NFC North Preview: Chicago Bears
Projected 2011 Finish: 2rd NFC North
Projected 2011 Record: 10 - 6
2010 Record: 11 - 5
(Preface: I know I started these NFC North previews late and as I write the Chicago Bears are now 1 - 2. But I have to stick to the predictions I made before the season started; as if I am not writing this in week 3 of the season. This goes for all the teams I write about in this series.)
Last season, the Chicago Bears won their division and made it to the NFC Championship game. The Bears will again be competitive. I just cannot see them going very far in the playoffs like they did last year. Then again, I didn't see them advancing very far in 2010 and look at what they did. Their strength again is their defense, as it always is each and every year. But the story this year will be how well their offense can balance out. Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz was pass happy last year and Head Coach Lovie Smith let him do his thing. That style of offense almost got QB Jay Cutler killed, in fact, he left the biggest game of his career with a knee injury. Just as much relevant to the success of their season, other than a cohesive balance between pass and run, will be the play of their offensive line. If the offensive line plays better than last year it will have a direct effect on the style of offense they can play.
The Bears drafted OT Gabe Carimi out of the University of Wisconsin in the first round. Come draft day, it was no secret that Chicago was in love with this guy for good reason. Wisconsin is known for churning out offensive linemen and they did it again with Carimi. He was inserted at Right Tackle immediately and started the first two games of the season before going down with a knee injury. Can the addition of Carimi totally balance out this line? Who knows? But the coaching staff knows the importance of keeping Cutler off the turf and drafting an offensive tackle in the first round might be a step in the right direction. I say, "might" because Cutler has already been sacked 14 times in 3 games this year; 11 times in the first two games alone.
One of Cutler's favorite targets over the past couple of seasons, Greg Olsen, is gone. In two seasons with Cutler Olsen had 101 Rec., 13TDs and 1,016 receiving yards. This could be a big loss for Cutler, but they did bring in someone else for him. Chicago is usually a place where WRs go to die; enter Roy Williams. His body is that of a prototypical WR; 6' 3" and 215 LBS, but he is softer than most Punters. Cutler needs more weapons than Matt Forte and Devin Hester. I feel like Cutler is poised to have a good year, yet I also feel as though he'll need more of a supporting cast.
Can we say Chicago's defense will be stifling again this year? Anytime we think the Bears' defense is going to start yielding points on a consistent basis they prove everyone wrong. I will not say anything bad about the Bears' defense except this: they need a new secondary. If the Bears had a better secondary this defense would be very intimidating, indeed. Israel Idonije had a breakout season last year. Pair him with (Orange) Julius (Green) Peppers, add two solid Defensive Tackles and this Defensive Line will cause match up problems for opposing Offensive Coordinators.
When is Brian Urlacher going to retire? I'll tell you when: NEVER! All the guy does is make plays on defense. He's the Bears' heart and soul and unsung hero. Pair him with Lance Briggs and the Bears' ball boy could play the other OLB spot and they would still have a formidable front seven. It's just the secondary that is making this Chicago defense look skeptical. Tim Jennings is just plain bad and Charles Tilman, although still very wily, is getting on the older side. It is inevitable that his cover skills are going to be tested this year more and more. The NFL is a passing league more now, than ever and until this team can find some cover guys; their secondary will continue to have holes that will be exploited.
Last season, Jay Cutler took a lot of heat from fans, the media and from players around the NFL, but his guys backed him up ferociously. He looks focused, with something to prove this year and as much as I hate saying this, I think he will produce. The play calling will have more to do with how well Cutler and this offense will do this year than how well they can actually execute. And no team will be more affected by the kickoff rule change than the Bears (and maybe the Browns). Hester is/was a weapon back there. Now, he will be relegated to do his damage on punts alone. The Bears will make the playoffs again this year, but it will be a tougher road for them to get there.