Just when doubts about the Bears' new offense under rookie coach Marc Trestman were beginning to creep in Sunday, quarterback Jay Cutler cranked up the attack.
Midway through the third quarter, the Bears had just 97 total yards and were fortunate to be trailing by only 21-10 against a Bengals team that has been to the playoffs the past two years and is expected to be there again this year.
The Bears' points came on a TD drive that had to travel just 36 yards, thanks to the first of 2 Charles Tillman interceptions, and Robbie Gould's franchise-record 58-yard field goal.
After Cincinnati's 80-yard TD drive that started the second half, they had outgained the Bears 291-97. But in the final 23 minutes the Bears flipped the script, outgaining the visitors 226-59 and outscoring them 14-0 for a 24-21 victory in Trestman's debut at muggy Soldier Field.
"We knew it was going to be a 60-minute game," Trestman said. "It tested us and our backbone because it didn't go the way we wanted it to go in the first half."
If onlookers were questioning the new coach in the third quarter, they also were questioning Cutler.
He completed 10 of 19 passes for just 70 yards in the first half, a 78.8 passer rating that would have been much lower without an exceptional TD catch by tight end Martellus Bennett to open the scoring.
Cutler's effort too closely resembled many of the not-quite-good-enough performances in his previous four years with the Bears.
But Cutler got hot in the second half and completed 11 of his last 14 passes for 172 yards to finish with a passer rating of 93.2.
"We started clicking a little bit," he said. "We weren't really happy early on. Our tempo was a little off-kilter. We were far from a perfect offense, but we didn't have to be. We just had to be good enough to win a four-quarter game. That's what we did."
Cutler made big plays with his arm and his legs with the Bears facing the 11-point, second-half deficit. In the first half, the Bears' offense produced one play of 15 yards or longer, an 18-yard Cutler pass to Brandon Marshall (8 catches, 104 yards, 19-yard TD).
After the break, the Bears had seven plays of 15 yards or longer, 6 Cutler passes and a Cutler scramble for 18 yards.
"The two plays that really resonate with me offensively were Jay scrambling and hitting Martellus (Bennett) for the big (30-yard) gain," Trestman said, "and Jay scrambling and finding a running lane."
The pass to Bennett set up Matt Forte's 1-yard TD run that brought the Bears within 21-17 with 3:22 left in the third quarter. The 18-yard run, on second-and-20, set up the TD pass to Marshall that capped the scoring with 7:58 remaining.
According to Trestman, it was those plays more than any halftime adjustments that accounted for the Bears' increased productivity in the second half.
The Bears' coach said the first half was an exercise in self-awareness for a new coach, a new offense and four new offensive linemen, including rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills.
"The goal was to let our young guys get settled, try to keep (Cutler) clean," Trestman said. "Whatever the score is, if he's clean in the first quarter, and he feels like he can step up and throw, there's a chance he can be throwing the ball later in the game."
The only notable mistake Cutler made in the second half was an interception early in the fourth quarter that went directly into the hands of Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict after the quarterback was bumped while throwing.
It gave the Bengals, who already led 21-17, the ball at the Bears' 40 with a chance to establish a commanding lead.
But three plays later, cornerback Tim Jennings forced and recovered a fumble after a short completion to Mohamed Sanu. Given a reprieve, Cutler drove the Bears 81 yards to end the scoring.
Cutler said film review of the offense would provide opportunities to make changes, but it also answered a lot of questions -- even ones that players were asking before the opener.
"Throughout the locker room, including me, it was, 'Let's get this thing going,'" Cutler said. "There (were) a lot of question marks. 'How will we do on offense? Are the plays going to work?'
"It wasn't pretty. It wasn't perfect. But we didn't think it was going to be. We had to make plays when we had to make plays. It's out of the way, and we can get the rest of the season under way."
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