Cutler on Run, Bears Beat Bills 10-3

Cutler was on the run and out of the game in hurry, playing just one series as the Chicago Bears opened the preseason with a 10-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills that did nothing to ease lingering concerns about the offensive line.

“They were good. They were fine,” Cutler said. “It took a little bit to get settled down. Some of those young guys are still jelling a little bit.”

The Bills got two sacks from Shawne Merriman and nine in all, but the Bears prevailed on a soggy night in which both teams pulled their starters early.

Cutler and Chicago’s skill position starters were gone after one series, with the linemen staying in for the first half. On defense, the first stringers lasted two series, while the Bills lifted their starters on both sides after two.

The way Cutler was running around, it sure felt like last season. Sacked a league-leading 52 times a year ago, there wasn’t much he could do Saturday with the defense bearing down on him. At least this one didn’t end with a knee injury or with the outside attacks on his toughness, as his previous appearance at Soldier Field — an NFC championship loss to Green Bay in January.

All Cutler managed behind a revamped line that no longer includes departed center Olin Kreutz was this — a shovel pass to Matt Forte on the Bears’ second play from scrimmage for no gain and then a 10-yard scramble. He got sacked by rookie Marcell Dareus on a third down at the 35 before Chicago punted.

Newcomer Roy Williams didn’t have a ball thrown his way.

Forte stayed on for one more play after that shovel pass and didn’t attempt a run but was at least in uniform. He had considered holding out at the start of training camp because he wants a new contract, and considered sitting out this one, too.

Newcomer Marion Barber made a good impression, running for 45 yards and leading the Bears to a second-quarter touchdown. He carried six times for 37 yards on that drive, setting up a 4-yard run by backup quarterback Caleb Hanie that put Chicago ahead 7-3.

Hanie got a rude welcome on the previous possession when he was sacked on consecutive plays by Merriman. That forced Chicago to punt after Johnny Knox returned the kickoff 70 yards following a 44-yard field goal by Rian Lindell late in the first quarter.

For the line, it was simply a rough night.

Kreutz, the six-time Pro Bowl center, is gone after contract negotiations collapsed, and the Bears are going with veteran Roberto Garza rather than newcomer Chris Spencer for now.

Garza got beat on Merriman’s second sack, and it wasn’t a great night for the rest of the blockers, either.

“Too much pressure on the quarterback,” coach Lovie Smith said. “We have to tighten that up a little bit. But besides that offensively I thought we accomplished what we wanted to the first game. We have so far to go.”

The Bills had to like what they saw from Merriman and Dareus, the third pick in the draft.

Buffalo is counting on both players to help a defense that ranked last against the run a year ago and got hit hard by injuries while trying to adapt to the 3-4. That’s one reason Buffalo went 4-12 last season, and coach Chan Gailey was quick to praise Merriman.

“The understatement of the evening I thought Merriman was impressive on his return,” he said.

They never got the spark they were seeking from Merriman in November because the three-time Pro Bowler injured his Achilles’ tendon about 15 minutes into his first practice with Buffalo after being waived by San Diego. He missed the rest of the season.

“I’m still getting a feel for the game again, so going out there and making certain moves, getting back in football shape is going to be a long process, but you are never going to take the athleticism and the ability to go out and want make plays for somebody,” Merriman said. “I’ve been away for a year and half still just getting into the groove of things.”

It wasn’t a bad night for Ryan Fitzpatrick, either. He completed 7 of 9 passes for 44 yards for the Bills.

Stevie Johnson, the man the Bills are counting on to take over the No. 1 spot with Lee Evans gone, caught three passes for 15 yards. Fred Jackson ran for 18 yards on three carries.

“Everybody knows what an outstanding player Lee was here,” Fitzpatrick said. “The off-the-field stuff, the leadership that he provided in that room was something that maybe you don’t see every day. That’s going to be something that the guys are going to have to pick up.”

Notes: The Bears kicked off twice from the 30 rather than the 35 because they wanted to test their coverage unit. The Bills were OK with that. … Chicago RB Chester Taylor ran for 3 yards on three carries. … CB Zackary Bowman (head), DE Corey Wootton (knee) and DT Marcus Harrison (shoulder) were injured during the game. … The Bears held out DT Anthony Adams (left calf). … Buffalo was without WR/PR Roscoe Parrish (left leg).

