One of the league's more notable overachievers in 2010, the Bears have their share of doubters again heading into '11.
The defending Super Bowl champion Packers, who beat the Bears at Soldier Field in the NFC championship game, are considered the class of the division, and the Lions are a team on the rise. The Bears are back in the role they seem to enjoy the most — underdogs.
Coming off a division title, head coach Lovie Smith signed a contract extension that runs through 2013. While there's continuity on the coaching staff, the team shook up the roster at certain spots. C Olin Kreutz's tenure as a longtime team leader came to an unceremonious conclusion when he was not re-signed, and TE Greg Olsen was shipped to Carolina.
The nameplates in the locker room won't all be the same, but a familiar issue confronts the Bears in '11. While the defense has consistently been one of the league's better units in Smith's seven seasons in Chicago, the offense has lagged behind. The challenge for the Bears is striking the balance that has eluded them.
All eyes are on the much-maligned Jay Cutler as the season gets under way, but the bigger questions marks for Chicago are on the offensive line, which allowed Cutler to be sacked more than any other quarterback in the league in '10. If the blocking doesn't improve — first-round pick Gabe Carimi is expected to help — the Bears could take a step back in a division that should be more competitive.
Coordinator Mike Martz's scheme can confuse opposing defenses, but it also takes time for the players in his system to gain a full understanding and high level of comfort with it. The Bears are expecting better results — their offense ranked 30th in the league last season — now that Martz and Cutler have had a full season together. Head coach Lovie Smith emphasizes balance on offense, and he has shown a willingness to pull Martz back in line if he gets too pass-happy. Martz likes to use motion before the snap to force defenses to adjust to shifting personnel, and Cutler and his receivers have to be precise — the quarterback aims his throw at a spot on the field, rather than a receiver.
Quarterbacks: Jay Cutler has all the physical tools necessary to become an elite quarterback. He's adept at making plays on the run, can elude defenders with his quick feet and has great arm strength, but he too frequently makes bad decisions, forcing passes into tight coverage and creating turnover opportunities for the defense. While his Bears teammates have defended him against those who question his leadership ability and on-field demeanor, Cutler's critics often cite intangibles as a core weakness in his game. Cutler's considerable athleticism helps him make up for it at times, but some observers say he is not sound mechanically and throws off his back foot too often. There are signs he has improved in that area this preseason, though. Backup Caleb Hanie has shown some flashes in limited regular-season playing time and in the NFC championship game last season. Like Cutler, he can extend plays and is mobile. Hanie has work to do when it comes to reading defenses and making wise decisions. Rookie Nathan Enderle was drafted to eventually become Cutler's top backup. Enderle has good size and arm strength. He's smart and shouldn't have issues learning the offense.
Running backs: Matt Forté is establishing himself as one of the better all-around backs in the league. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards and gained more than 500 yards receiving in 2010, becoming the first Bears back to accomplish the feat since Walter Payton did it in 1983. Forté isn't a true breakaway runner, but he breaks through arm tackles and falls forward to pick up extra yardage. An asset in the passing game, he has good hands and is also an alert blocker. Chester Taylor was a major disappointment in first season with the Bears, and the team signed ex-Cowboy Marion Barber to compete for a role as a short-yardage back. Barber's ferocious running style has led to injuries, and wear and tear has taken its toll. He can stone a pass rusher, though, and a limited role could suit him well. Taylor gained a career-low 2.4 yards per carry in '10. He's clearly in decline after nine seasons. The Bears did not keep a fullback on the active roster last season, but FB Eddie Williams spent '10 on the Bears' practice squad. He bulked up in the offseason, is having a solid preseason and is pushing for a roster spot.
