Remember when the Chicago Bears traded Jon Bostic and Jared Allen three weeks into the season and everyone thought the team was going to pack it in and play for the first overall pick? Well those days are over for John Fox and his suddenly swagger-filled squad of NFL cast-offs and youngsters.
Not only did this team beat the perennially contending Green Bay Packers in Lambeau this past Thanksgiving, but they did it in a way that should attract attention – and fear – from the rest of the NFC. Their defense held strong against Bear-killer Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler threw the ball with a confidence and enthusiasm that Bears fans had never previously seen from their “franchise” quarterback. Believe it or not, the Bears are contenders this season, and here’s why.
Chicago threw a historically bad defense onto the field last season, hoping to somehow succeed with a mix of worn-out veterans and inconsistent young players. 2015 has been a different story though as management began to move on from the old guard and usher in a new generation of athletic and aggressive defenders.
That change started with the signing of star linebacker Pernell McPhee in free agency and was aided by the drafting and development of starters like Adrian Amos and Eddie Goldman. That mix was combined with holdovers such as Shea McClellin, Christian Jones, Kyle Fuller, and Lamarr Houston to give the Bears the NFL’s most underrated defensive unit. Despite fielding a lineup devoid of stars past McPhee, this defense has few obvious holes, which forces the opposition to develop a game plan that often lacks a go-to scheme they can use to be successful.
They have also been aided by an efficient offense that scores points at a respectable enough rate to force their opponents to pass the ball to catch up. And when they do, they have to throw against the NFL’s second ranked pass defense.
Even though the team has had an average pass rush for most of the season, their secondary has been strong enough to carry the load defensively. Fuller and Amos were joined by free agents Tracy Porter and Antrel Rolle to form a shutdown quartet of pass defenders that have limited opposing quarterbacks to 214.5 yards per game. And it’s not as if these opposing QBs have been slouches either: The Bears have limited Rodgers (twice), along with Derek Carr, Russell Wilson, and Philip Rivers.
Their linebacker group also improved dramatically from last season behind a revived McClellin. Although most pundits thought the Boise State product would fit in perfectly as an outside linebacker in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, McClellin has actually been far more successful as in insider backer. The inside position allows the fourth-year player to maximize his athletic ability and contribute against the run as a stout interior defender.
McClellin has been joined by the previously mentioned McPhee, Houston, and Jones in a new-look rotation that makes life difficult for opposing offenses on a weekly basis. All four players are physically intimidating athletes that love the challenge of facing elite competition in a talented NFC North.
Speaking of elite talent in the NFC North, every other team in the division boasts, arguably, the best player at one of the three main offensive positions. Rodgers, Adrian Peterson (Vikings), and Calvin Johnson (Lions) are offensive machines that ensure each of their squads will score points every weekend. This level of competition has forced the Bears to improve their own offense to compete with their division rivals.
Thankfully, Cutler, Matt Forte, and Alshon Jeffery have all done tremendous jobs of producing for their team when needed most in 2015. Cutler looks like a completely different player from a year ago and Jeffrey is doing everything he can to earn a huge second contract to match those of A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, and Demaryius Thomas across the league.
And while the skill position players have been productive, the improvement of the offensive line has really been the driving force for the increased efficiency and poise of Chicago’s offense. Kyle Long has made a successful – although slightly erratic – shift to right tackle while Matt Slauson has continued to solidify the interior for a group that has changed frequently since week one. Their improved play has given Cutler the time he needs to stretch the field with Jeffrey and emerging threat Marquess Wilson, while also opening holes for Forte and explosive rookie Jeremy Langford.
Even with all of those playmakers listed above, the offense is still not at full strength. Martellus Bennett missed the Thanksgiving showdown with a rib injury while Eddie Royal has played sparingly since signing a $15 million deal with the team. But the real recovery to watch is that of first-round receiver Kevin White. The former West Virginia star is an explosive athlete who is expected to be a true game changer at the NFL level when healthy.
A stress fracture prevented him from starting the season on the active roster but a return could be on the horizon. He certainly still has a lot of time left in his recovery, but his return would be a dynamic addition for the Bears and could push their offense to elite levels.
Get Ready NFC
Although their offensive and defensive units certainly seem like enough to at least give the Bears a shot at making the playoffs, their coaching staff and intangibles are really what make this team so dangerous.
Fangio and Adam Gase are perhaps the two most respected assistants in the entire league, and Fox has had his roster thinking playoffs before their record began to turn around. A 5-6 team is obviously tough to bet on, but previous NFC teams like the 8-8 Giants and Packers have proven that even a perfect regular season record doesn’t mean much in the postseason.