5 Keys to the Chicago Bears Competing in the Tough NFC North

William GrantContributor IIIMay 30, 2012

5 Keys to the Chicago Bears Competing in the Tough NFC North

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    After a 7-3 start, the Chicago Bears crashed and burned at the end of last season. After a streak of five consecutive losses, they managed to grind out a win in Minnesota to finish the season at 8-8.

    They had to sit by and watch their division rivals Green Bay and Detroit advance to the postseason. This was a huge disappointment after finishing 11-5 and winning the division in 2010. 

    With new General Manager Phil Emery running the show, the expectations are high that the Bears can improve on last season and make it back to the playoffs in 2012. To get there though, they will need to complete against a tough NFC North division.

    Here are five key areas that the Bears need to improve on if they hope to make it back to the postseason.  

No. 1) Protect Quarterback Jay Cutler

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    The Chicago Bears have given up 105 sacks over the last two seasons. That's over 3.2 sacks per game for the last 32 games. Jay Cutler was under center for 75 of those sacks.

    It's hard to be competitive when your quarterback is laying on the turf. 

    Some of that can be blamed on the offense that former offensive coordinator Mike Martz installed. His offensive schemes are notorious for leaving quarterbacks vulnerable to multiple sacks per game.

    But the Chicago offensive line also needs to step up. Last season, the offensive line was inconsistent and injury prone. Neither left tackle J'Marcus Webb, nor right tackle Gabe Carimi have proven they can slow down the outside pressure.

    To compensate, Chicago is installing a new offense where Cutler will be free to move around more. He will have the ability to call an audible at the line of scrimmage, and there will be several schemes that will move the pocket, allowing him more time to throw the ball.

    If the Bears can keep Cutler from running for his life, he can take advantage of the new offensive weapons to...

No. 2) Improve the Passing Game

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    The Bears averaged just 188 passing yards per game last season. Running Back Matt Forte led the team with 52 receptions, and only one wide receiver had more than 507 receiving yards.

    By contrast, both the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions averaged more than 300 passing yards per game. Super Bowl opponents New York and New England averaged 296 and 317 passing yards per game, respectively. For the Bears to compete, they are going to have to throw the ball a lot more. 

    This offseason, Chicago upgraded their passing game, bringing in three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins and drafting South Carolina rookie Alshon Jeffery in the second round. Earl Bennett and Devin Hester round out a receiving corps that may finally give Jay Cutler the tools that he needs to be successful. 

    Improving the passing game is only half of the story though. To complete against the other NFC North teams, Chicago also needs to...

No. 3) Pressure Opposing Quarterbacks

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    Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for more than 4600 yards and 45 touchdowns last season. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for more than 5000 yards and 41 touchdowns, as well. If Chicago hopes to slow either of these guys down in 2012, they are going to have to pressure the QB. 

    The Chicago defense finished in a four-way tie for 19th in defensive sacks last season. To improve on that, they added rookie Shea McClellin from Boise St with their first-round pick.

    Between McClellin and Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, the Bears hope to disrupt to timing of opposing passing offenses like Green Bay and Detroit. This will lead to more sacks and turnovers, with the overall goal in mind to... 

No. 4) Improve the Pass Defense

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    The Bears finished fifth in passing yards allowed last season with over 254 yards allowed per game. Green Bay and Detroit finished third and fourth in passing offense, respectively. This is a terrible combination of statistics if Chicago hopes to compete for a playoff spot. 

    By increasing the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Chicago hopes to create more sacks and turnover opportunities for their defense and reduce the number of passing yards allowed per game. Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are two of the better cornerbacks in the league, and they can really shut down opposing offenses if given the chance. 

    To give their offense a chance to win more games, the Chicago secondary is going to have to slow down opposing offenses, especially in the second half.

    If the Bears hope to hang with pass-happy teams like Green Bay and Detroit, they are going to have to prevent them from marching up and down the field at will. 

No. 5) Stay Healthy in December

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    It is no secret that injuries were a big reason that Chicago missed the playoffs last year. After Jay Cutler went down in Week 11, the Bears lost the next five games in a row. With only Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown to fill in, the entire offense turned to Matt Forte. 

    Unfortunately, Forte went down with an MCL sprain in Week 13, and he was lost for the season as well. Without Cutler or Forte in the lineup, the offense came to a halt. 

    Johnny Knox went down in Week 15, and his injury was so severe that he may miss the majority of this season as well. Devin Hester was limited for almost the entire second half of the season due to an ankle injury that he sustained against Philadelphia

    While Chicago added depth at most of their key positions, they need their starters to stay healthy if they hope to compete with Green Bay and Detroit down the stretch. Four of Chicago's last six games this season are against division opponents, and three of their last four games are on the road.

    Combine that with the downside of an early bye week, and the Bears are going to have a hard time staying at full strength when they need it the most.