Jay Cutler looked sharp in the opener and the wideouts will be top-tier again, but depth and health on defense remain Chicago’s big camp questions
CHICAGO — The MMQB made its way into the Windy City just in time to hit rush hour traffic. A four-hour-and-forty-five-minute drive from West Des Moines, Iowa (where we stopped to spend the night after leaving from Kansas City the night before) was extended to six hours. But, after parking and walking briskly through the convention center along Lake Shore Drive, we reached the tastefully renovated Soldier Field—one of the most storied venues in all of professional sports. The Bears were opening their preseason against Chip Kelly’s Eagles.
One vivid memory from watching the Bears
Jay Cutler’s mastery on third down. On his second (and final) series—a 13-play, 69-yard touchdown drive—Cutler converted three times on third-and-seven or longer. One was to Brandon Marshall who, a few plays earlier on second down, had made a sensational one-handed pluck on a ball thrown behind him. The last was a 10-yard touchdown to new tight end Zach Miller (the ex-Jaguar). On all four plays, Cutler had to work deep into his progressions. He hung in the pocket and consistently squared his feet upon releasing. Those have been significant areas of emphasis since Marc Trestman arrived
How this team can go 12–4
Let’s assume the offense puts up big numbers again this year. After all, Cutler now has a year of experience in Trestman’s system and has worked diligently to polish his once-sloppy footwork. He’s throwing to the best wide receiver duo in the league: the willowy Brandon Marshall and the even more willowy Alshon Jeffery. Plus, Matt Forte and the O-line now know how to protect their QB. But these are all things the Bears had last year, when they went 8-8. To take the next step (or steps) they’ll need a run defense that can actually stop the run. And against the pass, they’ll need to force turnovers, since their zone-based scheme is more predicated on that than it is on locking down receivers and just getting stops. Forced turnovers often stem from pressure on the quarterback. The newly signed Jared Allen plus defensive end/nickel defensive tackle Lamarr Houston must earn their paychecks.
How this team can go 4–12
Obviously, any team is bound to face-plant if its quarterback goes down. Citing injuries as the catalyst to a downfall is something of a cop-out—except that with the Bears it’s a genuine concern. In four of his five seasons since being traded from Denver, Cutler has suffered a noteworthy injury ranging from his knee to head to wrist. Playing behind an improved O-line in a system that implores him to get rid of the ball, Cutler is at less risk these days. But all it takes is one blow. And, on the other side of the ball, the Bears were unable to stay healthy in 2013. They don’t have the depth in the back seven to overcome another rash of injuries on defense.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. Brandon Marshall has been the No. 1 receiver, but that’ll change this season. The 24-year-old Alshon Jeffery is simply the more dangerous target. Long arms and springy, long legs give Jeffery an extraordinary catching radius, both vertically and horizontally. Something to consider: Being the No.1 receiver may actually decrease Jeffery’s opportunities, since defenses will be focusing more coverages on him. Either way, you can’t go wrong drafting a Bears starting receiver.
2. Martellus Bennett, who is currently suspended for his brutal and outlandishly stupid takedown of Kyle Fuller in a camp fight, is not regarded as an upper-tier tight end, nor should he be. But in the red zone Bennett becomes one. A favorite play of Trestman’s is four verticals out of a 3 x 1 set, meaning four receivers basically streak towards the back line and look for a jump ball. With Marshall and Jeffery drawing so much of the coverage (especially if they’re both aligned on the three-receiver side), Bennett often draws the most favorable matchup.
3. Matt Forte is always a sturdy choice not just for his running proficiency but also his pass-catching. Forte is a very soft-handed receiver out of the backfield. And the Bears know it. A lot of their drive-starting plays in two-minute situations center around getting Forte the ball underneath. That equates to cheap yards.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR1||Brandon Marshall||DE||Lamarr Houston|
|LT||Jermon Bushrod||DT||Jay Ratliff|
|LG||Matt Slauson||DT||Stephen Paea|
|C||Roberto Garza||DE||Jared Allen|
|RG||Kyle Long||OLB||Shea McClellin|
|RT||Jordan Mills||MLB||D.J. Williams/Jon Bostic|
|TE||Martellus Bennett||OLB||Lance Briggs|
|WR2||Alshon Jeffery||CB||Charles Tillman|
|WR3||Eric Weems||CB||Tim Jennings|
|QB||Jay Cutler||Nickel||Kyle Fuller/Kelvin Hayden|
|RB||Matt Forte||FS||Brock Vereen|
|FB||Tony Fiammetta||SS||Ryan Mundy|
|K||Robbie Gould||P||Pat O’Donnell|
Best new player in camp
Cornerback Kyle Fuller. The first-round rookie did nothing spectacular Friday night, but he played the slot in the first half and was very solid, mainly in zone coverage. The slot corner is an increasingly significant position in today’s NFL, and for the Bears it’s been an iffy area for several years. Fuller was drafted to ultimately replace Charles Tillman outside. But in the meantime it’d be great if he can tend the slot.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Charles Tillman will be a leading Pro Bowl candidate. Because he’s been around forever and is working under a one-year contract and ahead of his eventual replacement (Fuller), many believe that Tillman will wash up in 2014. If the Bears were a predominant man-to-man defense, then yes, maybe. But in this zone scheme Tillman is very adroit, knowing how to play to his help and when and where to jump passing lanes. Thanks to cagey veteran technique, his physicality will remain a plus, even with the increased emphasis on illegal contact this year. As long as the rest of the defense stays healthy (which wasn’t the case last season) Tillman will have opportunities to create turnovers.
Something I’ve never seen before
Lance Briggs playing on the strong side. Granted, it was only one series because that’s all the seven-time Pro Bowler was out there for. Briggs has played the weak side throughout his decade-long career. Perhaps that will remain the case in 2014. But on Friday night it wasn’t. If Briggs stays on the strong side, he’ll thrive. For one, it’d be a great way to accommodate a potential decline in speed. (There’s no evidence of a decline, but when you’re in your mid-30s, your speed can start heading out at any time.) More so, Briggs’s strength at the point of attack would serve him well against the run in traffic. And it would put him in position to defend tight ends, something that converted defensive end Shea McClellin would have trouble with.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
The Bears will be a big-play offense in 2014, and they’ll need to be. Their defense is still a work in progress up the middle, with youth at backup defensive tackle, starting linebacker and safety. Big plays were common for this offense last year, though they were accompanied by some of the usual – though albeit fewer and further between – Jay Cutler ups and downs. It’s not unfair to say that this season hinges on whether Cutler can continue to stabilize his mechanics.