DUANE BURLESON / AP Enlarge
LAKE FOREST, Ill. - Suddenly, Kyle Orton's play is as difficult to ignore as his beard.
Quarterbacks who throw for 334 yards as he did for the Chicago Bears in a 34-7 win at Detroit last week tend to attract attention, and he certainly turned a few heads with that performance.
That jittery rookie who left fans clamoring for Rex Grossman three years ago? He's all grown up now.
"This is how I expect to play," he said. "I expect to get better. Hopefully, this week that continues."
He'll have a hard time topping what he did against the Lions.
While Atlanta's defense ranks just 23rd, Orton will have to keep an eye on John Abraham, who leads the league with seven sacks. There were no such issues with Detroit.
The Lions fired general manager Matt Millen two weeks ago, but turning around the franchise will take time. Orton was brilliant even if he was matched against the league's worst defense, completing 24 of 34 passes (70.6 percent) for an average of 13.9 yards. He threw two touchdowns passes and no interceptions and did not fumble the ball.
No one passed for more yards last week than Orton, who set a career-high for the second time in three weeks, and only Eli Manning had a higher rating than his 121.4.
This is Kyle Orton?
A few years ago, photos of Orton at bars and parties circulated on the Internet, and it's still not hard to find pictures of him holding a bottle of Jack Daniels. But lately, his exploits on the field are attracting attention, which is one reason the Bears are 3-2 and lead the NFC North.
"You see him progressing every week," Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking said. "At the beginning of the year, he was relying on his running game and his defense. This past week he was really throwing the ball all over the field."
Orton's passes sailed on a couple deep attempts, but more often than not, he showed pinpoint accuracy against the Lions - like the one to Rashied Davis in the second quarter. He dropped it between two defenders for a 34-yard gain.
There was also a 30-yard completion in the third quarter to Marty Booker, who picked the ball away from Lions cornerback Travis Fisher.
He showed poise under pressure and offensive coordinator Ron Turner showed his faith in the quarterback by calling for passes on 14 of 30 first downs before Grossman came in at the end.
"We're not going to do it if we don't feel confident that we can have success doing it, but also it's a reflection of what they were trying to do defensively," Turner said.
The days of simply managing the offense are over.
Which is exactly what Orton's role was three years ago when Grossman's broken ankle thrust him into the starting role in 2005.
A fourth-round pick out of Purdue, he went 10-5 running a scaled-down offense.
His job was to hand the ball off and not turn it over. He completed just 190 of 368 passes (51.6 percent) for 1,869 yards and threw more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (nine).
Even so, the Bears won eight straight following a 1-3 start.42.7792 -6.92576