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By Jim Coffman
I remember last year when a big-time sports fan friend of mine came back from Lambeau Field after watching the Packers humiliate the Bears. He reported that one illuminating aspect of taking in the game in person was having the chance to watch all the receivers' routes develop during any given play. And what he saw wasn't pretty. The Bears receivers didn't just fail to achieve anything close to consistent separation from defensive backs, they seemed to be blanketed by Packers from the start of the game until the last play. It was no wonder the Bears offense was so inept.
My friend's assessment sprang to mind while watching the Bear receiving corps struggle mightily at times Sunday night. It wasn't quite as simple as saying the receivers sucked, because Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox all had their highlights. But I cannot remember a Bears game in at least the last decade in which mangled routes led to more than an interception or two.
The performance was capped off by Knox's bizarre move backwards out of what seemed like an absolutely mundane slant on the Bears' last offensive play. Most of the receivers who struggled against the Packers last year have been cleared out. Younger replacements have been found. But the position is still a key weakness.
It was an indictment of Bears' management that Knox was even in the game at the end. Rookie wide receivers simply have too much to learn in their first season in the NFL.
The Bears' Bennett is a classic example. It seems clear now that he has some serious potential. But he just could not wrap his brain around the Bears' system last season and didn't record ven one catch.
The Bears clearly need another more experienced option at wideout. Heck, they need two.
But there won't be any personnel changes at this point. What will have to happen is the young receivers, with the help of their coaches, will have to turn themselves into more experienced options. The question will be how quickly they can do that.
In a related note, veteran Torry Holt, the wide receiver who was there for the Jerry Angelo signing late in the off-season only to go to Jacksonville for a contract that would have fit easily under the Bear salary cap, didn't set the world on fire in the Jaguars' 14-12 season-opening loss to the Colts.
But the former longtime St. Louis Ram who was a leading player in "The Greatest Show on Turf" teams that on several occasions led the NFL in offense early this decade, did lead his new team with three receptions for 47 yards.
We're still waiting for an explanation from the general manager as to why the heck the Bears didn't get this guy signed and we're not going to stop asking about it any time soon.
Of course, the one Cutler interception that was completely his fault - the ill-advised heave down the middle that was easily returned inside the Bear five-yard-line - gave the Packers a huge boost in the first half. That is the throw Cutler cannot make. He was under pressure, moving sideways and backward and then launched a panicked pass he must have regretted the instant it left his hand.
* Analyst Chris Collinsworth is usually laser sharp but he struggled out of the gate Sunday evening. Hopefully this is the last time I will have to say this as we begin to move away from the beginning of the regular season (and the end of the exhibition campaign): the pre-season doesn't mean anything!
For far too long in the first half Collinsworth just couldn't seem to get past the fact that just because the Packers had excelled against the vanilla defenses employed by the mediocre teams they played in the pre-season, it didn't mean they would hit the ground running in the regular season.
* All of this crap about the Bears still being a running football team has to stop. On several occasions, Collinsworth spoke of the Bears still being a running football team even with the addition of Jay Cutler at quarterback. And I know that Lovie Smith and apparently even Cutler made comments to Collinsworth leading up to the game in which they stressed that the Bears would still be focused on running the ball. But surely the Bears will also be focused on passing the ball. The key is balance. And with Cutler throwing the ball, the Bears have a much better chance of developing the sort of multi-faceted attack that will keep defenses off balance. After Sunday's rocky opener, hopefully play-caller Ron Turner will do a little better job as the season goes on of mixing it up, of calling passes when runs are expected and vice versa.
* That first half was Adewale Ogunleye's best 30 minutes of football as a Bear. Hopefully the defensive end, who is in the last year of his deal is diving into a classic contract drive.
* On the other hand . . . paging Tommie Harris, calling Mr. Harris . . . where are you Mr. Harris? The former star defensive tackle was a non-factor . . . and once Israel Idonije recovers from the pulled hamstring that has hampered him of late it will be time for him to get more snaps in the middle of the defensive line. And Danieal Manning's safety... what a magnificent bit of athleticism that was. Hopefully we'll be seeing plenty of Manning blitzes week after week.
* Up until that last shocking brain cramp suffered by long-snapper Patrick Mannelly, the one when he called for a fake punt on his own (apparently believing that at the very least he would catch the Packers with 12 men on the field), despite the Bears facing fourth-and-long from well back in their own territory, the special teams were solid. The kickers were their usual dependable selves with Gould putting his 47-yard field goal right down the middle (and adding a chip shot later) and his cohort Brad Maynard nailing several beautiful, soaring 50-yard net punts. The returns were good enough, with Devin Hester making all the right calls on which punts to return and which to let bounce into the end zone, and Manning just missing breaking several kickoff returns. The coverage teams need work but that will come.
* The Bears ran out of timeouts midway through the fourth quarter in part because Cutler called one with only four minutes gone in the third quarter when something wasn't quite right with a play call. Particularly in close games like this one, a quarterbacks would be better off just allowing their team to be assessed a delay of game penalty in that sort of situation rather than wasting a precious clock-killer.
* The fact that it was Nathan Vasher out on an island against star Packer receiver Greg Jennings on the play that turned into the decisive touchdown was both sad and infuriating. It was sad because Vasher, who not so long ago was known fondly as "The Interceptor" for his keen ability to not only disrupt opposing passing games but to hang onto the ball just about every time he had a chance to make a pick, just doesn't have it any more. It was infuriating because Vasher's limitations were clear from the first time the Packers had the ball. Surely the Bears had a better option then just sending Vasher out there to try (and surely fail) to match up with one of the top 10 receivers in the game.
Jim Coffman rounds up the sports weekend in this space every Monday. He welcomes your comments.
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