After watching the Bears' offense transform into one of the league's most explosive units, league observers are effusive in their praise of Kyle Orton. The fourth-year pro has been outstanding during the first half of the season, and his stellar play has ignited what was expected to be a pedestrian offense.
Orton, the Bears' fourth round pick in 2005, has completed over 62% of his passes and tallied 10 passing touchdowns against only four interceptions. (He entered the season as a career 52 percent passer and had tossed only 12 touchdowns with 15 interceptions in 18 career starts.) His 22 completions over 20 yards this season are seventh-most in the league, and he ranks in the top 12 in passing yards (1,669) and passer rating (91.7). Not bad numbers for a quarterback who sat on the bench for 32 consecutive games after leading the team to a 10-5 record as a rookie.
Orton's dramatic improvement as a passer is not only reflected in his statistics, but also in the Bears' increased use of the no-huddle in recent weeks. Operating out of their "Ace" personnel package (one back, two tight ends and two wide receivers), the Bears have used the no-huddle to force opponents into simplified defensive looks while giving Orton the flexibility to attack via the run or pass. He's completed more than 68 percent of his passes thrown out of the no-huddle, along with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Those numbers were part of a sensational three-game streak in which he completed 65 percent of his passes for 903 yards with five touchdowns.
Although the "no-huddle" has been an integral part of Orton's solid play, the return of the credible running game has also been a factor. Led by rookie Matt Forte, the Bears have run successfully between the tackles. While Chicago only ranks 17th in rushing offense, Forte's is the league's 11th-best rusher and his average of 21 attempts per game is fourth among running backs. Thus, defenses have been forced to defend the run with eight-man fronts, and Orton has taken advantage of the look by attacking off play-action.
"First-down defenses want to come up and stop the run," Orton told the team's website. "We've thrown the ball pretty effectively in good-look situations and just really need to keep on continuing to do that."
Throwing extensively to his running backs and tight ends (Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark), Orton has worked the underneath areas of the field with outstanding success. The Bears' running backs and tight ends have accounted for 53 percent of his completions, and he has used the short passing game to keep the offense ahead of the chains. With the offense consistently in favorable position, Orton has been able to riddle defensive backfields with an assortment of deep throws out of run-heavy formations.
The combination of talent and scheme has meshed well, but Orton's maturity and leadership have helped too. Since wrestling the starting job away from Rex Grossman during training camp, Orton has firmly established himself as the leader on offense.
"He was an instant leader," said veteran lineman Robert Garza earlier in the season. "He's giving us our direction."
Teammate Olin Kreutz told reporters after the initial Lions' meeting, "We see how hard he works, how hard he studies the game. He's there every day. He stays late. So we expect games like [the one he had against Detroit] out of him."
While Orton wasn't trusted by the coaching staff to fully execute the Bears' game plan in his first stint as the team's starter, the restraints have been lifted this time as he has progressed from a game manager to a playmaker.
"He manages the game very well, and that's not a negative, but he's not just a game manager," Turner said. "We don't want him to be, either. His rookie year, obviously, the package was limited and we asked him basically to do that. But he has become so much better than that to just have that label."
Scouts have noticed Orton's improvement and have not been surprised that he has gotten off to such a solid start this season.
"Although he may not have been fully ready, he won a lot of games as a rookie," said an NFC personnel director. "He is playing within himself right now and has improved a lot since the beginning of the season." Another NFC scout added, "I'm surprised, but not shocked. He played against New Orleans last year, and he appears to be playing at the same level... He developed into a good player at the right time for them."
The Bears entered the season with serious question marks on offense, but Orton may have finally given the team a long-term answer at quarterback.
League observers are gushing about the play of Andre Johnson after watching him dominate opponents over the past month. The league's leader in receptions (56) and receiving yards (772) had 41 receptions for 556 yards with two touchdowns in the Texans' last four games while leading the team to a 3-1 mark. With Johnson taking his game to a new level, scouts are proclaiming the former All-Pro as the league's best receiver.
"It's not even close," said an AFC scout. "He is the best receiver in the game. He has size, speed, strength and playmaking ability. If he were playing in a bigger market, he would be the talk of the league."
