Amid the landfill of a 5-7 season, the Bears have uncovered a couple of gems, none brighter than second-year wide receiver Earl Bennett.
Last season, as a third-round pick who failed to catch a single pass as a rookie, Bennett might have been referred to as a flop or a bust, if he was discussed at all.
But those who rushed to judgment on the 22-year-old Vanderbilt product have been proven wrong. Bennett leads the Bears with a 13.3-yard average per catch, even though he's sometimes mislabeled a "possession receiver." His 599 receiving yards are second only to Devin Hester's 682, and the 6-0, 204-pound Bennett is fourth on the team with 45 catches, just nine behind Hester's team-best total.
"Earl has been steady," coach Lovie Smith said. "Very seldom does he make a mistake, and we know what type of play we're going to get from him most of the time."
Sunday's 17-9 victory over the 1-11 Rams wasn't monumental, aside from the fact that it stopped the hemorrhaging of a four-game losing streak, but it was significant for Bennett. With the Bears backed up to their own 9-yard line, Bennett caught a touch pass from Jay Cutler in a narrow seam over the middle and set sail for the end zone.
At the St. Louis 20-yard line, Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe caught up to Bennett and punched the ball loose, but it bounced out of bounds. The Bears kept possession and Bennett had a 71-yard reception, the team's longest of the season.
"That was big," Smith said. "He needs to hold onto the football, but that play [got] us out of a hole. A great pass by Jay. There was a small window to get the ball in, but that's the type of play that we've become accustomed really to seeing from him."
Late in the third quarter, Bennett caught his first TD pass in the NFL, a 3-yard arrow from Cutler.
"I was glad to see Earl get one," Cutler said. "He's had a lot of good catches for us all year long but hasn't been able to crack one into the end zone."
As a true freshman at Vanderbilt, Bennett caught 79 passes, including 9 TD passes from Cutler, who was a senior. In just three years at Vanderbilt, Bennett caught 236 passes, more than anyone in Southeast Conference history.
But he could hardly get on the field with the Bears last year. Bennett made cameo appearances in 10 games and was inactive for the six others. He says the biggest difference between this year and last is the opportunity to play. But Bennett had to prove he was worthy of the opportunity before it was given, and in the offseason Bears coaches saw the improvement they were looking for in all areas.
WR Earl Bennett
AP Images: Nam Y. Huh
"Catching the football, making all the adjustments, alignments, just knowing what to do," Smith said, listing the areas in which Bennett has improved. "And then, when you get an opportunity, making some plays. Earl has made the most of it."
Last offseason Bennett admitted that he wasn't familiar enough with the playbook as a rookie to react rather than thinking about what he was supposed to do. He needed to learn the system before he could play instinctively and just rely on his athleticism, but he said he remained confident that his time would come.
"I kept the faith," he said. "I knew Chicago drafted me for a reason, so I just said, 'Anytime I get the opportunity, I've just got to make the best of it. It may be just one play, but that one play I've got to show the coaches what I've got.' Whenever I got the opportunity, I just wanted to run with it."
NOTES AND QUOTES
Career backup Jamar Williams filled in for injured Lance Briggs and did what he's wanted to do for a long time: make an impact.
Williams was unofficially credited with 18 tackles against the Rams, which would be the most by any Bears player this season if coaches' review of the game film produces the same totals.
"He was outstanding," Smith said. "He played with energy. He made the tackles. I don't know how many he had, but I know he was in on quite a few of them. He was good in pass coverage."
Briggs' 17 tackles against the 49ers were tops for the Bears this season, and he also had 15 tackles in two other games. But the four-time Pro Bowler is out with a sprained knee.
Williams has had opportunities before, starting one game in 2007 and playing in several others because of injuries to starters. But he's never responded as he did against the Rams, although he's tied for fourth on the team with nine special-teams tackles and was second last year with 15.
"I've been here four years," Williams said, "and I'm just like any player on this team who's a backup or a special-teams guy. You want to play. I've been waiting and waiting.
"I'm on special teams, and I'm backing up all these guys, and I knew one day, one day, somebody was going to get hurt and I was going to have to step up. I knew I could be ready, and I did a really good job this week trying to study my opponent, and I felt it helped a lot. I felt very comfortable out there."
Williams also had two pass breakups against the Rams and tipped the ball that Hunter Hillenmeyer intercepted. ...
Matt Forte's 91 rushing yards (on 24 carries) represented his second-best total of a disappointing season in which he's averaging 3.4 yards per carry.
But it was also only the second time in the past nine games that he got more than 20 carries.
"I think it's a start of better things to come," said Forte, who averaged 3.8 yards per carry Sunday. "We had not been playing good ball lately, and then we get a win, so I think it's a start."
Forte has had fewer carries this season than he did as a rookie, when he rushed for 1,238 yards and averaged 3.9 yards on 316 attempts, but he's not second-guessing the play-calling.
"They call the plays, I run the plays," Forte said. "It's not complaining or anything like that. I'm back there to do my job and help this team win." ...
After a huge first quarter in which he completed four of seven passes for 131 yards, Cutler threw just 10 more passes and produced just 12 more yards.
Part of the reason was a hand injury he suffered midway through the second quarter when Leonard Little hit him near the sideline after an incomplete pass.
"I dinged my hand a little bit," Cutler said. "Part of it was the way our defense was playing. We didn't feel like we had to make some big plays or throw the ball down the field. So it was a combination of a lot of different things."
It was the fewest passes Cutler has ever thrown in an NFL game he started and finished, but he still came away with a 96.0 passer rating, his fifth highest of the season. It was also the first time in eight games in which Cutler wasn't intercepted. He had been picked off 15 times in the previous seven games.
"When we had the opportunity to make plays, he made them," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "He didn't have all that many opportunities, but when he did, I thought he saw the field well, made all the right reads, got us out of some bad runs, some bad situations, and got us into some good plays. I thought he played really well."
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