The Bears were off to a 7-3 start last year, one year after going 11-5 and making it to the NFC Championship game. In my opinion, the Bears’ 7-3 start last year was more impressive. Their 11-5 2010 record was not fully indicative of how they played. They had a Pythagorean Expectation of just 9.4 wins and that was in spite of the fact that their 11 wins were against a 6-10 Detroit team when Calvin Johnson’s game winning touchdown was overturned, against the 6-10 Cowboys, against the Packers when the Packers committed 19 penalties, against the 2-14 Panthers, against a then winless Bills team in a game where both teams scored 3 touchdowns and no field goals, twice against the 6-10 Vikings, against the Dolphins and their 3rd string quarterback, against the Asante Samuel-less Eagles, against the 6-10 Lions again, and against the Jets. In the playoffs, they beat the sub .500 Seahawks. They only beat 3 .500+ teams and all 3 of those games were at home.
Last year, however, they averaged 26.8 points per game in their first 10 and allowed just 20.7 per. Over 16 games, that’s 429 points for and 331 points against, good for a Pythagorean Expectation of 10.4 wins, which would have been 9th in the NFL. However, then they lost Jay Cutler for the season and Matt Forte went down for the season the following week. They went 1-5 the rest of the way to finish 8-8 and were starting their 3rd string quarterback and 3rd quarterback running back late in the season.
However, the Bears definitely have hope going in the 2012 season. Cutler and Forte are both back, with the later now signed long term. Brandon Marshall was brought in, giving Jay Cutler the first legitimate receiving option he’s had since being traded to Chicago from Denver. Cutler and Marshall combined for 206 catches for 2590 yards and 13 touchdowns from 2007-2008 in Denver and the Broncos even brought in Cutler’s former quarterback coach, Jeremy Bates, who Cutler worked with in Denver. Mike Martz is gone, a good thing because the Bears never had the offensive line talent to make his scheme work. The Bears’ offense could have a strong year this year to compliment a defense that allowed just 21.3 points per game last year (14th).
The biggest difference between the 2010 Bears and the 2011 Bears was Jay Cutler. A brief glance at Cutler’s stats wouldn’t show anything special, as he completed 58.0% of his passes for an average of 7.4 YPA, and 13 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. However, he was very efficient and made the most of a terrible offensive line. Despite being pressured on 38.6% of passing plays, 6th most among eligible quarterbacks (25% of their team’s snaps), Cutler was only sacked on 17.3% of his pressured snaps, good for 14th out of 36 eligible quarterbacks. Meanwhile, his 66.0% accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) under pressure was 4th.
He did all of this despite a terrible receiving corps led in catches and snaps played by Roy Williams, who, as of this writing, is still without a job. He did it behind a terrible offensive line that allowed 49 sacks and managed to take just 23 sacks in 10 games, while the other quarterbacks took 26 sacks in 6 games. He also did it in a system under Mike Martz that this team just did not have the offensive line talent for. With an improved receiving corps and Martz gone, Cutler could have his best season in Chicago this year. And if Cutler were to get injured again this year, they wouldn’t be nearly as screwed as new backup Jason Campbell is a veteran, proven starter and one of the league’s best backups.
Of course, Cutler did have a lot of help from Matt Forte, who was on pace for his best season as a starter before getting hurt. Through 8 games, Matt Forte had 1241 yards from scrimmage, on pace for 2482 yards, which would have been the 2nd highest total in NFL history behind Chris Johnson’s 2009 season. He finished last year with 997 yards and 3 touchdowns on 203 carries (4.9 YPC) with 52 catches for 490 yards. He was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked running back last year, despite getting hurt, and broke the 5th most tackles in the NFL, breaking 39.
The 4 ½ games he missed last season with a knee injury were the first games he’s missed in his career, even though the Bears reportedly were hesitant to give him a long term deal because of his “injury history,” before eventually caving in and paying him. He’s still only heading into his age 27 season with 1014 career carries and coming off a career season in terms of YPC and catches per game so he should have another strong season in 2012.
