10 Keys to Chicago Bears Stealing NFC North Crown

Andrew DannehyCorrespondent INovember 14, 2013

10 Keys to Chicago Bears Stealing NFC North Crown

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    When the Chicago Bears lost to the Detroit Lions last week, they fell a game behind in the standings and lost any chance of winning a tie-breaker scenario with Detroit.

    But don't think they can't still win the NFC North.

    Give Detroit all the credit in the world, but that loss was more about the Bears than it was about the Lions. The Bears left at least two touchdowns on the field and simply didn't play anywhere near the level they're capable of. 

    While the Lions entered that game fresh off of a bye week, the Bears came into it on a short week and played half the game with a quarterback who suffered what could be a multiple-week injury.

    Yet the Bears had their chances and let them slip away. Now, they have to come through and win the NFC North the hard way. If the 10 keys you see in the following slides work out in their favor, there's no doubt that they will end up on top of the division.

Aaron Rodgers

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    I bet you never thought Green Bay's mustachioed quarterback's return would be a good thing for the Bears, but they may need him to beat Detroit on Thanksgiving.

    The Packers' Thanksgiving Day game against Detroit is the one Rodgers is hoping to return for, and they'll likely need him to get a win.

    While Rodgers' injury wasn't quite the nightmare many had thought, they're certainly much better with him. They had nearly 400 yards against the Eagles with Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace running the show, but they left quite a few points on the board. They had two missed field goals, an interception in the end zone and a near-touchdown catch that was overturned. While Rodgers wouldn't have helped with the field goals, there are countless other areas in which he improves Green Bay's offense.

    Green Bay's biggest worry right now is their defense, so it appears likely that they'll have to outscore Detroit to beat them. With all due respect to Wallace, Tolzien and Matt Flynn, their chances are a lot better with Rodgers on the field.

    Of course, Rodgers' return could also be a bad thing for the Bears. Chicago hosts Green Bay in Week 17, but by then, the Packers might be out of the playoff chase. Should they lose their next two games without Rodgers—perhaps unlikely considering their competition—and one more, they'll have seven losses. It's hard to see a team getting into the playoffs in the NFC with more than six.

    Furthermore, if the Bears take care of some of the other things on this list, they'll be able to beat Green Bay even with Rodgers.

Detroit's History Repeats Itself

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    Obviously, if the Lions win out, the Bears don't have any chance of winning the NFC North. History suggests the Lions will keep the Bears in it, however.

    Did anyone watching last Sunday's game come away with the impression that the Lions were some sort of juggernaut? 

    They're a good offensive team. They score over 27 points per game and don't beat themselves, as they have just 13 turnovers this season, tied for the fourth lowest total in the NFC. They also give up 24 points per game and have just 14 takeaways, tied for the second lowest total in the NFC.

    It's hard to win with a defense that is neither stingy nor opportunistic.

    The Lions have started 6-3 or better twice since the turn of the century. The most recent time was 2011 when they finished 10-6 and were blown out in the first round of the playoffs by New Orleans. That was also the year that the Bears thumped them 37-13 before Jay Cutler broke his thumb and missed the rest of the season.

    You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks the Lions would've finished ahead of the Bears had Cutler not been injured.

    The other time was 2007 when Detroit started 6-2 and finished 7-9. That team might not have had quite the talent that this year's squad has, so that kind of collapse is unlikely.

    Still, does this squad look like anything more than a 10-6 team with a little luck?

    While their remaining schedule has just one team with a winning record, would it be a big shock to see them lose in Pittsburgh this week? Or any number of other games they have on their schedule? 

    They're just a few breaks away from having two or three more losses. Their luck is bound to run out sometime.

Earl Bennett Starts Playing Up to His Ability

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    While the Bears offense has been very good as a whole, Earl Bennett hasn't come anywhere near his capabilities.

    It wouldn't be accurate to say the Bears need Bennett to be a good offense or win games. They're already scoring nearly 29 points per game, and their losses haven't directly been his fault. He just hasn't been a very good player for the Bears this year. If he plays up to his capabilities, the Bears offense could be unstoppable. 

    While oftentimes great, Chicago's offense has been inconsistent. When they struggle, there are typically two reasons. One is offensive line play—which I'll get to later—the other is because their playmakers have been bottled up.

    While it's been rare, teams have managed to take away Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte for periods of time. When that happens, they need Earl Bennett to step up, and he hasn't.

