With every new NFL season, there's an opportunity for some team to come out of nowhere and shock the world, a team that few have expectations for, a talented team that looks like it lacks something, a team that not only makes the playoffs but keeps moving on deep into January and possibly beyond. For me, the Chicago Bears are that team.
Chicago's defense was in absolute shambles last year. It couldn't stop anybody from running the ball. My old defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, always used to say the easiest thing in the world is to turn around and hand the ball off for three or more yards a play. Even with one of the most formidable offenses in the league, that Bears defense was so awful the team couldn't manage better than an 8-8 record.
This was their first year after coach Lovie Smith. The defense, Smith's specialty, just didn't look the same. Guys weren't on the details, and that as much as anything, will get you beat consistently in the league. It also appeared that the defense, in its first season without Brian Urlacher, lacked a lot of the toughness and attitude that had been such a big part of Lovie's time there. When your team ends up 30th in the NFL in point differential, that can surely lead to some soul searching over what changes need to be made.
That led to an offseason re-tooling of the defensive line. Perennial Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers left via free agency to the division rival Green Bay Packers.
The Bears also saw the influx of some impressive young talent up front with the signings of Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. They also poached Mr. Intensity himself, grizzled veteran Jared Allen, from the Minnesota Vikings. With Jeremiah Ratliff (it's still weird seeing that instead of the "Jay" he went by in Dallas) and Stephen Paea returning, these signings make the defense more stout up front overall and will go a long way toward helping return that defense into a team strength rather than a weakness.
The defensive line should always set a team's tempo. If you have some badasses up front, then everybody else's job on the back end gets much easier. Houston, Young and Allen are all the kinds of tempo-setters a defensive line coach prays for. You won't see the Bears getting mashed out all over the field any more. They won't be great, but they will play angry. And angry can sometimes be just enough.
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Shea McClellin was moved from defensive end to linebacker this offseason. This was a move that grew on me over time. At first I thought they were making a mistake, because I felt like he was just starting to develop as a pass rusher at defensive end. Now, I've come to believe that while he will technically be a linebacker, they're going to use McClellin in a role that will still allow him to pass rush quite a bit and also allow the defense to show more 3-4 looks. It's up to McClellin to show that this was indeed a wise idea.
Maybe the only area of the team that truly worries me is the safety position, where they're starting Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray, who have a combined 24 starts in their careers. I had a feeling that maybe former long time Cardinals player Adrian Wilson would end up on top of the depth chart by the end of camp, but I was wrong as evidenced by the Bears releasing Wilson in their first round of cuts to get down to 75 players.
So it's Mundy and McCray for the foreseeable future. Here's the thing: they don't need them to be Steve Atwater and Ronnie Lott for this Bears team to be a beast this year. They just need them to play like competent NFL safeties. That's it. The defensive line is going to help out tremendously in giving that defense a lot more attitude and toughness and they are going to make a lot of plays. As long as the back end doesn't totally implode, this defense should end the season at least around the middle of the pack. If the Bears would've had a middle of the pack defense last year, they probably would've made the playoffs and maybe even hosted a game.
Because of that almighty Marc Trestman offense.
I am not sure there is another team in the NFL that can boast of the kind of talent the Bears have with their skill position guys. I'm almost positive there isn't a wide receiver tandem as formidable as the Bears have with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on outside. Martellus Bennett, for all his antics, is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL and he is a legitimate threat to stretch the middle of the field in the passing game. Then you have a do-it-all running back like Matt Forte. He didn't get much attention for it, but he had career highs in rushing as well as receiving yards last year. You could almost say it's unfair to opposing offenses.
Even the offensive line, a persistent weakness under Smith, is now giving the quarterback more than a split second to set up and throw the ball downfield. Hell, the Bears were an offensive juggernaut last season, second in the league in scoring, and that's with their starting quarterback sitting out five games with an injury.
The one guy that will be judged most harshly by this season's offensive success and failure will be Jay Cutler.
It's not just that Cutler has all the physical tools to be a quarterback, but has never seemed to make that leap into the upper echelon of the NFL's signal callers. That has some folks skeptical about the Bears' fortunes this year. His backup last year, Josh McCown, appeared to out-perform Cutler. The Bears allowed McCown to leave this year in free agency, which shows that they are completely committed to Cutler for the long-term. Now, it is time for him to piss or get off the pot.
I know I may be in the minority, but count me among the folks who think that Cutler is going to wreck shop this season. It will be his second season in Trestman's offense, which would theoretically mean he well-versed in it by now. He may also have another weapon in the passing game available to him if recently signed Santonio Holmes sticks with the team. Things are set for Cutler to finally put it all together for a whole season, and the rest of the league had better beware.
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That said, I don't think it will take a virtuoso performance by Cutler for the Bears to compete for their division or make the playoffs this year, but I do think that is exactly what he will deliver. Especially with the new point of emphasis on illegal contact downfield. I fully expect that a lot of the calls we are seeing in the preseason won't be called the same way during the regular season. However, when you have two big physical beasts like Marshall and Jeffery at wide receiver and the opposing team's cornerbacks have to be even the slightest bit more timid than usual when it comes to putting their hands on them, well ... good luck with that.
All I'm saying is if you've been a Cutler-hater during the past few years, you're probably going to have to sip on a piping hot cup of STFU after this season is over, so you best get your jabs in now while you still have a chance.
I also like the way the schedule played out for the Bears. They get three out of their last four games at home, they don't play anywhere unreasonably hot, and they get to play the Cowboys. Also worth noting is that three of the teams they face will have first-year head coaches, including two teams in their own division, the Lions and the Vikings. All of those things combined should give even the most cynical Bears fans reason to believe.
To sum it all up: The offense will score a lot, the defense will hold just enough, and the Bears will be in Arizona at season's end.