The calling card of virtually every successful Chicago Bears team in franchise history has been its defense.
Whether looking at the franchise's most recent Super Bowl team in 2006, the dominant Super Bowl champs of 1985, the club's best teams from the 1950s and ’60s and dating back to the original Monsters of the Midway teams of the early 1940s, the Bears’ success long has been fueled by tough, physical, opportunistic defenses.
The 2012 Bears enter the season with as much hype, with goals as lofty as any Bears team in years. However, for this team to make a deep postseason run, its loaded offense, not its aging defense, will have to carry it.
New GM Phil Emery wasted little time after being hired in capturing the hearts of Bears fans. By reuniting WR Brandon Marshall with his old Broncos pal Jay Cutler, Emery gave an organization and fanbase desperate for a game-changing, big-play wideout arguably the most talented receiver ever to don the orange and blue.
Emery then dramatically bolstered the offensive talent level, replacing two of the biggest goats from the ‘11 season — Caleb Hanie and Marion Barber — with former Raiders Jason Campbell and Michael Bush, respectively. He also added another tall, physical pass catcher in Alshon Jeffery, in Round Two of the draft.
Throw in new coordinators, Mike Tice (offense) and Jeremy Bates (passing game), both of whom are expected to play to the team’s strength’s better than hard-headed Mike Martz, and the table appears to be set for the Bears to match TDs with the Packers and Lions in the once-rugged and now high-flying, highly competitive NFC North.
It’s not that the offense is without issues. It remains to be seen if Tice can find a way to protect Cutler better. The QB's blind side could be regularly compromised if J’Marcus Webb and/or Chris Williams continue to look like, well, J’Marcus Webb and Chris Williams.
But for the first time in ages, it would appear the greater questions center on the “D,” which was simply average a season ago and has shown a few more chinks in the armor this offseason.
It’s difficult to know what to expect from MLB Brian Urlacher, whose balky left knee has prevented him from practicing since the first week of camp and required arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-August. (Urlacher reportedly went to Europe this offseason to seek treatment on the knee that was injured in the 2011 season finale.) The Bears continue to say Urlacher will be on the field in Week One, but it is hard to take any of head coach Lovie Smith's public comments regarding injuries without a grain of salt.
With the offense getting the prime treatment in the offseason, the Bears made minimal changes defensively. They drafted DE-OLB Shea McClellin, who they hope will spark their dormant pass rush. However, he is far from a finished product and expectations for his rookie season must be kept in check.
No. 1 CB Charles Tillman, after finally getting much-deserved accolades with his first Pro Bowl nod last season, had a rough camp and looks a step slower at the age of 31. The Bears’ well-documented issues at safety don’t appear to be any closer to being resolved.
Of course, the Bears do still have difference makers on the defensive side of the ball — even without Urlacher at 100 percent. Julius Peppers is capable of taking over games when he feels like it, but that isn’t all the time. WLB Lance Briggs continues to be a blue-chip performer, but his life will be more difficult if Nick Roach, not Urlacher, is called upon to man the middle.
The club continues to look for more consistency along the interior of the defensive line; not easily achievable with projected starter Stephen Paea, a second-round pick in 2011, missing out on valuable practice time as his recovery from an ankle injury has lasted longer than expected.
All of this makes the timing of the offensive makeover all the more important. Cutler has never had a better supporting cast, nor has he had a coaching staff with which he was more comfortable. Matt Forté is ready to show Emery made the right decision by extending the talented and versatile back. Marshall looked like an absolute thoroughbred in camp, and if he can find a way to stay focused and out of trouble off the field, he should have no problem regaining his form from Denver, when he exceeded 100 receptions and 1,100 receiving yards in three consecutive seasons. At their best, all of these playmakers will open things up for the rest of the offensive weapons, giving Chicago as much ammunition as we have seen in this town in years.
There is little question that times are changing. The Bears’ defense, which has long carried the club, wasn’t able to do so after Cutler and Forté went down last season, and it's reasonable to assume the regression that occurred a season ago could continue. Fortunately, the offense is finally ready to steer the ship.
If the Bears are going to fulfill huge expectations in 2012, they are likely to do so with a new formula: Riding the offense for a change.