Chicago Bears: Ten Keys To Get To Super Bowl XLVI
Three weeks have passed and Bears fans have had the opportunity to calm down from the hysteria that consumed the city following the disappointing 21-14 loss in the NFC Championship to the Packers.
The unfortunate victim of the fans anger was, you guessed it, quarterback Jay Cutler. Despite tearing his MCL in the first half, fans, players and analysts all insisted his exit was due to him being weak.
It really shouldn't have been a shock to see the fans turn on the quarterback, as it's been a tradition in Chicago. Just ask former Bears alum Jim Harbaugh and Rex Grossman.
However, as time goes on, fans are starting to realize the successes of the Bears season.
A team that was widely picked to be one of the worst in the NFC, the Bears went 11-5, won the NFC North and arguably came closer than any team in the playoffs to defeating the eventual Super Bowl Champions. They were also the only team to consistently shut down the Packers high flying offense.
Still, some of their success can be attributed to good fortune, such as playing a host of rookie quarterbacks, as well as hosting the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. The Bears were also one of the healthier teams in the league.
With all that said, it's clear there is still a lot of work to be done in order for the Bears to become a true Super Bowl contender. Here are ten keys to the off-season for the Monsters of the Midway.
10. Find a Dynamic Backup Running Back
The signing of Julius Peppers stole all the headlines last off-season for the Bears, and deservedly so. Though his sack totals were not amongst the league leaders, they did not reflect the dominance he showcased week in and week out.
However, another key signing was of running back Chester Taylor, one of the key pieces to the Minnesota Vikings offense for numerous seasons. While he helped convert first downs and make a key block as a Viking, Taylor was nowhere to be seen for much of the 2010 season.
Whether that was due to his lack of ability and age, or Mike Martz not properly using him, Taylor never found traction this year, and at 32, there's a decent chance he won't be on the roster next year.
Matt Forte is a running back who is a jack of all trades, but master of none. He can run for about 3.5 to 4 yards per carry, can block and catch, but will never lead the league in any category.
The Bears need someone who can either be a speedster, or a bruiser to come in for Forte during the game and add a new dimension to the Bears offense.
9. Replacing Tommie Harris
For several years, Tommie Harris was one of the most dominant defensive tackles in football.
However, due to recurring injuries, and arguably due to lack of effort, Harris was benched for much of last season, and at best was part of a rolling rotation of group largely built of no names.
Due $5 million next year, it is unlikely the Bears will keep Harris unless he's willing to accept a lower salary. Assuming that is not the case, the Bears will need to address their defensive line, bringing in new talent to help stop the run and get to the quarterback.
8. Finding The Third Musketeer at Linebacker
For over five years, the Bears have enjoyed tremendous stability at two of their three linebacker positions, with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs being arguably the best 1-2 tandem in all of the NFL.
However, their other outside linebacker position has been a rotation of numerous linebackers most recently Pisa Tinoisamoa.
With his future in doubt with the Bears in 2011, it will be a position that needs to be addressed, possibly as a mid round draft pick. If the Bears could find a new starter here, they'd still have several prime years or Urlacher and Briggs left to form an absolutely scary linebacking corps.
7. Keeping The Offensive Coaching Staff
The Bears offense this year had its highs (scoring over 40 points against the Jets) and lows (blowing winnable games to Seattle and Washington at home). What was seen throughout the season though, particularly after their bye week at week nine, and their divisional playoff rematch against the Seahawks, was that the offense showed signs of positive development.
Their passing game became more efficient. The running game increased its yards per carry, and their offensive line wasn't like the sieve it was in the early part of the season when it gave up ten sacks in one game to the Giants.
While they struggled in the NFC Championship, there is no doubt that some continuity formed throughout the season. To continue that, coaches like Mike Martz and Mike Tice need to stay on the staff.
Losing them—especially Martz—would be a disaster, as it would force Cutler and the offensive unit to learn their third offense in three years.
6. Establishing a Clear 2nd Cornerback
For years, Charles Tillman has been the Bears best cover man, routinely shutting down receivers and being one of the best at stripping the ball.
However, since their Super Bowl season, his counterpart on the opposite end of the field has been a rotating door. Injuries and poor play turned Nathan Vasher from a pro bowler to being cut in just two seasons.
In 2010 Tim Jennings, Zach Bowman, and even D.J. Moore, spent time playing as the second cover man in base 4-3 packages. To become a true dominant defense, the Bears have to establish a true cover guy next to Tillman.
Too many times, the opposition was able to exploit this weakness in the Cover-2.
