Working alphabetically through our list of NFL teams we move into the NFC North for the first time with a look at the Chicago Bears.
The Bears have been riding their defense and special teams for years, but now they look to be loading up on offense to finally match the other two units. Part of the process was saying goodbye to Mike Martz and his system and instead turning to the more run-oriented Mike Tice as offensive coordinator.
Tice has a reputation as a man who can improve offensive line play, but getting rid of Martz’ system should make their job a lot easier before Tice has to do anything. Let’s see what there is to see with the Bears.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) One of the League’s Best QB Situations
Jay Cutler on his day is an elite quarterback, but the Bears have had to suffer through losing him due to injury more than they have been able to cope with. Prior to this season they simply haven’t had the quality depth behind him that could step in and keep the ship steady. In Jason Campbell they have brought in a player who could start for several teams in this league and is more than capable of holding things together for a while. Between the two of them the Bears have one of the league’s best QB situations heading into 2012. What was once a major problem for the Bears has swiftly become a strong point here as they have talent, depth and experience on hand. Cutler getting some new toys on offense won’t hurt either.
2) Brandon Marshall Comes to Town
Brandon Marshall is one of the most physically gifted receivers in the NFL, and he was Cutler’s favorite target when they were together in Denver. Marshall will always drop footballs and he tied Greg Little for second most with 14 last year. Yet, he does have the kind of ability that most defensive backs just can’t match up with. I have observed games where he and Cutler simply played catch, marching the offense down the field in 10 to 15 yard increments as the executed hitch after hitch after hitch. Marshall brings a legitimate receiving threat to the Bears that they haven’t had in years. He simply brings a proven way to march the football down the field that doesn’t rely on Matt Forte or Jay Cutler’s ability to make things happen. This is a player that brings a whole new dimension to the Bears offense that had previously been relatively straightforward for opposing defenses to match up with.
3) Forte is Back With a New Deal
Last season there was a good argument to be made for much of it that Matt Forte was having an MVP caliber season. For a long period the Bears did nothing that didn’t go directly through him, and given the blocking that he was dealing with up front, that was a seriously impressive performance. Getting him locked down to a new contract was a big deal for the Bears and he now returns happier and more secure with his place in the organization. He also has some new passing weapons in place to take the pressure off the run game. There is no reason that Matt Forte shouldn’t have a career year rushing and receiving for the Bears this season, making that offense potent even in spite of the offensive line.
4) Defense Returns Intact…Again
The Chicago Bears have been able to buck the league-wide trend away from the Tampa-2 style of defense that used to be run everywhere you looked. Teams have been moving away from that brand of defense as offenses have started to figure out how to cope with it via receiving tight ends. The Bears have been using their own special variant of it for years and show no sign that they intend to change under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. They can get away with it because they have been able to keep a core of players perfectly suited to the system intact. Guys like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and the pair of corners – Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings – are perfect players in the type of aggressive Cover-2 defense the Bears run. Those players all return for 2012, and will form the nucleus of the defense that figures to be just as effective this season as it has been for years. The rest of the league may be changing, but the Bears are going to do what they always do and make you prove you can beat them.
5) Special Teams
The Bears have had elite special teams units for years, and I’m not just talking about Devin Hester. The return man may get all of the plaudits, but he makes a lot of big returns because of some excellent play from his return team, giving him clear lanes to work with and executing well. They lost a couple of core special teamers in the off-season, but they made sure they replaced them, targeting former Falcon Eric Weems. Weems isn’t a bad kick returner in his own right, and could easily take that duty from Hester if they want to keep him concentrating on punt returns and wide out snaps. Weems is also an excellent gunner on the punt team and contributes in other areas of special teams as well. The Bears will always be an effective special teams unit as long as they prioritize them like they have been doing.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) The Offensive Line is Still an Issue
There were worse units in football last season, but not many. Over the past few seasons the Bears have been completely unable to patch together a viable offensive line and it has been hurting them. Though Cutler’s injury last season wasn’t down to the blocking, his body can only sustain so much of a pounding before it does eventually catch up with him. Adding Jason Campbell is a nice solution to the void at backup, but it doesn’t solve the root problem which is the blocking. Gabe Carimi looked good in limited snaps before his injury, but Chicago still has major question marks at other spots, and don’t seem keen to give Edwin Williams (another player who has looked good in limited snaps) the opportunity to start. Mike Tice needs some of his players to step up the fact they have eliminated seven-step drops from the passing game will help also.
2) Who is the No. 2 WR?
Brandon Marshall is the unquestioned number one receiver in this offense, but who is next? The Bears still seem intent on trying to turn Devin Hester into a weapon on offense, despite all evidence to date suggesting it’s just not going to happen. Earl Bennett is a solid player in the slot but is limited outside, and Alshon Jeffery has some major question marks he needs to answer before stepping up to claim the spot. If they can convince Jeffery to step up as a rookie this corps suddenly looks not only capable, but balanced. Until then, however, it might be a case of Brandon Marshall carrying the load for the rest of them, and that doesn’t help maximize the potential of the team.
3) Rolling the Dice at DT
Chicago addressed their pass-rush in the draft by picking up Boise St edge-rusher Shea McClellin, who should see significant snaps as a rookie in sub-packages. However, they have also reached the stage where they are trying to cure their problems inside by rolling the dice on former top prospects that have had problems. John McCargo was once a first round pick of the Bills, but has been a total bust at the NFL level, and at this point is lucky to make a roster, let along see the field. They also traded for Tampa Bay’s Brian Price, who was supposed to reinvigorate the Bucs interior along with Gerald McCoy. Unfortunately for Price, he has repeatedly been bitten by the injury bug and has yet to show any real positive play because of it. The Bears have a number of significant gambles on the interior of the defensive line and need more players stepping up like Stephen Paea has during camp, pushing Matt Toeiana to the second team. With what we know at present the interior unit for the Bears is not a strong one right now, and their best players in it appear on a situational pass-rush basis.
4) More Consistency Needed at Tight End
The tight end position is becoming an increasingly important dimension for an offense to possess in this pass heavy era. While the Chicago Bears have two relatively safe pairs of hands at that position, neither is a game changing or dependable receiver, nor are they dominant blockers. The emphasis will again be on Kellen Davis to take the number one role and own it. He will need a more consistent showing than his 2011 season which was marked by peaks and valleys with no real string of performances. Isolated displays against Carolina, Philadelphia, Kansas City and Green Bay give hope, but there are just as many isolated displays raise cause for concern. Will Kellen Davis iron out the wrinkles and maximize his ability for a full 16 game season?
5) Can Clutts Handle FB Duties?
There aren’t many teams that operate with a fullback that often in today’s NFL. If you’re going to use one, you need that player to be a dominant blocker at the point of attack and make using one work to your advantage. So far, Tyler Clutts hasn’t shown he can do that on any kind of consistent basis and has been simply taking up a spot on the field that may have been better used by a player at a different skill position. If the Bears are going to continue to run with their heavy personnel, Clutts has to step up and start bowling over some linebackers, paving a better path for Matt Forte behind him to follow.
What to Expect?
Chicago was leapfrogged last season by the Detroit Lions as Cutler went down and the team just couldn’t replace the loss. Matthew Stafford’s 5,000 passing yards and the epic season from Megatron took all of the headlines, but it means that people are forgetting just how good a healthy Chicago team can be. They have made some significant upgrades to a couple of areas of weakness, and could be in line to really challenge for the division. I would expect the Bears to be pushing for a playoff spot all-season long and would back them to jump back ahead of the Lions by the end of the season.