Moon: Ready or not, here they (the playoffs) come

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Moon: Ready or not, here they (the playoffs) come

Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011
Posted: 10:17 a.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

Two weeks ago Lovie Smith made a change. Whether it was the right move will be determined during a three-hour span Sunday afternoon.

Smith, the consummate players coach, reversed his previous course on resting veterans in so-called meaningless games and played Jay Cutler, Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and the rest throughout against the Green Bay Packers. The intensity doubtless flagged somewhat; players after all are human and when you know something doesnt matter, you simply dont work as hard, not matter what people say.

But his quarterback had never been in a playoff game his still-developing offensive line needed to experience the playoff intensity with which Green Bay was playing the final weeks of the regular season in order to qualify. So Smith kept the pedal down rather than give someone like Cutler more than two full weeks without game meaningful preparations.

The inept, six-sack, three-point performance should have clued at least the offense that it was not ready for the playoffs.

We kept playing football, Smith said. We wanted to make improvements as often as we could. And having another chance to play against an opponent that's fighting to get into the playoffs, it had to help us in a lot of different ways.

Hopefully all those things, whether they did or not, will show up Sunday.

Shaky opponent

The Seattle Seahawks (8-9) come into Soldier Field a 9-12 point underdog, only slightly less than they were at home last weekend against the New Orleans Saints.

They arent particularly good at anything.

The Seahawks are the only of the remaining eight playoff teams to rank no higher than 19th in any of the major areas: passing yardage (19th), rushing yardage (31st), passing defense (27th) and rushing defense (21st).

They are the only of the Elite Eight not in the top eight in scoring defense (25th). And they are the only final-eighter with a negative turnover ratio, a minus-9 that ranked 28th.

But for all that, they are in the divisional playoffs and the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts are not. Thats all that matters ultimately.

And as players were reminded daily this week, the Seahawks defeated the Bears, in Soldier Field, 23-20 and were 4-2 at that time. And it left some scars.

They executed better than we did, said linebacker Brian Urlacher, adding, Obviously, its gonna be a little different this time.

It needs to be. Urlacher acknowledged that the Seahawks threw when and where they wanted and had the Bears on their heels most of the game.

I dont care what theyre record is or anything like that, Urlacher said. Theyve essentially won two games in a row in the playoffs because they had to win that game to get in against St. Louis, and then they beat New Orleans last week.

Causes for concern

The Bears have allowed an average of 32 points in their last three home games, all against playoff teams: 26 to Philadelphia, 36 to New England, 34 to the New York Jets.

Notably perhaps, the only team to score more than 20 on the Bears before the Philadelphia game was Seattle, which tied that first game 7-7 with an 80-yard drive in the first quarter and never trailed again.

We have to play better than we did last time, Smith said. They deserved to win that football game. Normally you don't get a second chance. We need to make the most of our second chance.

That game was marked by the return of Cutler from a week missed due to a concussion suffered two weeks earlier against the Giants. He was sacked six times, threw for no touchdowns and failed to complete 50 percent of his passes for one of only two times all season.

Whether he was fully back from his concussion or hindered by missing the week of the Carolina game is a matter of conjecture. So too is whether facing Seattle a second time helps the Bears or the Seahawks more.

I dont know if it benefits us or not, Cutler said. Teams change so much from game to game. I think were a completely different team from week one to week 16 so if we do play somebody weve played before, you can guarantee theyre going to have something special drawn up for us.

That something special is likely to include all-out pressure on Cutler. Seattles six sacks in the first meeting included 4-12 by defensive backs. And only Seattle among the final playoff teams has worse than the Bears plus-4 turnover ratio. The Bears rank 30th in yardage on offense, two notches below the Seahawks, and 21st in scoring on offense, just two spots above Seattle.
Matt factor
The temptation has been there, even in Seattle, to dismiss quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. At age 35 he has battled nagging injuries and given Pete Carroll reason to flirt with the Charlie Whitehurst Experience. He is the lowest-rated passer of the eight quarterbacks remaining in the playoffs.

But Hasselbeck, just like Cutler on the Bears side, still represents real danger. While the highlight of the playoffs to date was Marshawn Lynchs 67-yard touchdown run to clinch the game, it was primarily Hasselbecks passing that had the Seahawks ahead 34-20 after three quarters.

Had the Seattle defense been able to prevent New Orleans from scoring 10 unanswered points, Hasselbecks 265 passing yards and four touchdown passes would have been the talk of the wild-card round.

