Part of watching a team grow up is coming to grips with the fact that growth is not a linear process but a contingent one. Or to be more precise, growth only looks linear in retrospect. There's a lot of "if this then that" when you watch a young team grow up. We look back on teams like the recent Super Bowl Giants teams and gloss over the wild swings in their development, and dismiss the moments that might have derailed it. We look back on dynasties and would-be dynasties and view them as one inexorable march to destiny. But in truth, any number of contingencies that seemed innocuous at the time might have significantly altered their course. In real time, growth is messy. Ask any 49ers fan.
It is tempting to look at last week's road loss to the Dolphins as a total fail. It was certainly a failure, but all losses are not equally diagnostic. For instance, we didn't learn much from the Rams loss other than "don't do stupid things Pete Carroll." But I think this young team and this coaching staff learned some valuable lessons at Miami (especially on defense). We may yet look back on that game as necessary short-term pain for long-term gain. (Or we may look back on it as the game that kept us out of the playoffs. Could be both.)
In that spirit, I want to set up this preview of the Bears game as a series of contingencies; questions that will get at least partial answers today.
1. Will body clocks be ready? It has become de rigueur to dismiss any and all talk of internal clocks. And I get it. No sense complaining about what cannot be changed. In many ways, what I saw in Miami--pretty much the toughest road trip in the NFL--is quite the opposite of what I would have anticipated. Seattle hung in there, even dictated on defense in the first half. Then in the second half they got sluggish, particularly along both lines. I have little idea what to expect today. Seattle has played well at Soldier Field in recent years. I think that is in no small part because Chicago is no more difficult a trip than St. Louis on the internal clock.
2. How will Seattle attack Chicago's quick passing game? The Bears aren't dumb (I don't think). They are no doubt aware that teams have had success against Seattle with quick passing, targeting our slot corner and LBs. Seattle's response to quick passing is to allow teams to throw short and look to punish receivers. That approach saw some success against New England and Minnesota. More recently though, teams have converted big plays with the quick passing game. Here is the lingering question. What kinds of adjustments will Seattle make? It looks like Walter Thurmond, III will play some today as the slot corner. So, it may be as simple as hoping to get better play from the slot corner position and invite Cutler to hold the ball. We know he likes to do that. However, many are calling for Seattle to be more aggressive in base defense. Specifically, blitz more often to create pressure on early downs.
3. Can we avoid the big coverage breakdown? It certainly appears that Seattle has consistently given up cheap scores (e.g., Wes Welker, Titus Young) or field-flipping plays (Davon Bess) in close games. It is rarely more than one, but for a team that plays in a lot of close games the cheap scores or field-flipping plays can just be killer. Today, Chicago should have only one player on the field who creates those kinds of plays--Brandon Marshall. But then, we thought that about Calvin Johnson at Detroit. Chicago, to its credit, moves Marshall around to get favorable matchups (something I wish we'd do more of with Golden Tate). But, I have some concern about Earl Bennett and Matt Forte. Bennett is in and out of the lineup with injuries, and that may have more to do with his low number of targets and catches. I know that Cutler played with Bennett at Vanderbilt and trusts him implicitly. Bennett is quite similar to Davon Bess in skill set, and that kind of guy has given us fits.
4. Does our offensive line show up? Last week was the worst game in a long time. For all the vitriol aimed at Bevell last week, what do you dial up with the offensive line isn't pass blocking any better than run blocking? Miami is perhaps more stout than Chicago up front defensively, but they lack a dominant pass rusher. This group is better than it played last week. How much better is unknown.
5. Can Seattle dominate hidden yards? I was dead wrong last week about hidden yards (return yards, penalties, field position flipping turnovers). I thought Miami had to dominate the category to win. In truth, Seattle really needs to dominate this category to win, especially on the road. With a low volume offense like ours the only way we are likely to score a lot of points is to get extra possessions and/or start on short fields. This should be one of the fun battles of the game, because Chicago is quite intentional about dominating hidden yards.