With an offense that remains a work in progress, the Chicago Bears will again depend on an elite defense to do most of the heavy lifting after falling a game short of the Super Bowl.
The defense is getting a bit long in the tooth, and critics contend that it may be in danger of slippage. The Bears scoff at the notion. If last year was an accurate indication, the unit is still operating at very close to peak efficiency, but the fact remains that the effectiveness of many key players could start to diminish in the near future. Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs all went to the Pro Bowl last season, giving them a combined total of 19 appearances. But all three are 30 or older. Urlacher, 33, is entering his 12th season; Peppers, 31, is going into season No. 10; and Briggs prepares for his ninth season, during which he will also turn 31. The team’s best cornerback, Charles Tillman, is 30, but he, too, is coming off a solid season. And defensive end Israel Idonije turns 31 in midseason, but he had a breakout year in 2010 with a career-best eight sacks.
This is the second season in offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s system, and, as a team, the Bears will not be able to take the next step without continued improvement on this side of the ball. There were some positive signs last season, but there were also troubling developments that must be addressed before any gains will be realized.
The Bears’ biggest problem last season was an offensive line that allowed an NFL-worst 56 sacks, and no time was wasted on draft day attempting to upgrade the team’s weakest area. First-round draft pick Gabe Carimi is expected to start immediately, but he seems better suited for right tackle, which means last year’s rookie sensation, seventh-rounder J’Marcus Webb, would have to shift to left tackle. That would also mean another position change or a reserve role for Frank Omiyale, who began the ’10 season with two starts at right tackle but started the final 14 games at left tackle. In ’09, he started 12 games at left guard, but that was where ’09 first-round pick Chris Williams started the final 11 games last season. Right guard Roberto Garza, may have to fight for his job.
O-line coach Mike Tice faces a formidable task in getting all the pieces in the right place, but he had the same chore last season and eventually figured out the right combination. This year, however, he must do so without Olin Kreutz, the Bears’ popular center who was released in late July in the wake of the signing of Seattle free agent center Chris Spencer. A more cohesive line would allow Martz to maximize the talents of quarterback Jay Cutler, who improved in his second year with the Bears but has much more room for growth. Cutler sliced his interceptions from a league-worst 26 in ’09 to 16, but he will never play to his immense potential without better protection.
The Bears lack a true No. 1 go-to wide receiver. But in Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and the newly acquired Roy Williams, Cutler has enough weapons to launch an effective aerial attack, especially when the receiving talents of running back Matt Forté are factored into the equation. Forté bounced back big time from a sophomore slump, demonstrating his talents as a featured runner by averaging a career-best 4.5 yards per carry and tying Knox for the team lead with 51 receptions. The Bears do lack a proven pass-catching tight end after shipping Greg Olsen to Carolina in the offseason.
The Bears finally gave up on former Pro Bowl tackle Tommie Harris, who had become just a shell of his former self, but their Cover-2 scheme demands an active, disruptive player at the 3-technique to function at full capacity. Second-round pick Stephen Paea could be that guy, and playing on the same line with the multi-talented Peppers should only help his assimilation into the starting lineup. Anthony Adams’ play at the nose has been solid for the past four seasons, but he is an unrestricted free agent. Fourth-year veteran Marcus Harrison, a third-round pick in 2008, has been a disappointment, and this could be his last chance. He has the tools to be a starter but has yet to use them effectively. Youngsters Corey Wootton and Henry Melton both flashed pass-rush potential last season, and Melton is sometimes used inside in nickel situations where he can utilize his quickness to create mismatches.
Urlacher and Briggs are still perhaps the best 1-2 linebacker punch in the NFL, but there is no clear-cut starter on the strong side, with last year’s complementary players facing free agency.
The only constant in the secondary has been Tillman at cornerback. He isn’t a classic shutdown corner, but he matches up well with big receivers, is physical and forces a bunch of turnovers with his uncanny knack for stripping ball-carriers. He tied with safety Chris Harris for the team lead with five interceptions in ’10. The remaining corners are undersized, although Tim Jennings and nickel back D.J. Moore (four interceptions) both played well last season. Zack Bowman lost the starting job to Jennings last season but has prototypical size and speed for the position.
