PFF Preview 2011 – Chicago Bears

| August 17, 2011

The reigning NFC North Champion Chicago Bears accomplished quite a bit last season:  they finished 11-5, made it to the NFC Conference Championship Game, and they were home to three of the best defenders (at their position) in the league. Yet, when you look at the Bears’ roster all you can think of is that they’re due to relapse.
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Playing in an NFC North that is quickly becoming extremely competitive, the Bears needed to take a big step forward if they wanted to keep up with their competition, but they simply haven’t.  Instead they’ve watched the Green Bay Packers maintain a roster that is young and talented, and they’ve watched the Detroit Lions work on correcting a number of problems that were holding them back.
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Could the Bears be in danger of going from first to worst?
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Five Reasons to be Confident
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1)  Peppering the Opposition
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A guy who seemed to be all about pass rushing sacrificed some of the flashier statistics in order to become one of the best pass/run defenders in the league.  What makes that especially peculiar is that people actually noticed how much better he was. Peppers generated plenty of pressure (60 quarterback disruptions) but as much of his value came from his work in run defense, where he became the kind of player who made those around him better.
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2)  Versatility and Depth at the RB Spot

The rollercoaster career of Matt Forte appears to be on an upward trend.  A good rookie year, followed by terrible sophomore slump led in to a tremendous third season.  It’s not just that he finished sixth overall in our running back rankings, but it’s his versatility that makes him such an asset.  Scoring positive grades for his running, receiving and pass blocking behind an offensive line that does little to help him out is commendable.
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3)  Playmaking Linebackers

How much better was the Bears defense for getting Brian Urlacher back?  In fact, how much better was Lance Briggs for getting Urlacher back?  You don’t think it’s a coincidence that Briggs went from our third ranked 4-3 outside linebacker (2008, with Urlacher), to 42nd (without him in 2009), and then up to seventh (2010 as Urlacher returned) do you?  The year off really seemed to do wonders for a middle linebacker who looked to be on the decline, as he responded with our top rating for any MLB in the league.  With those guys on the field, and able support from the underrated Nick Roach, the Bears trio forms one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL.
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4)  Good Jay Cutler

When Jay Cutler is good, he’s a stud.  His performance in week two was mesmerizing, and he was almost as impressive every time he played the Lions.  He is truly that type of player who can make all the throws and doesn’t handle pressure all that badly – the only problem being he’s pressured so often (more often than any other QB in 2010, on 41.42% of drop backs).  Perhaps the addition of a big receiver will help him to display his talents.
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5)  Winning Mentality

Stretching a bit here?  Maybe, but the Bears know how to win close games and they know how to maximize their talents. But more importantly, they know what it takes to get the job done.  Over the past five years, they haven’t had anywhere near the most talented roster, yet they have a Super Bowl and NFC Conference Game appearance to show for their endeavors.  They’ve been to the top of the mountain, and have nearly gotten back.  In a game of such small margins, that experience and belief is something that can’t be quantified.
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Five Reasons to be Concerned
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1)  A Line Built Like a Sieve

To put it simply, the Bears have an incredibly bad offensive line.  While they owe most of that to injuries,  only the Steelers ranked below them in our 2010 OL rankings, and they seem firm favorites to ‘win’ that crown again this year.  Their run blocking is lacking, but the real issue is in their pass protection.  Jay Cutler often doesn’t stand a chance, and the likely move of J’Marcus Webb to left tackle seems to be the Bears rising to the challenge of becoming even worse upfront.  Webb was comfortably the worst pass blocking right tackle in the league last year, so a move to the left side has sent the premiums on Jay Cutler’s health insurance sky rocketing.
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Although I’ve singled out Webb, there’s really no consolation with this unit.  The only hope is that Gabe Carimi is a star from day one or they all simultaneously make the kind of improvement you rarely see from one player, let alone a group of four.  Calling their offensive line a weak spot is an understatement and in a division filled with excellent pass rushers, Cutler’s time under centre may be shortened to say the least.
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2)  Depth on the Defensive Line

Personally, I’m a fan of rotating your defensive ends.  I’m not looking at keeping your stars off the field half the time, but they needn’t be playing 88.66% of plays like Julius Peppers did, or 81.46% like Israel Idonije did.  But that is owed a lot to the lack of depth at the defensive end spot and with Corey Wootton likely to miss the start of the season, they remain extremely thin.  It’s not like either Vernon Gholston or Aaron Maybin are likely to be the answers to that problem either.  To put it bluntly, the Bears are in serious trouble if either of their starters picks up any sort of knock.
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3)  Bad Jay Cutler

When Cutler is bad, he’s brutal.  While it was tantamount to character assault what happened after he was forced from the NFC Conference Championship game, his performance before that was terrible.  And that’s the scary thing with Cutler: he can look like the worst quarterback in the league if you catch him on the wrong day.  It’s hard to tell how much of that is due to poor protection and receivers that lack size.  He excelled with a guy like Brandon Marshall in Denver because he can increase the margin for error a little bit which really allowed Cutler to show off his physical traits.  But he doesn’t have a guy like Marshall, and his protection is likely to be worse this year.  So can we expect to see more of the Bad Jay than the good one?
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4)  Falling Back in the NFC North

Sometimes standing still can be a good thing.  The Packers did it and they’ll be better for it. But then again, they have a young and extremely talented roster.  The Bears do not.  They lost a leader on offense in Olin Kreutz, a secret superstar in Danieal Manning, and they failed to address the league’s second worst pass protection unit.  Meanwhile, the Lions added another weapon in Nick Fairley, are getting back Matthew Stafford, and made two big moves to sort out their problematic linebacker group.  The Bears don’t just look like the third best team in this division, they look miles away (talent wise) from the Packers and Lions.
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5)  Addition by Subtraction = Still Problematic TE Spot

Vindication?  Without getting all “I told ya so” on you, I did kind of tell you so.  You know when I said that the Bears wasted an incredible amount of money on a blocking tight end who, um, doesn’t block so well.  The Bears cut Brandon Manumaleuna, a tight end who has given up more pressure on a per block basis than any other over the past three years.  The only problem is they replaced him with Matt Spaeth.  He’s an upgrade in so much as it couldn’t get any worse, but he’s the fourth most inefficient pass blocker from 2010 and not great with his run blocking.  It’s not for me to question the Bears talent evaluators … oh hang on it is.  What are they playing at?
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What to say about the Bears?  It does look a bit doom and gloom, but strangely I don’t feel as badly about them as some do.  They don’t look like a playoff team on paper, but then they didn’t last year (in the opposite of an ‘I told ya so’ I said they’d finish last in the NFC North).  So they’re likely to need to make some big plays at big moments, and they have guys capable of doing that.  Even this is a team firmly in the shadow of the Packers, and likely to be playing third fiddle to an emerging Lions team.  At least that’s how it looks now.
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