2010 Chicago Bears Season Preview: A Match Made in Heaven
Chicago was counting on its 2009 offseason acquisition of Jay Cutler to take it over the top again in the NFC North. Instead, the Bears floundered in the middle of the division, well behind Green Bay and Minnesota, and losing ground to Detroit.
That makes 2010 an important year in the Windy City. Can Cutler live up to expectations? Can Lovie Smith get the job done as head coach?
Offense: The bottom line is that Cutler wasn't very good when his team needed him. He was a turnover machine at the worst possible times, including in winnable games against the Packers, Atlanta and San Francisco.
With Mike Martz in tow, the expectation is that Cutler will improve greatly. Not only will he be more comfortable with his Bears teammates, but this offense is said to suit him better. Martz will turn the "Young Gunslinger" loose, no matter what his 27 2009 interceptions may tell you about his accuracy.
Matt Forte had quite a sophomore slump, but the team got him help with veteran Chester Taylor, a free agent acquisition on the same day Julius Peppers signed. Even if Forte doesn't get much better, Taylor has proven he can handle the load. He is also accomplished as a receiver, and don't think for one second that Martz will hesitate to get him the ball in space.
Johnny Knox had a fine rookie season at receiver, and big things are expected out of Devin Hester, too. Don't sleep on Devin Aromashodu, who had 22 catches for nearly 300 yards over the team's last four games last year. Tight end Greg Olsen should also flourish in this offense. Reality is that the Bears don't have elite depth at receiver, but Martz's offense has made marginal guys look good in the past. Not only that, but Taylor's presence in the backfield gives the Bears quite the potential weapon, and it likely makes the receivers more dangerous.
The line is a major question, even if Olin Kreutz keeps going at center. The Bears need new line coach Mike Tice to work some magic with projected starting left tackle Chris Williams, who looks like he could become something, but clearly has a long way to go. Heat Index: 6
Defense: The Peppers signing has to be the major key here. The Bears aren't blessed with a slew of Pro Bowl players in the secondary. Simply put, they need an elite pass rush to take the pressure off the back end. While Peppers can provide that, and he is not exactly a slouch against the run, there is a lot of hope being invested in big tackle Tommie Harris' return to form. Harris was clearly not with the program at times last year, so we will have to see if the Peppers signing makes him play with more fire more often.
Brian Urlacher has been to Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl. But as he continues to age, he faces a huge challenge this year. Urlacher suffered a serious wrist injury in Week 1 last year, and he will be counted on to quickly return to old form and lead a thin Chicago back seven. Hunter Hillenmeyer played most of last season in Urlacher's spot, but should be back on the outside with Lance Briggs.
Chicago isn't too strong or deep in the secondary, but cornerback Zackary Bowman led the team in picks last year and can play. Safety Major Harris could make a major impact as a rookie. Urlacher, despite his advancing age, is the key to this defense. To an extent, he makes them go with his playmaking ability and intensity. Heat Index: 7
Special Teams: Robbie Gould is still a solid kicker, having nailed 50 of 57 field goals the last two seasons. There is no reason to expect a dropoff. Veteran Brad Maynard is expected to handle punting duties again. He struggled with distance on his kicks last year, but was bailed out by some good coverage. Knox gives them a big-play threat in the return game, even though Hester isn't running as many back anymore.
The Bears have been very good in the return and coverage games recently, so if Maynard can come back closer to previous form, there is no reason to think the Bears will seriously struggle on special teams. Heat Index: 7
Coaching: Bears fans might not be in love with Lovie like they were a few years ago. Since going 13-3 in 2006, Chicago has missed the playoffs three straight years and is just 23-25 in that stretch. The Martz hire might strike some as an act of desperation, but Smith needed to do something to shake up what has been an offense largely void of life or personality.
Of course, Martz's track record in recent years isn't very good. Is he going to be more like he was in St. Louis, or will he have the same troubles he had in Detroit and San Francisco? Heat Index: 6
Intangibles: Martz will have his offense tested early, because games with Dallas, Green Bay and the Giants won't be easy for Cutler. The Bears have developed a nice home-field edge lately, going 28-12 there since the start of the 2005 season. December and January will be huge, as the Bears play all three NFC North foes on the road, along with the Patriots and Jets at home, during the season's final five weeks. Heat Index: 5
Total Heat Index: 31/50. For the Bears to get a lot better, they're going to need huge contributions from Cutler, Taylor, the offensive line, Peppers and Harris, among others. The stars may need to be aligned properly, too, considering the two teams Chicago is fitting with for NFC north supremacy. Green Bay and Minnesota look to be the top dogs, and Chicago will have to play exceptionally well to catch one or both of them.
Bears fans may have to settle for another season flirting with .500 and maybe a Wild Card, because it's probably too much to expect this team to beat out both the Vikings and Packers.