Bears can be grateful it's only exhibition season

Apart from Marshall TD, victory over Giants shows how far they still have to go

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — On the only play worth remembering for the Bears in a disappointing 20-17 exhibition victory Friday night over the Giants at MetLife Stadium, wide receiver Brandon Marshall wildly celebrated his 21-yard touchdown catch from Jay Cutler.

Marshall dropped to his knees in the end zone, triumphantly raised both arms and looked toward the sky as if to give thanks.

Everything else that happened against the defending Super Bowl champions only made the Bears grateful that this was still preseason.

In an interview on WBBM-AM just before kickoff, coach Lovie Smith called the third exhibition game the "final exam'' of preseason. In that case, the Bears flunked despite their backups rallying to beat the Giants reserves.

The Bears sought the precision every team wants to see in its last real chance to evaluate starters but settled for sloppiness. Their offense made too many mistakes, their defense gave up too much ground and you could find crisper special-teams execution under the Friday night lights of your local high school. The Bears came east looking for confirmation they were a playoff team but left searching for answers after things suddenly headed south in the second quarter.

Why can't the offense run the ball? Why couldn't the defense stop a rookie — David Wilson — who averaged 9.8 yards per carry? Is Eli Manning really that much more polished than Cutler, whose aim was off? Is cornerback Charles Tillman, obviously targeted by the Giants, really only 31?

Remember when missing Brian Urlacher was the Bears' biggest concern?

"We just looked off tonight,'' Cutler said. "Our communication was lacking. We missed some stuff we should have hit. I thought the offensive line did a good job pass blocking, (but) we have to get the run game going a little bit.''

I would say a lot.

The offensive line didn't allow Cutler to be sacked — J'Marcus Webb seemed less vulnerable than Chris Williams at left tackle — but in protecting the passer they neglected the runners. Matt Forte rushed for 39 yards on 10 carries, but 35 of those came on two carries. The yards came too hard, the holes closed too quickly.

"We're the Chicago Bears,'' Smith said. "We have to be able to run the football.''

If they can't, their season will come to a standstill. This wasn't the impression the Bears hoped to make on national television. This was a three-hour infomercial on NFL regression.

Clearly, this team needs work. They should surround Halas Hall with orange cones Saturday to mark it a football construction zone. When the Bears meet to review videotape of this clunker, Smith should show a calendar on the screen instead. They need to forget whatever happened against the Giants and remember 15 days still remain until the games count.

In that way the Giants represented the ideal opponent. No team illustrates what good still can come from all the bad of preseason more than the Giants. A year ago at this time, Giants defensive star Osi Umenyiora was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery like Urlacher is. They also lost two defensive starters to season-ending injuries. Five months later, the Giants were planning parade routes.

That doesn't mean I predict the Bears will be picking confetti out of their hair Feb. 3 in New Orleans. It means the Bears can learn from their mistakes, quickly put this regrettable effort behind them and still enjoy success in 2012. But they need to patch some holes the Giants exploited, especially in the run game.

Filling in for Urlacher, middle linebacker Nick Roach failed to allay concerns about the Bears' ability to stop the run without their Pro Bowl linebacker — particularly on back-to-back long runs by Wilson. Safety Major Wright didn't fill quickly enough from the secondary, reminding us how inexperienced the Bears remain at such a key position in their defense. Up front, besides Julius Peppers reading a reverse for a 13-yard loss, I can't recall anybody in a three-point stance making me say wow.

Then there was Tillman, who gets the benefit of the doubt after his first Pro Bowl selection but has yet to resemble that caliber of player. Tillman has to be the best player in the secondary — not the chosen target of opposing quarterbacks. Yet there was Tillman allowing unproven receiver Ramses Barden to beat him inside for an 11-yard touchdown. Imagine how much fun Hakeem Nicks might have had if he had played.

Less pressure exists for the Bears defense to carry the team, but Marshall and the new explosiveness of the passing game cannot erase every mistake. The good news? The Bears discovered one thing they won't have to worry about preparing for the Sept. 9 opener.

Complacency.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
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