So the Bears face the Lions again on Sunday at Soldier Field, five weeks after the ignominious and cacophonous 24-13 loss to Detroit at Ford Field. The place was a sound bomb that night in Detroit, and it helped ruin any momentum the Bears had on offense.
They had 14 penalties; they were called for false-starts nine times. And it made Jay Cutler's performance in defeat all the more remarkable. Cutler's stats looked pedestrian (28-38, 249 yards, one touchdown, no picks), but completing 74 percent in that environment while under attack by a fierce Detroit rush was remarkable -- one of the best performances of his career, I thought.
I noticed something that night: The Bears were moving Cutler around a lot. Pass-rushers and defensive coordinators often speak of getting quarterbacks "off their spot'' so they won't have the same sort of comfort level they like when they stand in the pocket and survey their targets and pick one out. Cutler was sacked three times that night, and it probably should have been much worse. Cutler has such a great arm, and traditionally his strength isn't making plays on the run, though he had to do it a lot at Vanderbilt and isn't immune to making throws downfield on the run. But he's more suited to a game of playing from the pocket.
And since then, in the three games Chicago has played, Cutler has been sacked three times, the Bears are 3-0, and they've scored 93 points. What happened? I watched the Chicago-Philadelphia game Monday night, then again on NFL Game Rewind Thursday, and it confirmed what I thought: The Bears aren't simply waiting until Cutler gets flushed from the pocket. They're moving him voluntarily, mostly to the right, on more than a few pass plays, and he's responding by looking like some sort of Randall Cunningham back there --zinging line throws to his receivers.
"Definitely,'' center Roberto Garza told me Thursday. "That was a big move, allowing Jay to step out of the pocket to make plays. He's so good at throwing on the run. You see how strong his arm is, even when he's rolling out.''
Necessity, in this case, has been the mother of invention. According to Pro Football Focus, the starting offensive line last year surrendered 32 sacks and 129 pressures in 16 games. In half a season this year, the numbers are a little better: 12 sacks allowed and 60 pressures. But they're all the more reason to move Cutler and to keep solid-blocking tight end Kellen Davis (6-7, 262 pounds) and fullback Tyler Clutts in to help.
In addition, it appears that offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who likes his quarterbacks to take seven-step drops and throw to five-receiver sets, has adjusted. Cutler is often taking shorter drops. This is not the Martz way; he prefers quarterbacks to have lots of choices downfield. But you do what you have to do, and Martz knows he doesn't have a great line and he has to adjust.
Cutler told the "Waddle and Silvy'' radio show this week: "Mike's done an unbelievable job of adapting to what we're capable of doing and kind of changing his train of thought. Which isn't easy to do.''
Coincidence that the Bears are 3-0 with the same lineup up front for three straight games? Maybe. But (left to right) J'Marcus Webb, Chris Williams, Garza, Chris Spencer and Lance Louis (in permanently, probably, for the leaky Frank Omiyale at right tackle) have been together and efficient in wins over Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. Louis looks to be a significant upgrade.
The Lions, obviously, have built up their defensive front to be one of the better ones in the league. They have good rotations at both end and tackle in their 4-3 scheme. Recently they've gotten terrific play from the not-underrated-for-much-longer Cliff Avril and total unknown Willie Young (five quarterback pressures or hits against Denver two weeks ago) at end. So the Bears know they'll have to give Cutler some alleys to throw, and the Bears know they have to get good blocking days from the helpers, particularly Davis (who has been limited in practice this week with a shoulder injury), to have a good chance to keep Cutler clean.
"Our communication is better, and it had to be,'' said Garza, in his first year subbing for the departed Olin Kreutz at center. "We did a terrible job executing our blocks in the first game against Detroit, and we know what a relentless group they are. We've got to be better.''
Chicago (5-3) needs to win to catch Detroit (6-2) in second place, and in prime Wild Card position, behind Green Bay in the NFC North. Should be a great game, and where Cutler throws from will be the game within the game.
Two takeaways from Oakland 24, San Diego 17:
1. Carson Palmer's really comfortable in the shotgun, which is remarkable considering how briefly he's been with the Raiders. He threw 20 passes and looked the most comfortable surveying the field without a dropback and with his receivers spread. He dropped a beautiful throw into the hands of Denarius Moore (better get him on your fantasy team, pronto) for one touchdown, and looked considerably more secure in the pocket in game three than in the previous ones.
2. The Raiders have drafted well on the offensive line. I thought rookie second-rounder Stefen Wisniewski, making the first start of his career at center after being a guard for the first half of the season, was superb in clearing holes for Michael Bush. Meanwhile, left tackle Jared Veldheer (third round, 2010) played well in keeping Palmer clean. In addition, plug-in guard Stephon Heyer did a creditable job filling in at left guard. That was a terrific old-style running-game beatdown the Raiders gave to San Diego, with Bush, who didn't look like a backup, galloping for 242 yards from scrimmage.
