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Off the practice field Cedric Benson sprinted Thursday before any reporters could catch him. Benson hasn't dodged the increased media crowd this week at Halas Hall but he has been hard to find and hardly quotable.
Nobody's complaining especially the Bears.
It can be dangerous being left to read Benson's body language, a lesson from Week 3 when the Bears objected to the observation that the running back pouted after not playing against the Vikings. That's ancient history.
But lately watching Benson closely leaves the impression that he could be the difference Sunday in the Bears' biggest game since the 1988 season. He has overcome any early season disappointment and a mid-season bout with foot-in-mouth disease to finish strong.
Since Dec. 3, Benson has outgained Thomas Jones 380-331 on two fewer carries (80). More tellingly in the Bears final three possessions in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Seahawks with the season on the line, Benson carried seven times. That's trust.
"He wanted to be a guy everyone could count on,'' offensive coordinator Ron Turner said.
Slowly, Benson is becoming that guy.
He and Jones complement one another regardless of who starts and who subs. They are the "other'' running back tandem Sunday. But given the Saints' susceptibility to the run their rushing defense is ranked 23rd and the winter elements, a guy running as purposeful as Benson has lately could do enough in one day to justify being the No. 4 pick in the 2005 NFL draft.
Last week in this space, Rashied Davis was identified as the likely "X'' factor because of the Seahawks' holes in the secondary and he filled the role well with the game's most clutch catch. This week, expect Benson to be that difference-maker.
Can the running back from Texas keep the hot hand on a January day in Chicago?
That won't be answered until Sunday. Here are some questions that can be now.
When will the Bears discover the dump-off, the screen pass, the draw -- anything to counter the blitz? For months now the opposition has been using the same approach. We've got good backs and a tight end. What gives? --Comer, Waldorf, Md.
One of the biggest plays of the year was a 26-yard draw play on third-and-22 by Thomas Jones with the Bears trailing 13-3 at the end of the first half against the Giants. So they can do it, they just don't. It also would slow down a blitz if Grossman ran more than he does, as his 22-yard run against St. Louis illustrated. The Rams pass rush wasn't the same after that play. The Seahawks exposed the Bears in the first half by blitzing and the Saints could do the same, although defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith will create pressure without having to send additional pass-rushers. Running swing passes to Jones or Cedric Benson would be one way of giving those ends - and any blitzing cornerbacks - something to consider out of the corners of their eyes.
All the talk about the Bears defense having less impact now versus earlier in the year is blamed on the loss of Tommie Harris and Mike Brown. Seems to me that there is more going on. Is Adewale Ogunleye still on the team? Alex Brown? I haven't heard their names called in weeks it seems. What's the real story? --Mike, Scottsdale, Ariz.
Then turn up the volume on your TV or radio. Brown and Ogunleye each had sacks against Seattle with Ogunleye's coming at a key time when he kept containment on Matt Hasselbeck or else it might have spelled trouble. Mark Anderson has outplayed both guys, in terms of sacks, but still lacks the strength to stop the run that Ogunleye and Brown have. Injuries cannot be used as excuses. Harris has been gone since Dec. 3 and Brown since Oct. 16, so the Bears have become accustomed to playing without them. The defense has not been as dominant without them but it has been good enough to keep winning. The biggest challenge comes against the NFC's top offense when tackling takes on greater importance against a short passing game.
Sean Payton's seen the film. I can almost envision the Saints running a ton of draws in passing situations, with Reggie Bush slicing into the heart of the field using the same scheme Seattle employed to expose the run vulnerability of our nickel defense. How can we turn the tables? How about blitzing more all-out blitzes in passing situations that can blow up a running play OR get to the quarterback? --Fred Venturini, Carlyle, Calif.
The Bears' nickel-run defense will be tested by a Saints offense that likes to hand off to Deuce McAllister with passing personnel in the game and throw the ball out of traditional pro-formation sets. Bush could be limited on a bad surface of Soldier Field, and if he is the Bears will owe the Chicago Park District a thank-you note for maintaining a field about which many players have complained. Blitzing the run is a dangerous proposition because it removes the second layer of run defense that often saves big gains. The Bears have to be smart and pick their spots without losing patience. Beating Drew Brees requires as much discipline as skill.
Adewale Ogunleye clearly is loved by his teammates, but he has been a non-factor since October. His quickness, which he lives on, is not there. Last year same thing. He wears down as the season goes on. Now, he has a deep thigh bruise. Will he be a Bear next year? He makes a lot of money, gets blocked one-on-one, and looks to be a shell of his former self. Why not give his money to Briggs? --Martin Sordyl, Gurnee, Ill.
