2014 Preview: Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears started off the season as hot as any team in the league with three consecutive wins. From that point on, though, it was a roller coaster ride of thrilling wins, heart-breaking losses and a missed playoff berth.
When you think of the Bears, you generally think of a high-powered defense. Unfortunately, there was no defense to be found most weeks as they were next to last in the league in terms of points allowed and last in rushing yards allowed this past season. What they lacked in defense, however, they made up for with the progress of the offense under first-year head coach, Marc Trestman.
With all of that said, what is to be expected of the Bears this upcoming season?
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Jay Cutler Returning
With all of the success of the offense this past season, Jay Cutler only started 11 games and barely played in one of those. Even in limited snaps, he posted the sixth best PFF Quarterback Rating at 91.47. Cutler can play with the best in the business when healthy, as his +12.9 passing grade on only 643 snaps shows. When he is on his game, he gives these Bears a chance to win the division and be a playoff threat. With another year in Trestman’s offense, and if he can stay healthy, he should be better.
2. Offensive Weapons
It’s no secret that the Bears boast one of the finest receiving units in the league. One fact that is not always conveyed though, is how well these receivers block down the field. Brandon Marshall was the best run blocking WR in the game last year, and it wasn’t even close. Alshon Jeffery was no slouch either with his +3.7 run blocking grade. All of this goes with out saying how truly special they are as offensive playmakers. With the top two receivers clear, the third option will be their tight end, Martellus Bennett. Most of Bennett’s career, he has had the reputation of being a force as a run-blocker. This past season, though, he came into his own as a receiver earning a +6.7 receiving grade while having a Drop Rate of only 4.41. Marquess Wilson was supposedly a training camp hero early on this summer, but a fractured clavicle will sideline him for a significant amount of time. He was thought to have the inside track on the third receiver position, but now it looks like that will be between Eric Weems and Josh Morgan. Weems hasn’t offered much as a receiver in the past, but Morgan’s -5.3 receiving grade isn’t guaranteeing him a job. Morgan is a good blocker (+4.0) and had over 300 more offensive snaps than Weems last year, but regardless of who wins the third spot, the passing game is going through Marshall and Jeffery this season.
3. Defensive Line Additions
With the obvious lack of success, there had to be some changes made at the defensive level. No position group had quite the shake up that the defensive line did, though. The only remaining starter on the line is Stephen Paea and his running mate late in the season, Jeramiah Ratliff, should move into the starting spot next to him. As for the defensive ends, the high-profile name of Jared Allen, and his incredible 1083 snaps last year, over-shadows the smart signings of Lamar Houston and Willie Young. While Allen may have the name recognition, Houston had the best Run Stop Percentage of all 4-3 defensive ends at 10.3%. Who was second? That would be fellow free agent signing Young at 9.9%. Both of these players also ranked inside the Top 20 in Pass Rush Productivity for their position. Things are looking up for this Bears line.
4. Interior Offensive Line Talent
It’s been a long time since the Bears have had an offensive line that you could hang your hat on. They finally started putting some pieces together that have significantly increased their production. They took Kyle Long early in the draft, expecting him to be their stud on the inside, but he was inconsistent with his play and ended up grading out negatively for the season (-1.7). While he might not have played to what his Pro Bowl status indicates, our recent feature on rookie impact shows that only a handful of rookie guards in the PFF era have graded positively when logging 800+ snaps. If nothing else, he was a slight upgrade of the Chilo Rachal/Chris Spencer combo in 2013. On the other side, Matt Slauson went under the radar as a free agent signing, but really came through with his +21.8 grade overall landing him in the Top 5 of all left guards last season. Roberto Garza in the middle has been a consistent player his entire career with the Bears and kept it up with his +9.1 overall rating last year.
