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SportsMonday: Learning To Play Ahead

Even the best teams watch big leads leak away.

No one in the NFL has perfected sitting on advantages. I've watched for years as my wife's team, the Patriots, has gone in front by two, three, even four touchdowns and then struggled to hang on. If a team with a big lead runs too much, it becomes predictable and easily defended. If it passes too much, it is predictable and easily defended and it keeps stopping the clock with incompletions. A delightful mixture is of course preferable, but far easier said than done.

The Bears tried both last night and it wasn't pretty for a while. Fortunately, some big offensive plays late and yet another defensive touchdown prevented extreme discomfort on the way to a 40-23 win and a lovely 3-0 record.

Before we go any further, let's be clear about the most important thing: Bears fans should be so fortunate that struggling to hold onto a lead is the biggest thing they have to worry about on future Mondays.

And while we're making pronouncements, don't just look at Anthony Walters as the goat for kickstarting the Steelers' comeback in the first half (though it's not the first stupid thing he's done this season). Sure, Walters committed an unbelievably ridiculous roughing the kicker penalty to give the Steelers the ball after a three-and-out possession down three touchdowns halfway through the second quarter.

Walters must have been saying "of course" to himself when the Steelers then rapid fire ran their two best offensive plays in the first half after 15 yards and a first down. The first was a 22-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders and the second was the 33-yard touchdown to Antonio Brown, who like the Bengals' A.J. Green last week, had a huge game. (Red flag about the pass defense?)

Walters found some company when the Bears regained possession and faced a third-and-long in which Cutler did some nifty work in the pocket to avoid a sack and then hit Brandon Marshall with what would have been at least a 15-yard gain. It would have kicked the offense right back into gear and . . . except Marshall dropped it.

But after a real good Adam Podlesh punt (54 yards, no return) the Steelers didn't score, the Bears played it ultra-conservatively in the last two minutes and the lead was two touchdowns going into the third quarter.

I loved the way the Bears did that by the way: with three Matt Forte runs, they made sure the clock ran out before the Steelers could get the ball back without running give-up plays (taking a knee). If any of those runs had broken free, they could have turned up the tempo and gone for at least a field goal.

With the runs, they avoided the killer incompletion that would have given the Steelers the ball back with at least a little time to do damage. By not taking a knee, they avoided playing scared.

Right after the intermission, the Bears took care of business. Major Wright, with a pick six already under his belt, blasted the ball out of Steelers running back Felix Jones' hands and onto the ground, where Henry Melton recovered it. A Robbie Gould chip shot that restored the lead to three scores, i.e., 17 points.

Then things went south for a while, as they did the week before against the Vikings. After a Steeler field goal, the Bears tried passing. But not only did a couple Cutler incompletions, a sack and a pass for no gain (sandwiched around a completion and an illegal contact for a first down) not move the ball very far down the field, it also chipped less than two minutes off the clock.

Sure enough, the Steelers came back and scored a touchdown to make it a one-score game. This time the Bears tried two passes and a run before punting, ridiculously, with time still on the clock in the third quarter. The Steelers drove down and kicked the field goal that made it 27-23 with 10:43 left in the game.

Now the Bears committed to the run, and got very, very lucky. A couple weak Forte runs led to third-and-10 but Cutler was able to scramble 13 yards for a first down - eschewing a slide to make sure he had it. Forte lost two yards but a long pass to Marshall (41 yards) bailed the Bears out of another third-and-long. Finally, a short pass to Martellus Bennett and another sub-par Forte run (two yards) set up third-and-5.

That's when Cutler completed an amazing pass to Earl Bennett that was originally ruled out of bounds for an 11-point lead in what was essentially the clinching touchdown.

You could tell that after barely burning any clock and failing on those last two possessions of the third quarter, Marc Trestman was going to have his team run the ball no matter what on that last scoring drive. Some amazing execution on three huge third downs bailed him out.

So we can add scheming to better protect leads to Trestman's to-do list. And we can add "starting 3-0" to his resume.


Full GameDay Highlights.


Adversity Alert: Bears Fear ACL Tear For Melton.


See also:
* Hub Arkush: Cutler, Big Plays Lead Bears Over Steelers.

* USA Today: Jay Cutler Comes Through In Clutch Again.

* Adam Hoge: Bears Catch Steelers Off Guard With Pressure Defense.

* Sun-Times: Bears Offense Can Handle 3-4 Defense.

* Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Tale of Turnovers.


Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.

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