Friday, September 7, 2012

Even With All the Upgrades, It All Comes Down to Defense for Bears

Cutler and Marshall, the new look Bears
It's hard not to be pumped for this Bears team, a team that is moving in a new direction, albeit with veteran players. We just saw an offseason unlike any in recent team history. There's a new GM, a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterbacks coach, new wide receivers, a new quarterback, and a new running back. All of these, from Phil Emery to Michael Bush, combine to give the Bears a more exciting offense than we can remember. This from an organization that has built themselves on special teams and defense for decades. So it's crazy then that the real question marks for this team going forward are on the defensive side of the ball. Will Shea McClellin and Israel Idonije combine to ease the pass rushing burden off of Julius Peppers? Will the health of Brian Urlacher be a continuous issue for the Bears' linebackers corps? Will Tim Jennings bounce back from a down year to be a reliable second option to Charles Tillman? And speaking of Tillman, can he continue to play at a high level similar to his first Pro Bowl last year? Will the Bears finally find some consistency at safety, a position that has dogged Lovie Smith's entire tenure? These questions permeate a unit that was still strong last year, and has been the strength of a team for years. So, in a way, the questions behind the strength of such a unit mean that this team and it's potential success comes down once again to the defensive unit.

What a crazy offseason. We finally got rid of Jerry Angelo, got rid of Mike Martz, and brought in Jeremy Bates to be Jay Cutler's new quarterbacks coach. Now, it's always a big organizational move when there's new management brought in, but these moves are underrated already. The moves made by new GM Phil Emery have already made us all realize why Jerry Angelo was such a terrible general manager. Emery recognized that he needed to provide his franchise quarterback with more than just a stud RB, and traded for elite WR Brandon Marshall. And not only did Emery knock it out of the park by trading for a top-flight WR, he got one that Cutler was incredibly familiar with. Also, recognizing that Angelo relying on Caleb Hanie to backup Cutler last year cost the Bears a playoff appearance, Emery went out and signed a starting-caliber backup in Jason Campbell.

Getting Forte signed was a huge step for Emery and the Bears
Emery didn't stop there. He went and got valuable insurance for Matt Forte in case he didn't get a contract extension with Michael Bush. Bush is the perfect compliment to Forte in that he is a pure north-south runner who can pass protect and still make plays receiving the ball out of the backfield. Then, instead of relying on Bush and playing hardball with Forte like Angelo would have, Emery got the deal done with our franchise RB to ensure the team was fully loaded heading into the season. I guarantee you that if Angelo was still the general manager, that deal would not be done and we would have a Maurice Jones-Drew situation on our hands. So, more than anything, Emery enabled the Bears to put forth a complete football team, not an offense that's one bad tackle away from wrecking the season.

The addition by subtraction with Mike Martz and the addition of Jeremy Bates cannot be understated either. Both are huge moves for the comfort of Jay Cutler in this offense. First, I hate Martz and his draconian nonsensical policies. Not letting his quarterback audible out of plays is ridiculous. You have millions of kids across the country who can recognize a bad play call or a blitz or something of that nature and be able to call an audible or a hot read on Madden. But for Cutler the past couple years, none of that was possible. Whatever play Martz radioed down to the old quarterbacks coach, who then radioed it into Cutler's helmet, was the play Cutler had to call. It's mind-numbingly backwards and it surely hampered the offense. So, the elevation of Mike Tice to offensive coordinator, bringing with him a philosophy that plays to the strengths of the offense, is a huge change that isn't being talked about as much because of the acquisition of Brandon Marshall and the other new players. But getting rid of Martz, and adding Bates, streamlines the offense, makes everyone more comfortable (especially Cutler), and essentially throws out the parts of the playbook that don't work well with the personnel the offense currently has. Doesn't that make sense!?!?

This should help the biggest question mark on the offense, the offensive line, as well. Martz's offense was founded largely on deep timing routes. It's what made his offense with the Rams in the late 90s/early 2000s so lethal. He had an unbelievably accurate QB in Kurt Warner, two elite, hall of fame caliber receivers in Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, a hall of fame left tackle in Orlando Pace, and one of the more versatile running backs in history in Marshall Faulk. Let's just say he didn't exactly have that in Chicago. Yet, Martz refused to buck his offense and the results were, to put it lightly, inconsistent. Now, with a simplified, more flexible playbook, Tice and Cutler should have the Bears offense firing on all cylinders.

It certainly helps that the Bears went and acquired a top flight receiver like Marshall, and drafted another player similar to Marshall's stature in Alshon Jeffery. You could see already in the preseason how much more comfortable Cutler was in the offense with his safety blanket from Denver back on the field. I think that's going to be immensely helpful going forward for this offense. The days of hoping that Earl Bennett would get open, or that Devin Hester would run the right route, should be over. I'm excited to see this offense click, especially given that Cutler and the rest of the Bears were starting to click so well before the injuries hit. It should be interesting in the very least.

