The lockout is done, three preseason games have been played, and the 2011 Chicago Bears are starting to take shape. After unexpected success last season, you would assume that hopes would be high this year. But, a tougher schedule, an improved division, and a fair amount of questions at key positions will again keep fans guessing this season. Warning: I haven't written since February so this is going to be Bill Simmons long...
In 2010, the Bears took advantage of a healthy roster and the rare good fortune to face a slew of 3rd string QBs last year. They were able to "hide" a porous offensive line, and a below average receiving corp and secondary. They were bad for most of the season on 3rd down, short yardage, and the red zone. But, their defense overall was good, the running game came around in the second half of the season, and their special teams were excellent as usual.
It is unrealistic to expect another 11 win season and division title without dramatic improvement on offense, especially along the offensive line this year. The Bears made a run at the Steelers' G/T Willie Colon, but he took a hometown discount to stay in Pittsburgh. Jerry Angelo also decided to let Olin Kreutz go reportedly over the ridiculously small sum of $500k (more on that later). So, the offensive will consist of a 2009 7th rounder playing left tackle, a 1st round bust at left tackle playing left guard, a solid right guard playing center, a young player who failed last year at right guard, and a rookie college left tackle playing right tackle. On paper, this lineup should not instill confidence in fans or, more importantly, Jay Cutler.
Through the first 3 preseason games, though, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the offensive line. After getting mugged by the Bills in the first game, they played pretty well against the Giants and the Titans. The Giants didn't get much pressure on Cutler, and the Titans weren't able to sack him (but they did put him on the ground a few times). Part of this improvement is due to the line playing better, but part of it is Cutler getting rid of the ball a little quicker. But, the tackles still concern me with the depth of their sets. Both Webb and Carimi still fail to get deep enough on seven-step drops. Lance Louis has looked shaky despite all reports of performing well in practice. I'm not sure he'll be the starter for 16 games. The Bears might be better off with the newly acquired Chris Spencer at center and Garza at right guard. For now, though, it looks like Mike Tice will be sticking with his original plan.
Cutler has looked good. It looks like he has improved his footwork as has been reported. This, in turn, has improved his accuracy. It still worries me that he throws off his back foot on quick passes to beat the blitz, though. It seems like all defenses will have to do this year is show lots of pressure on 3rd and long which will force a quick pass that will likely end the drive. At some point, the Bears offense will need to beat the blitz by throwing downfield. Also, I wish the Martz offense used more true 5-step drops, especially on 3rd and short. It looks to me like 5-step drops are actually 7-step drops and 7-step drops are actually 9-step drops. Cutler consistently sets deeper than other quarterbacks around the league. Yes, this will help open up things down the field, but if you need three yards, why are you dropping so deep? Just another thing about Martz that drives me nuts.
The offense, overall, looked pretty good against the Titans. They moved the ball through the air and on the ground. Forte looks quick and driven. He should be poised for another good season, if the contract issue doesn't get in the way. I like the addition of Marion Barber, who should provide some tough running in short yardage situations. I just wish, though, that the Bears running game wasn't so dependent on pulling the lineman. In short yardage situations, they just look like they have too many moving parts, which increases the chances of a lineman darting through to disrupt the play. But, I do like the use of draw plays and screen passes, which should be a big part of the offense again this year.
If you only watched the game against the Titans, you might be worried about the receivers. There were a bunch of dropped passes on easily catchable passes, including the one by Roy Williams that led to Cutler's interception. Williams has been a disappointment so far, and I think it's reasonable to expect similar numbers out of him that Dallas got the past 3 years (35-40 catches, 500-600 yds). He is not fast, and he has a tendency to drop lots of balls. The Bears publicly said they got a true #1 receiver when they brought him in, but that's just another case of arrogant coaches thinking they can improve a player's performance when previous coaches couldn't. Sure, Roy Williams had his best season in 2006 under Martz (82 rec, 1,310 yds, 7 tds), but that was 5 years ago. He has never exceeded 850 yds in any other season. Despite his arrogance, I just don't see him being a difference maker. If he can at least use his size to catch 5-6 tds in the red zone, then it was a worthwhile pickup. But, he will not be a go to receiver for the Bears. Just like last year, the offense will spread the ball around. I expect similar production out of Hester, Knox, and Bennett. Each of them are capable of winning match ups on any given play, but I don't think any Bears receiver is poised to take the jump to true #1 status this year. Hester and Knox have the physical ability, but both seem to lack a natural feel for the wide receiver position. Bennett, on the other hand, has the natural feel but is limited physically. The rookie Sanzenbacher will be a good story if he makes the team, but he is destined for nothing more than a slot receiver specialist (see Bobby Engram) rather than a difference maker. The Bears just can't find and/or develop #1 receivers. I don't see that changing anytime soon.
