NFL

2010 NFL Preview: Chicago Bears

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 7-9, 3-3
Division finish: 3rd NFC North
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 19th, 23rd, 17th, 29th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 21st, 17th, 13th,23rd

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Matt Forte, 929 yards, 4 TD; Kahlil Bell, 220 yards, 0 TD
Passing: Jay Cutler, 3,666 yards, 27 TD, 6 INT
Receiving: Devin Hester, 757 yards, 3 TD; Earl Bennett, 717 yards, 2 TD; Greg Olsen, 612 yards, 8 TD; Johnny Knox, 527 yards, 5 TD; Matt Forte, 471 yards, 0 TD; Devin Aromashodu, 298 yards, 4 TD
Tackles: Lance Briggs, 93 total tackles; Danieal Manning, 72 total tackles, Hunter Hillenmeyer, 65 total tackles
Sacks: Adewale Ogunleye, 6.5 sacks; Alex Brown, 6 sacks
Interceptions: Zack Bowman, 6 INT, 0 TD; Charles Tillman, 2 INT, 1 TD

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2010 Season Outlook

Schedule
(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

October 10 at Carolina: This game will be fun to watch as Julius Peppers and Chris Harris return to play against the Panthers after playing for them last year. Peppers, especially, will be motivated to bring his A-game after all the criticism he received from Panthers' fans after his departure, but he will be hard-pressed to get sacks against the Panthers' monster offensive line. While Peppers is trying his best to get to Matt Moore (or possibly Jimmy Clausen), the matchup of the Panthers' receivers versus the Bears' defensive backfield will show which of the two units has improved the most since last year's struggles. The Bears will look to get their run game on track against the Panthers' rebuilding front seven, while the Panthers might try to establish a strong passing offense if rookie receiver Brandon LaFell is coming along nicely.

November 14 at Minnesota: The Bears were able to pull off a shocker against the Vikings at the end of last season, and they'll be gunning to do it again to show that last season's victory was no fluke. Matt Forte isn't going to get past the Vikings' front seven, so this game will see Cutler airing it out to test the Vikings' corners, who were their weakness last season. If Cutler has a good game and the Bears start pulling ahead, this could turn into an exciting shootout between Favre and Cutler, who are remarkably similar in some of their tendencies.

January 2 at Green Bay: While the Bears will likely be out of playoff contention by now, they will surely play hard if they have a shot to spoil Green Bay's playoff hopes. This game will be a true test for the Packers' offensive line if Peppers and Harris play at their best, but the Bears' lack of depth at corner will be a concern as the Packers are capable of airing it out from multiple-receiver sets. The Packers' defense will blitz from all over the field, which means Cutler will have to make a lot of throws on the run if his line doesn't hold up.

Key Losses

Adewale Ogunleye, DE; Alex Brown, DE; Jason McKie, FB; Nathan Vasher, CB; Kevin Payne, FS

Key Returning Players

Brian Urlacher, LB; Pisa Tinoisamoa, LB; Mark Anderson, DE; Jay Cutler, QB; Matt Forte, RB; Chris Williams, OT; Frank Omiyale, OL; Mark Anderson, DE

Key Draft Picks

Major Wright, FS; Corey Wootton, DE; Joshua Moore, CB

Key Free Agent Signings

Julius Peppers, DE; Chester Taylor, RB

Key Acquisitions via Trade

Chris Harris, FS

Offensive Overview

With Jay Cutler, anything can happen, good or bad. He could play like he did the final two weeks of the season, accumulating a total of 519 passing yards, eight touchdown passes, and just one interception. However, he can also play like he did before that, compiling a ratio of 19 touchdowns to 25 interceptions. As a whole, the velocity and accuracy with which Cutler throws the deep ball while on the run is outstanding, but he is careless in his reads and mechanics on quick underneath routes. Until he improves in this area, he will continue to be a talented but inconsistent quarterback. His development will be accelerated if his offensive line improves upon its 2009 performance, when Cutler was brought to the turf 35 times, hit 79 times, and often hurried into making an ill-advised pass before the pass rush got to him. Former Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice was brought to Chicago as the Bears' new offensive line coach, and he has shuffled around some of his starters to help bring about the change the Bears wish to see on the line.

For most of 2009, the Bears' starting offensive lineup had Orlando Pace at left tackle, Frank Omiyale at left guard, Olin Kreutz at center, Roberto Garza at right guard, and Chris Williams at right tackle. Towards the end of the year, Williams was moved to his old college position of left tackle in lieu of Pace, with veteran backup Kevin Shaffer manning the right tackle spot. This year, new offensive coordinator Mike Martz has confirmed that Williams will start at left tackle, and Omiyale, who spent time playing tackle for the Carolina Panthers, will be the team's starting right tackle. Martz's offense frequently employs seven-step drops, which means that if the line couldn't protect Cutler when he was taking three-step drops last year, he's going to get killed by the pass rush if the Bears' pass-blocking doesn't improve. Williams and Omiyale are more athletic linemen, so at tackle they are a better fit for Martz's plans to move the pocket with Cutler this season.

