Jay Cutler, Bears offense rewriting reputations with confident win in Pittsburgh
The natural reaction after Chicago's 40-23 win in Pittsburgh is to credit the Bears' opportunistic defense, which almost always receives the praise when this team wins. There's logic to that approach here, too, considering that Major Wright's pick-six made it 24-3 in the first half and Julius Peppers' fumble return touchdown iced the game late.
When Chicago's back was really against the wall, though, right as this one appeared to be swinging the direction of the desperate, homestanding Steelers, it was the offense that answered the bell.
A 44-yard Shaun Suisham field goal early in the fourth quarter chopped what was once a 21-point Bears lead down to four. The Heinz Field crowd was alive and the aging Pittsburgh defense suddenly looked sprightly.
Three times on the ensuing drive, that defense pushed the Bears into third down. Three times, Jay Cutler made a play. For starters, he scrambled past the first-down marker, lowering his shoulder and delivering a shot on defensive back Robert Golden. Then, with the Steelers bringing pressure on a 3rd-and-12, Cutler floated a beautiful back-shoulder ball to Brandon Marshall for 42 yards.
Finally, when Chicago could have settled for a field goal and a seven-point lead, Cutler dropped a touchdown toss in to a sprawling Earl Bennett.
You want defense? Fine. The Bears still make teams pay for every little mistake, jumping routes and swarming loose balls. Just know that this offense -- with its improved line, a confident Cutler and Marc Trestman calling the plays -- can dig pretty deep when it is necessary.
"Offensively, I think we're really sound with what we're doing protection-wise and scheme-wise," Cutler told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the game. "Our defense is still pretty good, so we've got that in our back pocket."
This is two weeks in a row now that the Bears' offense has taken control in the latter stages. One Sunday ago, with the Vikings on the verge of stealing a win at Soldier Field, Cutler capped a last-minute drive with a scoring toss to Martellus Bennett.
Of course, Cutler's offense was in that position in Week 2 -- as it was in Week 3 -- because the Bears' defense did its thing earlier. The Steelers staggered that D in the second half this Sunday, even after Chicago opened the third quarter by forcing a Felix Jones turnover. Ben Roethlisberger clicked into a rhythm for the next quarter-plus, his touchdown connection to Antonio Brown being one of the prettiest plays of the young season.
The Bears bent to the point of breaking, with Pittsburgh driving to tie the game in the fourth. Chicago then turned up the heat on Big Ben to force a critical third-down incompletion.
Cutler proceeded to help deliver the knockout blow, starting with his shoulder-first flattening of Golden.
"I had to make sure I could get the first down," Cutler explained. "They were all yelling when I got back to the huddle to get down."
Consider that message received. This one, too: Chicago is the team to beat in the NFC North. On the same day that the Packers and Vikings, both playoffs teams out of this division last season, fell to a combined 1-5, the Bears stayed perfect at 3-0. Next up, a showdown with 2-1 Detroit.
Chicago may not be able to control that one from start to finish, as it basically did in its win over Pittsburgh. But the Bears have to feel pretty secure in the knowledge that their offense can score on anyone and that their defense remains a fear-inducing group.
"That's an identity that we've built over the years, taking the ball away," Peppers told the NFL Network.
"It's Bear defense," Wright said on NBC's postgame show. "Takeaways, we preach on that, we practice that."
The staggering Steelers were all too willing to accommodate.
Once-cut running back Jonathan Dwyer provided a spark for the home team in the backfield -- on both of Roethlisberger's TD passes, Dwyer stepped up on a blitzing Bear to give his QB time. He was on the sideline, however, when Lance Briggs came flying through with about four minutes left and the Bears up 11. Isaac Redman could not provide the same level of protection for Roethlisberger, and Briggs popped the ball out and into Peppers' arms for a touchdown.
Roethlisberger added one last interception at the end -- his second and the Steelers' sixth turnover of the game.
Yet, for all the miscues that came before Peppers' defensive TD, the Steelers were thrice on the verge of getting the ball back with a chance to win. Cutler refused to let that happen.
"Guys hung in there all night, [the] defense giving us opportunity after opportunity," Cutler said. "We didn't play as well as we wanted to, I didn't play as well as I wanted to ... but we hung in there."
It's easy to chalk win No. 3 up as a classic Bears performance. Heck, even Cutler heaped most of the praise on his team's defense. But this is far more than a one-dimensional Chicago team. The reputation may remain that of a defense-first club. The offense continues to save its best for last.