By Jason Zudycki
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
With Lovie Smith teetering on the hot seat heading into 2010, the Bears made a run to the NFC Championship Game before losing to hated rival and eventual Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers. If you were to call the Bears overachievers, you wouldn't be too far off.
The Bears overcame offensive inconsistencies and the league's worst offense line to finish the year 11-5, but not without a good amount of luck along the way. They had the advantage of facing three teams starting third-string quarterbacks, had no starters on either side of the ball placed on injured reserve, and were a Calvin Johnson "drop" in Week 1 away from an entirely different season all together. It's hard to see that kind of magic replicating itself two years in a row. On the plus side, the Bears actually began to blossom on offense, namely Matt Forte, after their bye week when they incorporated a more balanced offensive approach en route to a 7-2 finish. Jay Cutler was as inconsistent as ever, but much of that can be attributed to a makeshift offense line that gave up a league-leading 56 sacks. The Bears did go out and sign boom-or-bust Roy Williams giving Cutler a new target to play with, but the rest of his cast, now minus TE Greg Olsen, has limited upside in the passing game.
On defense, it was business as usual for the Cover-2 defense and special teams. Both were among the NFL's elite, and carried the team at times, perhaps too many. The Bears were again among the league leaders in takeaways with 35, though even with the addition of Julius Peppers the pass rushed only netted 34 sacks. Peppers, who had a down year by his standards, tied Israel Idonije for the team lead with eight sacks, but outside of that there was very little production. The Bears need someone else to step up in 2011. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are models of consistency, but have little depth behind them. Cornerback may be the biggest issue for the Bears on defense. Charles Tillman is one of the better attack corners in the league when healthy, but the Bears lack a true playmaker opposite him. Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman will fight for that job, but it's a wonder the team didn't address the concern in free agency.
The bottom line is, a repeat performance of 2010 seems like a lofty goal. Despite a late season spark, the offense still finished 30th in total offense, 21st in points scored, 28th in passing yards, and 22nd in rushing yards under the "genius" Martz. Plus, the defense is aging quickly, with no real signs of getting younger anytime soon. The Bears open the season with a murderers row of Atlanta, New Orleans, and Green Bay and if they aren't ready, they'll be digging themselvesout of a whole early on.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (29) Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
Which side will he play?
2. (53) Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State
Bench-press freak. How soon will he contribute?
3. (93) Chris Conte, S, California
Adds depth to the secondary after the loss of Danieal Manning.
5. (160) Nathan Enderle, QB, Idaho
Mike Martz's hand-picked developmental project.
6. (195) J.T. Thomas, LB, West Virginia
Brings some youth to a rapidly aging linebacker group.
Marion Barber, RB (Cowboys)
Does he have anything left in the tank? If so, he could do some damage at the goal-line.
Roy Williams, WR (Cowboys)
Can he rejuvenate his career paired with Martz again?
Chris Spencer, C (Seahawks)
Has a big pair of shoes (Olin Kreutz's) to fill.
Danieal Manning, S (Texans)
The team was confident enough in Major Wright to let him walk in free agency.
Greg Olsen, TE (Panthers)
Traded to Carolina after it was deemed the Bears wouldn't give him an extension.
Olin Kreutz, C (FA)
Not the Pro Bowler he once was, but intangibles that he offered to Chicago were off the charts.
HOW WILL CUTLER RESPOND?
By now everyone knows the story. NFC Championship Game: Jay Cutler injures his left knee (tears his MCL to be exact), is pulled in favor of Todd Collins, and later Caleb Hanie. Jay seems disinterested on the sidelines, and is blasted by everyone from sportswriters to actual NFL players questioning his toughness and determination to re-enter the game. While Cutler's teammates all had his back after the incident, deservedly so, that still has to sting. The big-armed quarterback assures that's all behind him, but there is only one way to prove it, and that's on the field. Will he cave under an ever-growing microscope? Will he use the haters as motivation, as many great players do? Or will he continue to be the quarterback that just can't make the next step?
CAN MIKE MARTZ STAY TRUE TO HIS WORD?
The Bears entered their 2010 bye week 4-3 and with an identity crisis on offense. Matt Forte, arguably their best player, was averaging just over 11 carries per game, and being underutilized in favor of the passing game. Enter head coach Lovie Smith and company, who sat down offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and gave him the new gameplan: a more balanced offensive attack. The Bears never looked back, going 7-2 after the bye en route to the NFC Championship Game. Consequently, Forte ended the second half as one of the hottest running backs in the league, and the focal point of the offense. Martz vows to continue this same balanced approach in 2011, but will his ever-present ego get in the way and cause him to revert back to his pass-happy ways? He rejected a contract extension this offseason, and certainly didn't make his chops as a play-caller running the ball.
THE ATROCIOUS O-LINE
The Bears gave up a league-high 56 sacks in 2010, 52 of which were absorbed by starter Jay Cutler. One would think that this couldn't get much worse, but the Bears lost their veteran leader at center in Olin Kreutz, still have bust Chris Williams at guard, and will be trotting out rookie Gabe Carimi at left or right tackle. So, there is still cause for concern. While the unit did begin to gel near the end of 2010, a shortened offseason could derail that momentum and put Cutler at serious risk again. If the line is able to keep him upright for a split second or two more that could make all the difference this season, but then again, based on past performance that's a big if.
Rising: Matt Forte -- Mike Martz has confirmed that going forward that he plans to deploy a balanced offensive game-plan similar to the one used in the second half of 2010, when Forte excelled.
Declining: Devin Hester -- Was already falling out of favor in the offense before the Roy Williams signing and is now perhaps fourth in line, mostly relegated to returns.
Sleeper: Roy Williams -- Excelled with Mike Martz in Detriot, but many will only remember his flame-out in Dallas.
Supersleeper: Kahlil Bell -- Chester Taylor and Marion Barber aren't what they once were, so one injury or misstep and Bell could be looking at goal-line work and/or increased touches.
Brian Urlacher, LB
Though 33-years old, showing no signs of letting up.
Lance Briggs, LB
Bounce-back candidate after nagging injuries plagued him in 2010.
Julius Peppers, DE
Off a bit of a disappointing first year in Chicago, may be out for blood.
Team Defense: RotoWire Rank: 4