Caution: Coaching seat may be hot.
A late-season slump by the Bears has increased pressure on everyone at Halas Hall, including Lovie Smith. The Bears (8-5) are clinging to the No. 6 playoff spot in the NFC and will need a strong finish to fend off contenders such as the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings, each of which has seven wins.
Last season, Smith guided the Bears to a 7-3 start only to lose five of the final six games. This season, the Bears were 7-1 at the halfway point of the regular season but have lost four of five games to jeopardize their playoff chances.
Smith was asked Monday whether he believed his future with the team was tied to a playoff appearance. He has a 79-62 record since he was hired in 2004, but the Bears missed the playoffs in five of his first eight seasons entering 2012.
“It’s all based on wins and losses, really,” Smith said. “And I’m OK with that.”
Smith will not be OK with watching a replay of the Bears’ 21-14 loss to the Vikings. But at least he should have his franchise quarterback.
On his weekly radio show on WMVP-1000 AM, Jay Cutler said he expected to be ready to play next week against the Green Bay Packers despite a neck injury that forced him to the sidelines in the fourth quarter Sunday.
“Unless something drastic happens, absolutely,” Cutler said.
A look at how the Bears graded out Sunday:
Cutler’s 57.0 passer rating (22 of 44, 260 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) would have looked much different if his receivers had been able to secure a couple of would-be touchdowns passes.
Cutler (67 snaps) also scrambled effectively when his receivers were covered, but his highlights were overshadowed by a terrible interception that he threw flat-footed in the third quarter. Jason Campbell (11 snaps) thrived against the Vikings’ soft coverage late in the game with the Bears down by 14.
Running backs: C
A big deficit never allowed the Bears to establish the run, and Matt Forte (72 snaps) received only 13 carries for his lightest workload in five weeks. Forte flashed a glimpse of his explosiveness with a 36-yard run in the third quarter, but seven of his 13 carries went for 3 yards or less. Michael Bush (2 snaps) met with trainers after an early 7-yard gain and watched the rest of the game from the sidelines.
Wide receivers: C
Drops, drops, drops. Each of the Bears’ wide receivers let down Cutler at least once, but the most egregious errors came on possible touchdown passes to Alshon Jeffery (57 snaps) and Devin Hester (54 snaps). Jeffery also fell down on the first series, which led to an easy interception for Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson. Brandon Marshall (74 snaps) continued to amaze, particularly on a 39-yard gain in which he leaped in front of defenders A.J. Jefferson and Harrison Smith to make the catch.
Tight ends: D
For some reason, Cutler targeted Kellen Davis (48 snaps) eight times in the passing game. Of those eight targets, Davis managed only three catches for 25 yards. Throw in a 10-yard holding penalty against blocking tight end Matt Spaeth (20 snaps), and you have another day at the office for one of the Bears’ weakest position groups.
Offensive line: C
If someone had told Cutler that his offensive linemen would allow two sacks on 44 pass attempts, he probably would have given a thumbs-up. Yet when the offensive line failed, it failed in a big way. Jonathan Scott (78 snaps) could not maintain his block against Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, who demolished Cutler with a high hit in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Edwin Williams (36 snaps) and James Brown (42 snaps) flip-flopped at left guard without much success.
Defensive line: C
A run-heavy game plan made it difficult for the Bears’ front four to hassle Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, and they did not provide a ton of pressure when given the opportunity. Julius Peppers (47 snaps) and Shea McClellin (7 snaps) each fired off of the edges to force Ponder to rush a pass in the first quarter, and Corey Wootton (42 snaps) stuffed Ponder for a 14-yard loss in the second quarter. Injuries to McClellin and Henry Melton (27 snaps) limited the rotation on the line.
As Brian Urlacher watched from the sidelines, the Bears’ linebackers faltered on the first play of the game before recovering. On Adrian Peterson’s 51-yard run, fullback Rhett Ellison easily blocked middle linebacker Nick Roach (57 snaps) while tight end John Carlson knocked down strong-side linebacker Geno Hayes (39 snaps). Away from the play, weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs (57 snaps) was blocked by right tackle Phil Loadholt, and Briggs took a bad angle as he gave chase down field.
Ponder managed only 91 passing yards on 17 attempts, and Charles Tillman (56 snaps) prevented the only threat of a home-run passing play as he defended a deep ball for Devin Aromashodu in the second quarter. Kelvin Hayden (57 snaps) was OK as a replacement for injured starter Tim Jennings, but he could not prevent an 11-yard completion to Michael Jenkins on third-and-9 on the opening drive. Peterson rushed for a touchdown two plays later.
Like many of his teammates, Chris Conte (57 snaps) has picked a bad time to slump. Peterson knocked Conte to the ground with a powerful stiff-arm on his first carry, and Conte gift-wrapped a first down for the Vikings with a defensive holding penalty in the third quarter. Major Wright (55 snaps) notched his fourth interception on a deep pass by Ponder late in the second quarter for the defense’s only takeaway.
Special teams: B
The Bears were forced to improvise after Robbie Gould strained his left calf during pregame warmups. Emergency fill-in Adam Podlesh bounced the opening kickoff for a touchback, and his second kickoff traveled to the Vikings’ 3-yard line before a modest 21-yard return. On the punt team, Zack Bowman leaped in front of the goal line and flipped the ball over his head to pin the Vikings at their 1-yard line.