Moon: Bears have gone from hunter to hunted

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Moon: Bears have gone from hunter to hunted

Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011
Posted: 6:56 p.m.

By JohnMullin
CSNChicago.com BearsInsider Follow@CSNMoonMullin
The NFL is about pressure. Pressure to win. Pressure on quarterbacks. Pressure on defenses.

Coming off an 11-5 season and reaching the NFC Championship game, and then throttling the Atlanta Falcons, the Bears were administering the pressure.

Now, after two straight losses with less than 300 total yards of offense, a total of three touchdowns in those two games and quarterback Jay Cutler completing passes at a sub-50-percent rate, and a defense allowing third-down conversions at a 40-percent rate, the Bears have gone from hunter to hunted.

The 2005 team recovered from a 1-3 start to reach the playoffs but that was the only team in franchise history to start 1-3 and reach the postseason. Even the 1965 Bears, with Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, could finish no better than third place after stumbling that badly early.

If the 2011 Bears cannot get by the Carolina Panthers (1-2), at home, they will find themselves in exactly that canyon. The NFC North will be all be beyond reach if either or both the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions push their records to 4-0, and the climb into a wild-card spot will be almost as steep.

We realize where the others are, but really cant do a lot about them right now, said coach Lovie Smith. But for us, is there urgency? Is this a big game for us? Yes.

We want to finish this first quarter of the season at 2-2. NFC, home game. There are a lot of reasons. But you can start with us needing a win. We havent played well the last couple of weeks, as capable as were playing. Yes, we need to get a win.

As far as the ever-clichd must win, I dont think we need to go that far, Cutler said. We want to win them all. This is an important game for us. Were going to go out there. Were going to do everything possible to win. Theres a lot of football left. Theres a lot of things that can happen. I dont think we need to start panicking quite yet.

Yet could be just 60 minutes away on Sunday.

Pressure mounting?

The question will shift increasingly from a player here or a unit there, and on to offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Simply, if the need is for massive change, its not possible to fire all the players.

Given that the organization invested in a quarterback, No. 2 tailbacks (Chester Taylor, Marion Barber), lead receivers (Roy Williams), tight ends (Brandon Manumaleuna, Matt Spaeth) and offensive linemen (Chris Spencer, Gabe Carimi), expectations exist. Whether or not the particular acquisitions were the best will not be the point, particularly with Martz having had input in decisions.

The natural and inevitable fraying has started in small ways, which is just what happens when teams that know they are good enough to win, dont.

Anytime, I think its across the NFL, whenever youre losing games, theres a little bit of a sense of panic and a sense of doom, Cutler said. Weve just got to get over that.

Matching up

The Panthers have played nothing like the team that bumbled to a 2-14 record in 2010. The reason is simple and obvious: Cam Newton.

The rookie quarterback passed for more than 400 yards in his first two NFL games, losing by seven points to both Arizona and Green Bay. Then he managed a rain-swamped situation for a win over Jacksonville last Sunday.

Cutler is perhaps a little envious, having been sacked 14 times this season and seeing that Newton has gone down just eight times, right about the NFL average of 7.2. And Cutler figures Newton hasnt seen anyone quite like Julius Peppers, either.

Newtons production is pretty impressive, Cutler said. Theyve done a good job protecting him, and hes got some playmakers on the outside. Well see how he does against our guys.

Our guys will have more than just Newton to worry about. When he was a Bear, Greg Olsen was perceived as a coverage matchup problem; too big for safeties, too fast for linebackers. Now he is in Carolina in an offense that also has Jeremy Shockey, making two matchup concerns for a defense that has had three different starting safety tandems in three games.

Rookie safety Chris Conte may be a assigned an expanded role against Olsen-Shockey packages. Conte is a former cornerback who has worked in training camp and beyond in coverage drills with the corners and has brings size (6-2) to the secondary and more speed than strong-side linebacker Nick Roach.

Do not look for the Panthers to follow the approaches of Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, however. All three Bears opponents have rushed for more than 100 yards and the Bears are allowing 4.6 yards per rushing attempt.

Some history

The Panthers have lost nine straight road games but Carolina has never been a good playmate for the Bears, particularly in Chicago. The Panthers set a record for wins by an expansion team (7) in 1995 and gave the Bears a 31-27 scare in Soldier Field.
Steve Smith piled up 218 receiving yards in the 2005 divisional round playoff game in Soldier Field. Smith is older and a little slower but still a bad memory for a number of Bears.

When Smith gets the ball, he's kind of like a running back, said linebacker Lance Briggs. He's not an easy guy to bring down. The lesson learned is just don't take any of these games for granted.

We need this game."

