By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune –
CHICAGO — You can question the decision by Lovie Smith to go for it on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter and pass on a field goal, something the coach did himself.
But following the collapse Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field in a 23-17 overtime loss to the Seahawks, it’s worth wondering if the aging defense is beginning to show signs it is unraveling as the schedule turns to the final quarter of the season.
The Bears couldn’t stop a rookie quarterback, who came in with a 1-5 record on the road, when it mattered. Russell Wilson drove the Seahawks 97 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of regulation and then marched his offense 80 yards for a game-winning score on the opening possession of overtime.
It sent the Bears (8-4) to their third loss in four games and dropped them into a first-place tie in the NFC North with the Packers, who hold the tiebreaker and come to Soldier Field on Dec. 16 in the Bears’ only remaining home game.
The Bears made sure Wilson, for a week anyway, will get the publicity fellow rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III have been enjoying. He passed for 293 yards and two touchdowns, completing 23 of 37 passes, and rushed for 71 yards on nine carries with 67 coming after halftime, most on read options.
Forget Smith’s early aggressive play call that relied on a patchwork offensive line. His defense got picked apart in losing at home to the Seahawks for the third straight season.
Wilson did the bulk of his damage on the edges. His scramble led to a 27-yard completion to Sidney Rice with 32 seconds remaining in regulation. He threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate on the next play.
“When you don’t contain a quarterback, you get to see exactly how fast he can be,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “This game falls on the defense. Our offense gave us an opportunity to win the game. They bailed us out at the end of the game with that deep pass, gave us another chance. We didn’t hold up our end of the bargain.”
Trailing 17-14 after Tate’s touchdown, the Bears had only 20 seconds when they started on their own 14-yard line. Jay Cutler managed to hit Brandon Marshall for a 56-yard gain when he was inexplicably open. That set up Robbie Gould’s 46-yard field goal to force overtime.
But the Bears defense, which denied it was gassed, couldn’t get off the field after Seattle won the coin toss to begin overtime. Wilson ran to move the chains on two third downs and called a read option on the game-winning play before changing it to a pass to Rice.
“As the game went on, I continued to tell the coaches and they saw it too,” Wilson said. “Especially in the end of the game, the read option is wide open.”
The Seahawks also got 87 yards rushing and one touchdown from Marshawn Lynch, but it was Wilson upstaging Cutler that was the story. It marked the first time in 26 career games with a passer rating above 100 (119.6) that Cutler had lost. He completed 17 of 23 passes for 233 yards with touchdown passes to Earl Bennett and Matt Forte. Bennett, who left with a concussion, dropped what would have been a 62-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. The drive netted zero points.
The only sack came when Cutler fumbled on a dropback. Marshall made 10 receptions for 165 yards and Forte and Michael Bush combined for 105 yards rushing, but the offense never got a chance in overtime.
The Bears could have gone up 10-0 at the start of the second quarter, but Smith elected to have Bush run on fourth down rather than try a 33-yard field goal by Gould.
“I should have taken the field goal,” said Smith, who later reversed course. “Every time a decision doesn’t work out I look at it and think would I do it again? Probably so.”
Now, he has to hope the performance by his defense against Seattle, which previously had beaten only the lowly Panthers on the road, is an aberration and not a sign of things to come. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher left in overtime with a hamstring issue and cornerback Tim Jennings was knocked out with a shoulder injury.
With little in the way of challengers for the final playoff spots in the NFC, the postseason looks like a good bet. But combining defensive issues with offensive line issues would be crippling.
“Terrible job I did getting our football team ready,” Smith said. “I thought we were ready to go. Some decisions I made really hurt us early on.”
The defense’s performance provided the most pain.