On the surface, it all seemed so very familiar.
There was the struggling offense, the QB making something of nothing, the wasted timeouts, the bend-but-don’t-break defense that saves the offense with take-aways, and ultimately a victory when the opponent felt more the benevolent benefactor than helpless victim.
That is, and has been, the essence of Bears football.
At least, it has been for the better part of a decade, and after all the changes in staff and personnel, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking it was essentially the same.
“Not true,” said Roberto Garza on Sunday, following the Bears’ 24-21 victory over Cincinnati at Soldier Field. “There’s an emphasis on detail.
“I mean, we were sloppy and we know it and we have a long way to go, but we’ve been practicing against one of the best defenses in the NFL for the last couple months and we’re taught to play every rep in practice like it’s a game.
“There’s an emphasis on playing fast like it’s a game. Those things helped us a lot today. I really believe this offense is going to be pretty good down the road.”
Down the road could be several games from now — or even months. Marc Trestman was very careful Sunday not to expose his inexperienced linemen with too much too soon — and careful not to expose Jay Cutler to a menacing defensive line.
“I just wanted (Cutler) to feel like we can get through the first quarter with this young line,” Trestman said. “Whatever happens, at least we know what we’ve got.”
For a guy with a colorful offensive track record, Trestman was remarkably conservative, understanding that without Cutler he has no season, and without a reasoned approach he has no Cutler.
Furthermore, without Cutler gaining confidence and feeling secure, he doesn’t have Cutler, the antithesis of the formula of recent seasons.
So Trestman played it safe, got a gift field goal at the end of the first half to pull the Bears within 14-10, and kept his quarterback out of difficult situations. Cutler used his feet to create the best plays of the day until he really needed to drop back and throw.
You got the distinct impression that Trestman was either the most patient man in the world or was willing to lose a nonconference game early in the season in order to be better many months from now.
Or maybe he just knew that the Bengals would continue handing the Bears the football until they got precisely what they needed.
Asked if the Bengals gave the game away, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said, “Well, when you turn the football over like we did and the penalties that we had …”
Lewis didn’t finish his thought. He didn’t have to. We already knew the answer.
“They beat us, but we have to play better in order to win,” Lewis said. “We could have played better and won, in my opinion.
“The penalties, the third-down conversions we allowed. The quarterback moves out of the pocket, we drop our coverage twice, and they were able to scramble and get 2 big throws, which is what Jay Cutler does.
“We talked about it all week, and we did it anyway.”
The play that probably had Lewis most upset came with the Bengals up 21-10 after Cincinnati came out with the ball in the second half, ate up 7:08 of the third quarter and marched 80 yards for a touchdown.
At that point, the Bengals had 325 net yards to 97 for the Bears, Andy Dalton had 242 yards passing to 70 for Cutler, and Cincinnati had a chance to force another three-and-out.
With Cutler scrambling to stay alive and looking like he was about to take off on third-and-7, the Bengals — after dropping off — finally stepped up to greet Cutler, and he tossed to a wide-open Martellus Bennett short right on the sideline, good for 30 yards and leading to a Bears touchdown.
“We would have been punting on two occasions if Jay hadn’t run for a first down, or scrambled and made that throw to Martellus,” Trestman said, again showing honesty with his remarks that is both refreshing and, frankly, staggering after what we’re used to hearing. “It was a lot more about making plays (than adjustments) and allowing us to continue drives, as much as anything.”
After a Cutler interception, the Bengals were down to the Bears’ 17 still up 21-17 early in the fourth when Tim Jennings forced a fumble.
“During reps in practice, there’s a stress on mental preparation,” said safety Chris Conte. “The mental side takes the load off the body, and that matters late in the game. There’s definitely a focus on that.”
After the turnover, Cutler marched the Bears down the field for the winning score, a 19-yard TD pass to Brandon Marshall, but the crucial play was a Cutler 17-yard scramble on second-and-20.
“The ball bounced our way today,” Marshall said. “It was a big win. Total team win.”
But Marshall noted what many said Sunday postgame, that this coaching staff has brought many complex changes from the simplistic philosophies of the past.
“There’s a science to it,” Marshall said. “I get coached up. Everything’s a science. You could be the fourth read, but you better be where you’re supposed to be. There may be a play where you’re not even going to get the ball, but you’re going to be coached up to be exactly where you’re supposed to be.”
The game ended in appropriate fashion, with the Bengals taking a cheap shot after the whistle and allowing the Bears to retain possession and kneel down. Of course, Cincinnati would have needed to go about 60 yards for a field-goal attempt in 30 seconds with no timeouts.
“At the end of the day, everything matters,” Marshall said. “Coach Trestman is a special guy. No ups and downs. Lance (Briggs) presented him with the game ball and he was grateful, but he made it seem like it was just one game.”
Trestman didn’t want any of it to be about him.
“I don’t really tend to think about it,” he said. “I give them all the credit. Sundays are for the players.”
What a difference a year — and a head coach — makes.
ŸHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.