5. Minimize Hester As a Wide Receiver
It's amazing what happens when you use a little less Hester at wide receiver.
Given more of a role as a returner this year, Hester looked like he did as a rookie, returning three punts home for touchdowns with numerous others just one or two moves away. While Hester has the ability to make plays as a receiver, he is the most dynamic returner in the history of the league.
A major point of contention the Bears had with their coach was that it appeared for the past several years that he didn't appreciate what he had. Though he could return a kick for a touchdown at any one moment, Smith seemed insistent that he use Hester as a receiver. As dynamic as he is, Hester still looked no better than a 3rd receiver.
It seemed to click for Smith in Week 3 that Hester can either be the best returner in the NFL, or perhaps only the fourth best receiver on his own team.
Smith needs to take this knowledge into 2011 and allow Hester to do what he does on returns and let other receivers carry the load on offense.
4. Finding a Game Changing Wide Receiver
You would think from the previous slide that I felt the Bears receivers are good enough that they don't need Hester.
That could not be further from the truth.
The problem with the Bears is they have a nice compliment of second and third receivers. However, they lack the type of game changer that truly strikes fear into the opponent. Picture the Ravens before they traded for Anquan Boldin.
The Bears haven't had a 1,000 yard receiver since Marty Booker, though Johnny Knox came very close to it this year. The Bears could be a top flight offense by bringing in a true No. 1 receiver.
In my eyes there are three options
1) Sign Steve Smith. He was one of the best wideouts in the 2009 season though missed much of 2010 due to injury. However, he has the talent to be just what the Bears need.
2) Santonio Holmes. The Jets will likely re-sign him, but the Bears could make a play for the former Super Bowl winner. His off field issues are also a question mark, but could very well be worth the risk.
3) Vincent Jackson: The Bears would have to probably part with another first round pick which they have done so the past two years. Given their history of poor first round selections though, he may be worth it. The man is a huge receiver that would absolutely command the coverage of their best cornerback.
It would allow Knox to be a perfect No. 2 receiver while Earl Bennett would fall perfectly into the possession receiver role.
3. Find Another Defensive End
Julius Peppers proved to be worth every penny last season, dominating offensive lines despite facing double teams constantly.
The reason why he was double teamed so much you may ask?
The Bears had no defensive end on the other side to strike fear into the offense.
Mark Anderson was supposed to be that guy, but he underwhelmed so much the Bears cut him. Israel Idonije, a perennial backup had a career season, but no one believes he's the long term solution here.
If the Bears can find someone to compliment Peppers, the Bears have an opportunity to have one of the best front four's in the league.
Playing in a Cover-2 defense that stresses those four to create quarterback pressure, a second quality end could make life scary for teams like the Packers.
2. Jay Cutler's Consistency
Before my take on Cutler, let me say I was one of the only people to defend Cutler during the social media mob that attacked him following the NFC Championship.
Before even knowing the extent of his injuries, players, analysts and especially fans called Cutler a coward.
That talk died out pretty quickly when people learned just how injured Cutler was. He suffered a torn MCL in the first half, and even tried to play on it, taking pain killers at half time. However, when it was clear he couldn't be effective, the coaches took him out.
Jay Cutler enjoyed a better season than in 2009, but he still threw far too many interceptions to be considered an elite quarterback. Another season with Mike Martz could be a tremendous help but Cutler needs to stop throwing on his back foot so much as it often leads to poor and dangerous passes.
If he can start to throw with more consistency, then there is a great potential to have his battles with Aaron Rodgers be truly classic.
1. Improve The O-Line
What made the fact that people attacked Cutler's toughness so ridiculous was how much punishment he continuously endured throughout the season. The fact that Cutler is such a mobile quarterback further illustrated the issues came from the fact their offensive line was abysmal for much of the season.
The biggest humiliation came against the Giants when Cutler was sacked nine times.
In one half!
The Bears line gave up the most sacks in the NFL last season despite the fact they showed some signs of improvement in the end of the season. The current line has a dangerous mix of unproven youngsters and aging veterans like longtime center Olin Kreutz.
This is an area that needs to be addressed in both the draft and free agency.
There is no telling how good the Bears can be if they can improve their offensive line. If Matt Forte can have more running room it will make their passing game more dangerous. If Cutler is allowed more time in the pocket, then it will let Johnny Knox gain those extra few steps to break away for a big pass.
If the Bears need to address any one need, it's this line. In the end, if the Bears can improve this aspect and a few of their other needs, they have the opportunity to prove to the world that 2010 was no fluke.