Garza and Kreutz were the bright spots on the line last year, and it is a likely bet that their jobs are safe for at least this year. At left guard, though, it is unknown who will be the Bears' starter. Currently, there is an open competition between Johan Asiata, Kevin Shaffer, and possibly Jonathan Beekman, who's been playing center at minicamp while Kreutz recovers from a minor bone spur removal. Shaffer, meanwhile, has been playing second-team right tackle in camp. Asiata, born in New Zealand, never played football until he was 19 years old, but he has the early edge, as he has been lining up as the first-team left guard, meaning he's the only player of these three who was been receiving practice reps at the position for which the three men are competing. To further solidify the line, the Bears signed San Diego tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, a six-foot-two, 295-pound mauler who will be a major asset in improving the Bears' running game. .

Running back Matt Forte suffered a major drop in performance last year due to an MCL sprain suffered in Week 3 that caused him to lose a lot of speed and all of his cutback ability. In early January, Forte had his knee cleaned out, and from all accounts is progressing well in his recovery. If Forte has permanently lost a step thanks to the MCL sprain, he will not be very effective in the Bears' new offensive scheme. Martz's offense relies on lots of cutback runs and pitches to the outside, which will not work unless Forte is back up to full speed. Former Viking Chester Taylor was signed to be paired with Forte, but Taylor lacks the quick first step necessary to get to the hole before defenders do, and his contributions will lie mostly in pass-blocking and receiving checkdown passes on third downs. Harvey Unga, picked in the supplemental draft out of Brigham Young University, lacks the speed necessary for the Bears to consistently run the ball effectively, and doesn't look to factor into the game plan except in the occasional goal-line situation. Forte is going to have to carry most of the load and return to his pre-injury level of performance.

At receiver, the Bears have better options than you would think. Devin Aromashodu doesn't have the speed of a deep burner and cannot be effective as the target of a screen pass, but he has phenomenal instincts for catching the ball, maintains excellent body control near the sidelines, and does a great job of holding onto the football while taking a hit. Similar to Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt in Martz's “Greatest Show on Turf” offense, Johnny Knox is a small but speedy receiver who runs extremely precise routes, and he makes great adjustments to the path of the ball. Although Devin Hester isn't the best route-runner and lacks physicality, his speed still makes him a threat because he is capable of outrunning the entire defense on any given play. Cutler has great chemistry with his former Vanderbilt teammate Earl Bennett, and Martz insists that tight end Greg Olsen is still going to be a component in the passing game. As a whole, the Bears' receiving corps is in much better shape than it gets credit for, and the offense's success will hinge on the play of the line and the running backs.

Defensive Overview

Defensive end is a position to watch this year. Alex Brown wasn't a bad complement to Adewale Ogunleye, who was an absolute monster at times and accumulated 37 sacks in the past 5 years. With Alex Brown a Saint, and Ogunleye a free agent after ending 2009 early with a broken leg in Week 15, there will be two new starters on either end of the line. On one end will be Mark Anderson, who registered 12 sacks in 2006 in limited playing time when he was employed only as a situational pass rusher. In 2007 he was given the starting job, but he was ineffective as a full-time starter and replaced in the lineup by Brown. Opposite of Anderson will be free agent prize Julius Peppers, an athletic freak of nature who is capable of producing sacks, but had a bad rap for taking plays, and even entire games, off and not putting in a lot of effort when he was frustrated. For a strong outside pass rush to be established, Peppers is going to have to disprove that talk and produce a double-digit sack record. On the inside of the line, Israel Idonje is versatile and able to switch from end to tackle without a problem, similar to the Giants' Justin Tuck, but it appears as if he is going to spend a majority of his time at tackle. Tommie Harris is coming off of a season where his knee was constantly bothering him, and looks to return to his dominant form of days past.

Johnny Jolly was a pretty good defensive end last year, but his future with the team is up in the air pending the outcome of the felony charges he faces for possession of 200 mg of codeine in the form of “Lean”, a drink made from Sprite, codeine, and Jolly Ranchers candy that is popular in the urban south. The sentence for Jolly's charge can range of anywhere from probation to 20 years, but even if he avoids any jail time, he is liable to be suspended for four or more games under the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy. To compensate for this, last year's starting nose tackle Ryan Pickett has been moved to defensive end, and B.J. Raji, last year's first-round pick, will be the starting nose tackle. Pickett weighs fifteen pounds more than Jolly, and Raji weighs three pounds less than Pickett, so by putting Pickett at end the Packers have bulked up their defensive line by twelve pounds, which is good on a 3-4 defensive line. Because Pickett and Raji can both occupy double-teams, and defensive end Cullen Jenkins will keep up the pressure on Raji's other side, Green Bay's linebackers will be freed up to make more plays.

