NFL Team Previews: Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears were rolling last season, at 7-3 and looked on their way to the playoffs when Jay Cutler went down for the year. The team didn’t win again until the final week of the season when they were eliminated. The Bears have gone out and fixed the backup quarterback spot and made other notable additions in free agency. Will it translate into a playoff year in a tough division? TheSportsNotebook previews Chicago’s chances…

OFFENSE: Cutler’s durability has been a question mark, and in some quarters his toughness has been called into question. Considering how frequently the guy’s been knocked down in his career, particularly since coming to the Bears for the 2009 season, I think that’s a little unfair. But it underscores the problem this offensive line has with keeping their QB standing upright and why the development of tackles J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi is so vital. Both are 24-years-old, and Carimi missed most of last year with an injury. If they can come through, Chicago fans can breathe a lot easier. But it has to be these two that show the improvement, because the interior of the line is neither young nor talented.

Cutler will have a better complement of weapons to work with. The team went out and got Brandon Marshall, the temperamental receiver who was a productive playmate Cutler when they were both in Denver. They drafted Alshon Jeffrey, a receiver out of South Carolina I like a great deal. These acquisitions enable Devin Hester to slide into his natural role in the offense, which is a #3 man and punt returner. And when it comes to running the ball, the Bears got Michael Bush, one of the best backs on the market last February, to pair up with Matt Forte, who had a lengthy contract dispute and should be motivated to make himself some money on next year’s free agent market.  Finally, Jason Campbell was brought in to be the #2 quarterback. If (when?) Cutler goes down, the season won’t be shot this time around.

DEFENSE: The front seven has been the pride and joy of the Windy City in the Lovie Smith era and Julius Peppers is still going strong at defensive end, recording 18 sacks last year, even as he hits 32-years-old. The team needs Israel Idonjie to be much more productive than he was a year ago, when he only had five sacks. Idonjie, along with tackle Henry Melton, have the talent to make offensive lines pay if their protection schemes orient too heavily to Peppers.

Brian Urlacher’s knee will decide the fate of the linebacking corps and perhaps whether the entire defense can be championship-caliber. Urlacher’s knee has him questionable for the September 9 season opener. Joined with Lance Briggs, he gives the Bears a powerful duo at linebacker. Without him, Chicago is still pretty good in the front seven, but if this team is to hit its potential the defensive line and linebackers have to be great. And they won’t be without a healthy Urlacher.

The front seven has to be great, because the secondary is a problem. While Charles Tillman is a productive corner, the rest of the unit is spotty. The most Bears fans can hope for is that free safety Chris Conte, 23-years-old, makes big improvement this year. Because to have a weakness in centerfield when you play Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford four times a year is begging for trouble.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 9.5—Is it inconsistent to say that I like Lovie and like this Bear team, but am still going Under? Let me explain. Since the Super Bowl year of 2006, the Bears have only exceeded nine wins one time, that in 2010. The strength of the division, where I think Chicago trails both Detroit and Green Bay, will make a really big year tough. So while I might pick them for 10-6 next week when I do my final picks, I can’t go any higher than that. And that’s enough wiggle room on the over side. I can see them going 8-8, which allows slightly more room to maneuver with the Under. Furthermore, if Urlacher misses substantial time—hardly an unrealistic thought—then a tough season is in store.