Last year had to be confusing for some Bears fans. For a franchise that’s known for tough nosed defense, 2013 brought a new look under first year head coach Marc Trestman. Trestman gave the Bears one of it’s most exciting offenses ever, averaging nearly 30 points a game. Even when starting quarterback Jay Cutler went down, the team continued to rack up points due to their offensive philosophy and skill position players. This was all great to see except for one thing – the defense was historically awful. The Bears gave up all time highs in yards allowed, rushing yards allowed and points scored. Injuries surely took their toll on the defense, especially when it came to Henry Melton, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs. In 2014 the Bears are looking to make the offense even more potent, while piecing together a defense that can not only be better, but also be more representative of the Chicago Bears brand.
Last season Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery entered the off-season looking to reconstruct their offensive line. They did just that by only keeping veteran Robert Garza in place at center and adding veterans Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson. Bushrod came in as a highly priced left tackle who previously watched the blind side of Drew Brees in New Orleans. While the left side of ball had the veteran’s touch, the Bears brass decided to put new blood on the right side which included right tackle Jordan Mills (selected in the fifth round) and the Bears first round pick Kyle Long. When Long was drafted many scratched their heads because not much had been seen of Long on film – Emery and Trestman went with their gut and it paid off as Long turned in a Pro Bowl season in his rookie campaign and helped ignite a bit of “nasty” on the O-Line. This unit returns again this year and while the left side will be steady, it is the right side of the line that will be intriguing to watch in terms of second year development.
Running back Matt Forte benefited from the Marc Trestman offense, as his skill set fit perfectly with it. Forte is a finesse runner who doesn’t have breakaway speed but can be at times, elusive. His hands out of the back field proved to be one of the more valuable assets to this offense and can be placed anywhere on the line of scrimmage. Forte still struggles in short yardage situations which is where rookie Ka’Deem Carey comes into play. Carey works well in third and short situations because he keeps his legs moving and doesn’t go down easily after contact – he too isn’t going to “wow” anyone with his speed but he can be a nice spell back for Forte.
The wide receiver grouping is led by the NFL’s best wide receiver duo: Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey. Jeffrey had a pretty shaky 2012 rookie year, but after an off-season, which included practices with Brandon Marshall – Jeffrey blew up in 2013, recording 1421 yards receiving. Jeffrey uses his 6’3″ 215 pound frame to out-jump smaller corners – but what separates him from most in the league is his ability to locate a ball when it’s up in the air. If last year wasn’t a fluke, the Bears have found a wideout for many years to come – but hold up – Brandon Marshall is still in the building and Marshall is without a doubt still the number one option on the team. If Jeffrey’s size is imposing, what do you call Brandon’s 6’4″ 230 pound body? Marshall has had success against top flight corners in the league and has an old school receiver mentality which includes never shying away from the middle of the field and laying out defenders in his run blocking. The Bears were looking forward to sliding second year man Marquess Wilson into the slot position, but he broke his collarbone in practice leaving a competition for the number three spot. It could be the speedy Chris Williams or seven year veteran Josh Morgan, but surprisingly enough, it may end up being former Jet and Super Bowl XLIII MVP, Santonio Holmes who takes the spot.
Of course the centerpiece of this team and its high powered offense – for one reason or another – is the enigma himself, Jay Cutler. There is no “in-between” with Cutler – folks either love him or hate him and ultimately it appears as if he doesn’t care either way. Cutler has always had the arm strength and athleticism to excel in the NFL, but sometimes his “gunslinger” mentality gets the best of him. More so than that is the worry of his tendency lately, to get injured. Cutler has unintentionally derailed Bears’ seasons in recent history due to his inability to avoid getting hurt. Cutler enters this season with an even bigger target on his back after signing a contract which guarantees the gunslinger $54 million. If Cutler stays healthy there is no reason for him not to have his best NFL season to date. The weapons are in place, all the gunslinger has to do is keep them loaded and fire.
As they did last year with it’s offensive line, the Bears looked to revamp a defensive line that gave up over 5 yards a carry last season. The Bears didn’t chase Henry Melton when he was a free agent and they even cut ties with defensive end Julius Peppers. The Bears went into free agency and made three notable signings. The first was Lamarr Houston, formally of the Oakland Raiders, who was signed to a five year deal as he enters what should be his prime; the second was former Lion, Willie Young. Young is someone who general manager Phil Emery always said he kept an eye on. Willie is listed as a defensive end but the Bears are in love with his versatility so expect to see him on the field a lot; the third was future hall of famer Jared Allen. Allen still has something left in the tank and said he wanted to play for a team that has a chance to win a championship. Allen will without a doubt be the vocal leader and help to add an attitude that this defense lacked in 2013.
The linebackers are led by veteran Lance Briggs, who at this point relies more on his instincts than anything else as his best days are behind him. Second year linebackers Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene still don’t seem ready for starting jobs as their instincts lag miles behind their energy. DJ Williams re-signed with the Bears after his season was cut short in 2013 when he suffered a ruptured pectoral muscle; and Shea McClellin is hoping to give the Bears something. At this point though, it seems he might just end up being a first round draft bust.
With a rebuilt front line and a very questionable linebacking group it’s up to veteran Charles Tillman and this secondary take care of the back end of this defense. Tillman, even at 33, is still one of the tougher and smarter corners in the league. He has mastered the art of the “strip” and can still lock down a number one receiver. Tim Jennings may be on borrowed time as the number two corner, as it appeared Jennings was duped easily by pump fakes last season and does not make anybody nervous as a tackler – it may be first round pick Kyle Fuller who starts at nickel and eventually becomes the number two. Fuller is more like a younger Tillman, in that he’s physical, athletic and can make the tackle in the open field. The safety positions might be filled out with veteran Ryan Mundy and rookie Brock Vereen. Vereen is more of a coverage safety though and he will be tested along the way.
This offense made noise in it’s inaugural season, so there is no reason to think it won’t be the same – or even better in it’s second.
2014 Prediction: 10-6
Pro Bowl Selections: Kyle Long, Charles Tillman, Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall