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2011 Chicago Bears Preview
By Dan Durkin-
Here are seven words that should make every Bears’ fan cringe: defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers.
The Chicago Bears overachieved in 2010. Nobody expected NFC North Champions, let alone hosts of the NFC Championship. Head coach Lovie Smith took a beating, yet turned in arguably his best coaching performance, considering the Bears had new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and a roster light on blue-chip talent. 2011 will be an even greater challenge, with holes on both lines, a difficult schedule and the best team in football in their division. So here’s another thing that will make some fans cringe: this is a 9-7 team, give or take a game, fighting for a wild card berth.
Yes, there are reasons to believe the Bears are up for the challenge. The core of the team is back, there was minimal turnover on the coaching staff, and Jay Cutler should benefit from year two of his marriage to Mike Martz, a welcome change for a quarterback who had to learn three new offensive schemes in three seasons. And then there’s the defense. Critics of Smith’s “stubborn” and “figured-out” Tampa-2 scheme were in retreat in 2010, because the Bears ‘D’ finished in the top ten in both points and yards allowed. So, with the proper personnel, this scheme can work. The Bears have playmakers at every level, and despite the fact they’re getting old, they’re not too old to make another run.
There’s something to be said for continuity in the NFL, especially this off-season, when teams couldn’t hold minicamps or organized team activities (OTAs) because of the lockout. Those with new head coaches figure to suffer the most, like, conveniently, the Minnesota Vikings.
Assuming a few free agents are back, it will be largely the same cast of characters that lined up on defense in 2010. Julius Peppers was everything the Bears hoped for and then some, adding a dynamic element to the pass rush that Bear fans haven’t seen since Richard Dent. He requires attention from at least two blockers on every snap, whether it means a tight end staying in, guards doubling up, or a chip from a running back. Wisely, the Bears let Peppers line up on either the right or left end, which maximizes his effectiveness and produces the plenty of favorable matchups. If they find another pass rusher good enough to take advantage of single blockers, Lovie’s Tampa-2 could dominate.
Brian Urlacher turned in his best season in three years, brushing aside questions about whether he lost a step or would be hampered by the dislocated wrist he suffered in 2009. The wrist injury to Urlacher might have been a blessing in disguise, providing extra time to rest his legs, and nagging neck and back injuries. Urlacher says he doesn’t like Tampa-2, which often requires him to take a deep drop into the middle of the field, effectively operating as a third safety. That limits his opportunities to make plays from sideline to sideline a la Ray Lewis and the more traditional middle linebacker. On the other hand, Urlacher’s speed and cover skills make the scheme work, and combined with Lance Briggs, the best weak-side linebacker in the NFL, there isn’t a better 1-2 punch in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, Cutler was the most talked about player in the playoffs, and overwhelmingly the most criticized. It didn’t help that days after the NFC Championship game he was photographed shopping in Beverly Hills with Kristin Cavallari. The Bears did him no favors by not reporting the extent of his injury when it happened. As a former college football player who tore a knee, the rehab process is never easy as it seems; nor is the prehab that daunting. If Cutler and Cavallari had been photographed playing a rigorous game of badminton, it would be one thing; but until the physical therapy begins, walking around is something doctors encourage. So for the time being, people: chill.
Besides, how do you question Cutler’s desire or toughness? He played behind a leaky offensive line that surrendered a league high 56 sacks last year, and tried throwing to wide receivers who struggled to consistently separate themselves from defenders. So what’s the positive here? Once the Bears were committed to the running game after the bye week, Cutler posted a 97+ quarterback rating in five of the Bears’ final nine games. With time and more talent at his disposal, Cutler’s athleticism and arm strength still make the Bears a dangerous team on any given Sunday.
Running back Matt Forte produced quietly (1,604 combined yards and nine TDs) and even showed flashes of the explosiveness from his rookie season, highlighted by a week one 89-yard screen pass against the Lions, and a 68-yard cutback burst against the Panthers in week five. Chester Taylor didn’t have the impact the Bears hoped for, but he did buy Forte a little extra time on the bench, limiting his carries and yet lifting his yards-per-carry average. With Cutler in desperate need of a safety valve, Forte’s development as one of the best receiving running backs in the NFL can’t come fast enough. This team is already short on reliable pass-catchers.
Speaking of receiving options, Devin Hester is the most electrifying kick returner in the NFL – and arguably the best in the history – but he’s not a No. 1 and never will be. His return skills can change the momentum or field position in an instant, making him the best weapon on the Bears’ roster. Small wonder that Smith and GM Jerry Angelo screamed themselves hoarse trying to prevent a rule change moving kickoffs up from the 30 to 35-yard line. Unfortunately, they lost. And in a league with plenty of strong-legged kickers, the rule change will mean more touchbacks and less touches for Hester. On the plus side, the Bears have the best special teams coach in the NFL, Dave Toub, so look for something innovative to allow the Bears to again rank among the best special teams units in the league.
