Sunday, September 22, 2013

Exploring the 2013 Chicago Bears

We've had two weeks to soak it in. I didn't write a 2013 Chicago Bears preview because I wanted to see a little regular season product. And what have we seen? An offense that when clicking can be methodical, efficient, and - dare I say - explosive. There are receiving options in Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett, and Alshon Jeffery that I don't believe the Bears have ever had, with their ability to put pressure on defenses with their athleticism, size, and physicality. There's a running back perfect for the hybrid West Coast offense Marc Trestman is running, with a multifaceted approach that is seen in both the rushing and passing game. And leading the charge on offense? Jay Cutler, still throwing some bad balls like he always might, but confidently running a scheme suited to his talents with a coolness and clutchness not seen around these parts in some time. With the protection up front, the weapons in front of him, and a coach who allows him freedom and instills confidence, Cutler has the opportunity to have a career year.

Yes, I saw the bad parts of last Sunday's game. The Cutler fumble, the Cutler interceptions - all of it. The fumble is on Jay; he has to protect the ball better than that. The second interception is on him too, as he was trying to squeeze a ball into coverage and either didn't recognize the safety over the top or didn't do a good enough job looking him off. The third pick was on a tipped ball that is more the result of puzzling playcalling than anything else. Even with these bad instances, though, I've been so encouraged by what I've seen when he has the new offense rolling that I'm starting to be more convinced by the series that this regime, with this talent, can win big.

The biggest thing that we have to remember is that these things take time; that they're a work in progress should be obvious from play clock problems and a few penalties here and there. This is something that will be ironed out throughout the season, and the players in charge of executing it on offense are more than capable of doing so. The one thing that hasn't been questioned by Cutler's critics (besides his abundant talent) is his intelligence. The Vanderbilt grad has gone through a new offensive coordinator seemingly every year, and yet never seems to be lost on the field and never looks like he's not in control. There's something to that, and I really think that given his time, the talent around him, the scheme, and most importantly, the coaching staff, he's got a great opportunity to flourish.

Forte could explode in this offense
So far, I love Trestman's scheme. It's West Coast in the sense that it will use intermediate routes to open up the field and get playmakers the ball. He's added a little bit, from what I can tell, of a more wide open spread scheme to it with interesting formations that utilize his player's strengths. He's been very adept thus far at getting Matt Forte the ball; I've actually been a little surprised with how much we've run the ball and it's been great. Forte looks to be in top form through two weeks and should end the season with loads of catches and over 1,000 yards rushing.

Trestman is similar to Lovie Smith in the way that he's even-keeled even as disaster seems to strike (like Cutler's second interception), but I think that the fact that Trestman's approach in this manner seems to resonate more with Cutler is because of Marc's background as an offensive coach. The superlatives that come from Jay when he talks about Trestman are great to hear, but more importantly, the fact that Cutler just seems more comfortable in this scheme has done wonders for his game. Besides that second interception, he has cut back immensely on the forced balls.

Again, I think that plays to the scheme. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that a hybrid West Coast offense would work so well with such a strong-armed quarterback like Cutler, but I think it's going to dramatically improve his decision making as he'll have to focus on several intermediate routes in addition to his affinity for the deep ball. This is the type of offense that gives options, and a player with the talent of Jay Cutler should be able to thrive in it. At this point, I think this is the breakout from Cutler that we've all been waiting for.

Bennett looks to fulfill his vast potential
The size of Marshall (6'4, 230), Jeffery (6'3, 220), and Martellus Bennett (6'6, 260) give the Bears an inherent physical advantage that they exploited well on Sunday. When all three are lined up on the field, I don't know how any defense can consistently compete with them. Marshall blows me away on at least one occasion in every game. His catching radius, ability to make the big play, and his ability after the catch make him one of the elite receivers in the NFL. Jeffery across from him, nearly identical in size, has the same type of potential and has the role model to develop towards already on his team. I love how Trestman has played both of them out of the slot too. Moving them around creates mismatches and leaves the defense guessing. With Bennett, we've already seen in the first two games why teams have drooled over his potential for his entire career. His size/speed combo is exceedingly rare and makes him a threat every time he's on the field. The Bears have used him in a variety of ways, but I've especially liked how they have worked short flat routes for him to get the ball quickly and do work after the catch. That's the goal, after all, of this offense - get the ball out quickly to the elite playmakers in space.