He knows what to look for as hes getting ready for a game, said former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer. If you do what he thinks youre going to do, and he has any time in the pocket whatsoever, hes going to slice and dice you.

Indeed, with an extra week to prepare for the first Bears game, Hasselbeck was one of only three regular starting quarterbacks this season (along with Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez) to manage a higher passer rating against the Bears than their seasons average.

More important perhaps, he has the capability of game-winning play with less of the impulsive risk component inherent with Cutler, who is in his first postseason, not his sixth, which Hasselbeck is.

Its very important to get pressure on him, get him to move his feet, but really to shut the run down, make them one-dimensional, make Hasselbeck beat us, said linebacker Lance Briggs. These are things that weve needed to do all year long and these are part of the keys to us winning games.

The game-changer

But on the serious downside, Seattle is the only team in the playoffs with a negative turnover ratio (minus-9) and Hasselbeck, perhaps surprisingly, was the main reason. He matched his career high in interceptions, throwing 17 for the second year in a row vs. 12 interceptions, and his passer rating was the lowest since 2001, his first year in Seattle.

If there are no takeaways in the game, the best team wins, said cornerback Charles Tillman. If you're plus-one you get a 75 percent chance of winning, plus-two like 85 and if you're plus-three it's more like a 95 percent chance that you'll win the game. Definitely, takeaways are huge.

That always has been the mantra of Lovie Smith and remains in place as the surest way to beat Seattle.

Most of the time, these games are decided on other things in the playoffs -- turnover ratio, Smith said. Its going to come down to something as simple as that. Who tackles the best, what team protects the football the best and what team takes away the football the most.

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

Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

[MORE BEARS: Back from scary concussion, Leonard Floyd playing like franchise pass rusher Bears craved]

Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”

Bears In-Foe: Matt Barkley about to get a different type of test

Bears In-Foe: Matt Barkley about to get a different type of test

If the Lions can intercept Drew Brees three times in the Superdome, and keep him without a touchdown pass in his home digs for the first time in seven years, what does that mean for Matt Barkley in his third NFL start, and first on the road?

Teryl Austin's unit held its sixth straight opponent to 20 points or less without its leading tackler, middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead (knee). The reason Whitehead's stepped up is due to the absence of stud linebacker DeAndre Levy, who's practicing, but has yet to play since the opener, due to leg injuries. This on the heels of playing just 17 snaps a year ago. 

It's remarkable what Austin's been able to do with a taped-together defense (sound familiar?) that was rocked by the loss of Ndamukong Suh a year ago (much less Levy's health issues).

[SHOP: Get your Bears gear right here] 

Who's stepped up? Undrafted fire hydrant lineman Kerry Hyder (seven sacks). Devin Taylor (heard of him?) has 4.5 sacks. How about Armonty Bryant (3.0 sacks)? This as Ezekiel Ansah, who came into the season with 30 sacks in 46 NFL games (14.5 last season) has ZERO so far this season. He missed the first meeting with the Bears, which helped in a 17-14 win. 

Haloti Ngata is the linchpin along the line, the 32-year-old rebounding from an injury-plagued 2015. Second-round rookie A'Shawn Robinson and Tyrunn Walker also rotate in effectively.

With their linebacker health woes, they've loaded up on three-safety setups, and will throw in a fourth to serve as undersized help on the second level. Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson are the listed "starters" but Rafael Bush and 6-foot-2 rookie "hitter" Miles Killebrew roll into their packages.

[RELATED: Bears In-Foe: Since last meeting, Lions roar restored]

Opponents tend to stay away from shutdown corner Darius Slay, who approached that status (and four-year, $48 million July payday) last season, and whose late Thanksgiving pick vs. Minnesota set up a game-winning field goal. Nevin Lawson may be "just" 5-foot-9, plays physical and fast on the opposite side, but the Lions may face a dilemma at what to do in their nickel package after Quandre Diggs reportedly suffered a season-ending pectoral injury Sunday in NOLA.

Special teams

Matt Prater kicked the longest field goal in NFL history for John Fox in Denver back in 2013 (64 yards in Mile High altitude), but still consistently connects from distance. He's 5-of-5 from 50-plus this season in going 26-for-29 overall (while missing two extra points).

Andre Roberts handles both kickoff and punt return duties. His 14.6-yard average on the latter leads the league, courtesy of two touchdown returns. The Lions also rank seventh in punt coverage and 10th in kickoff coverage.

Their "Teams" overall? Special.