PITTSBURGH – Henry Melton's concerned teammates closed their eyes and took a knee Sunday night in the fourth quarter of the Bears' 40-23 victory over the Steelers as medical personnel signaled for a cart to take the injured defensive tackle off Heinz Field.
The looks on players' faces suggested they knew the injury was serious and their words later would confirm it. Offensive leaders such as Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett rushed from the sideline to surround Melton. Lance Briggs and a couple of Steelers, in a nice show of sportsmanship, came over to pat Melton on the head as he carefully pulled himself off the ground and onto the vehicle.
One minute Melton was rushing the passer when his left knee buckled in a way that made everybody watching the replay back in Chicago cringe. In the next, he was clutching his leg and facing the uncertainty that comes with ACL injuries.
On a night of more ups than downs in the Steel City, nothing reminded the Bears how quickly a good start to a game or season can go bad more than the sight of Melton flat on his back. Nor did any single play force the Bears to find the resilience that defines their 3-0 start.
"We have a lot of love for Henry, even though he went to (Texas),'' said Bennett, a Texas A&M product. "We're all brothers. We had to let him know we're there for him.''
That's exactly what the Bears did. They had lost momentum after taking 17-point lead and the Steelers had whittled away to make it a one-possession game when Melton went down. But something happened after they wheeled Melton into the locker room. The Bears responded like a different team — an inspired one.
"Sometimes it's just the spirit in the air,'' Bennett said.
A defense that had become too vulnerable held the Steelers to a field goal before Jay Cutler went to work. On the ensuing drive, Cutler woke up everybody in the crowd of 61,575 with a 13-yard gain punctuated with a punishing shoulder to safety Robert Golden. On the next third down, Cutler completed a 41-yard pass to Marshall. Then Cutler capped his team's return to consciousness with a beautiful 17-yard toss to Earl Bennett ruled a touchdown only after Marc Trestman wisely threw the challenge flag.
"We kept our poise in the noise," Trestman said.
Again playing the lead in the latest Trestman production, Cutler, "Mr. Fourth Quarter," dazzled a national television audience with clutch plays bound to result in rave reviews across America. Performing whatever role the offense asked, running back Matt Forte combined rare balance and a burst on a memorable 55-yard run. Taking cues from coordinator Mel Tucker, linebackers blitzed to turn five takeaways into 23 points.
And the Emmy for best performance by an NFC playoff contender in prime time goes to the unbeaten Chicago Bears.
The Bears won't get a trophy for beating a shaky Steelers team and back home likely will receive more criticism than they deserve for a midgame letdown. But once everybody calms down from the Bears' first Sunday night road win since 2008, they will see a complete team that has come together quicker under Trestman than many expected. They will find one of the six teams in the league to start 3-0 thanks to a dynamic offense, an attacking defense and a committed coaching staff. They will discover a team that realizes it still has a long way to go to reach NFL elite status but a group that appears to have a plan how to get there.
"I know our guys will come to work Wednesday with their feet on the ground," Trestman said. "We're still in the evolutionary process of finding out who we are."
Are they a team lucky to beat two 0-3 teams or one of the NFC's best? Enjoy the debate. So many football cities witnessing crummy starts would love to have it.
Sure, flaws exist. The Bears still struggled to rush the passer with their front four, which explains why Tucker came determined to dial up as many blitzes as necessary to rattle Ben Roethlisberger. The offense still tailed off too often after a terrific first quarter. The defense gave up too many big plays in the secondary.
"But we are comfortable being uncomfortable in those situations," Julius Peppers said.
Rest assured every player in the Bears locker room remembers starting last season 7-1 and ending it with a coaching search. Every player knows what makes this team different: a sturdy offensive line that protects Cutler and reliable receivers that pressure defenses.
Look around the NFL. Where are the great teams? In a league where five of the six 2012 NFC playoff teams have losing records, parity reigns. Embrace it. This Bears team passes the eye test others flunked.