I've gotten most of the way through this post without even mentioning what has been the backbone of the Bears for decades - defense. Could it be a sign of the times? More likely, in my opinion, it is a reflection that even under new leadership the defense is playing close to the standard of the previous regime, sneaking under the radar as we all focus on the new offense. New coordinator Mel Tucker's smartest move was to leave the scheme the same (even if he did run something similar in his previous stops) to best reflect the talent and veteran leadership that holds up the defense. That doesn't mean there haven't been some issues.

Peppers has been MIA
Right now, the defensive line is the only unit not pulling their weight. Julius Peppers has been a no show in both games so far this season. Whether that is some hidden injury, illness (as some suspect from Week 2), or just subpar play, the fact remains that he gets paid his monster salary to anchor that unit. And given that in the Bears base cover 2 defense the ability of the 4 down linemen to get to the quarterback is paramount to the success of the defense, then it's no surprise that as a whole the defense has given up more than their fair share of yardage and big plays. Henry Melton, fresh off his big franchise tag payday, is having the same no show problems as peppers. The most consistent performers in the unit have been Stephen Paea and Corey Wootten, with a little help from Shea McClellin. Whether McClellin can develop into the type of player Phil Emery saw when they drafted him is still up in the air, but he shows flashes of his athleticism and ability to get to the passer. Like with any young player, consistency is the key.

It's still strange adjusting to a linebacking corps without Brian Urlacher. I still don't like the way the Bears handled that situation, as I felt they did it without class, but a new era has begun and it is time to put that behind us. I've liked the play from James Anderson especially thus far, and he seems fired up to be a Bear. I'm a bit perplexed as to the handling of the rotation between starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams and rookie backup Jon Bostic, mostly because there has been NO rotation. Williams missed nearly all of training camp with injury, giving Bostic time to shine. Yet, once he was healthy when the season started, Bostic was sent to the bench and Williams has been out there for almost every play, if not every play. Williams played better in Week 2 but hasn't exactly lit the world on fire, leading me to wonder why Bostic, who was a sensation in camp, hasn't gotten more play. That'll be an interesting angle to keep an eye on moving forward as I think Bostic could be the next in the great line of Bears middle linebackers.

The secondary has been it's usual strong self, except for the torching it received from A.J. Green in Week 1. This unit is still somehow unheralded, even though the duo of Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings have proven to be one of the top in the league. It's hard not to admire and appreciate the way they do business, as both corners are equally adept in coverage and run defense. Watching Jennings and Tillman hunt for the ball, whether it is in the air or already in the ball carrier's hands, is one of the things I enjoy most on this team. At safety, over the past couple seasons Major Wright and Chris Conte have taken what was a position group in near constant flux and actually given it some stability. They seem to compliment each other's strengths and weaknesses well and both seem to have a nose for the ball. They're both still young so I expect them working with guys like Tillman and Jennings every day to only help in their development.

The Bears have started the 2013 season with two playoff teams, and they're 2-0. They've done it with 2 come from behind victories that seem to show that our franchise quarterback is maturing and the offense of new coach Marc Trestman is taking hold. We've heard nothing but rave reviews from Halas Hall about the new staff, and we can only hope that as the players get more comfortable with them and their scheme, the results on the field only keep improving. There's no question that even though this is a new season with a new staff, the Bears have the talent and expectations to make the playoffs. With the way they've started, and the way I do feel they can end up playing, there's a good chance we could see even more than that.