Bears Have Look of a Champion With Cutler

Urlacher offered that observation last week, before Cutler strafed the playoff-bound New York Jets with three third-quarter touchdown passes in a 38-34 victory that ran the Bears’ two-week point total to 78, a figure both unattainable and unimaginable when Grossman was their quarterback.

A stout defense, a strong running game and Devin Hester’s electrifying kick returns were the Bear essentials in ’06, when they went 13-3 and added playoff victories over Seattle and New Orleans. All Grossman had to do then was keep things moving and not mess up. But more was required of him when the Bears fell behind ’s Indianapolis Colts in the Miami drizzle during Super Bowl XLI. When Grossman couldn’t deliver, his shortcomings were magnified and his days in Chicago were numbered.

Kyle Orton was taller, but not much of an upgrade otherwise. Thus the 2009 mega-trade for Cutler, the Bears’ first — stop us if you’ve heard this before — franchise quarterback since Sid Luckman.

Cutler does not present a charismatic, own-the-town personality. He comes across as rather smug and above it all. And his zealous belief in that loaded right arm is always going to result in a throw or two that should not be made.

But he has the team in the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-7 season, which is a lifetime in Bear years. And glimpses of brilliance like the one he offered during Sunday’s third quarter have turned some of the most hardened skeptics into believers.

That’s how it works in the : a team is as good as its quarterback. Can anyone name six Patriots besides Man of the Era ? Would the Eagles be such a compelling story if anyone other than the dynamically gifted and distastefully flawed were lighting their fire?

Peyton Manning, , Matt Ryan, . Nearly every team with a realistic shot at the Super Bowl has a Super Bowl-caliber performer at quarterback. The Bears believe they do, too. They admire Cutler’s toughness as much as his talent, and that means something.

“If you run hard on your routes and get open, Jay’s going to get you the ball — you know that,” said Hester, still a kick-returning dynamo who also has 39 catches and four touchdowns as a slot receiver.

The pairing of Cutler with mad scientist/offensive coordinator has been the Bears’ most avidly followed back story since training camp. They got off to a shaky start, and Cutler took a frightful pounding, largely because a leaky offensive line did not allow him time to find the receivers supposedly set free by Martz’s intricate scheming.

“You can’t come out here Week 1 and expect to be firing on all cylinders,” Cutler said. “We hadn’t experienced some of the plays put in. Until you go out there and repeat them and see looks and know how to react, it’s not going to come together.”

The Bears have won seven of eight since some bye-week retrofitting resulted in a renewed emphasis on the running game and shorter, safer drops for Cutler. He has been sacked a league-high 46 times, but 26 came in his first six games, including a horrendous nine against the Giants on Oct. 3. He has been down 19 times in the eight games since the bye week, and the line afforded him enough protection to throw those three home-run balls against the Jets.

“Everything is starting to come together now,” Cutler said. “The guys are starting to pick it up, the offensive line is playing well — it’s fun out there.”

The Eagles’ inexplicable loss to the outmanned Vikings on Tuesday night means Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Packers in Green Bay is of no consequence for the Bears. The Packers (9-6) need to win to make the playoffs, pure and simple. The Bears (11-4) are already assured of a first-round bye and at least one playoff game at home, though the value of that is dubious. They’re 5-3 at home this year and 6-1 on the road, where their defense allows nearly 10 fewer points per game.

Along with good fortune — the disallowed touchdown in the Detroit game, the Green Bay penalties, Miami’s reliance on an off-the-street quarterback, etc. — has come uncommonly good health: only one starter, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, has missed extended time. Cutler sat out one game with a concussion, but Carolina was the opponent, and the Bears would have beaten the Panthers with Henry Burris or Moses Moreno under center.

The Packers are a different story. They’re desperate, and their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is one of the hottest in football. The Bears are running into him one week after they made the Jets’ look like Johnny Unitas. Cutler just might be the least of their concerns.

dmcgrath@chicagonewscoop.org