Although the signing of Jay Cutler has dramatically increased fans' and the NFL's expectations of the Chicago Bears' 2009 campaign, the Bears suffered from many breakdowns that prevented them from being a playoff caliber team in '08—and guess what? Bad QB play wasn't even in the top three.
Although a major upgrade on paper, the Cutler trade will only translate into increased success on the field if the Bears can manage to improve in these three areas first.
1) Pressure, pressure, pressure.
Watching the Bears 2008 defensive line play was like watching a dog team finish last in the Iditarod—long, dangerous slogs through increasingly treacherous terrain with short periods of rest in the freezing night—all the while, you just kept asking yourself, "God, are they gonna make it all the way through this?"
The Bears need to rekindle the fire that allowed this defensive line to be absolutely dominant in 2005 and 2006. Much to most NFL pundits dismay, this isn't exactly an old defensive line, or defense, for that matter—Adewale Ogunleye is the oldest guy on the line at 30 and Urlacher tops out the entire defense at 31.
These guys are playing in the prime of their careers where experience is lashed to top physical performance. There's no physical reason why this line can't again regain some of the old form. With one major exception.
Tommie Harris just isn't the same guy that he used to be and it's because of his knee. And he's not going to be in the future. There. I said it. This is particularly devastating because his three technique position in Tampa Two based defenses is arguably the most important position on the field.
This position needs to create havoc and demand double teams on a regular basis to allow the defensive ends clear paths to the opposing QB, allows the Bears greyhound-like LB's to produce in the open field, and helps to give the CB's a chance in passing situations.
Rod Marinelli can't fix Harris' knee and can only hope that Marcus Harrison flourishes and becomes more consistent at the three technique to allow Harris the rest he so desperately needs these days.
Otherwise, all the great coaching in the world isn't going to help the defensive line, or the rest of the defense, for that matter. Which brings me to the fact that...
2) The Term "Safety" Has Become Ironic
This is a team that continues to bring in guys who are strong safeties and are somehow just now rediscovering the importance of a fast, ball hawking, free safety. The team keeps insisting publicly that in the Tampa Two, "there's really not a big difference between the two safety positions."
Which is fine, except for the fact that the Bears are only lining up in a true Cover-Two defense half of the time. The other 50 percent of the time they are lining up in a defense that requires the skill set that a true free safety brings to the table.
Kevin Payne, Craig Steltz and before that Mike Brown and Chris Harris are all proto-typical strong safeties who do most of their damage in run support. The notable exception was Mike Brown in his prime.
The Bears were a noticeably better defense when they had Brown back there acting as a big hitting, ball hawking QB of the secondary. It alleviates a lot of pressure on their CB's and makes opposing QB's and WR's think twice when throwing to the middle of the field.
The addition of Josh Bullocks is a decent start, although his play was erratic with New Orleans, and the Bears should be seriously considering this position in the draft. Otherwise, the Bears defense will continue to get scorched in the passing game on a regular basis.
Right now, with a lack of a consistent pass rush and no safety help in passing situations, the Bears' CB's are quite simply being asked to do too much.
3) When Every Pass Is A Hail Mary
You ain't going that far. The Bears have a well documented need for consistency at the WR position that, with a Pro Bowl caliber QB at the helm, needs to be addressed.
The reason this is No. 3 in importance is that the addition of Cutler and an upgraded offensive line should automatically improve the production of what the Bears already have at the position.
Hester is a dynamic, flat-out burner who every defensive coordinator needs to be aware of. His progress this year will be a make or break litmus test for the Bears' experimentation with him at the position.
If he can't put up 1,000 yard, eight TD seasons with Cutler throwing to him, the circus needs to pull up the tents and get out of town. Let the man get back to making people pay in special teams and make a serious run at a Pro Bowl WR in 2010—a certain Brandon Marshall might be available.
Bennett has a ton of upside but has yet to prove anything to anyone. This season could see a special tandem emerge between he and Cutler as it did at Vanderbilt, or could be the beginning of the end of Bennett's career in Chicago. The fact is, no one will know until September.
Outside of that, there's literally nothing at the position (all respect to Rashied Davis, who is well liked but a number three receiver on his best day). I see Chicago picking up a veteran FA (although probably not Torry Holt) and using their second round pick on a WR.
Unfortunately, the recent history of teams drafting a WR in the second round should give the Bears pause. Simply put, the vast majority of these guys have three year NFL careers and are never heard from again.
The position must be filled out with capable guys who can do a lot of little things well for this offense to fully realize its potential.
Cutler has great escape hatch guys in Olsen and Forte who can hurt you but they must establish a go to guy this season at the WR position to go out there every week and make those big plays that Cutler was brought in to provide.
All in all, Bears fans have a lot to be optimistic about. With the addition of Cutler and the vast improvement of their offensive line, coupled with the league's easiest schedule, the Bears went from a mediocre but competitive team, to one that is in a good position to reclaim the NFC North title.
But, without addressing these key weaknesses, the Bears might just be looking at another postseason from the side lines.
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