YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Bears are focusing on getting over hump

Last year's first-round loss to Carolina is motivation for NFC's top-seeded team.

January 07, 2007|Rick Gano | Associated Press

LAKE FOREST, ILL. — Thomas Jones remembers walking off Soldier Field nearly a year ago, a cold reality slapping the Chicago Bears' top running back in the face.

"Just the feeling that we had after that game was a sick feeling," Jones said. "Not necessarily because of Carolina, but because of us, some things that we did during the game and things we didn't do that could have helped us win."

Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who for a second straight year is interviewing for head coaching vacancies, isn't sure what his future will hold. But he's also remembering the past, especially that matchup with the Panthers when the Bears couldn't contain Steve Smith during a 29-21 loss in Chicago's first playoff game.

"I think it fuels us very well. It is a tool that we use, just talking about, 'Hey, we left some unfinished business out there,' " Rivera said.

"It is kind of a mantra that we've had this year. We had it going into minicamps, training camp, and I think the guys do think about that."

For the Bears (13-3) to get past their first postseason game this time -- once again they had a first-round bye -- they'll need to tighten up the league's No. 5-ranked defense that has given up more than 300 yards in each of the final six regular-season games. Plug the gaps, get a banged-up secondary healthy and compensate for the loss of starting defensive tackle Tommie Harris to hamstring surgery

They'll need the early-season Rex Grossman at quarterback, not the erratic one whose consistency has bounced from game to game like a loose football the last couple of months.

And one way to help Grossman is for the Bears' running game to take off. It's developed into a two-headed attack, with Cedric Benson spelling Jones.

Benson got his first 100-yard game as a pro last week against the Packers and says he's comfortable -- if not content -- with more playing time.

Benson carried 157 times for 647 yards and Jones gained 1,210 in 296 carries, each averaging 4.1 yards per carry.

"Our trend, as it's been all along, is to play both running backs. The situation has allowed Cedric to play more lately," Coach Lovie Smith said. "Of course he's taken advantage of the reps he's gotten. But as we go into the playoffs, Thomas Jones is our starter. He'll get the majority of the reps and Cedric will be next in line."

Jones features more of a stutter-step, darting stylem, and Benson has been more of a straight-ahead runner.

"He's got his weight up and he's close to 230. He's a load, and most of the time he's falling forward, getting positive yards," Smith said of Benson, the Bears' top draft choice in 2005.

It's been a trying season at times for Benson. He'd been assigned the starter's role at the outset of training camp after Jones missed voluntary workouts in the off-season, but Benson's shoulder was injured in practice. Benson was later disciplined for leaving the sideline during an exhibition.

Now he could be a major factor for the Bears, who want to use Smith's favorite formula for winning -- play hawking defense (44 takeaways this season) and establish the run.

After a 7-0 start that catapulted them to the top of a mediocre NFC, the Bears built expectations to a fever, for themselves and the fans.

They have come back a bit over the final two months, especially in a 26-7 loss to the Packers in the regular-season finale when all their flaws were exposed. Of course, the game was meaningless for Chicago.

Now they think they can regroup and do what they couldn't last season. And that's get by the first round. In fact, they believe they can win three more games, their ultimate goal winning the franchise's second Super Bowl.

"We learned from last year," defensive end Alex Brown said. "Hopefully we won't make those same mistakes. But as far as playing, we still wanted to win, we still prepared to win last year. We just didn't win. Hopefully we can win this year."

Los Angeles Times Articles