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Mike Martz has still got it.
In retrospect, the primary question for the Bears' offense going into this season wasn't whether the offensive line would hold up or whether Roy Williams would take the receiving corps to the next level. The No. 1 question was if Martz could prepare an offense and then make all the calls necessary to put a team in contention for a championship.
Because - and I've been harping on this for a while now - the Bears have a championship-caliber quarterback. Hello, NFL! The Bears have a championship-caliber quarterback! It is time for all of the experts to acknowledge what they should have figured out way back in the second half of last season. Maurice Jones-Drew and the rest of the short-attention-spanners who questioned Jay Cutler's desire and toughness during and after the NFC championship game hadn't paid enough attention to the Bears season until the final few games.
They hadn't watched as Cutler survived a disastrous first third of the season in which his unbelievably bad offensive line literally put his life in danger. They hadn't watched as somehow this team, with no receivers anyone would place in the top 30 in the league, somehow pulled itself together with Cutler at the helm and claimed the second seed in the NFC playoffs. The second seed in the NFC playoffs!
Now Cutler is back for more, and for the first time in four years he is playing in the same system for a second year in a row. It is amazing what just a little familiarity and a little comfort in a system will do, as evidenced by the Bears' delightfully comprehensive 30-12 thrashing of the Falcons (last year's No. 1 NFC playoff seed) in the season-opener Sunday.
Last year, it took a while for Martz to acknowledge he had to make some adjustments to his beloved system (and it is beloved for a reason - it won a Super Bowl in St. Louis and should have won at least one more). If the Bears were going to be competitive, he had to put in more hot reads and quick throws. So Martz did that and the Bears started winning football games at least in part due to their offense and not just because the defense and special teams were awesome as usual and the offense managed to not totally screw things up.
One of the great things about Cutler is that he knows that for Martz's system to work, sometimes a quarterback has to stay in the pocket longer than seems wise. Sometimes he has to hang in there after the long seven-step drop and take a big hit to make a big play. There he was again on Sunday, holding on to the ball longer than we wanted him to on several occasions in the first half. And that resulted in a couple sacks. But he also held the ball a little longer than seemed wise during several plays that resulted in big completions.
The guy has guts enough and then some to stay in there and do what his offensive coordinator needs him to do - even if it puts his health at risk. His willingness to do that finally resulted in his suffering a concussion in the Bears' nadir last season, the "nine sacks against in the first half" game against the Giants. Hopefully that won't happen again this time around. And if the second half in which he threw the ball away a few times when the pressure grew a bit too intense was any indication, perhaps this time around he will do a little better job of striking a balance between taking a hit to make a play and throwing it away to give himself a chance to make a play later on.
Anyway, Martz clearly still knows how to coordinate the offense of a top team; that was on display on Sunday. How cool was it to see the Bears remember how bad some of their reverses were last season, capped off by a terrible reverse handoff to Earl Bennett late in the NFC championship loss to the Packers.
So the Bears call another reverse early Sunday and it gets blown up for a loss of at least three. And then Brian Urlacher makes that awesome diving interception - the play that was obviously the turning point in the game - and the time arrives quickly for a game-changing call.
Sure enough Martz, who you can't help suspect called that early reverse to reinforce the idea in the Falcons' collective mindset that the Bears loved the play and would keep calling it no matter what, called for a fake reverse this time around and a pass into the flat on the other side to Matt Forte.
Not surprisingly Forte was wide open, gained about 15 yards before a tackler imposed any real threat, broke a couple weak tackle attempts and then flashed his impressive game speed (as opposed to combine speed, the lack of which enabled the Bears to get him in the second round a few years ago) on his way to a touchdown.
Late in the first half, Martz was at it again. The Bears had driven deep into Falcon territory, and in the process had just about run off enough clock to absolutely ensure Atlanta would not have enough time to come back and score in the final minute before the intermission. Cutler took the snap and rolled right with all but two of his teammates. He had a few receivers out in front of him but they appeared to be covered. The play had incomplete pass or sack written all over it.
Except then Cutler turned on a dime and heaved a pass back the other direction. Then we could see it. Tight end Kellen Davis was as wide open as wide open could be. No defender was within 15 yards of him, and even if one had been, guard Chris Williams was there to knock him into next week as Davis strolled into the end zone. Martz had again drawn up, practiced and then called a perfect play that was going to be a back-breaker for the Falcons.
Of course, then Cutler overthrew Davis by about a half-dozen yards and the Bears had to settle for a field goal and a 16-3 halftime lead. Still, Martz's mastery was out there for everyone to see. These were just two of at least two dozen play calls that established conclusively the the Bears' offensive guru is still very much on top of his game. His scheme's ability to set up wide open plays when his team needed them was undeniable.
One final, wonderful, if slightly scary, element of the Martz system: The guy runs fewer give-up plays than just about anyone. If his team is called for holding and has a running play stuffed and throws an incomplete pass to result in a third-and-loooong, 90-something percent of the time he calls a play intended to gain the 21 yards needed for a first down. There were no no-chance third-and-long draw plays on Sunday, no dumb-assed flanker screens. If he needs 17 yards for a first down, he will give Jay Cutler a couple of options to gain at least 18 yards even if it might increase the chances for a big defensive play going the other way.
* * *
One slight disclaimer: It is important to remember that the Bears were playing at home. The Falcons play their home games on artificial turf in a dome.
In other words, they play in a different world than the Bears. Quarterback Matt Ryan hasn't just been much better at home during his career, he has been much better on turf. This is why home field advantage is usually so big in the NFL - or should we say, home-conditions advantage.
Other game notes:
* Good to see you, Henry Melton. Repeatedly. The Bears coaches weren't lying when they talked him up during the preseason. This third-year defensive tackle out of Texas who had two sacks on the day looks like he is ready to break out and create the kind of pressure up the middle that could have defensive end Julius Peppers at the top of the sack leader board all season long. Of course, he'll have to beat fellow tackles Matt Toeaina and Amobi Okoye to the quarterback if he is to record sacks of his own, and that may not end up being an easy task.
It was very cool to see those guys buck up in the midst or at the end of some substantial Atlanta drives in the third and fourth quarters and record sacks of their own (to go with Peppers' two). So often defensive tackles wear out during those sorts of scenarios and opposing quarterbacks are able to sit back and relax in their pockets.
Of course the fact that those guys were making plays late also probably had something to do with the fact that the Bears have delightful depth in the middle of their defensive line. They were rotating a bunch of powerful players into the mix as the game went on and that pays off late in games.
* Back-up running back Kahlil Bell looked good out there didn't he? A few good runs were negated by holding penalties but the guy carried the ball well. He probably can't catch and run like Matt Forte but his good plays reminded why NFL general managers are more and more hesitant to pay running backs big bucks. If the blocks are there, good runners like Forte and Bell can make things happen.
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