    The perception is that it's a lack of opportunity, but good players create their own opportunities, especially when they see as many favorable matchups as Bennett does. Atlanta's Harry Douglas has caught nearly 40 passes each of the last two years despite playing with two standout receivers, one of the best receiving tight ends in the history of the game and running backs who have caught over 50 passes. Bennett, however, is currently on pace for 23 catches. 

    Bennett ranks terribly in yards per route run on Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He is dead last amongst receivers who have run 200 or more routes, 104th of the 105 receivers with 20 or more targets and 157th overall. It wouldn't be a stretch to say he has been the worst receiver who plays regularly in the entire league.

    He's capable of being much better. He showed as much in the past and has looked to be a quality second option at times. The Bears don't necessarily need him to be better, but if he can start getting open and making plays regularly, their offense will be among the most feared in the entire league. 

Young Linebackers Continue to Improve

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    If there's been one major bright spot for the Bears defense for both the present and the future, it has been the play of rookie middle linebacker Jon Bostic.

    While he hasn't necessarily provided the big plays he did in the preseason, Bostic has improved with every game and is starting to flash his athleticism on a more regular basis. 

    It looks like there is a very good chance that he will be exactly what the Bears hoped he'd be when they spent a second-round pick on him. He gets sideline-to-sideline and has proven to be a pretty sure tackler.

    When Lance Briggs suffered a shoulder injury against Washington, the Bears were forced to put fourth-round rookie Khaseem Greene into the lineup. So far, it's been pretty clear that he's not quite as ready to play as Bostic.

    Greene hasn't necessarily been bad. He had four tackles against the Packers. He had just one against Detroit, although the Bears were playing a lot of nickel coverages so he wasn't on the field. 

    It's very evident that he's a rookie, however.

    He has trouble getting off blocks and seems to be thinking too much. These are things that should improve with time. The problem for the Bears is that they don't have a lot of time.

    With quarterback Jay Cutler's status unknown going forward, they need their defense to step up. It doesn't look like Briggs is returning any time soon, so Greene will have to fill the void.

    Both Greene and Bostic have the ability to be terrific players in the NFL. If they continue on in an upward trend, we should start to see the Bears defense take a big step in the right direction.

Safety Play

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    The Bears safeties have been embarrassingly bad at times this season. They're also a big reason why their defense has dropped off from being one of the best in the league.

    Starting strong safety Major Wright has graded out as the worst safety in the league, while Chris Conte is the 12th worst on Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

    It isn't just one area that they've struggled in. They both seem incapable of playing in control and securing tackles and are often lost in coverage. They're a big reason why the Bears have given up the third most passing plays of 20 or more yards in the league. 

    Big things were expected from both players entering this year, and they have the talent to be among the best duos in the league. If they don't improve drastically, the Bears need to start trying different players—specifically Craig Steltz for Major Wright.

    There is reason for hope.

    Both actually had adequate games against the Lions this week, despite going against easily the best wide receiver in the league.

    Although Wright dropped a sure interception, Conte made a big play with an interception and return inside the Detroit 10. Unfortunately, the Bears offense wasn't able to score a touchdown from there.

    If they can build off of that and stop giving up numerous big plays every game, the Bears defense can return to respectability.

    If they're going to get past that point, it'll be up to some other players to step up their games.

Shea McClellin Builds off of Green Bay Game

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    Just when it appeared McClellin's career was going nowhere fast, he broke through with a three-sack performance against Green Bay.

    He missed the team's last game against Detroit, but the last time we saw McClellin he looked like a force opposite Julius Peppers—exactly what the Bears need him to be.

    He flashed both good pass rush moves and the athleticism that makes general manager Phil Emery take a chance on him, as he sacked Aaron Rodgers once and Seneca Wallace twice.

    With that game, McClellin doubled his previous sack total. Now, it's time for an encore.

    There's no word on if McClellin will play against Baltimore, but he could have a favorable matchup if he does. Michael Oher has struggled on the right side—as opposed to the blind side, couldn't resist—of Baltimore's offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Oher has given up 27 combined sacks, hits and hurries. 

    While McClellin may never be an adequate defender against the run. If he can chase quarterbacks like he did in Green Bay, the Bears would be thrilled with what they're getting from the former first-round pick.

Jeremiah Ratliff Plays Like Jay Ratliff

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    The Bears signed four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jay Ratliff earlier this month, and he has since decided he'd prefer to be called Jeremiah. In that case, the Bears need Jeremiah Ratliff to play a lot like Jay Ratliff did.