5. Matt Forte
Forte is an enigma. While he shows you promise making big plays with his Breakaway Percentage at 36.8%, third in the league, he also showed how inept he is as a pass blocker. He gave up more pressures than any running back in the league last year at 17, earning himself the worst Pass Blocking Efficiency rating we had among the group. While this doesn’t sound like a positive, this should only lead to him getting less opportunities at something he’s not good at, blocking, and give him more chances for something he is good at, getting out in space as a receiver- +6.8 receiving grade. His 2012 season was largely average grade-wise, but he showed improvement last year and will continue to get chances to be a play-maker in their offense.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Starting Safeties
The safety position for the Bears has been a problem for a couple of years now. Heading into this year, the situation is not necessarily any better or worse than before. The strong safety they brought in to replace Major Wright, Ryan Mundy, was a middle-of-the-road player last year while serving as a back up. Backing him up will be career special-teamer Danny McCray. McCray’s only significant playing time came in 2012 where he was graded out as a Bottom 10 safety. They also added Adrian Wilson, but he hasn’t played a meaningful snap since 2012 and didn’t look all that impressive that season. If there is any glimmer of hope, in the first depth chart release out of Chicago, rookie Brock Vereen is the starter at FS. Chris Conte is injured at the moment, but if Vereen earns the job once he comes back, the safety position should be a little better off. However, there are still a lot of question marks and not too many answers at the moment.
2. Offensive Tackle Play
As the big free-agent signing last year, Jermon Bushrod was supposed to be the anchor on the left side to keep Cutler from getting hurt. Bushrod didn’t live up to expectations. He was beaten often in 2013 on his way to earning a -11.3 pass protection grade. If that were the worst of the Bears’ problems, they would probably be okay, but unfortunately they had Jordan Mills on the other side. After bursting on the scene in Week 1- his +3.1 overall grade was better than all but three right tackles this week, his first career start-after that, though, Mills went downhill fast. He didn’t see another positive game until they hosted the Dallas Cowboys in Week 14. Mills ended the season as the lowest-ranked offensive lineman in terms of pass protection. The Bears have confidence in him to become that player they saw the first week of the season as he enters this year as the incumbent starter, but only time will tell.
3. Running Back Depth
As mentioned earlier, Forte will be the far and away leader of this group. The only question is: who steps in if he goes down? If that happens, the Bears are betting on a cast of young guys to take up the slack. They drafted Kadeem Carey in the fourth round this year, but he’s behind last year’s undrafted rookie Michael Ford, who failed to log a single carry in his rookie season, and Shaun Draughn who is on his third team in as many years with his only significant snaps (245) coming in 2012 as a back up. Draughn did nothing to elicit confidence in those snaps with his -8.5 overall grade. The running back position is well off with Forte on the field, but a huge question mark if he’s not.
There were more than a few reasons that the Bears’ defense of last year was one of the worst in franchise history and the linebacker unit is not exempt. With Brian Urlacher gone and Lance Briggs missing nearly half of the season, this group dropped their level of play significantly. James Anderson is gone-and takes his -14.1 overall grade with him, but those left need to step up their games as well. Khaseem Greene looked like a rookie in his four starts, especially in run defense where he had a -8.9 grade. Jon Bostic was wildly inconsistent, but more often than not graded negatively. He showed some promise with his +1.5 coverage grade, but missed eight tackles in run defense and his run grade represented his struggles (-14.0). Shea McClellin is slated to start on the strong side, but that comes after a position switch and is a lot to ask of a former first-rounder who has been a bottom dweller as a defensive end since coming into the leauge. D.J. Williams was playing okay at the beginning on the year, but got hurt in Week 6. He’s the favorite to win the MLB job at this point. Briggs coming back will help out tremendously, but the other two spots are up for grabs.
5. Quarterback not named Cutler
The Bears had the feel-good story of the year last year when Josh McCown stepped in for the injured Cutler and dazzled in Trestman’s offense. The only problem is, McCown is gone now and Cutler has missed a combination of 13 games in the past four years. If Cutler were to go down, Jordan Palmer is slated as the backup with Jimmy Clausen as the third. The Bears are putting all of their chips on Cutler staying healthy this year with this group behind him. Without their starter this year, this team is not the playoff contender they were without him last year.