It won’t be easy in the NFC North, with the Packers and Vikings among the favorites to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. And by the time the Patriots roll into town in December, we’ll have a pretty good idea of where the Bears are at. Where are they now? For that, let’s hand it over to our buddy Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune (Check out his coverage here and here) …
Where they’re good: New offensive coordinator Mike Martz touted his receiving corps as the strength of the team, but that was a pretty bold statement considering the inexperience of the group as a whole. The strongest unit should be the linebackers if Brian Urlacher returns to form after missing almost all of last year following wrist surgery. Urlacher, perennial Pro Bowler Lance Briggs, veteran Pisa Tinoisamoa, and fast-rising Nick Roach make up a strong foursome with steady Hunter Hillenmeyer also a capable contributor. Together, they should help the Bears improve on last year’s run defense which ranked a dismal 23rd in the league.
The defensive line instantly became better with the addition of superstar defensive end Julius Peppers and his 81-career sacks. Teaming Peppers with a healthy Tommie Harris (knee) means teams have to pick their poison in terms of which player to double-team, if Harris is truly back to form.
The running game should be solid with Matt Forte teaming with Chester Taylor, although neither is considered a burner. Don’t discount what tight ends Greg Olsen, Desmond Clark, and Brandon Manumaleuna bring to the offense despite constant talk of the tight end being lost in Martz’s scheme. Olsen could be a top target regardless. Manumaleuna is the ideal blocking tight end although arthroscopic knee surgery has slowed his transition to the Bears.
And special teams should be solid with kicker Robbie Gould, punter Brad Maynard, and return trio of Johnny Knox, Danieal Manning, and Devin Hester. Gould is the third-most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history at 85.9 percent.
The big camp questions: Yes, Jay Cutler is better than any quarterback the Bears have had around in a long time. And yes, he made the Pro Bowl in 2008. But Cutler’s previous success and cannon arm mean nothing if he’s throwing interceptions in the red zone. His 27 touchdowns to 26 interceptions wasn’t the type of ratio the Bears traded two, first-round draft picks away to see. Not only does Cutler need to tone back some of his throws he also has to keep his composure when Martz rides him. Many think the relationship between the two could explode at any moment.
Cutler’s protection up front is questionable, too. No major additions were made to the offensive line although left guard Frank Omiyale has been moved to right tackle while the left guard spot remains up in the air. New line coach Mike Tice is sure to get the best out of the group. Center Olin Kreutz is coming off Achilles surgery so his health is worth monitoring. Former first-round pick Chris Williams continues to settle in at left tackle and should be the best of the group. Cutler was sacked 35 times in 555 pass attempts last season, and he’ll need plenty of time to throw once the Bears go live with the new offense.
Defensively, new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli shifts his focus from strictly the defensive line to fixing gaping holes in the secondary. There seems to be a revolving door at safety, but the return of Chris Harris via a trade with Carolina assures the Bears will at least have an experienced vocal leader in the defensive backfield. Right now, it’s Harris at free safety and Manning at strong safety – the same combination from Super XLI. Manning could end up at nickel if rookie Major Wright absorbs the defense immediately.
Cornerback is a concern as well despite the emergence of Zack Bowman as arguably the team’s best corner following a six-interception season. Veteran Charles Tillman is solid but has had injury issues. There is not much depth behind the pair. Corey Graham has a great offseason yet needs to do the same on Sundays. Former Colt Tim Jennings is in the fold but is not an impact player. To put it simply, the Bears need to have more playmakers in the secondary with just 10 interceptions by defensive backs last season, none from a safety.
This needs to happen to win big: For one, the Bears have to remain healthy. They watched two starters (Urlacher and Tinoisamoa) go down in last year’s season-opener at Green Bay. Forte lost his rookie-year burst due to various injuries. Harris never fully recovered from a previous knee injury despite claims of being 100 percent. And Tillman can’t afford another shoulder injury.
Second, Cutler has to be smart with the ball, as mentioned. The offense will have success as long as Cutler’s not pushing and as long as the receivers are sharp with their timing routes. Hester and Knox were not on the same page with Cutler at times last year.
The defensive line, led by Peppers, has to put pressure on the opposing quarterback after just 35 sacks by the team last season. And the defense, as a whole, has to create turnovers. During the Super Bowl season in ’06, the Bears topped the league with 44 takeaways. Last season? They had just 28.
Lastly, the Bears have to get off to better starts. In ’09 they were outscored 96-36 in the first quarter. Martz’s “Greatest Show on Turf’’ should help alter those numbers.
Where they stack up: Although Sports Illustrated writer Peter King thinks otherwise, the Bears have to be better than the Lions. The question is can they can compete with the Vikings and Packers? The likely return of Brett Favre to Minnesota won’t make the NFC North any easier, although the Bears snatch away one of Favre’s weapons in Taylor. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is arguably the best young quarterback in the league. If the Bears fare well in an early-season, three-game stretch against the Cowboys, Packers, and Giants, they’ll compete for a wildcard berth. If not, they could miss the playoff for the fourth consecutive season, leaving Lovie Smith’s job in jeopardy.
If Peppers has the impact he is supposed to have on the defense and if the offense vastly improves its effiency in the red zone, the Bears could enjoy a 10-6 and slip into the playoffs. Then again, the Eagles had to go 11-5 last season to slip into the sixth and final spot.
SCOUTING THE SCHEDULE SERIES
July 14: Bengals