Linebacker is the greatest unknown on the Bears' defense. Star middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is coming back from an injury that ended his season in Week 1, and outside 'backer Pisa Tinoisamoa hasn't been healthy since a PCL sprain in suffered in Week 1 as well. Because of Urlacher's age, and the nature of Tinoisamoa's injury, their return to form will be a major question mark on this team. Linebacker Jamar Williams was traded to the Panthers in exchange for Harris, so the Bears don't have a ton of depth aside from Hunter Hillenmeyer, who was Urlacher's fill-in last year, if Urlacher and Tinoisamoa aren't playing well or get hurt again.

Chris Harris has been starting at free safety, and Danieal Manning has been playing at strong safety, but after Harris suffered a knee injury in Carolina last year it is difficult to tell if he will regain the speed that is necessary for playing free safety. If the Harris-Manning combination doesn't work out, Manning might move to free and Harris might move to strong. Major Wright, Al Afalava and Josh Bullocks could each get rotated into the starting lineup as well. Though he has experience playing free safety at Florida, the 6'0”, 206-pound Wright is possibly better suited to play the strong safety position instead. Corner Nathan Vasher was released in the offseason, meaning Charles Tillman will be matched against opponents' top receivers, with Zack Bowman starting opposite him. This isn't a bad cornerback combination, but they're depth behind Tillman and Bowman is extremely thin, meaning offenses with high-octane passing games will absolutely shred apart their nickel and dime packages. Playing in the same division as the Vikings and Packers means that this weakness will be a vital one, and probably one that keeps the Bears out of the playoffs.

Special Teams Overview

The Bears' average kickoff distance ranked 18th in the league, but they had the seventh-highest average yards allowed per kick return, which means that their kickoff coverage could stand to improve over its 2009 performance. Despite punter Brad Maynard's average punting distance, the 4th-lowest in the league, the Bears had the 13th-lowest average punt return allowed. This suggests that their punt coverage played extremely well. The farther a punt travels, the more time the coverage team has to get downfield before the returner can catch the ball. For this reason, the Bears' skill in punt coverage is even more impressive than its ranking would suggest.

In the return game the Bears were excellent, with the third-highest kickoff return average in the league at 25 yards. This average was actually brought down last year due to the Bears' experimentation with players like Rashied Davis, who returned 9 kicks for an average of 12.7 yards per return, never returning one for more than 22 yards. However, Johnny Knox appears to be a real kick-returning maven, with an incredible average of 29 yards per return on 32 returns, including one touchdown. Earl Bennett appears to be the man at punt returner, averaging an impressive 10.2 yards per return on 14 returns.

In his five years in the league, placekicker Robbie Gould hasn't missed a single field goal attempt of less than thirty yards, and has made 93 percent of his field goals from within 30-39 yards. From 40 to 49 yards, he is only a shade less accurate than the Panthers' elite kicker John Kasay, with a percentage of 73.7 percent compared to Kasay's 74.8. The 28-year-old Gould is too young to decline in performance, so he should continue to consistently provide points for the Bears if their offense struggles to get into the end zone.

Head Coach: Lovie Smith

Smith is a defensive-minded coach, and it has to be bothering him that his dominant defensive unit of 2005 and 2006 has fallen apart so quickly. This team is coming out of a rebuilding phase, and they are going to be better in the near future. The problem is, Smith may not be employed by the Bears when that future comes. Smith's coaching staff was shaken up by the organization's decision to fire offensive coordinator Ron Turner and replace him with Mike Martz, and Smith was relieved of his defensive play-calling duties. It appears as if the organization is not pleased with Smith's management of the team, and he could be on his way out the door if the Bears are a disappointment this year.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Olin Kreutz, C

Season Prediction

3rd NFC North

This team's slim playoff hopes are contingent on a large number of players being effective after injury or poor performance kept them from playing as well as they should have in 2009. There are simply too many variables in the equation for the Bears to have a good shot at being a playoff team. The biggest concern is their pass rush, combined with their lack of depth at cornerback. When forced into nickel packages, the Bears' defense is going to be torn apart as opposing quarterbacks sit in the pocket untouched. Also, Chicago's schedule cannot be considered remotely favorable. Along with the difficult task of playing the Packers and Vikings twice, the Bears have to face the brutal AFC East for their inter-conference games. For these reasons, it is extremely difficult to imagine 2010 as the first year the Bears go back to the playoffs since their appearance in Super Bowl XLI. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.

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