There was one Chicago sports star noticeably quiet during his offseason and throughout training camp, a man who, I have on good authority from one reporter, prefers to spend his downtime alone, eating candy. It sounds like Derrick Rose, but it isn't: we're referring to Bears defensive end Julius Peppers.
Training camps are inherently geared to produce media fluff pieces and bolster preseason optimism, but amid an avalanche of cheerful quotes by the Bears leading up to the season, Peppers was rarely, if ever, heard from. This is a bit perplexing given the full-blast media coverage of the Bears and that Peppers is very likely the team's most talented player. His words have value. That's why, after the Bears defeated the Cowboys 34-18 on Monday night, it was Michael Wilbon's post-game column that produced most the illuminating player reaction. He got Peppers to talk, and the introverted physical freak had some enlightening things to say.
Wilbon's angle was an obvious yet accurate one, basically: there is no identity shift in these Bears, it's still a team led by the defense. We've been saying similar things here all season. Wilbon pressed Peppers about the preseason sentiment that the offense -- with Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall teamed together once again -- would carry the Bears, while an aging defense was thought to take a step back. Peppers didn't shy away from his unit's seniority, but also said the defense is using its age to its advantage:
"In reality," he said, "it's kind of the truth. But there's something to be said for both experience and the wisdom that comes with age. We're going to need the offense to be what it has the potential to be as this season progresses ... but I thought as long as we had No. 54 (Urlacher), No. 55 (Briggs), myself, Peanut ... I thought we'd have one of the top defenses in the league."
Lance Briggs echoed a similar thought. He was aware of the preseason chatter about Chicago's purported change in direction and unsurprisingly didn't want to hear it. It reinforces what we've known about this Bears defense for years: they are a proud, obstinate group not about to be pushed to side by some whining quarterback and fashionably modern receivers.
"We've got a lot of pride and we felt coming into the season that we could still do the things this defense wants to do ... shut down the run, pressure the passer. And even if we'd lost a step ... OK, we can make up for that with knowledge. I think we can get into position faster even if we're not physically as fast. I think what we've got is a lot of older guys (Urlacher is 34, Peppers is 32, Tillman and Briggs are each 31) playing really well."
There's no discounting just how good the Bears' defense has been through the first four weeks, and the statistics back it up. The Bears are currently third best at shutting down the run, the lead leaders in interceptions (by three) and third in the NFL in sacks. The Bears are 3-1 not because of Cutler and Marshall, but because the defense is controlling the line of scrimmage, pressuring the quarterback and causing turnovers.
The more the Bears change, the more they stay the same. Is this a classic Lovie Smith team or what?
2. Even as they've gotten out to a 3-1 start, the Bears' offense has found itself in plenty of second-and-long and third-and-long situations thus far. The Tribune's Brad Biggs has the numbers: entering the Week 4 matchup with the Cowboys, the Bears had produced an average of just 3.05 yards on first down.
Against Dallas, Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Tice focused on running the ball early in possessions to give Cutler and company more manageable opportunities to complete first downs. It worked. Though the Bears' overall rushing numbers (93 yards on 28 carries between Matt Forte and Michael Bush) weren't terribly impressive, the plan succeeded in its intent. Biggs again:
The offense entered the game having gained 77 yards on 40 first-and-10 runs and 152 yards on 35 first-and-10 passes. Both statistics ranked 29th in the NFL...
Against the Cowboys, the Bears had 169 yards on first down when you subtract one kneel down at the end of each half by Cutler. They had 14 runs totaling 63 yards and nine passes totaling 106 yards. That came out to 7.34 yards per snap on first down.
That's how the Bears converted 7-of-12 third down opportunities on Monday, which is the main reason the offense enjoyed its best effort since the opening week. It's about creating easier situations on those crucial downs to retain possession, which helps limit Cutler's happy feet and those times when he throws caution to the wind.
The Bears' offense was generally underwhelming throughout the first quarter of the season, but it's important to remember there are a lot of new, moving parts here. If the offensive line can hold steady (as they did against the Cowboys) and those third-and-longs become third-and-shorts, the Bears have the chance to build on their Week 4 success moving forward.
3. Cutler became a national whipping boy after the Bears' Week 2 disaster vs. the Packers. Yes, the quarterback threw four interceptions in defeat, but his treatment of left tackle J'Marcus Webb is what really drew the ire of the soapbox moralists on TV and radio.
You know the story: as Webb continued to get beat like a drum by Packers star Clay Matthews, Cutler screamed at his left tackle during the game and then sort of shoved him. Trigger those "does Cutler need to apologize?" topics for the talking heads on ESPN to debate for 10 days.
No matter your take on Cutler on his leadership (or lack of it), the narrative became overwhelming after a while as D.J. Moore and others continued to add fuel to the fire. But after the Bears' offensive line did well to protect Cutler during the Monday night win over the Cowboys, the quarterback had a different show of emotion for Webb. He gave him a hug.
"I’ve got to go see my family, guys," Webb said laughing when he was asked about it. "I want to go hug my mom. Jay hugged me, but I want to go hug my mom right now. You guys are out of control."
Bear down, Son! Looks like we won. We Beat the Cowboys--job well done! Jags are next, no time to flex. Until the victory then they'll be history as we move ON! Bear down, Jwebb naTION!
He's also selling t-shirts. Only $30! Sure to one day be a collector's item!
5. Anti-Cutler Tweet of the Week
Comes from former NFL lineman Ross Tucker.
Must be so hard for Mike Tice to not just choke slam Jay Cutler.I bet 20 years ago he would've smoked him.— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) October 2, 2012