While Johnson has been viewed as a top five receiver in the past, injuries have kept him from consistently producing numbers on par with perennial Pro Bowlers Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison. However, Johnson has been healthy this season, and his performance during the first half of the season has been astonishing. He topped the 100-yard receiving mark in five of the Texans' seven games, and his streak of four consecutive games with at least 130 receiving yards has only been accomplished by two players in league history (Lance Alworth in 1968 and Harold Jackson in 1971-72).
In addition, Johnson has tied another league record by catching 10 or more receptions in three consecutive games and averaging almost 150 receiving yards in the past four games. As a polished receiver with a versatile skill set, Johnson has been productive despite facing a steady diet of double coverage this season. In Gary Kubiak's version of the west coast offense, Johnson has been able to touch the ball on an assortment of shallow crossers, slants and digs underneath coverage. The tactic not only gets Johnson open underneath, but also allows him to use his outstanding running skills to pick up more yardage. Thus, it makes the sixth-year pro nearly impossible to keep under wraps.
"He is an excellent runner after the catch," said an NFC personnel director. "That's what makes him so scary. He is capable of scoring from anywhere on the field."
The Chargers' dumping of defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell during the bye week was surprising considering the tremendous success the defense enjoyed last season. The Chargers led the league in takeaways (48) and finished fifth in sacks (42). Although they finished 14th in total defense, the defense was considered one of the tops in the league because of its ability to produce negative plays.
However, this year's unit is last in pass defense and 28th in total defense. Thus, Norv Turner felt compelled to make a change in an attempt to spark the sagging unit.
"It's disappointing that we didn't get a chance to finish the job," said Cottrell after the firing."We set a host of defensive records last season running the same scheme. Sure, we weren't play up to that standard, but we are playing with our third team linebacker and a ton of young guys in the secondary. It was going to take some time for us to hit our stride, but we were turning the corner."
To Cottrell's point, the Chargers are playing without three-time Pro Bowler Shawne Merriman.Without the threat of him coming off the edge, opponents are not as fearful of the pass rush and have been targeting the secondary with great success. Quarterbacks have completed over 68 percent of their passes against San Diego. Worse, the team has allowed a league-leading 14 touchdown passes. Although the Chargers have made 17 sacks (tied for ninth-best in the league), they've got nine quarters without one. Thus, some viewed Cottrell's firing as just.
"It was inevitable," said a long-time NFL defensive coach."They are sitting at 3-5 with arguably some of the best talent in football. Their secondary was underachieving and they weren't generating any pass rush this season."
While Merriman's injury altered the approach used by the Chargers this season, great coaches find a way to compensate for their personnel losses through a variety of adjustments. But some observers felt Cottrell never catered his scheme to his talent.
"He hasn't changed or evolved over the years," said a long-time NFL defensive coach. "He is still running the 'bend, but don't break' system that he has run for years. Part of being a great coordinator is being innovative, and their scheme lacked creativity. With the talent that they had in place, there is no excuse for not being aggressive with the pressure package."
Turner is banking that former linebacker coach Ron Rivera has the imagination to create a scheme that better suits the Chargers. Despite the perception that Rivera is a "Tampa-Two" disciple based on his time as the Bears' defensive coordinator under Lovie Smith, it should be noted that he played under Buddy Ryan and worked as an assistant coach under blitz-guru Jim Johnson in Philadelphia. In other words, he is well versed in the art of pressuring the quarterback.
"He wants to play an aggressive style of defense," said an NFL defensive coach. "He is going to come after the quarterback from all angles."
Rivera admits he's an aggressive play caller, but he also believes in a balanced philosophy that is based on playing situational football. You just don't blitz to blitz," he told the team's website. "There's a reason why. You don't play a certain coverage to play a certain coverage; you have to have a reason why. I really do believe that. I believe you try to put your players in the best position based on the information you have on your opponent through the [scouting reports] that you get that are produced during that week."
The Chargers' defense has played without a spark for most of the season, but Turner hopes Rivera is the right man to ignite the flame.