Receivers: It was far from the splashy free-agent signing some Bears fans were hoping for, but the team did add Cowboys castoff Roy Williams, who reunites with Mike Martz. Williams' best seasons came in Detroit while playing in Martz's offense, and the Bears are hoping the 6-foot-3 target returns to his earlier form. Williams doesn't have elite speed, but he maintains good body control and still is capable of making a highlight-reel catch along the sideline. Chicago has been without a good-sized wide receiver with No. 1 potential, and this franchise knows those are hard to come by. The Bears haven't had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2002. Johnny Knox, a speedy deep threat, came close to accomplishing the feat last season, racking up 960 yards, but he was held without a catch by the physical Packers defense in Week 17. He is quick off the line of scrimmage, but will struggle against tough press coverage and can get outmuscled. He was demoted in camp when Williams was anointed a starter. Devin Hester's production dipped significantly in '10, and Lovie Smith would like to find more ways to get the ball in his hands. He can be effective on quick-hitting short routes if he has space to maneuver. One of Jay Cutler's top targets in third-down situations is Earl Bennett, who has developed into a solid underneath receiver. Bennett is physical, well-built and a good route runner, but he's not going to outrun many defensive backs. Another ex-Cowboys wideout, Sam Hurd, is going to be utilized mostly on special teams — as a gunner on punt coverage — and will be no higher than the No. 5 receiver. With Greg Olsen gone, the Bears signed former Steeler Matt Spaeth, a blocking specialist, and re-signed Desmond Clark. They join Kellen Davis as the team's tight ends. The tight ends will function primarily as blockers in Martz's scheme.
Offensive linemen: The front five was a mess for much of last season. It allowed Jay Cutler to be sacked a league-high 52 times in 2010 and lost its leader, C Olin Kreutz, this offseason. Kreutz and the Bears couldn't agree on a new contract, so he moved on and signed with the Saints. Former Seahawks C Chris Spencer, a first-round pick in 2005, was signed after talks with Kreutz broke down, but O-line coach Mike Tice has said Roberto Garza, who previously served as the starting right guard, will be the starter at center. Garza is past his prime and isn't going to dominate at this point in his career, but he's the only reliable veteran presence on the front line. Inconsistency was an issue for Spencer in Seattle. Chris Williams, the team's first-round pick in '08, kicked inside from left tackle to guard last season, but he hasn't fared well at either position. He doesn't have a fiery football temperament. Lance Louis will get another chance to nail down the starting job at right guard. He's very athletic for the position and has the requisite size and nastiness. The Bears are counting on two young players to bookend the O-line. Massive-framed J'Marcus Webb, a seventh-round pick in '10, started 12 games at right tackle in '10. He made his share of mistakes, but he has great size and is a smart player. He's the team's first choice to start at left tackle. First-round pick Gabe Carimi is penciled in as the starting right tackle. Carimi is more of a leaner than a powerful blocker. The mentally tough Carimi can match up well against size and has the ability to get to the second level and make a block in space. Frank Omiyale, the starting left tackle for most of last season, can fill in at guard or tackle.
Coordinator Rod Marinelli is charged with carrying out his longtime friend Lovie Smith's vision on defense. The two go way back — they were roommates while serving on the Tampa Bay staff in the 1990s — and are both proponents of the cover-2. The Bears will bend, but the goal is not to break, and this veteran-laden group didn't very often last season, finishing fourth in points allowed. This has been an opportunistic defense, and one that benefited greatly from the addition of Pro Bowl DE Julius Peppers.
Defensive linemen: DE Julius Peppers is one of the league's more dominant players. Offenses have to account for him, often sending double-teams or backs to chip his way, which opens up one-on-one opportunities for other pass rushers. Peppers, who has a rare blend of size and speed, can overpower or outmaneuver blockers in pursuit of the quarterback. Israel Idonije is coming off a career year. In his first season as a full-time starter, he tied with Peppers for the team lead in sacks (eight). He's tall and has long arms, so he can break up a pass at the line of scrimmage. Corey Wootton is coming off a quiet rookie year, but he has the tools to become a solid rotational player. He hit a snag in the preseason and underwent knee surgery. The Bears are hoping he'll be ready to play by Week One. The team will try to tap into DE Vernon Gholston's considerable potential. Gholston, the sixth overall pick in the 2008 draft, didn't have a sack in his first three seasons and was released by the Jets in March. He could be a better fit in the Bears' 4-3 base — he starred in a 4-3 at Ohio State — after playing in a 3-4 with the Jets, but he hasn't been impressive this preseason. The Bears re-signed Anthony Adams to return as a gap-plugging nose tackle. He's willing to take on multiple blockers and plays his role very well. Henry Melton is versatile enough to play inside and outside, but he'll be utilized as a three-technique this year. Melton has good burst. DT Amobi Okoye is another former first-round pick looking to rejuvenate his career in Chicago after being released by the team that drafted him. He was only serviceable with the Texans. Rookie Stephen Paea can play either tackle position. Paea, a very strong, hard-hitting prospect, will need to become more adept at shedding blockers. Matt Toeaina, who will be in the rotation at three-technique, plays with a high motor but is more of a run stopper than a pass rusher.