Both safety spots have been a revolving door since Lovie Smith took over in 2004, with a total of 41 changes at the two spots. Last season there was unprecedented continuity with Danieal Manning at strong safety and Harris at free safety; both started all 16 games. But Manning isn’t expected back, and last year’s third-round pick, Major Wright, is being groomed as a starter.
Punter Brad Maynard was a reliable and effective directional kicker in Chicago for the last decade, but he was finally showing some signs of age, so the Bears made a move and signed Adam Podlesh, who is 11 years younger than Maynard, in free agency. Robbie Gould is the sixth-most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (85.5 percent), and his kickoffs were significantly longer last year. Long snapper Patrick Mannelly is 36, but he received a contract extension last season, a testament to his continuing accuracy and consistency.
The Bears have an abundance of returners, led by Hester, the NFL record-holder with 14 return touchdowns. Hester has focused primarily on punt returns the past two seasons, but he still averaged 35.6 yards on a dozen kick returns in 2010, and Knox was second in the NFL in ’09 with a 29.0-yard average. Coordinator Dave Toub’s coverage teams are annually among the league’s best.
The defense is still playoff-caliber, although almost all of the difference-makers are past 30 years of age. The Bears’ special teams are always among the league’s best. But this team won’t make it back to the NFC title game without improvement on offense, specifically on the line.
Outside the Huddle
A new McCaskey
Long before he replaced his brother Michael as the chairman of the board on May 5, George McCaskey served the Bears in far less prestigious roles. McCaskey was just 14 when he began working for the team his grandfather, George Halas, founded in 1920. “I had just graduated from the eighth grade, and I asked my grandpa if I could work in the office during the summer,” McCaskey says. A fire had recently damaged the Bears’ offices that year, 1970, and whatever was salvaged from the blaze was transferred to a back room of the new office. “I would go into the office with a tie and dress shirt, change into a t-shirt and go back into what was actually an old handball court, and come out covered with soot, wash it off and change back into my dress shirt and tie to go home.”
It says a lot about defensive tackle Stephen Paea’s potential that, even after setting the all-time Scouting Combine record with 49 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, the 6'1", 303-pounder considers quickness his greatest attribute. “I feel like the bench press was something in my back pocket,” the second-round draft pick says. “When I watched the replay, some of the experts, (Mike) Mayock and all of those media guys saying that I’ll be a true nose tackle. But, in my mind, strength is my Plan B. As far as the quickness and stuff, that is what I feel like I can bring to the game.”
Growing their own
If offensive coordinator Mike Martz believes quarterback Nathan Enderle is a worthwhile project in his offense, which he does, then that more than overshadows the 6'4", 240-pounder’s lack of athleticism (5.21 40-yard dash). Besides, there’s no such thing as a fifth-round bust, and this certainly seems like a better solution to the quarterback situation than 39-year-old Todd Collins was last season. The Bears want to develop their own quarterbacks, and now Martz has one to mold.
Sticking to his guns
First-round pick Gabe Carimi isn’t taking back one word of what he said at the Combine when he claimed he was the best offensive tackle in the draft. “What am I going to say?” Carimi said. “That I don’t think I’m the best tackle or (I’m) not going to be the best tackle? No. I assume almost any tackle would feel confident in their own game.”
As Cutler goes...
Jay Cutler has posted 22 games with a passer rating of 100 or better, and his teams are 22–0 in those games, including 7–0 last season. In those seven victories, the Bears averaged 30.6 points per game.
Pieces in place
After much juggling along the offensive line in the early part of the 2010 season, the Bears started the same five players up front for the final nine regular-season games. With Frank Omiyale, Chris Williams, Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza and J’Marcus Webb starting in the final nine games, running back Matt Forté averaged 4.9 yards per carry, eighth-best in the NFL during that time. In the final six weeks, Forté averaged 5.8 yards per carry, fifth-best in the league over that stretch.
The returns are in
With his 14th return touchdown last season, Devin Hester surpassed Brian Mitchell for the all-time NFL record. Hester scored his 14 TDs on a total of 291 return opportunities; Mitchell had 13 TDs on 1,070 chances. Dante Hall and Eric Metcalf are tied for third with 12 return touchdowns, and both had more than twice as many attempts as Hester.
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