What We Learned: Bears vs. Bills

C Olin Kreutz (Scott Boehm/Getty)

The Chicago Bears got back on the winning track, although they had to survive an inspired effort from a winless Buffalo team that hasn't quit. What did we learn Sunday? Start with these five observations:

1. Believe it or not, pass protection is better than run blocking
Jay Cutler has been sacked more than any quarterback in the NFL, hitting the deck 28 times after one more Sunday against the Bills, and that number is all the more dubious since he missed a game and a half dealing with the concussion he suffered in Week 4 at New York. Five different combinations along the offensive line have failed to protect Cutler each and every Sunday, but the big uglies in the trenches should be more embarrassed by the fact that Matt Forte and Chester Taylor only managed 62 yards on 24 carries (2.6 yards per attempt) against Buffalo's dead-last-ranked rush defense. Both Forte and Taylor have been running into brick walls since the season began, as rarely do they have a hole to run through and they're almost always met by defenders before reaching the line of scrimmage.

As bad as Olin Kreutz and Co. have been keeping Cutler upright in the pocket, they have been even worse in support of Forte and Taylor and deserve some of the blame for offensive coordinator Mike Martz being overly pass-happy.

2. Bowman isn't going to get his starting job back any time soon
The coaching staff took some heat for benching Zack Bowman as quickly as they did this year, as they spent the entire offseason having everyone believe the third-year player was a star in the making and even promoted him to left cornerback while demoting veteran Charles Tillman to the right side. Bowman has tremendous ball skills and recorded seven INTs in his first 17 games as a pro, but his technique can be sloppy at times and he hasn't proven to be as tough in the running game as coach Lovie Smith would prefer. Enter Tim Jennings, who doesn't fit the mold of a Cover-2 corner since he's only 5-8 and 185 pounds, yet the free-agent addition has exceeded everyone's expectations since being signed off the Indianapolis scrap heap.

Jennings was arguably Chicago's best defender on the field Sunday, tying for the team lead with nine tackles, getting credited for two passes defensed and then intercepting another throw that set up the game-winning score in the fourth quarter.

3. Resist the temptation to put Bennett on the field more often
Johnny Knox is still Cutler's big-play threat and remains among the league leaders by averaging 19.5 yards on his 27 receptions, but Earl Bennett has been the club's most consistent receiver since finally working his way back from the relatively minor injuries that derailed him throughout the offseason program, training camp and the preseason. Working out of the slot most of the time in three-wide formations, Cutler's former college teammate at Vanderbilt has reeled in at least three passes in six of the last seven games, and while he is currently averaging just 11.0 yards per grab, he has long gains of 36, 48 and 26 yards the last three contests. Criticized as a rookie for not knowing the playbook well enough to contribute, the third-year pro now always seems to be at the right place at the right time in Martz's scheme.


DE Israel Idonije
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

While some fans have wondered why he won't be elevated to starter status over the underwhelming Devin Hester, they should understand the fact that Bennett is an ideal fit at the Y position because he spent the majority of his collegiate career in Nashville running those short- and intermediate-range patterns in the middle of the field.

4. Nobody up at Halas Hall expected Idonije to be this good
These days, the Bears coaches look like geniuses for getting rid of fan favorite Alex Brown, moving Israel Idonije to defensive end full time and allowing him to blossom lining up opposite five-time Pro Bowl pick Julius Peppers. In eight games, Idonije has recorded 25 tackles, leads the team with five sacks and has even forced two fumbles, plus the extra point he blocked Sunday against Buffalo proves has is still making his presence felt on special teams. Not that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is an attention-seeking type or anything, but he would be wise to shy away from any praise thrown his way with regard to Idonije considering that he and the rest of the staff originally started the recently-dumped Mark Anderson this season.

Idonije deserves all the credit for coming into his own after being signed by Chicago way back in 2003, but don't forget that the decision makers gave Anderson countless chances before finally giving up on him – last year's trade for the late Gaines Adams is more evidence that Idonije wasn't considered a solution at D-end.

5. Don't assume Martz is in love with the running game now
Smith likes to point out that rushing attempts are at times more valuable that rushing yards in the NFL, as it shows a commitment to the running game, promotes balance on offense and helps the defense stay rested between series. Martz was apparently absent the day that lesson was taught in Football 101, as the architect of the "Greatest Show on Turf" has instead chosen to sling the ball all over the field in every game but two this season, even though Cutler doesn't have nearly the same skill-position talent at his disposal that Kurt Warner did in the glory days of the Rams. Yes, Forte and Taylor were fed the ball a combined 24 times in Week 9, plus Hester and Bennett both got one carry each, but with the Vikings looking to be more vulnerable defensively through the air than on the ground, don't be surprised to see Cutler throw 40 or more passes again in Week 10.

For the most part, Martz has assembled his game plan every week based on what the numbers are telling him to do, and right now Minnesota's fifth-ranked defense is better stopping the run (seventh in the league) than stopping the pass (10th).


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John Crist is the Publisher of BearReport.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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