    Jay Ratliff was a dominant force in the middle of Dallas' 3-4 defense for years. Although he's 32 years old and hasn't played in nearly a year, the Bears are hoping he can still have a major impact.

    While he played predominantly in a 3-4 defense, Ratliff appears to be a better fit for a 4-3. He's listed at 6'4" and 303 pounds and could play at either nose tackle or the 3-technique for the Bears. 

    If he's able to play like he did in Dallas, the Bears will have a dominating player in the middle of their defensive line, something they badly need.

    Even if he isn't the player he once was, if he's just adequate, it would be a big upgrade for the Bears. While Corey Wootton has been better than expected as a 3-technique, he still doesn't hold up very well in the run game. Stephen Paea has been average and Landon Cohen is nothing more than a warm body.

    If Ratliff can play at a high level, he'll move into the rotation at defensive tackle and allow the Bears to play Wootton at defensive end on first and second down. That should drastically improve the Bears' run defense, which has been gashed for over 120 yards in six of their nine games this season.

    In the unlikely scenario that Ratliff doesn't prove to be an upgrade in the middle of their line, or isn't able to play, the Bears will be in trouble.

Julius Peppers Plays Hard Every Game

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    Peppers has been the biggest enigma for the Bears this season as he has ranged from dominant to nonexistent with very little in between. 

    There have been a number of excuses for him. Some have said it's physical decline, others say it's the fact that he's seeing more blockers without Henry Melton in the middle of their defensive line. I'm not sure either is the case. 

    The Milwaukee Journal Sentinal's Bob McGinn spoke to scouts about Peppers prior to his dominant performance against the Packers, and they indicated that it was more about effort than anything else. 

    There have been times where he's been double-teamed. However, there have also been times where he's been blocked by just a tight end or even a fullback. In his first three years with the Bears, teams didn't dare to put fewer than two defenders on Peppers or he'd make them pay.

    Peppers is having arguably the worst year of his career and certainly the worst he's had in a Bears uniform. Perhaps the departure of defensive coordinator and famed defensive line coaching guru Rod Marinelli has had more of an impact on him than anyone else. 

    If Peppers can play like he did against Green Bay in every game the rest of the season, fans will see a Bears defense similar to what it was last year. If the players in the last two slides—Jeremiah Ratliff and Shea McClellin—also live up to their potential, nobody is going to want to play against the Bears.

Consistent Offensive Line Play

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    There's no arguing that the Bears offensive line is better than they were a year ago, but they're still not consistent.

    Against a Green Bay defense that gave up under 90 rushing yards per game and has 27 sacks, the Bears ran for 171 yards and gave up just one sack and five quarterback hits, according to ESPN. Their offensive line controlled the game, helping the Bears get the win.

    A week later, they played a Lions team that had given up 108.5 rushing yards per game and registered just 13 sacks on the season. Yet, the Bears managed just 38 rushing yards and allowed quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Josh McCown to get hit 11 times.

    In theory, if they were able to dominate the Packers, they should've been able to dominate the Lions. Yet they didn't. 

    The Bears line certainly has talent, they just have to show it on a consistent basis. When they give the quarterback time—no matter who it is—the offense is nearly unstoppable. 

    If they can play like they did against Green Bay the rest of the season, the Bears are going to score a lot of points. If they play like they did against Detroit, they might not win another game.

Health

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    This has been arguably the Bears' biggest issue this season. Every time it seems things are going better, someone gets hurt.

    We already know the Bears will be playing this week without starting quarterback Jay Cutler and two of their best defensive players—Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. Tillman won't be returning until the playoffs—if the Bears get there—and no one is certain how long it will be until Cutler and Briggs come back.

    The Bears can tread water for now. Josh McCown showed he's capable of being a solid backup quarterback and game manager. Their defense has actually had two of their best games without Briggs in the lineup, and Tillman has been on-and-off the field all season long.

    What they absolutely can't have, however, is another key player go down.

    The Bears defense, in particular, has been stretched pretty thin. If Shea McClellin is out, they'll play Baltimore without five defensive starters. Add the starting quarterback also being out, and you see why that's a big issue.

    The hope is that Cutler, McClellin and Briggs return to the starting lineup soon and that Ratliff is able to make his debut in the next couple of weeks.

    If all that happens—and Zackary Bowman can fill in capably for Tillman—the Bears could be sitting pretty good. If any other defensive starters or star offensive players go down, it could be a nightmare for the Bears.