Pre-halftime blocked-kick madness sums up wild day in Chicago Bears upset win over Steelers
CHICAGO — The best play, worst play and most hilarious play of the afternoon came together in one weird package, at the end of the first half of the Pittsburgh Steelers-Chicago Bears game Sunday.
It was an unseasonably hot day at Soldier Field, 89 degrees before kickoff. The pre-game signs of solidarity by the Steelers (not taking the field for the national anthem) and Bears (players’ arms locked while standing) made this a rare setting before the game even kicked off. And the Bears eventually beating the Steelers in overtime strangely felt like the third-most interesting storyline of the day.
That’s partly because of what happened late in the second quarter. The game took a turn for the utterly absurd on what appeared to be the final play of the half. Even that ended up not being the case after the mess was sorted out several minutes later.
Steelers kicker Chris Boswell lined up for a 35-yard field-goal try that would have cut the Bears’ lead from 14-7 to 14-10 in the waning seconds. But the attempt was blocked by Bears CB Sherrick McManis, who was allowed to get by Steelers TE Xavier Grimble without even a paw on him.
“I missed. I couldn’t get off [the snap],” Grimble said. “A bad miss by me. Huge play. That’s on me. It feels terrible.”
McManis screamed off the right edge and batted the ball right into the hands of the Bears’ Marcus Cooper, who had nothing but green in front of him.
“As a wing, you never want to hear the double thud,” said Steelers TE Vance McDonald. “I was coming from the other side. So my job is to just stop the bleeding if something really bad happens.”
Little did McDonald know he would be part of one of the strangest plays of his career. You thought that turn was odd enough? What happened next defied explanation.
Cooper raced toward the end zone with no blocking help but an unimpeded path to a touchdown. He had been running full speed but appeared to gear down a bit at the Pittsburgh 15-yard line.
At that point, two Steelers — McDonald, followed by FG holder Jordan Berry — were about five yards behind Cooper. (McManis had a chance to block McDonald very early in the play but appeared to fear getting flagged for a block in the back.)
“I thought: No way are we catching him unless something weird happens,” said Steelers OL Matt Feiler, who was blocking on the right side on the play.
But then, the unthinkable: Cooper stopped. He stopped running entirely. The clock had hit zero 25 yards ago, and he was just not running any longer at about the Pittsburgh 2-yard line. It’s not that Cooper ran out of gas … he just turned off the engine, stuck it in neutral and idled the car.
After the game, Cooper said he thought he already had scored. McDonald — who started the play on his own 20-yard line — came racing in, followed by Berry, and just swiped at the ball, which came loose.
“I didn’t really know what Coop was thinking,” McDonald said. “I played with him in San Francisco. He’s going to be looking at that one and wishing he had it back, for sure.”
Cooper looked completely confused by what was happening. Berry also appeared not to know what was happening. He swatted the ball out of the back of the Steelers’ end zone.
It should be noted that Berry is Australian. Upon being approached after the game, he said, “Oh wow, I haven’t been interviewed in like two years.”
That’s about when Berry was signed by the Steelers as a rookie punter. He played college at Eastern Kentucky and knows American football plenty well by now but admits that he has never seen anything quite like that.
“I think last year there was a game where someone did that. I think it was maybe offense though? I really wasn’t too sure of the situation with the turnovers and how it all worked,” Berry said.
It was hard to know who had possession, what should be called or what would be called. In the end-of-half pantheon of strange football events, this was the James Harrison Super Bowl XLIII play gone completely mad.
“I really don’t know too well,” Berry said, laughing. “I really just read all the kicking-play rules.”
The illegal bat was called right away — and correctly. That much we knew. As a matter of record, the 10-yard batting penalty was assessed from the 20-yard line, as if it was a touchback. But the referees initially ruled that the half was over. The Bears and Steelers headed to the locker room, even though the play was still under review.
A few minutes later, the call was reversed. Naturally. The strangest play you’ll see this season couldn’t have ended that quickly.
“They did explain the review, but I still lack a little clarity there,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “I was told by an official that the half was over, and that’s why we took our team off the field. … I am sure I’m going to get clarity at some point.”
“It was an awkward play, and [the referees] did the best they could there.”
This time, the batting penalty was assessed at the Pittsburgh 1, and half the distance meant the Bears would have an untimed down to try to score before the half. They had been leading 14-7. They were prepared to see that lead dwindle if the field goal was good. Amazingly, a touchdown there and the Bears (7.5-point underdogs) would have taken a 14-point halftime lead.
“I am pretty sure even the refs had to open the rulebook on that one,” McDonald said.
So the Bears offense lined up to go for it on 1st-and-goal inside the 1 … and LT Charles Leno false started. The karma gods had struck down. No way in heck was Cooper’s brutal effort going to be fully rewarded on this day.
The Bears settled for a field goal and a 17-7 halftime lead. Seldom will you see a game tilt and twist as many times on one play (technically, two plays) that lasted about six real-time minutes to completely sort out.
“It definitely got the guys hammed up a bit,” Berry said.
But the Steelers couldn’t convert that hustle into a win. They cut into the 10-point deficit and forced overtime but lost it when the Bears drove 74 yards on four runs in overtime in a 23-17 Chicago win.
In the end, that weird end-of-half play was a six-point swing for the Bears. It was big but could have been even bigger. Both teams also felt a strange sense of disappointment and excitement in what unfolded. Steelers players spoke more of McDonald’s hustle than the block and the net result. Cooper appeared disappointed and embarrassed at what happened, even though his team came out with the win.
But we’ll have to dig deeper. Has there ever been a play like this in football history? The Bears stopped a field goal on one end and kicked another on the other end. Not often you have two straight field-goal attempts on consecutive plays by different teams in a game a mere five game seconds apart.