The schedule makers did the Bears no favors. They open against the defending NFC South Champion Atlanta Falcons, then play the 2009 Super Bowl Champions New Orleans Saints on the road, then draw the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers at home; so 0-3 is a very realistic possibility.
The first nine games of the season are all against NFC opponents, and quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, budding star Josh Freeman, and the electric Michael Vick. In a highly competitive NFC, the Bears will need every conference win they can get. Recent history suggests the wild card race will again be a photo finish, with tiebreakers being the determining factor.
Outside of the home opener, week five on the road against up-and-coming Detroit will prove to be a pivotal game. So will week seven, when the Bears play the Bucs in London. But the bottom line is this: if the Bears get to their week eight bye with four or more wins, the playoffs are definitely in focus.
Because after a trip to Philly to face the Eagles in week 9 and the Chargers at home in week 11, they can feast on creampuffs like Oakland, Denver, and Seattle. And how fitting would it be if their season came down to a Week 16 battle against the World Champion Packers, with a chance to avenge what happened exactly a season earlier?
Of course, a critical injury, a lousy call, or a great one – think Calvin Johnson’s touchdown/non-touchdown in the 2010 home opener – can blow up any attempt to predict the season. The offensive line still leaks, Peppers provides the only consistent pass rush, there’s no wide receiver who commands a double team, and a shaky secondary may yet prove impossible to overcome.
Lovie Smith and company have their work cut out for them. So does the rest of the current Bears’ brain trust. It is year 10 for Jerry Angelo and year eight for Smith, with exactly three NFC North Championships and one Super Bowl trip to show for the partnership. When the Lombardi Trophy gets hoisted at Lucas Oil Stadium next February, the odds are good it won’t be the Bears doing the heavy lifting, but instead our beer-swilling neighbors to the north one more time.
The good news is that training camps should be open by Wednesday. Bears fans? Feel free to start cringing as the need strikes.
Why do you want to work for 670THESCORE.COM and CBSCHICAGO.COM?
As a longtime listener and contributor to the Score, it would be a dream come true to be able to share my thoughts with fellow Chicago sports fans, who share my passion and enthusiasm for our hometown teams. I’m also excited about the opportunity to give back to a station that has kept me informed and entertained for many years.
In regards to Chicago sports, what do you have the most knowledge and interest in?
The NFL and obviously the Chicago Bears. I am a Bears season ticket holder, and former Division 1 football player, so football is definitely my strong suit. However, I am also a diehard White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks fan.
What is your favorite sports memory of all time?
January 26, 1986, sitting and celebrating with my family as the final minutes ticked down on the game clock, writing “Super Bowl XX Chicago Bears 46 New England Patriots 10” on a label, then affixing it to a Betamax tape (which still exists) to commemorate the Bears glorious Super Bowl Championship.
If you could share one thing about yourself to score listeners, what would it be?
I like turtles. Viral internet video humor aside….I am a huge satirical cartoon fan, and never hesitate to draw a parallel between real life situations and an episode of The Simpsons or South Park. Who doesn’t love to laugh? If you can’t make fun of yourself, you shouldn’t make fun of anyone else, and I certainly won’t squirm at being the butt of a joke.
Which 670 The Score on-air personality do you admire most? Why?
Dan Bernstein. Jason Goff is a close second. I really admire Dan’s ability to quickly and logically construct his arguments, and many times logically deconstruct the counterargument at hand. Reminding listeners that sports are inherently illogical (outside of in game strategy), and removing emotion from the equation when you evaluate an outcome really resonates with me. Many times we as sports fans lose sight of the fact that sports are for our entertainment and escapism. Can I ask a question now, how is this getting us closer to a championship?
Why would listeners want to read your blogs?
I have very strong opinions about and passion for Chicago sports, which I love sharing and discussing amongst friends and family. I maintain an objective viewpoint and keep all aspects of the topic in focus when I formulate my view. I am not afraid to share an opinion which may polarize an audience, I won’t back down from my stance, but all the while I don’t take myself too seriously.
If you could meet one sports figure, who would it be and why?
Ozzie Guillen. Ozzie is unequivocally the best sound byte in Chicago, and arguably all of professional sports. It is so refreshing (and remarkably entertaining) to hear a high profile sports figure speak without a filter or concern for potential repercussions. Ozzie has mastered the technique of keeping the focus on himself and his rants, to ultimately keep outside scrutiny off of his players. I would also like to test the theory that Ozzie’s English improves after a few adult beverages, much like my Spanish does.
What is your favorite sports team?
A certain team, from a certain town known for its Polish sausage, known as Da Bears.
How would your life change if you were chosen as the 2011 Score Search winner?
As I mentioned earlier, it would be a dream come true to share my musings on a larger scale with a radio giant like the Score. I will still be the same person, just hopefully a person with a larger group of Chicago sports fans and followers to discuss the teams we love and want to see make us proud.