion shoved the loose ball forward, off the back of a Bears offensive lineman, into the hands of a Bronco defender.
The Bears' final drive, well... if the Bears could have done anything aside from whiff in the red zone as badly as they did, this drive would have sealed the game for them. Martellus Bennett drew his third defensive pass interference call of the game; Zach Miller picked up another reception for 20 yards, and Jeremy Langford punched in his third running touchdown in three weeks. On the two point conversion, Cutler checked to a run play, and Langford was bottled up easily as it didn't appear everybody on the Bears blocking unit got the memo. And just like that, the rally was over as the onside kick sailed into a Bronco's hands.
- All these offensive struggles wasted what ended up being a mixed, yet productive day for the Bears' defense, as they notched five sacks against the fourth-year quarterback making his debut on his birthday with his family in attendance (I think something like that was mentioned on the broadcast, I'm hazy on the details). It certainly won't be confused with a great performance, because it wasn't, but they kept the game in reach and stood tall when they had to - which of course was generally after one of their miscues put them in a rough position in the first place. Play action froze Bears' linebackers frequently, opening up huge opportunities - there's one play where Sam Acho was absolutely clowned on a play fake where Osweiler faked it and ran around Acho before unloading a pass where Acho just kind of looked dumbfounded.
- I liked the look of sending Adrian Amos to pick up his first career sack; the good ol' DB blitz is something I'd like to see a little more. But it did seem like the Bears did sell out the pass rush in an attempt to rattle the the inexperienced Osweiler, and in doing so, the Broncos' run game ran roughshod to the tune of 170 yards and 4.7 yards per carry; the Bears couldn't keep pace. The pass rush certainly was effective at times, but when it didn't get home, it really didn't get home.
- Even though Osweiler was making his debut, we need to keep in mind a few things. First, he'd basically sat for three years. Second, he was coming into a great situation - 7-2 team, replacing an immobile statue who can't put the authority on passes that he once could, with a ton of offensive talent and the top-ranked defense in the NFL. The best case for the Bears would be that the Broncos wasted a second round pick on a guy who after four years couldn't play football. The fact is, while he had his rough spots, Osweiler played a really good game, was able to keep things simple, got a lot of support all over the offense, and the defense stiffened up in the red zone.
- Speaking of the broadcast, Dan Fouts can be done any time he wants to be done. He was abysmal yesterday.
- Okay, so, my thoughts on going for it on fourth and 4 in that situation versus kicking the field goal (and please, save the "they woulda won the game" shrillness - you don't know how that changes the game from that point). Basically, here are the scenarios for each outcome.
- Kick the field goal: The score is 17-12, you're kicking the ball with 10 minutes left. You have to make at least one full drive down the field again against the league's top ranked defense with no weapons of note, assuming the Broncos don't score again - and there's little reason to think they can't at least move the ball.
- Going for it is either a touchdown/2-point conversion, which ties the game; a touchdown with a failed conversion, which makes it 17-15 and kicking off (difference from above being needing a field goal to win versus only a touchdown); or leaving the Broncos at their four yard line. Again, you have no weapons of note, but if you get four yards, then two yards, you tie the game.
Personally, I feel better about getting six yards in two plays with few weapons than I do about hoping the game situation stays at 17-12 with a full field to go without those same weapons. Fox's gamble had plenty of rationale. He was wrong about it being the Bears' final opportunity, of course, but with respect to the game situation and the possible outcomes, it's certainly not the hindsight-driven indefensible position that many would decry it as. Some decisions work. Some don't.
- One thing that I would get on the coaches for - I don't seem to recall a single screen pass all game, in a game where one would think getting the ball out would be a priority, and when a ton of other options just aren't available. The Broncos were stacking the box a lot; the Bears really could have taken some advantage.
- Martellus Bennett was bad. He caught two balls for 26 yards and drew several defensive pass interference penalties, but not only was he not getting open, he almost always seemed like he had a defensive player in his pocket and it looks like his blocking is suffering as well. On a Cutler run from deep in Bears territory, Bennett looked completely unprepared for Cutler to take off, almost looking as if he was squaring to tackle Cutler himself. For leading the team in receptions entering the game, Bennett has looked invisible for stretches, and at a time when the team's top weapons are unavailable, the team can't afford Bennett faltering like this.
- A couple of Bennett numbers: He's only topped 60 receiving yards once this year, and that was his 11-catch game against Oakland. Against Minnesota he had three for 32 and last week against the Rams he had 3 for 18 yards.
- Keep in mind the Bears just completed a game of zero penalties. Zero. None. The Broncos committed 8 for 118 yards, including the three aforementioned defensive pass interference penalties. The Broncos were doing everything they could to keep the Bears in the game, but the Bears just couldn't finish drives. Even one of those field goals turning to a touchdown instead would have been enough to win the game.
- Marc Mariani off kick returns was a sight that needed to be seen. Early in the year he was at least getting it to the 20+ out of the end zone, but an inability to do that coupled with his ball security issues the last couple week necessitated the change, and Deonte Thompson wasn't a bad sight back there. Mariani looked like he was working a little harder on his punt returns as well.
So, all that said, the Bears are 4-6 and ready for a matchup with the Packers on Thanksgiving. Do you feel worse about that matchup? What are your thoughts from yesterday's loss?