Have the Chicago Bears Closed the Gap in the NFC North?

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistJune 14, 2012

LAKE FOREST, IL - JUNE 12:  Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears talks to teammates during a minicamp practice at Halas Hall on June 12, 2012 in Lake Forest, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Chicago Bears have had an eventful and largely productive offseason. The question is, have they closed the gap on the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers in the NFC North?

Injuries to key players like Jay Cutler and Matt Forte ravaged the Bears and their chances of postseason admission a season ago. Yet, even before the injuries, there was no truly explosive receiver for Cutler to throw to and a patchwork line once again hindered the attack.

The Bears began seeking a remedy to these ills by trading for Brandon Marshall. It was a smart choice, given that he and Cutler established a superb rapport while with the Denver Broncos.

Marshall notched over 100 receptions in 2007 and 2008 as Cutler's favourite target. The 6'4", 230-pounder gives the Bears something they have been missing for a while.

He is a complete playmaker at wide receiver.

If second-round pick and Marshall clone Alshon Jeffery can translate his big-play capability to the pros, Cutler will have two big weapons on the outside. However, with Mike Tice running the offense, can the Bears find a way to feature all of their new weapons?

Acquiring Michael Bush gives them a bruising runner, able to pound it out between the tackles. The former Oakland Raider is also an insurance policy against lingering contract complications with Forte.

NFL.com recently reported that Forte missed the start of minicamp. The Bears cannot afford to be without their best player in a tough division race. Come the regular season, Tice has to find a way to keep Bush happy, while still making Forte the natural focal point of the offense.

The Bears still need Matt Forte to lead the offense
The Bears still need Matt Forte to lead the offenseStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

However, no matter how well stocked the Bears suddenly find themselves at the skill positions, the line is the key. Cutler recently expressed his worry about the lack of continuity upfront, according to NFL.com.

Getting the most out of players like Gabe Carimi is essential. Only former San Francisco 49er Chilo Rachal was added via free agency to a line which has surrendered 101 sacks in two seasons.

Defensively, the Bears remain solid. However, as age begins to catch up, they are starting to lack the spark of previous years. Thankfully, some much-needed regeneration has taken place at the most crucial position.

As one of the few teams who have remained faithful to the 4-3 defense, amidst the trendy popularity of the 3-4 and hybrid fronts, the Bears have cultivated deep line rotation. Last season saw youngsters Matt Toeaina and Henry Melton emerge as playmakers.

The 2012 draft brought in first-round pick Shea McClellin. The ex-Boise State standout can give Chicago's front the one thing it needs the most. That is, an active pass-rush threat opposite the brilliant Julius Peppers.

The question is, can the heavy diet of zone coverage still be effective against Aaron Rogers and Matthew Stafford? When the Packers were defeated by the New York Giants in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, the G-Men relied on clamping on Rogers' receivers in tight man coverage and using multiple line movements to create pressure.

The Bears still play the Tampa 2 better than anyone. However, now is the time for Rod Marinelli to add a few new wrinkles to the coverage scheme.

The team have done a lot of good work this offseason, and with Cutler and Forte healthy, they are certainly a match for the Lions and Packers. That being said, there are still key questions to answer.

Forte is the offense's best player and the scheme should still be tailored to him. However, without greater continuity along the line, the new weapons will be wasted and more pressure will be on the defense to carry the team.