Focusing on task at hand pays for Bears

SportsFootballChicago BearsNational Football ConferenceJohn KasayFred MillerRex Grossman

If this eventually will be viewed as a statement game, then the man who had to speak through a fractured jaw made a loud one whose impact was surpassed only by the Bears' performance.

"We responded," right tackle Fred Miller said.

Good teams make their own fortune, and the Bears believe they qualify after their 13-3 shellacking of Carolina on Sunday at raucous Soldier Field.

Capping a tumultuous week that included questions about a fight between Miller and center Olin Kreutz as well as about their playoff legitimacy, the Bears responded in all aspects.

Eight sacks for the first time in 14 years and two interceptions by Nathan Vasher sparked a defensive effort that held their fifth opponent without a touchdown and limited Carolina to 238 yards.

The offensive line kept Kyle Orton's uniform clean and shredded Carolina's vaunted run defense for 122 rushing yards.

And Orton, in what's becoming the norm, made enough plays—including a 3-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad—to silence the Rex Grossman supporters for another week.

A combination of hard work, talent and a dash of luck seems to be sending everything the Bears' way, including six straight victories.

At this rate, the FBI's internal investigation of events at its North Chicago shooting range that involved Bears, alcohol and punches will end with Lovie Smith being named head of national security.

Smith will settle for being coach of the first-place Bears (7-3), who, by virtue of this impressive victory, are major players in the NFC playoff picture.

"We realize this is just one win and we have another big one coming," Smith said. "But it's a good measuring stick for where we are. … It's safe to say we're playing pretty good football right now."

That amounts to a celebratory end-zone dance for the sober Smith, whose measured approach was mentioned several times in a postgame locker room devoid of satisfaction.

Laserlike focus on the task at hand has gone a long way in helping the Bears dig out of a 1-3 hole. It also helped them block out the Kreutz-Miller distraction, which surfaced last week but which players knew about before last week's game.

"That's what coach Smith has been preaching: We have a task at hand," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said.

"Everything else is a distraction. That was his message all week. It's over. Let's focus on who we're playing, and that's Carolina."

Billed as an NFC heavyweight, Carolina collapsed early under steady pressure from both Bears lines.

Before tailgaters' charcoal had cooled, Vasher had intercepted two ill-advised Jake Delhomme passes, Carolina's starting middle linebacker had left with an injury and Muhammad had had more passes thrown to him in the end zone—one caught, one dropped—than Carolina did first downs.

Vasher's first pick and 46-yard return ended Carolina's first possession and set up the Bears at the Panthers' 8. Three plays later, Muhammad crept in front of cornerback Ken Lucas and safety Marlon McCree for a touchdown, his signature celebratory walk and a deep pass to fans in the north end zone.

Vasher's second pick and 22-yard return ended Carolina's third possession and led to Robbie Gould's 33-yard field goal after Muhammad dropped a well-thrown Orton pass in the end zone.

After Carolina kicker John Kasay missed from 46 yards, his first errant field goal under 50 yards in 12 tries, Gould pushed the lead to 13-0 on a 39-yard field goal before halftime.

That's when defensive players began talking shutout.

"That's their mentality," Rivera said. "We hit our pressures early. Once you do that, you make the mind-set of the quarterback a little bit different."

A shutout still looked possible when safety Chris Harris came diving out of nowhere to break up a Delhomme pass intended for Ricky Proehl in the end zone. But Kasay's 38-yard field goal on the same possession with 8:31 remaining spoiled the shutout.

Guess what dominated defensive players' comments afterward.

"We're a good defense," Smith said. "We're supposed to play well each week. As the games get bigger and bigger, we'll put more and more pressure on the defense to perform. I think they're up to it."

Now that the Bears' defense has assumed the No. 1 ranking in points and yards given up, it wants more.

"We expect to win every game," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "This wasn't a surprise to us. We played like we always do. I don't know how teams look at us. We feel like we're a good team. We prepare to win. Whatever teams think of us, so be it. We're going to play hard every Sunday."

The Bears still haven't lost since Mike Brown's stinging rebuke after the collapse Oct. 9 in Cleveland. But the Bears aren't much into symbolism or armchair psychology, even if this marked their first victory over a team north of .500.

They just want—and expect—to win.

"I just know we're where we should be, and that's in first place," Orton said. "That's where the Chicago Bears should be—playing great defense, running the football and in first place in November. That's where we belong."

kcjohnson@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading