LAKE FOREST – Bears coach Lovie Smith had little patience for criticism Monday when he returned to work at Halas Hall.
So when Smith was asked about the Bears’ bumpy start on offense, he responded in typical guarded fashion. Whatever ailed the Bears could be cured by a glance at the standings, which showed the Bears (2-1) with a share of the lead in the NFC North entering Week 4.
“When you say bumpy, I just kind of look at the whole,” Smith said. “We’re 2-1, pretty good shape right now, going into this last part of this first quarter [of the season].”
To be fair, the Bears showed plenty to like in a 23-6 win against the St. Louis Rams.
Jay Cutler played better than he did against Green Bay in Week 2, but not by a great deal. Cutler struggled with his accuracy, including a pass in the first quarter that sailed over Kellen Davis’ head but (fortunately for the Bears) bounced off the hands of Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Cutler’s best play of the game had nothing to do with his arm as he tucked the ball and sprinted for 21 yards to set up first-and-goal in the fourth quarter.
Running backs: B
Despite the absence of Matt Forte, the Bears proved they could move the ball with the one-two tandem of Michael Bush (39 snaps) and Kahlil Bell (27 snaps). Bush’s best work came in the first half, including a 12-yard run up the middle of the field on the Bears’ first play. Bush also failed to hold his block that led to a Chris Long sack against Cutler. Armando Allen (3 snaps) picked up 2 yards on his only carry.
Wide receivers: C
Brandon Marshall (63 snaps) bounced back from a quiet Week 2 performance by catching five passes for 71 yards, including a one-handed grab in the first quarter and a 13-yard pickup across the middle when he and Cutler connected on a rollout in the second quarter. Alshon Jeffery (51 snaps) caught five of seven passes thrown his direction, but Devin Hester (11 snaps) inexplicably replaced him near the goal line and let a pass sail over his hands. Earl Bennett (31 snaps) caught only one of four passes thrown his way.
Tight ends: B
Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice tried to include his tight ends more in the game plan, and Kellen Davis (66 snaps) returned the favor by playing his best game of the season. That might not be saying much based on Davis’ first two games, but he looked good as he found a soft spot in the Rams’ defense for a 12-yard gain on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter. Matt Spaeth (31 snaps) and Kyle Adams (10 snaps) helped as extra blockers.
Offensive line: C
Perfect? No. Better? Yes. The Bears gave up only two sacks against the Rams, and Bush was at fault for one of them. Chilo Rachal (69 snaps) replaced Chris Spencer (1 snap) at left guard and proved to be an effective run-blocker. But Rachal also committed two false starts, and right guard Lance Louis (69 snaps) added a third despite a quiet crowd. Roberto Garza (69 snaps) delivered a pancake block to clear the way for Bush’s 3-yard touchdown run.
Defensive line: A
The Bears’ front four has proved to be their No. 1 strength on defense through three weeks. Israel Idonije (43 snaps) benefited from extra attention given to Julius Peppers (45 snaps) as he tallied 2½ sacks and added a crunching hit as Sam Bradford hurried a pass in the fourth quarter. On the next play, Bradford was picked off by Major Wright for a touchdown. A seven-man rotation also included Henry Melton (47 snaps), Stephen Paea (40 snaps), Shea McClellin (19 snaps), Amobi Okoye (19 snaps) and Corey Wootton (19 snaps).
A series in the third quarter perfectly captured the slow progress of Brian Urlacher (58 snaps). On first-and-10 from the Rams’ 44-yard-line, Urlacher was manhandled on a block by center Rob Turner, and running back Steven Jackson capitalized with a 13-yard gain. On the next play, Urlacher bounced off a block and tackled Jackson on a 2-yard gain. Four plays later, Urlacher broke up a pass intended for tight end Lance Kendricks and forced the Rams to settle for a 46-yard field goal. Fellow linebacker Lance Briggs (58 snaps) made seven tackles, and Nick Roach (25 snaps) stuffed Bradford on a coverage sack.
A dazzling season continues for Tim Jennings (58 snaps), who extended his career high with his fourth interception of the season and deflected a pass that ended up in Major Wright’s hands for a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Jennings’ highlight reel also included a stellar pass breakup on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter, when he reached in front of Brandon Gibson to force a turnover on downs. Meanwhile, Charles Tillman (58 snaps) and D.J. Moore (33 snaps) kept plays in front of them.
Wright (58 snaps) laughed and acknowledged that he owed Jennings dinner for deflecting the pass that led to his gift interception. Yet Wright and Chris Conte (58 snaps) do not need to apologize for their quiet but consistent role in the secondary, which has allowed veteran Craig Steltz to focus exclusively on special teams. The Bears also mixed in Cover-1 defense with Conte playing deep, which is something else for the Cowboys to prepare for in Week 4.
Special teams: A
After eight seasons, it’s easy to take Robbie Gould for granted. Gould was perfect yet again in Week 3 as he connected from 54, 22 and 37 yards to improve to 6-for-6 this season. He also blasted five of his six kickoffs for touchbacks, limiting the Rams to one kick return for 24 yards. Adam Podlesh stuck two of his four punts inside the 20-yard line, and Hester notched a pair of 30-plus yard kickoff returns to give the Bears good field position.