NFC North: Chicago Bears Much-Too-Early Preview
2011 Record: 8-8
The theme of the Chicago Bears over the past decade has been their stellar defense and special teams overcoming their deficiencies on offense.
In the same division as league MVP Aaron Rodgers and his plethora of wide receivers, as well as playing against star QB Matt Stafford and Detroit's unworldly talented wide receiver Calvin Johnson, a modest offensive attack isn't exactly a great recipe for long-term success.
However, if all goes according to new GM Phil Emery's plan, then the offense may now be what puts the Bears into contention in the ultra-competitive NFC.
Chicago has slowly put the pieces in place to be considered among the elite teams in football.
Running back Matt Forte has elevated his game to the league's elite at the position, quarterback Jay Cutler has steadily improved his decisions and cut down on turnovers, and his former top target in Denver, Brandon Marshall, was acquired by Chicago this offseason and will finally give the Bears a serious threat at the receiver position.
Combine a formidable offensive attack with a defense (still) led by middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and outside linebacker Lance Briggs, and the Chicago Bears figure to be in serious contention for the NFC North division crown.
It's pretty clear that the division-rival Packers are one of, if not the most, talented teams in football. As much as Green Bay has invested this offseason to improving the league's 32nd-ranked defense, Chicago has put all its chips in on bolstering their offense, which had already been a solid unit prior to this offseason.
If there's been one constant concern for the Chicago' offense, other than a lack of playmakers on the perimeter, it's the offensive line. While the Bears hope they've added a jolt of energy to their air attack by acquiring wide receivers Marshall via trade and Alshon Jeffery in the second-round of the draft, their needs up front went largely ignored this offseason, so they'll rely heavily on the return of 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi being the improvement they desperately need on the offensive line.
That said, the offense figures to be a much improved unit as a whole. Chicago will enter 2012 with a healthy Cutler and Forte, a couple new weapons on offense and the same old hard-nosed defense with an improved defensive line.
Early 2012 Prediction: 11-5 (Second in NFC North)
The aforementioned neglect to address their offensive line appears to be the only glaring concern headed into the 2012 campaign. Chicago added San Francisco interior lineman Chilo Rachal to compete for a spot on the line, but it's far from a certainty that he'll be able to unseat Lance Louis at the right guard position.
However, the return of Carimi should be a huge asset in pass protection. Carimi had a terrific career at Wisconsin and was a starter for the Bears prior to dislocating his kneecap and missing 14 games in his rookie season. Chicago expects Carimi to step right back into his spot at right tackle, with J'Marcus Webb assuming his usual role at left tackle.
If the Bears get everything sorted out up front, they not only could unseat the Packers atop the NFC North, they could be right in the thick of things in the NFC as a whole.
Chicago used its first-round pick on Boise State defensive end/linebacker Shea McClellin. The buzz on McClellin was relatively quiet until late in the draft process, but his relentless motor and the absence of any character concerns vaulted him to being the 19th overall pick in the draft.
Putting McClellin across from Julius Peppers will give Chicago a pair of feared pass rushers on both ends of the defensive line.
An improved pass rush would be a welcome addition for the Bears, as there's been a bit of a revolving door in the defensive backfield. Charles Tillman continues to be one of the most underrated players in the league and Tim Jennings is solid as the team's number two cornerback, but there's a level of uncertainty surrounding the safety position.
Major Wright has shown promise, and the Bears hope he'll build on his 2011 campaign and grab hold of the starting job at strong safety.
However, there figures to be competition at the other safety spot. Craig Steltz started five games in 2011 and Chris Conte started nine, and both figure to compete for a starting job alongside Wright.
An improved pass rush and a reliable group of defensive backs would be a vital asset to the Bears as they attempt to unseat the Packers atop the NFC North.
While a lot of attention will be on Marshall both on and off the field in 2012, the performances of both the offensive and defensive lines may be the difference between being a playoff team and being a legitimate Super Bowl threat in the NFC.
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