Bears coach Lovie Smith knew exactly what he wanted to focus on Monday as he delivered his weekly post-game analysis at Halas Hall.
“Let’s get to the fourth quarter right away,” Smith said after stepping to the microphone.
Nevermind those three-plus quarters of futility.
Regardless of whether it’s handsome or ugly, the bottom line is that the Bears (6-1) keep winning games. They have won five in a row to extend their lead in the NFC North to a game and a half, and they are favored to win again Sunday when they visit the Tennessee Titans.
To beat the Titans, as well as every other team on their schedule, the Bears will have to address their mistake-prone offense. They overcame a terrible start against the Panthers with some big plays in the fourth quarter, but it’s risky to count on comebacks every week.
Here’s a look at how the Bears graded after a second viewing of the game:
Jay Cutler (55 snaps) deserved a failing grade for the first half because of two fumbles and an interception, but he stepped up when it mattered most by driving the offense 55 yards in the final 2:20 to set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal. His terrific fourth quarter (12 for 14, 106 yards, TD, 122.0 passer rating) erased a miserable three quarters (7 for 14, 80 yards, INT, 37.8 passer rating), but he has to work on releasing the ball more quickly in the pocket.
Running backs: A
Matt Forte (50 snaps) ran hard and effectively from his first carry until his final carry, but Mike Tice and the coaching staff failed to take full advantage of his success.
Forte was the star of the Bears’ first scoring drive, following one block by Chilo Rachal for a 16-yard gain and sprinting up the middle for a 13-yard touchdown as left tackle J’Marcus Webb pulled across the line of scrimmage. Michael Bush (five snaps) was a nonfactor, and his lack of action was another head-scratcher on the part of the coaching staff.
What’s with all of the drops? Brandon Marshall (53 snaps) dropped an easy pass for what should have been a first down late in the second quarter, and on the next play he dropped a tougher pass (but one that should have been a catch) along the sideline. Devin Hester (40 snaps) continued to struggle as a receiver, dropping a pass for what should have been a third-down conversion in the third quarter. Earl Bennett (37 snaps) helped to spark the passing game with a pair of receptions at the end of the third quarter, and coaches might want to increase his playing time.
Tight ends: B
Kellen Davis (55 snaps) overcame a slow start by making the best and most important catch of the game for the Bears. Davis sprinted past the Panthers’ linebackers, turned his head and made a leaping catch behind safety Charles Godfrey and in front of safety Sherrod Martin. Matt Spaeth (24 snaps) was strong as usual in the blocking game but dropped an easy pass in the second quarter.
Offensive line: C Six sacks against Cutler is far too many, although a couple of those were the fault of the quarterback for not throwing the ball away as pressure arrived. The worst play belonged to Webb (55 snaps), who was beaten badly by Dwan Edwards for a sack in the second quarter. Roberto Garza (55 snaps) annoyed Cutler with a false start on third-and-12 in the fourth quarter on a drive that eventually ended in a missed field goal by Gould.
Defensive line: B
Playing against his former team, Julius Peppers (59 snaps) enjoyed one of his best games of the season. He registered two sacks and a forced fumble, but one of his best plays came on a quarterback pressure that forced Cam Newton to rush his pass. The result was an interception by Tim Jennings – a perfect example of the Bears’ “rush and cover” mantra. Israel Idonije (60 snaps) lost contain on a bootleg by Newton in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, defensive tackles Henry Melton (59 snaps), Stephen Paea (52 snaps) and Nate Collins (35 snaps) each helped to stuff the Panthers’ ground game.
Brian Urlacher (82 snaps) and Lance Briggs (82 snaps) had mixed results. Both players missed tackles on a 15-yard reception by Mike Tolbert in the third quarter, and Urlacher was wiped out on a block as Newton scrambled for 7 yards and a first down on the next series. Yet Urlacher batted down a pass in the first quarter, and Briggs helped to stuff Tolbert short of the first-down marker early in the fourth quarter. That forced the Panthers to punt, which led to the scoring drive that sparked the Bears’ comeback.
It’s hard to believe, but Tim Jennings (82 snaps) never had scored a defensive touchdown in the NFL before his 25-yard interception return Sunday. Jennings was beat several times by Panthers receiver Steve Smith, but he competed hard and it paid off in the fourth quarter. Charles Tillman (82 snaps) sprinted in from the right side to stuff Jonathan Stewart for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter. D.J. Moore (31 snaps) had a quiet game at nickelback.
Chris Conte (82 snaps) had his roughest game of the season and will have to bounce back in Week 9 at Tennessee. Conte took a bad angle on a pass to Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell, who slipped behind him and sprinted for a 62-yard gain in the first quarter. Conte also drew a penalty for coming in high against LaFell in the third quarter. It was a tough call, but one that is made every week in the NFL. Major Wright (81 snaps) forced a fumble at the goal line and kept plays in front of him.
Special teams: C
As the weather starts to turn, the Bears should be grateful for their veteran kicker. Yes, Gould missed a 33-yard field goal attempt that he almost always makes, but he also drilled a 41-yard game-winner into a swirling wind as time expired. Meanwhile, the Panthers’ fear of Hester led to great field position throughout the game for the Bears.