The Chicago Bears ended 2011 with an epic collapse. Once 7-3, their playoff dreams were crushed with injuries first to Jay Cutler, then to Matt Forte. With several offseason moves and a roster full of healthy talent, the Bears look to rebound in 2012.
The outlook is bright and expectations are high going into the fall, but the NFC North will be a battle week in and week out.
Here are five keys for the Bears success in the upcoming season.
The offensive line has been one of the Bears greatest weaknesses in recent years. They have finished in the bottom five in sacks allowed each of the last two seasons and continually let pressure get to Cutler, giving him little time to throw.
Gabe Carimi, the Bears first-round pick in 2011, will be back after missing all but two games last year with a partially dislocated right kneecap. Staying healthy and maintaining stability will be key for the line in 2012.
The transition from Mike Martz to new Offensive Coordinator Mike Tice should also provide Cutler with more protection. Tice is eliminating the seven-step drop and will run an offense with more emphasis on blocking than Martz did.
Cutler should have more time to throw and less time on the ground this year.
Not a single Bears wideout caught 40 passes last year and nobody on the team gained 750 yards receiving. There needs to be a legitimate passing attack in 2012, and with the arrival of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, there will be.
Cutler will finally have a true No. 1 receiver in Marshall, and the duo will be exciting to watch. Having a star wide receiver should take pressure off of Devin Hester and possibly make him relevant on offense. Cutler will have fun with his new targets this season, and the passing attack should be lethal.
Injuries were the key to the Bears demise last year, as Jay Cutler and Matt Forte both missed significant time in the middle of a playoff push. Rookie Gabe Carimi and receiver Johnny Knox also sustained serious injuries with Knox still out indefinitely (Pro Football Talk).
The team did a tremendous job in the offseason trying to prevent another collapse by adding depth at the skill positions. Jason Campbell is now the quarterback behind Cutler—a huge improvement over last year's Caleb Hanie. Even though it didn't sit well with Forte, the Bears also brought in Michael Bush to take some of the workload at the running back position.
If Cutler or Forte misses a game or two in 2012, the offense won't implode like it did at the end of last season, but let's not be put in that position again. Let's keep the injuries to a minimum.
Getting to the quarterback was a major issue for the Bears last year. They finished with 33 sacks, tied for 19th in the NFL. With talented linebackers and Julius Peppers rushing on the outside, the defense should be able to inflict more damage than that.
In comes Shea McClellin, the first-round pick out of Boise State. He has a high motor and a knack for hitting the quarterback. McClellin will likely split time with Israel Idonije, and if he proves that he can be effective at the professional level, a McClellin-Peppers combination could be just what the Bears need.
Giving the quarterback less time to throw will also help the secondary in coverage and could ultimately make the Bears a much better all-around defense.
Though the defensive line may help the team's woeful pass defense, it's up to the secondary to contain the passing assault that is today's NFL. The Bears ranked 28th in the league in passing yards allowed, giving up over 250 per game.
Adding depth may be one of the biggest reasons we could see improvement in 2012. Kelvin Hayden was acquired late last year and is entering his first training camp with the team. The Bears also selected safety Brandon Hardin and cornerbacks Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy in the draft.
Hayden provides a quality third cornerback while Hardin could compete for a starting job.
Having to play Matt Stafford and Aaron Rodgers twice during the season means the defense has to be able to contain the passing game. An improved secondary should see better results.