It was sheer entertainment watching Jay Cutler operate Sunday, as he dissected the Steelers' defense with surgical precision. He has clearly upgraded the quarterback position, and that's no knock on Kyle Orton, who's 2-0 as a starter in Denver.
But the biggest improvement on the Bears from last year to this year has been on defense, specifically the pass rush.
Already the Bears have 6 sacks, almost one-fourth as many as last year in just one-eighth of the season. Ends Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye have combined for 4 sacks after getting just 11 in 2008. And it's not just the sacks, it's the frequent pressure, as when Brown nailed Ben Roethlisberger as he launched a deep ball that became an easy interception for Charles Tillman, possibly the turning point in Sunday's game.
Neither sacks nor pressure were prominent in 2008, when the Bears were No. 30 in passing yards allowed, as a result.
The players are essentially the same, but there have been two big changes: Rod Marinelli was hired to replace Brick Haley as the defensive line coach, and Lovie Smith took over the defensive play calling.
In mid-winter, Smith called the addition of Marinelli the biggest move of the off-season for the Bears, but that was before Jerry Angelo swung the trade for Cutler. Still, early indications are that Marinelli's teaching and attention to detail have had a positive impact, especially on Brown, Ogunleye and backup end/nickel nose tackle Mark Anderson, all of whom have looked better than they did a year ago.
Cynics would say that Ogunleye's increased production is a result of him being in the final year of his contract and looking for one more big payday, but why be a hater?
As for Smith's increased involvement with the defense, the early reviews are encouraging. When the defense began slowly Sunday and failed to pressure Roethlisberger while the Steelers were piling up 144 yards on their first two possessions, Smith used the blitz to turn up the heat and it worked. Pittsburgh managed just 164 yards the rest of the game.
Obviously the Bears' defense was able to make in-game adjustments, which is another good sign for the future.
"A lot of offensive teams script their first 15 plays," said Hunter Hillenmeyer, who did a commendable job taking over for Brian Urlacher. "They have a very conscious way of sort of testing all your keys and seeing how you're going to play certain plays. They do so many things early in a game that it can get you on your heels defensively. As the game settles down and you figure out how they're going to attack you, it gets a little easier."
When Smith took the defensive play-calling duties from coordinator Bob Babich after last season, he was putting himself on the hot seat, knowing that if the group underachieved again, there would be no one to blame but him.
Right now it looks like a wise move. The glass-is-always-half-full Smith is overflowing with enthusiasm.
"Every game I've been here as the head coach has been fun," Smith said, "but my involvement has changed, and I'm having a blast. That was a challenging offense that we went against (Sunday), and the guys are into making adjustments on the sideline. It's fun to see that and then to just be in a tight game like that where every play matters. We talk so much about finishing, finishing strong, and the guys realize that and that's what they were able to do."
Imagine how tough the defense could be if the Bears find out where Tommie Harris has been hiding.