Cutler, resurgent Broncos take on Bears
November 23, 2007
CHICAGO ” Lovie Smith built his coaching reputation on defense. At various stops through the college and pro ranks, he gathered information and formed a blueprint on how to shut down what the other team was trying to do.
Smith’s philosophy went well beyond just stopping the opponent. He made his defense an offense, preaching that his players make it a mission to take the ball away and score.
It worked last season, and the Bears got to the Super Bowl. Nine months later, the defense has been one of the major disappointments for a team that expected to be back in the NFL’s biggest game.
Going into a must-win Sunday against the resurgent Denver Broncos, even Smith isn’t sure why the Bears have been so erratic and, at times, so porous.
“We haven’t played as well. And that’s the simple statement. We play defense based on being able to get takeaways and that sets a lot of stuff up for us. We haven’t been able to take the football away a lot. We’ve given up a couple of big rushing days,” Smith said.
The Bears (4-6) led the NFL with 44 takeaways last season. Through 10 games this year they’ve got 17. The Vikings’ Adrian Peterson ran for 224 yards against them, Tony Romo passed for 329 yards on their defense, and last week Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck found wide-open receivers, it seemed, whenever he wanted.
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Chicago’s deficiencies have been magnified under new defensive coordinator Bob Babich, who replaced Ron Rivera after he was fired in a stunning offseason move. There have been injuries, yes, but also a lot of ineffective play.
“We lost a couple of our vocal leaders and a few more things,” Smith said, referring to safety Mike Brown, lost for the season early with an injury. Pro Bowl cornerback Nathan Vasher has also missed most of the season with a groin injury. “We had a few injuries early and we haven’t really recovered. So it’s hard to know the reasons why. I just know we haven’t played as well.”
Now the Broncos (5-5) and young quarterback Jay Cutler, coming off an impressive showing against Tennessee in a Monday night victory, come to Soldier Field.
The Broncos had four scoring plays of more than 40 yards ” three on offense, one on special teams ” and rolled up 359 yards in their 34-20 victory. The Bears are coming off a 30-23 loss to Seattle when they allowed 425 yards.
And with six losses, the Bears know one more will more than likely end their chances of returning to the postseason.
“We haven’t given up on this football season,” Smith said.
Neither have the Broncos, who were 3-5 a couple of weeks ago and coming off a 44-7 loss at Detroit.
But they regrouped for a victory in Kansas City and then beat the Titans last week as Cutler completed 16 of 21 passes for 200 yards with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-20 victory.
“I really believe that he’d play the game if he was playing for free,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said.
“He wants to be good. He understands that every time he plays the game that the won-loss record goes on his name and he does everything he can during the offseason and during the season to be as good as he can be.”
With running backs Travis Henry and Selvin Young slowed by injuries, Cutler’s play could be even more crucial for the Broncos, who are tied for the AFC West lead.
“Jay’s come in and not tried to be anyone else other than who he is. I think of late he’s realized it’s his time, it’s his time to kind of take over this team,” veteran safety John Lynch said. “He never has tried to force it. But I think he’s also realized his role on this team and stepped it up a little, and it’s shown in the way he’s played and the way the entire team has responded to him.”
Like Chicago’s Rex Grossman, Cutler played his high school football in Indiana and then college ball in the SEC before being picked in the first round. He’s aware that Grossman, who is back as the Bears’ starter after being benched earlier this season, has been the target of harsh criticism.
“He’s had a rough go at it. It’s tough. He goes to the Super Bowl and they are still over him,” Cutler said.
“They had a lot of doubts about him coming into this year even if they did make a run at it this year. It’s a tough business. Quarterback is a tough position. Even if your team is winning, you can still get criticized. … I feel for him.”
Teams that get to the Super Bowl and don’t win, as the Bears did last February against the Colts, often fail to even get back to the playoffs the following season. It’s become a trend in the NFL, one Chicago seems to be following.
“It’s hard to use that as an excuse,” Grossman said. “We expected to get back to the Super Bowl and to do things.”
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