With the Bears’ first preseason game in the books, we can feel the season opener right around the corner. I am usually very critical of my favorite teams (yes, I am a Bears fan) and am often complaining about the decisions they make. But I am here to tell you this: this is the season for the Chicago Bears. I have never been this excited for the Monsters of the Midway, and I am going to tell you why.
The Bears certainly have their fair share of downside. Their biggest weakness is, of course, safety. Both safety spots. We have all had enough of Chris Conte and Major Wright, especially seeing Conte miss tackles, take the wrong routes to the ball carrier, and blowing coverages. He is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and just came off the PUP list on August 9th. He will have to earn his starting spot back. Wright was let go by the Bears this spring and has teamed up with Lovie Smith down in Tampa Bay. With that being said, strong and free safety is wide open in Chicago.
On August 8th against Philadelphia, Ryan Mundy started at strong safety while Brock Vereen (his brother is Shane Vereen, running back for the New England Patriots) held down the spot at free safety. Mundy, entering his 7th season in the NFL, was a 6th round draft pick out of West Virginia by the Pittsburgh Steelers back in 2008. He played five seasons in Pittsburgh, and suited up for the Giants last year. His career numbers are very unimpressive. He only started five games total during his time in Pittsburgh, but did start nine games last season in New York, racking up 50 tackles with an interception, sack, and pass deflection.
Vereen, on the other hand, was a 4th round pick by the Bears this year out of Minnesota. Everything I have seen about this guy has been great. He supposedly is the smartest guy on the field and is a great guy off of it. I understand being a smart, good guy doesn’t mean you will be a good football player (cough, Tim Tebow, cough) but it is a good start. Marc Trestman seems to love his intelligence and I think that could take him a long way.
With those two being penciled in as the starters, there will still be a lot of competition at the two spots over the next couple of weeks. M.D Jennings, who came over from Green Bay, started every game for the Packers last season. He had 59 tackles with a sack and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.
Danny McCray is joining the Bears after playing his first four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. Over that time, he started 10 games (all in 2013) and has 88 career tackles.
The biggest name that joined the safety race this offseason was five-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson. He was with the New England Patriots last year but missed the entire season due to an Achilles injury. He is 34 years old, which is close to ancient on the defensive side of the ball, but he could be the best option for the Bears. It will be interesting to see how he does in the coming weeks. There is also Craig Steltz, but I am pretty sure most of you that are reading this could play a better safety than he can. My guess at who starts for the Bears come September 7th? Adrian Wilson and Brock Vereen. Let’s make it happen.
This may be the only glaring hole on this team right now. The other two spots of concern are special teams and a #3 receiver. The Bears’ special teams looked pitiful against the Eagles, allowing a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a blocked field goal, a muffed punt, and a ton of really bad punts. I know, it is one preseason game. I will be the first to tell you that the NFL preseason is close to meaningless. I rarely take anything away from it. But ever since the masterful Dave Toub left for Kansas City last season, the Bears’ special teams has faltered. Oh, may I add, the Chiefs had one of the best special teams in football last year.
While the Bears have arguably the best kicker in the league in Robbie Gould, every other position is a question mark. The punter battle is between rookie Pat O’Donnell and first-year pro Tress Way, who was cut by the Bears last season. O’Donnell, who is the front-runner for the job, dominated the NFL Combine. At 6’4″ and 240 pounds, he did 23 reps of 225 pounds, more than Jadeveon Clowney and every wide receiver invited.1 He also set a school record at Miami last year, posting a 47.1-yard gross average. Impressive.
As for the #3 wide receiver, it was all Marquess Wilson until he broke his collarbone during training camp. Wilson, who stands at 6’4″ and 190 pounds, would have been a great addition to the offense alongside Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte. Unfortunately, there is no timetable for his return. Instead, there will be a battle at that position between Eric Weems and Josh Morgan, who recently compared himself to Anquan Boldin.2 While that might be a bit of a stretch, I think Morgan could fill in nicely as the Bears’ 3rd receiver.
Now, after pointing out the negatives on this team, let’s look at the bright side. The big bright side is the offense. After many miserable seasons on the offensive side of the ball under Lovie Smith, Marc Trestman made a great impression amongst fans last year. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery emerged as the best wide receiver tandem in the league. Matt Forte continued to show why he is one of the best running backs in the league. The offensive line made huge strides behind Jermon Bushrod, Kyle Long, Matt Slauson, Jordan Mills, and longtime Bear Roberto Garza. Finally, Jay Cutler had a much improved season, with help from the new offensive system and improved offensive line. This offense can only get better.
