A defense that ranked second in the NFL last season will be even stronger,controlling games with speed and takeaways. The offense, which was effective onthe ground in 2005 (eighth best in the NFL, led by Thomas Jones's 1,335 yards)but laughable in the air (31st, with overmatched rookie Kyle Orton atquarterback), will be revitalized by Rex Grossman, who has missed most of thelast two seasons with injuries after Chicago drafted him in the firstround.
Offense, the draft gods whispered to the Bears' brass and coach Lovie Smithlast spring. This is my team, Smith told the gods. "All I heard was,'You've got to draft all offense,'" Smith says. "Well, you know what?We like the way we're doing things, and we're going to keep doing them the sameway." Chicago built defensive depth with its first five picks, sending theclear message that Smith's core philosophy of defense and running the ballremains in place.
The defense hasplayed two full seasons in the Tampa Cover 2 system Smith learned while a Bucsassistant from 1996 through 2000 and then used as defensive coordinator of theRams the next three seasons. The Bears believe in the scheme--during aneight-game winning streak last season they allowed only 8.5 points a game--evenafter it failed them in a 29--21 divisional playoff loss to Carolina lastJanuary.
"I hope teamsthink they have us figured out," says fifth-year defensive end Alex Brown,who had six sacks a year ago. "We're confident, we have a swagger, and it'shard to find a weak point on our defense. We expect to be dominant."
That starts withmiddle linebacker Brian Urlacher, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of theYear, who has mixed feelings about the system. "The Cover 2 is not myfavorite," says Urlacher. "Twenty-five or 30 times a game the middlelinebacker has to drop 30 yards downfield, which is not fun. I feel that takesme out of the play sometimes. But I'm 6'4", and that makes me hard to throwover. And look all around at our defense: Man, speed kills. Everybody can run;everybody can make plays."
Yet it'sdelusional to assume that Chicago can win the North again without a passinggame. The need to develop offensive balance became more urgent after Jones andfellow running back Cedric Benson, a 2005 first-round draft pick, went downwith minor injuries and missed chunks of training camp.
Grossman, who hasonly seven NFL starts, is being counted on to produce and stay healthy. (Hetore an ACL in '04 and broke an ankle in '05.) If he doesn't, veteran BrianGriese was acquired as a backup, dropping Orton to third on the depth chart.Olin Kreutz, the ninth-year center, says, "I haven't seen enough of Rex ingames to tell you what he can do. What I can tell you is that when he walks inthe huddle, people believe we're going to score. He's got the arm, theattitude. That thing they say good quarterbacks have? He's got it."
The Bears needit.
10 at GreenBay
16 at Arizona(M)
12 at N.Y.Giants
19 at N.Y.Jets
26 at NewEngland
11 at St. Louis(M)
17 TAMPA BAY
24 at Detroit
31 GREEN BAY
NFL rank 32
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage .445
Games against playoff teams 4
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE BEARS
> Thequarterback situation has the potential to be disruptive. If Rex Grossmanstruggles and the call goes to Brian Griese, the team could become divided.
> Lance Briggsis overrated. He gets a lot of tackles, but that's just the system bringing theball to him. He'll get blocked better this year.
> One playeron the Bears I wish I could have? How about Brian Urlacher. That's ano-brainer. He's the best defensive player in the league.
> Thesecondary, with Mike Brown, Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher, is very good.Ricky Manning was a good pickup in free agency.
> I'm not thatcrazy about their defensive line. They're O.K. inside with Tommie Harris, butthe ends are average. I just don't think the defense will be as dominant aslast year's.
They need CedricBenson to produce. He's the real thing. Thomas Jones is not a tough enoughrunner.
In the two seasonssince the Bears drafted him in the third round out of Fresno State, Berrian hasonly 28 receptions. But look at his average gain: 16.8 yards a catch for hiscareer and 18.9 per grab last season, highest for anyone in the NFL (thoughthat came on a mere 13 receptions). Such numbers hint that Berrian has theexplosiveness to give Chicago the field-stretching presence it needs to takethe pressure off the running game and the defense.
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WITH 2005 STATISTICS
COACH LOVIE SMITH(16--16 in NFL), third season with Chicago
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL): OFFENSE 8/31/29 DEFENSE 11/5/2