Check the box score of the Week 5 Chicago Bears-New Orleans Saints matchup and you might think the Bears outplayed the Saints. You might think it was one of those games where circumstances lucked the lesser team to victory.
The Bears racked up 434 total yards to the Saints' 347. They averaged a staggering 8.0 yards per play to the Saints' 5.3. For reference, the league average is around 5.5. Denver averages 6.9. In Week 5, only the Dallas Cowboys, on an offensive night for the ages, bested the mark. So it must have been a dominating offensive performance for the Bears, right?
Not so much.
The old-fashioned eye test told us that the Saints were the better team, at least on this day. Yes, Alshon Jeffery was in beast mode, and Cutler for the most part was on his game. However, Drew Brees was dynamite from start to finish. Jimmy Graham couldn’t be stopped. The Saints’ front lines dominated both sides of the ball.
So where is the disconnect? Why do the stats paint such a pretty picture for the Bears?
An obvious explanation might be turnovers. The Bears, more than any other NFL team, know the magic of winning the turnover battle.
But they weren’t a victim of turnover voodoo in Week 5. They did turn it over once whereas the Saints were blemish free, but Cutler’s first-quarter fumble, while costing the Bears three points, occurred on the first play of a drive, not at the tail end of a long drive, so it doesn’t help explain the stats-to-reality disparity.
Another explanation might be penalties. The Bears had six for 43 yards. Moving 43 yards in the wrong direction will hurt any team, but the truth it that 27 teams average more penalty yards than that.
The answer to the riddle is a little more complex.
Let’s start by looking at the career days that Cutler and Jeffery posted. Cutler’s 358 passing yards and 128.1 passer rating marked the first time he topped 300 yards while posting at least a 110 rating. For Jeffery, the 218 yards he accumulated through the air more than doubled his previous career high, the 107 he netted against the Detroit Lions in Week 4. But Cutler’s QBR, a statistic that takes into consideration the situation in which numbers are accumulated, was only 62.3, and it’s the first clue to unraveling this mystery.
When did Cutler get his yards? How did he get his yards? The answers are pretty telling.
On drive No. 1 for the Bears, the offense faced a 3rd-and-13. Cutler completed a nine-yard pass to Matt Forte. On drive No. 3, on a 3rd-and-17, he hit Brandon Marshall for eight yards. On drive No. 4, again on a 3rd-and-17, he completed a screen pass to Forte for 12 yards.
In each case Cutler took what the defense gave him—a pass well short of the first-down line. There’s merit in completing a short pass like this. Strong runners like Forte and Marshall have shown the ability to turn short passes into longer gains. And the passes were safe, especially considering the defense was positioned to stop longer throws.
Nonetheless, what the QBR formula picks up on is the situation: In all three cases only a first down improves the team’s chance to score, and in all three cases, the Bears failed to move the chains.
Another contributing factor occurred at the end of the first half. The Bears took over on their own 31-yard line with 23 seconds remaining. The Saints employed a prevent-style defense, conceding yardage, which the Bears gobbled up.
But when the Bears moved the ball to the Saints’ 44-yard line and snapped the subsequent play with two seconds remaining in the half, only a touchdown would help them. Instead of throwing into the end zone, however, Cutler hit a wide-open Jeffery on the 19-yard line. A swarm of Saints defenders sprung from their posts in the end zone and tackled him.
A similar situation played out at the end of the fourth quarter. Cutler hit Jeffery down the middle of the field for 21 yards. The Saints, conceding anything other than a touchdown, made the tackle and watched as the clock ran out.
Once again: chunks of yardage that were ultimately meaningless.
There’s another factor, and truth be told, in cases like these, it’s a usual suspect: lack of red-zone success. On the first drive of the third quarter, the Bears found themselves with a 1st-and-goal from the 4-yard line.
What happened next? A five-yard penalty on Kyle Long and three incomplete passes. They settled for a field goal.
The final piece to the puzzle occurred on the Bears’ opening drive of the fourth quarter. Down 23-10, they started on their own 1-yard line. They worked in a healthy dose of Forte as they ran on seven of the drive’s first nine plays. For the first time all game, they were finding first-down yards on the ground.
Perhaps the offensive line finally kicked into gear. Perhaps the old “wear the defense down” adage was in effect. Or perhaps the Saints focused more attention on preventing a long pass, conceding small chunks of yardage on the ground. After all, each rush ticked valuable seconds off the clock.
The game reached its climax on a 4th-and-two play later in the drive. Cutler dropped back to throw. He found an open Earl Bennett just beyond the sticks. The pass was on the money. It looked like the Bears would be back in the game. And then Bennett muffed it.
Drive over. Seven minutes off the clock. Seventy-four yards...for nothing.
The Bears had their best offensive game of the season—if you only look at the stats. In reality, they struggled. They made crucial mistakes at crucial moments. They were continuously outwitted; again and again they played into the hands of New Orleans, taking nine yards when they needed 13, taking short gains on the ground when time was a factor and taking long gains at the end of halves when only longer gains would do.
It’s a page right out of Chicago’s defensive playbook. They’ve built their defensive empire on the bend-but-don’t-break, keep-everything-in-front-of-you philosophy. For years we’ve seen this scenario play out: take the yards. Take all the yards. But don’t expect to take the points.
The Bears had made it their enterprise. In the kind of ironic twist that’s neither funny nor appreciated, it finally happened to Chicago. If you’re like me, it’s not a fun feeling to endure. The good news is that hopefully the feeling won't last long. The New York Giants, giving up 36.4 points per game, come to town on Thursday.
The matchup could be just what the Bears offense needs.