With more practice and chemistry developed between Cutler, Jeffery, and Bennett, they should be able to get more production out of that group. We already know the great relationship Cutler and Marshall have, so that should continue. But if you can think back to last season, a lot of Jeffery’s big games happened when Josh McCown was quarterback. When Cutler played, he seemed to rely heavily on Marshall, even when Jeffery was proving himself to be a dangerous target. I think this season Jay will spread the ball out much more between Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett. That group of guys plus Forte could dominate the league.
On the other hand, the Bears’ defense was one of the worst we have seen in recent years. They allowed the 2nd most points per game in the NFL at 29.9 and the 3rd most yards per game at 394.6. Their rush defense got absolutely torched, allowing 161.4 yards per game on the ground, by far the most in the league. The 2nd worst were the Atlanta Falcons, at 135.8. It wasn’t even close. Their defense lost them a ton of games and was the biggest reason why they missed the playoffs. They lost three games when they scored 28 or more points, including a 45-41 loss to the Washington Redskins during Week 7. In the last two weeks of the season, they gave up 54 to the Eagles and then 33 to the Packers to end the year, blowing a chance at the playoffs. It was a very ugly sight.
Luckily, they have made huge improvements to the defensive side of the ball. First, they let go of Julius Peppers. While Peppers was one of the most dominant pass-rushers of the past decade, his day has come and gone. At 34 years old and 12 seasons in the league, he just can’t blow past lineman like he use to. I loved the day the Bears signed him, and I loved the day the Bears let him go. He did his part, but it was time to move on.
In comes Jared Allen, who is two years younger and has played two less seasons than Peppers. Seeing him playing against the Bears every season, twice, was always tough to watch. He seemed like he never missed a snap and we all know what kind of motor he’s got. He also brings a ton of leadership and experience to the younger guys on the defensive line. I think he is a wonderful addition.
The Bears not only added Allen, but LaMarr Houston, who is almost the exact opposite of Allen. The former is known for going after quarterbacks, while the latter is known as a stay-at-home run stopper. These two are a huge upgrade to a defensive line that needed a ton of help.
Chicago also added DE Willie Young, who played his first four seasons with the Detroit Lions. Last year, he started 15 games, had 29 tackles and three sacks. While his three sacks don’t seem like much, he finished 10th in the NFL in defensive hurries with 15. That was more than J.J. Watt and Chris Long. The Bears also drafted defensive tackles Ego Ferguson from LSU (2nd round) and Will Sutton from Arizona State (3rd round). Those two are great additions up the middle and should develop into solid NFL players.
As for the linebackers and the secondary, the Bears also improved here as well. D.J. Williams is back healthy, which is huge for their defense. After he got injured in Week 6, it seemed the Bears’ defense took a nosedive. Jon Bostic, who at times last year looked like an All-Pro, has a season under his belt and should continue to improve. Then there is Lance Briggs, who is getting older but is still a very good NFL linebacker.
CB Kyle Fuller was the Bears’ 1st round pick out of Virginia Tech and the early signs seem promising. Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings remain at the corner position, which isn’t necessarily a great thing. I find these two extremely overrated, more so in coverage. I feel like every game I watch they seemed to constantly get burned. They force turnovers. That’s great. Seriously, it is. But when I see Calvin Johnson or Jordy Nelson or any other top receiver in the league go up against these guys, I feel like it is boys against men. Now, I believe that your secondary is only as good as your defensive line, and the Bears had a pretty bad defensive line last year. Look it at this way. The Seahawks had the best defense in football last year. They also had a killer pass rush, which in turn helps your secondary. If you can get to the quarterback, your secondary will reap the benefits. I’m torn here. Are they that bad of coverage corners? Or is the opposing quarterback getting too much time to throw? I hope I’m wrong about them. I think this new and improved defensive line will help everyone out.
I feel like this is the year because of everything I have mentioned above and the fact that all of their top players are getting up there in age. Marshall is in full stride, yet is 30 years old. Forte only has another year or two of dominance. Allen may have already peaked, but should have another good season in him. Same goes for Briggs. Cutler, Tillman, and Jennings are all on the wrong side of 30. Bennett and Houston are hitting the peaks of their careers as we speak. The only really young part of the team is their offensive line. After that, they are a pretty old squad. They were the 4th oldest team in the NFL last season and they have gotten much younger. While I do believe this is a very good team, it may only be a very good team for this season. After that, who knows? If they want to win, this is the year.