It's not an either-or proposition. Ogunleye has three seasons left on his contract and the Bears will have salary-cap space to re-sign Briggs too. Whether it's due to nagging injuries or age, Ogunleye indeed has looked less explosive in the second half of the season than the guy who arrived in 2004 worth the $15 million in bonus money. The Bears probably expected more than their 6.5 sacks and Ogunleye has addressed his own disappointment in his production. But cutting him would be rash. He still stops the run effectively and in the Cover-2 defense dependent on edge rushers, it's never bad to have three as dangerous as the Bears' trio of Ogunleye, Brown and Anderson.
What are your thoughts about what to do with Mike Brown, as much as he is a leader both on and off the field, the guy just can't stay healthy. As much as it hurts to say, I think we should cut him loose to free up some money to keep Briggs, then try to trade either Thomas Jones or Ogunleye (or both) for a big-time safety. That way, Benson and Anderson can both get more playing time. Do you think the Bears would consider this? --Zack Bubness, Lowell, Ind.
Only if they belong to a fantasy football league. Of the moves you suggested, only trading Jones figures to be considered in the off-season due to a contract that runs out in 2007 and Benson's late-season emergence. He could bring value but if the Bears can work out the locker-room dynamics, Jones also seems to accept the idea of sharing the load with Benson. That's a discussion for another day. As for Mike Brown, he hasn't played a game since October and his value to the franchise increased every week. The extent to which the Bears missed Brown convinces me he deserves another chance to prove he can stay healthy. But one more serious injury could use up whatever patience the Bears have left.
My theory is that a deep-seated problem for the 2006 Bears is that despite their record, their ups and downs and being one game away from the Super Bowl, the media and some fans cannot forgive them for not being the 1985 Bears. That team was a dominant cast of characters that captured the imagination and became a cultural fad beyond the boundaries of Chicago and interest in pro football. There is no Fridge and Rex Grossman is hardly the "Punky QB." Even if this group goes on to win the Super Bowl, these poor guys can't compete with that. What do you think? --Chuck Fiandaca, Altamonte Springs, Fla.
Saying Grossman is hardly the "punky QB,'' is a compliment, right? I think the healthiest thing for the Bears organization, the city and football fans all over the Midwest would be for the 2006 Bears to win the Super Bowl and put to rest this obsession with the 1985 Bears that has extended into 21 years. That doesn't mean anybody is rooting for it to happen or that it will. It's only an honest assessment of a city's odd addiction to a football team. When the coach of that team, Mike Ditka, can command more attention four days before an NFC Championship game than the home team playing in it, it's a sad commentary on the state of football affairs.
After Sunday's performance, do you think the Bears will wise up and meet Lance Briggs' contract demands? Is it possible that his asking price could be higher seeing that he outplayed Julian Peterson? With the salary cap rising to $109 million, what are the odds of keeping key players on defense, Thomas Jones (new deal), Grossman, and Bernard Berrian? --Drew, Chicago
Lance Briggs proved his worth to the Bears again last Sunday when he made the fourth-and-one stop on Shaun Alexander only a handful of linebackers in the league could make. He would be worth the investment and the Bears will be in a position to afford him even if it requires sticking a franchise tag on him - which they have until the Feb. 22 deadline to do. If that doesn't happen, Briggs might be inclined to test the free-agent market just to see what the market will bear, and it's possible it would bear even more than Peterson's seven-year, $54 million deal.
Sunday, the worst corner in town will be Fred Thomas, the Saints defensive back. How many TD passes ought Rex have in his direction? --Marlon Micou, Waterloo, Iowa
One would be enough. If Grossman and Berrian hook up again early for a long touchdown pass, it will loosen up the Saints defense and make stopping the run much more difficult than it already will be. Much debate raged earlier in the week about whether the Bears should pound the run to establish the pass or the other way around. The trick is not committing to either method beforehand and waiting to see how many defenders the Saints commit to the run. That's what Grossman meant as much as anything when he tersely dismissed a question about controlling the clock. The only category on a scoreboard any quarterback worries about is the one tracking points, and the Bears will score more Sunday if they connect on the deep ball again.
As a fan watching the Bears-Seahawks game, the most frustrating thing was that the pass-blocking schemes often could not account for rushers who came at Rex unblocked. I expected them to look at the photos at halftime and make adjustments, but they didn't seem to. Why were the Seahawks able to do that throughout the game and what does that portend for the rest of the playoffs? --Cary Allen, Portland, Ore.
They moved around Julian Peterson from side to side and made it difficult for the offensive linemen to account for him. Blitzes up the middle have bothered Grossman and tackles Fred Miller and John Tait didn't have terrific protection days. A big sack can change momentum in a playoff game and Grossman's fumble caused by a Peterson blitz revived the Seahawks. That's been the focus of the Bears offense this week and, even more than Grossman's accuracy, could be the determining factor whether the Bears offense can get untracked Sunday.
It's great that the Bears won Sunday but what's with all the no-shows? Isn't it a bit odd and troubling that a reported 6,659 fans with tickets to a playoff game (in the league's second-smallest stadium) decide not to use them? --Rick, Tinley Park, Ill.
They obviously couldn't afford the parking.