Linebackers: A wrist injury that sidelined him for all but the season opener in 2009 gave MLB Brian Urlacher a chance to rest and recover, and he came back strong in '10. Some were expecting signs of rust, but Urlacher looked fresh and was named to his first Pro Bowl since '06. He still can cover a lot of ground, dropping into his zone in coverage. At 6-foot-4, he makes it difficult for quarterbacks to complete passes over him in the deep middle. He's a sound tackler and is also often effective when he gets the occasional opportunity to blitz. Urlacher and WLB Lance Briggs form one of the top linebacking tandems in the league. Briggs, who is coming off his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl, is active and flows to the ball well. He's a striker with good instincts and lateral quickness. Nick Roach will start on the strong side and serve as Urlacher's primary backup. He has started for the Bears on the strong side and in the middle. Roach is willing to take on the run and gets into his drop quickly and efficiently. Brian Iwuh will back up on the weak side and helps on special teams.
Defensive backs: A tall, lean corner, Charles Tillman moved from the left side to the right before last season. Some considered the switch a demotion since the left side is usually reserved for the team's No. 1 corner, but make no mistake — Tillman is still the best player the Bears have at the position. He's a productive tackler in run support and is adept at punching the ball away to force fumbles. Zack Bowman took over at left corner but was demoted in Week Three after missing a tackle, and his replacement, Tim Jennings, never gave up the starting job. Jennings is undersized, but he plays the ball well, has good awareness and solid hands. Bowman has the length and size the Bears want, but he needs to be more physical. He'll compete against Jennings for the starting job in camp. One of the team's more pleasant surprises last season was the impact made by D.J. Moore, who emerged in his first season as the nickel back. While big, physical receivers can give him problems, Moore shows good instincts and ball skills. At strong safety, starter Chris Harris doesn't shy away from collisions. He can make key stops in the open field, although coverage isn't the strength of his game — he's at his best playing inside the box. Major Wright is in line to start at free safety. Wright is physical, athletic and looks to land the big hit. He arrives out of control sometimes, though. Rookie Chris Conte, a converted linebacker, backs up Wright at free safety.
This area has been a strength for the Bears under coordinator Dave Toub. Chicago's special-teams units rank among the league's best, and the team was furious over the kickoff rule changes that were voted in this offseason. Touchbacks on kickoffs are expected to increase significantly, and long kickoff returns have been a big boost to the Bears. While Devin Hester's kickoff-return opportunities could decrease, his punt-return chances shouldn't be affected, and 10 of his NFL-record 14 career touchdown returns have come off punts. Johnny Knox, who made the Pro Bowl as a returner in '09, also will return kickoffs. PK Robbie Gould knows how to manage kicking in the elements. He's very reliable from inside 40 yards and was 3-for-4 on kicks of 50 yards or longer last season. Former Jaguar Adam Podlesh replaces Brad Maynard at punter. Podlesh has a stronger leg than Maynard at this point in their careers, but Maynard's pinpoint directional kicking could be missed.
This team just doesn't measure up to the Packers. The defense and special teams should be strengths again, but the offense will need to improve significantly, and the offensive line doesn't look like a strong unit. The Bears will need good fortune to surprise people and get back into the postseason.
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