Peppers should set the needed tone for the D-Line
On defense, the unit should be solid again, but that doesn't mean that there aren't question marks. Although the Bears don't always use the Cover 2 scheme that everyone seems to think they do, that doesn't mean that they don't require the principles behind such a scheme to succeed. Specifically, a strong pass rush is necessary to offset zone coverage. So, the Bears have needed a strong pass rush since Lovie Smith took over years ago, both on the interior and exterior of the defensive line. They had the interior settled with Tommie Harris a few years ago, and appear to have that are settled again with Matt Toeaina and Henry Melton. The problem is consistency on the outside. They have one of the best pass rushers in the NFL with Julius Peppers, but they need someone else on the outside besides Israel Idonije to get to the quarterback. The Bears drafted Shea McClellin from Boise State to fill that role, but it remains to be seen whether he will sufficiently fill that role.

For me, I'm still confident in this Bears defensive line. I do think that they can create enough of a pass rush to support the rest of the defense. But my point is that it's far from guaranteed. Hopefully they use the opportunity to welcome Andrew Luck to the NFL on Sunday to show Bears fans that the defensive line is going to be that much more productive this year. Behind them is the linebacking corps, usually the strongest unit on the team year in and year out. But with Brian Urlacher's knee problem, who knows. Urlacher came into training camp not having had surgery on the knee he hurt at the end of the season last year. He was confident that the knee would be fine and that he could produce at his usual level. But he got to camp, couldn't make it happen, and ended up having surgery. Urlacher is his usual tough self, coming out and basically saying that there wasn't a chance he was missing a game but acknowledging that it would be an adjustment. Without seeing him play at all since the injury, we just don't know what the result will be. Hopefully Urlacher, one of my favorite Bears of all time, can stay healthy all year to enjoy what may be one of the best Bears teams he's ever played on. He certainly deserves it.

The Bears are relying on two veterans at corner to steady the team with Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Tillman was outstanding last year and finally got his long overdue bid for the Pro Bowl, while Jennings struggled and was even benched at the end of the year. But the Bears were confident in his rededication this offseason and gave him a big contract to come back and provide steady play opposite Tillman. At corner the Bears also signed Kelvin Hayden, the former Illinois player who has been a steady player his entire career but has come off some serious injury concerns the past few seasons. There should be some strength in this personnel grouping, but a lot of it depends as well on other units. In the very least, we should see the same ball hawking and attempts to strip the ball that have become the hallmarks of the Bears secondary.

Wright and Conte need to stabilize the safety position
And then there's the safeties. This area has been a problem for the Bears since Lovie Smith arrived. Think about this - since Lovie arrived in 2004, the Bears have made 50 changes at safety. There was Mike Brown, who was reliable until Lovie showed up and spent to the majority of the rest of his Bears career injured. Then there was Mike Green, Todd Johnson, Brandon McGowan, Chris Harris, Danieal Manning, Cameron Worrell, Adam Archuleta, Kevin Payne, Craig Steltz, Al Afalava, Josh Bullocks, Corey Graham (for awhile), Major Wright, Brandon Meriweather, Chris Conte, and Brandon Hardin. Now that is quite a list. The Bears seem to have settled on Major Wright and Chris Conte, and both have made huge strides since taking over. But it would be startling if both, or either, made it through the entire season without being injured or replaced. It's one area that could go a long way to make the Bears defense much more stable during the season.

I personally think the sky is the limit for this team. There are no overt weaknesses, besides the fact that they play in a very tough division. But if the Bears can get that pass rush going, the linebackers can stay healthy, the safeties can solidify, the offensive line can hold, and the new pieces on offense can gel, and that's a big IF, I do feel that the Bears can take the Packers head to head. I'm not quite sure the Bears can take the division championship from the Packers, but keep this in mind. Two years ago, the Bears lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship game after Cutler got hurt in the first half. Last year, the Bears were 7-3 and looked like they could have been what the New York Giants turned out to be before Cutler and Forte got hurt. What's different this year? The Bears have made upgrades everywhere. I see no reason they can't push it even further. And really, if the Bears don't make the playoffs this year, it's a massive disappointment. Sunday is the start of what hopefully is a great season. Let's hope all the pieces fall into place to actually make it happen.


Kyle said...

I'm so excited for this season, but always nervous and ready for disappointment knowing the Bears all these years. Hopefully everything will gel on the offense, like you said. The defense is seemingly a bigger question mark than it has been in recent memory.

By the way...nice research on the shit-show at safety during Lovie's tenure. 50 changes? Wow..that's saying something. Kind of reminds of me of the typical infographic the networks love to throw out there about the ridiculous numbers of QBs the Bears have started during the Packers' Favre/Rodgers era.

Dave Johnsen said...

Yeah it's nuts right? What a weird Bears team... if the defense plays up to it's normal levels this should be a very good team. But for once, it's not the offense that is in question. Can't remember that ever being the case. And with the safeties... just wow. Let's hope that gets straightened out for once.