After a confidence-building win in Dallas on Sunday afternoon, the Chicago Bears come into a Monday Night showdown against their also-unbeaten division rivals, the Green Bay Packers, with first place of the NFC North on the line.
While Monday is sure to be a good indicator of how the Bears will fare the rest of the season, the strides that they have made on the offensive side of the ball this year compared to last year has been evident in their first two victories.
Even though Week 1 against the Lions could be considered a dubious victory (See Johnson, Calvin), the fact that the Lions seem to have the makings of a competitive team and the Bears’ road win against a more-talented Cowboys team has aided Chicago’s case for relevance in the NFC playoff race.
Lead by offensive guru Mike Martz, Chicago's offense has become more explosive this season than it has been in previous years, evidenced by Jay Cutler leading the NFL in yards per attempt and quarterback rating. The evolution of Cutler, acquired from the Denver Broncos before last season, has been the biggest revelation of the Martz Era so far, as the former Rams coach has Cutler throwing the ball proficiently and without incident.
Before this year, Cutler had thrown a combined 44 interceptions over the previous two seasons, the most in the league during that time, and developed a reputation for being a turnover-prone gunslinger. With only one interception over his first two games this year, Cutler has shown maturity and poise in the pocket, while effectively managing some of his old gunslinger mentality.
With an ever-changing group of receivers around him, Cutler has completed at least five passes to seven different receivers, a distinction only five other quarterbacks have accomplished this season, while throwing five touchdown passes.
Although outsiders question Mike Martz's offensive strategy at times, like benching Devin Aromashodu for the Dallas game after a five-catch, 10-target game the week before, it has been hard to argue considering the Bears’ offensive production so far. Martz's biggest challenge yet has been juggling three home run receiving threats (Matt Forte, Johnny Knox, and Devin Hester) while still keeping continuity offensively by effectively moving the chains without a running game to speak of.
As Forte has done his best Marshall Faulk impression as a receiver out of the backfield in the Chicago offense, running the ball has remained a problem for the Forte and the Bears all season. With no running back averaging more than 3 yards per carry, Forte, who leads Chicago with 79 rushing yards, and backup Chester Taylor need to start gaining yards on the ground in order to help stop defenses from sitting on the pass.
Along with a questionable offensive line that has seen Cutler dropped by defenses five times in two games, albeit four came in Week 1, the Chicago Bears still have work to do offensively. The fact that they have had to deal with a nonexistent running game and shoddy O-line play this season shows just how important Cutler has been for their offense this year.
After facing the Packers on Monday Night at home, the Bears will go east to face the New York Giants in the Meadowlands. If Chicago can split the next two games and go into Week 5 with a 3-1 record, Martz's group could be looking at three wins by their Week 8 bye.
In a hotly-contested division, and conference for that matter, the Bears need to win the games that they should (Carolina, Seattle, and Buffalo) and hope to steal a few W's against the league's upper echelon of teams.
The fate of Chicago's season rests on the right shoulder of Cutler, and with a season in Chicago under his belt it will be interesting to watch if he can adjust to the rigors of a 16 game season in the NFC North. When the weather turns and Soldier Field becomes an icebox, the Bears will count on Cutler's arm to lead them to what may be crucial December victories.
Jesse Paguaga is a regular contributor to Baseball Digest. He writes as an intern on the Bleacher Report website. Jesse writes for Gotham Baseball, along with Gotham Hoops and Gotham Gridiron. He can be reached at Paguaga@usc.edu and be found on Facebook and Twitter (@JPags77).
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