JENSEN: Complete effort against quality foe results in impressive victory
BY SEAN JENSEN firstname.lastname@example.org
Chicago Bears' Devin Hester (23) grabs a pass for a touchdown in the second half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys Monday, Oct. 1, 2012, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
ARLINGTON, Texas — Coach Lovie Smith likes to split a season into quarters, and the Bears have earned a passing mark that puts them tied atop the NFC North with the Minnesota Vikings.
‘‘To finish up the first quarter at 3-1 [was] a goal we had to accomplish,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Our guys came out ready to play.’’
The Bears’ 34-18 victory Monday against the Dallas Cowboys was their most complete performance against a quality opponent in more than 10 months.
On Nov. 20, 2011, the Bears defeated the San Diego Chargers 31-20 at Soldier Field to push their record to 7-3. But quarterback Jay Cutler injured his right thumb in that game, and the Bears failed to win any of their next five games before eking out a victory against the moribund Minnesota Vikings in the season finale to finish 8-8.
After an offseason in which the Bears upgraded their offensive personnel, they were considered a Super Bowl contender. But their first two victories had come against the Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams, two teams coming off 2-14 seasons.
The Bears were a disappointment in their first real test, a 23-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers on ‘‘Thursday Night Football.’’ That defeat raised questions about a range of issues — from the quarterback to the coach to (as always) the offensive line.
But Monday at Cowboys Stadium, the Bears controlled every facet of the game. Each phase — offense, defense and special teams — made meaningful contributions in an impressive victory against the Cowboys.
Cutler had his highest quarterback rating — 140.1 — since a victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in November 2010. He completed 18 of 24 passes for 275 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. And despite two sacks, Cutler largely benefitted from solid pass protection from his beleaguered offensive line.
‘‘We just have to take the momentum and keep going with it,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘This league is about stringing together wins.’’
That’s entirely possible because the Bears’ next four opponents — the Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans — have combined to win four games. All are 1-3.
It’s too early to gauge the potential of the Cowboys, but there’s no denying their talent-rich roster, most notably perennial Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
The Bears’ defense dominated, scoring touchdowns on interception returns by cornerback Charles Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs. Safety Major Wright added two interceptions and nickel back D.J. Moore one.
That Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo passed for more than 300 yards didn’t matter. Tackle Henry Melton led a solid effort by the Bears’ defensive line, which got enough pressure on Romo and rendered running back DeMarco Murray ineffective. The Cowboys ran for only 41 yards and counted on Romo to keep them in the game.
‘‘We felt we could have gotten to him more,’’ Melton said. ‘‘We can always do something better.’’
That certainly can be said of the Bears’ offense, which has been inconsistent since an explosive season opener against the Colts. The offense finished with 361 net yards and showed a balanced attack behind an offensive line many projected to struggle in prime time. Cutler made some brilliant throws, including a 34-yard touchdown pass to Devin Hester, and running back Matt Forte, who missed the last game with an ankle injury, was efficient enough with 13 carries for 52 yards.
Afterward, Cutler said the offense could be even better.
‘‘We’re not where we need to be yet,’’ Cutler said.
There were plenty of others who made timely plays on offense. Receiver Brandon Marshall caught seven passes for 138 yards and a 31-yard touchdown, Hester had his touchdown catch, running back Michael Bush converted a third-and-one and receiver Alshon Jeffrey had three catches for 32 yards.
But the most notable contribution might have come from tight end Kellen Davis. Davis dropped a pass in the first quarter but rebounded with three catches for 62 yards. In the second quarter, Davis had a 16-yard catch on third-and-10 after Cutler avoided a sack.
And while Hester didn’t pop a long return on special teams, kicker Robbie Gould was his usual, steady self, making field goals of 43 and 21 yards.
Hester, though, applauded the defense.
‘‘To me, this was a defensive victory,’’ he said. ‘‘When you come up with five turnovers and 14 points, you pretty much won the game. They had an amazing night.’’