Good show this week with Cowboys pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, NFL Films maestro Greg Cosell and author and talk-show host Michael Holley, whose War Room chronicles the relationship between Bill Belichick and personnel lieutenants Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff.
The podcast on iTunes. The podcast on SI.com.
The most important part of his job: "I think the most important aspect of rushing the quarterback is getting into the tackle's head. If you can get into a tackle's head, usually whatever you do after that is going to work.''
Being versatile: "A lot of guys they always say, 'Hey, you're a speed guy, you're a power guy, you're a spin guy,' but guess what? I want you to think that I'm all those guys in one so you never are going to know what you're going to get. Each and every week it's different. Just like offenses; offenses will attack you differently [and] I'm going to rush the passer differently every single week.''
I thought it was interesting that Ware -- and the good rushers -- don't view sacks as the ultimate measuring stick in whether they're good players. But because the sack is so well-publicized, and because records are what players chase, he wants Michael Strahan's record for 22.5 in a season. He needs 11 in his last eight games to get there, though he missed a good chance to fatten up last week when Seattle constantly double-teamed and chipped him to keep him sack-less.
San Francisco OLB Aldon Smith (number 99). Smith has seven sacks in playing about 45 percent of the snaps for the resurgent 49ers, and it'll be interesting to see who has the best young pass-rusher when the Giants and 49ers face off in a game that could (emphasize "could'') have huge playoff implications in the NFC -- if only to tell you which team gets a first-round bye behind Green Bay. Jason Pierre-Paul of the Giants has 14 sacks in his last 14 games. Smith has shown a good burst outside, and he's benefited from the holes cleared by a strong 49er front. He'll be a handful for the Giants -- as will Pierre-Paul for the young Niner line.
1. The Haynesworth decision. Tampa Bay is the only team to put in a claim for the plummeting Haynesworth, and he said all the right things to GM Mark Dominik and to the locals when he alighted in Florida Thursday. He even practiced, in pads, for a full session, and he'll be in uniform Sunday against Houston. The Bucs need a body because of the season-ending injury to Gerald McCoy last week, and in this day and age, $88,000 per week is not a heavy tariff for a guy who has zero remaining guarantees in his contract. But I'll be surprised if the terminally disappointing Haynesworth has much impact on the Bucs.
2. The Bengals' big test. Cincinnati's had six nice wins, one against a team with a winning record (5-3 Buffalo). Now the Steelers come to town. Cincinnati's 1-8 at home over the last nine seasons, and James Harrison is back to make Andy Dalton's life pleasant.
3. The Giants' month of fun. It's off to a good start, with the win at New England last week. But the upcoming 29 days will make or break their season, continuing Sunday at San Francisco. After that: Philadelphia at home, at New Orleans, Green Bay at home, at Dallas.
4. The Fred Jackson homecoming. The star Buffalo running back's home was razed to make room for Dallas Cowboys Stadium, according to Barry Horn of the Dallas Morning News. He never started a game in his two years of high school in Arlington. Now, he returns to try to knock the Cowboys out of any legitimate playoff hopes -- and to keep the Bills' hopes alive.
5. The Norv watch. Maybe this should be "The Norv and A.J. Watch." Hard to imagine both will make it out of this crushingly disappointing season now that the Chargers have lost four in a row.
6. The Drew Brees domination. Brees is 8-2 against Atlanta since he alighted in Louisiana. When they meet Sunday in Atlanta, it might not be Brees who determines the outcome. It might be the New Orleans run defense: Atlanta's averaged 153 yards rushing per game in its three-game winning streak.
7. The Tebow effect. He might have completed less than 50 percent of his throws in each of his three starts for the Broncos this year, but he's 2-1, and from the looks of the excited teammates on the sidelines when he comes to the bench after one of his zany drives, they like it when he plays. A win Sunday at Arrowhead would give the AFC West a bizarre three-way tie for second place, with Denver, K.C. and San Diego.
8. The Luck derby. More clarity coming. I see a Miami win over Washington, and it's certainly possible that St. Louis wins at Cleveland. Say those two things happen, and say Indy loses number 10 against the Jags. That'd give the Colts a commanding lead in the race for Mr. Stanford.
9. The Eagles on the brink. This is not a good sign from Michael Vick: "When certain things happen in a game, we kind of go into a panic.'' No team with a playoff pulse has more of a must-win game this weekend -- Arizona, at the Linc -- because on deck for Philly are the Giants and Patriots in the next two weeks.
10. The Paterno coverage. Because there just hasn't been enough.