The defense will be good, especially the defensive line. Julius Peppers can take over a game, and Israel Idonije is solid at the other end. But, I really like the tackles. At the three-technique position, Henry Melton is poised for a big year. Also, Amobi Okoye was a great pickup who should contribute mightily behind Helton. He has been excellent this preseason. Toenia and Adams are major contributors at the nose tackle spot. Both are great against the run, and they have shown some ability to push the pocket. Corey Wootton is the 3rd defensive end, a position that Rod Marinelli likes to use to keep his starters fresh. But, he has been hampered by a knee injury, so this spot is in flux right now. He should be back in three to four weeks, but the Bears will probably use Melton at defensive end on occasion until Wootton gets back. During the Titans game, I saw Peppers line up inside and Melton outside a few times. That could be a dangerous combination this year. Vernon Gholston was given a chance to see if he could comeback from being a 1st round bust with the Jets, but he hasn't shown much in the preseason. He probably won't make the team.
The linebackers will continue to be a strength. Urlacher and Briggs are still borderline Pro Bowl players, and Nick Roach is solid on the strong side. Their depth is thin, so let's hope they all stay healthy. Briggs is already dinged up, so the Bears will keep him out until the opening game. He should be fine. I just hope Marinelli doesn't get blitz happy with the linebackers. I don't like the Cover 2 defense, but it is what they do best. I hate when they blitz the linebackers on 3rd and long and then give up a dump off pass that goes for first down because the corners are manned up with their backs to line of scrimmage. They should never blitz Urlacher and Briggs at the same time. Never. They don't do it often, but it drives me nuts when I see it.
The secondary is a weakness. Harris is solid at safety, and Major Wright has shown flashes. But, Wright has also missed two tackles in the preseason on touchdown runs by over-pursuing the running backs. He needs to do a better job of playing under control. However, neither of these players are ball hawks. I think most of that is due to the depth they are required to play in the Cover 2. The Bears don't generally give up long touchdowns due to this, but it also hampers their ability to jump routes. Tillman is still a gamer at corner, and Jennings is adequate at the other corner. D.J. Moore seems to be in the right place at the right time more often than not, but he is not a dominating nickel back. In a weird way, the zone coverage utilized in the Bears defense has prevented the organization from pursuing corners with good coverage skills. They live with average cover guys who tackle well. I'd like at least ball hawk in the secondary, but the Cover 2 is all about letting the offense catch slants and digs and punishing them. That's fine, but I'd like to see our corners be in position to jump a few routes now and then. Plus, most veteran quarterbacks will take advantage of the soft zone by getting the ball out quick to neutralize the pass rush. Teams don't use many deep drops against the Bears because they don't need to. The check downs are always available against the Cover 2.
The special teams will be solid, but I don't think they'll dominate like in year's past. They've lost some key contributors, and there will be an adjustment period with the new punter Adam Podlesh. Robbie Gould is good, but he's missed a few short ones in preseason. Let's hope that's an anomaly. His leg strength has improved dramatically since he entered the league. Knox will likely return kicks and Hester will return punts. Both are dangerous, but the blocking doesn't get enough credit for their success. Dave Toub will need to replace the loss of key contributors Tim Shaw and Garrett Wolfe.
The Bears didn't win any preseason games last year, but won the division. I don't put much weight on their preseason record, but it would be foolish to ignore glaring problems in exhibition games. I still worry about the offensive line, but I do think they'll be better than last year (that's not hard to do, though). The offense will again determine how far the Bears go this year. If Cutler gets protection, the red zone offense improves, and the defense stays healthy, the Bears could reach double digit wins this year. But, I'll save predictions for later. For now, I'm just glad football is back!