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Pro Football Focus has more than its share of both supporters and detractors of how it goes about grading NFL players. They break down every snap for every player, and while there are general agreements on what's seen by naked, untrained eyes who don't put the time and investment into its system that PFF does, there are other evaluations that seem to come out of the blue. While there's occasional guesswork on a player's particular assignment on a given play within its scheme, those of us who've watched and studied nuances of the game, or those who've played it, can usually identify how many jobs were done correctly.

Tuesday, PFF released its rankings of all 32 NFL rosters but in essence focused on the quality of each team's starting lineup, listing the Bears — are you sitting down? — 18th in the league. That's ahead of the likes of the Ravens, Saints, Texans, Dolphins, a Jaguars franchise that's had tons of high draft picks in recent years, as well as the Broncos and Lions (whom they rank 28th). The top five are the Falcons, Patriots, Titans, Packers and Steelers (the Bears play three of those teams in September alone). Among other Bears opponents, they rank the Panthers 10th, Vikings 12th, Buccaneers 13th and Eagles 15th.

[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Their evaluation is based on each player's final score from last season, "elite" and "good" being the top two levels, followed by "average" and "below average" to "poor." The only Bear earning elite status was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Another nine Bears finished with good grades: Jordan Howard, Zach Miller, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps (who earned his grade in Houston).

Those earning average grades were Cam Meredith, Kendall Wright, Kyle Long, Charles Leno, Jr., Pernell McPhee and Prince Amukamara. Below average: Mike Glennon (in mop-up duty in Tampa Bay), Kevin White, Bobby Massie, Leonard Floyd and Jaye Howard. The only Bear earning a poor grade among projected starters was tight end Dion Sims (with Miami). The other potential flaw is that PFF lists Kyle Fuller (no grade) and Bryce Callahan (average) as starters when Marcus Cooper and Cre'Von LeBlanc likely have the inside track to start at cornerback and nickel back, respectively.

How did the Bears get to 18th, above three playoff teams and another that won the Super Bowl two years ago? Well, all of those other teams have more elite players at certain positions, but it's offset by a number of spots occupied by more players with poor or below average grades. The Broncos (25th) for instance, had four elite players, just another four falling under the good grade, but five players listed as poor.

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

So Jordan Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing in his rookie season, despite just a dozen carries in the first three games. The fifth-round pick joined the man who beat him out for the rushing title, Ezekiel Elliott, as one of just five rookies in history to average five or more yards per carry on over 250 carries. And he set the Bears' rookie rushing record with his 1,313 yards while becoming just the fourth in franchise history to rush for that many yards in a season.

Sounds pretty hard to top, like we might be set up for the dreaded sophomore slump.

But...

"Things are a lot different this year because I know what to expect," Howard said during the team's minicamp two weeks ago. "I know all the plays and things like that. I’m not out there thinking, so I can just play free and fast.

"I definitely feel like a veteran 'cause I know what to expect and can help the young guys on the plays that they're not understanding. I’m just more comfortable and want to be a leader."

One of the other things we learned about Howard last year is he's low-key, a man of few words. So the Indiana product by way of UAB will make his points verbally when needed, but his actions will speak louder.

"He was a rookie a year ago and didn't even go in trying to be a leader, telling a five-year guy what was up," said head coach John Fox. "I think with time, and obviously with production like he had, I think it's a role he can fall in to. We're in a performance-based business and even in that locker room, what they do on Sundays gives them some credibility."

One of the concerns about Howard coming out of college was durability, but he answered the bell once he became the starter in week four against Detroit. And he probably wasn't used nearly as much as he should have. The good news about that is he was subject to less wear and tear, averaging just 18 carries per game from that Lions game on.

But besides taking more of a leadership role, Howard wanted to work on his speed without sacrificing the strong base that, paired with keen vision and work by the offensive line, allowed him to hit holes quickly and charge toward the second level of opposing defenses.

"Just improving on the little things – my conditioning, my weight, catching passes. And looking for ways to finish runs better," says Howard. "I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up."

"It's just training," said Fox. "When you get to that it's more like track speed than football speed and I think he proved pretty worthy of that a year ago as a rookie. Y'know we all can improve on things, and that's the expectation. He's trained hard.

"This time of year last year he wasn’t even practicing," Fox remembered. "I like where we are, we’ve brought in more competition, and he’s better for it. He’s kind of gotten used to an NFL season, he’s come back ready to roll, but he still has work to do before we get to training camp."  

Oh, and the 22-year-old has a couple of other goals he didn't mind sharing, besides being a leader and getting a little faster.

"First off, make the playoffs. Be the leading rusher, and just help the team in any way I can and stay consistent."