The Bears signed Michael Bush this offseason and, while there was a lot of controversy being made about his signing since he was the starter in Oakland last year in place of an injured Darren McFadden, he was only signed to be a pure backup and insurance in case Forte didn’t sign and held out. He’s a talented backup though and will be good for the Bears around the goal line.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Cutler’s receiving corps didn’t give him a lot of help last year, but that will be different this year. Roy Williams led the team in snaps played and catches (with 37) and he is still unemployed as of this writing. The Bears brought in Brandon Marshall from Miami. Marshall is a legitimate #1 receiver, who has caught at least 80 passes and had over 1000 receiving yards in each of the last 5 seasons, including the last two in Miami with poor quarterback play. He had his best two seasons in from 2007-2008 with Jay Cutler, catching 206 passes for 2590 yards and 13 touchdowns combined. Cutler also had his best two years in that time, completing 681 of 1083 (62.9%) for 8023 yards (7.4 YPA), 45 touchdowns, and 32 interceptions.
Marshall wasn’t the only addition to the Bears’ receiving corps as the Bears used a 2nd round pick on Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery will compete with Earl Bennett and Devin Hester for positioning on the depth chart. Bennett struggled last year thanks to injuries, but he caught 100 passes for 1278 yards and 5 touchdowns from 2009-2010. He’s a solid slot receiver.
Hester, meanwhile, should start the year as the 4th receiver. There have been reports that Hester will be the starter this year, but other reports have said he’ll be a depth receiver only. I lean with the latter because the Bears have unsuccessfully been trying to convert him into a starting receiver for years, before eventually realizing he’s more valuable to them if he focuses solely on being a return man. That would leave Jeffery to start opposite Brandon Marshall.
At tight end, the Bears have Kellen Davis and 4th round rookie Evan Rodriguez. Davis only caught 18 passes for 206 yards and 5 touchdowns last year in his first year as a starter, but tight ends never produce in Mike Martz’ offense. He does have upside and, at the very least, he’s a good blocker and end zone threat at 6-7 267. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is a 4th round rookie who will compliment him well as a “move” tight end.
Cutler’s offensive line is another group that didn’t help him out. He was pressured on 38.6% of his passes, 6th most in the NFL, and though he only took 23 sacks in 10 games, his backups were sacked 26 times in 6 games. The offensive line is not a talented bunch, but Mike Martz’ scheme always made them look worse than they were by putting too much pressure on them to block for an extended period of time.
Left tackle J’Marcus Webb was the worst offender again. A 2010 7th round pick, offensive line coach Mike Tice loves him, but he hasn’t played well. Last year, he surrendered 12 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 30 quarterback pressures, while committing 14 penalties and struggling as a run blocker. With a -26.2 rating, he was ProFootballFocus’ 62nd ranked offensive tackle out of 73. He’ll have competition for the starting job from Chris Williams, who played left guard last year. Williams was originally drafted in the 1st round in 2008 to be the left tackle, but he’s played everywhere on the line except center since being drafted and has struggled to find a home. He might be the better option, if only by default.
If Williams does not win the left tackle job, he could move back to guard where, relative to the rest of the offensive line, he actually played alright last year. In 9 games before a season ending wrist injury, he graded out with a -9.7 rating, best among the 5 offensive linemen who played the most snaps for the Bears last year. Allowing 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 12 quarterback pressures, he was better as a pass protector than a run blocker. He deserves a starting job somewhere on this line in 2012.
Also competing for the two guard spots are Lance Louis, Chris Spencer, Edwin Williams, and Chilo Rachal. The Bears have a lot of guys competing for spots up front in order to make sure they’re starting the best 5 and I think it’s for the best that they’re doing that. Louis and Spencer really struggled last year as starters, with a -35.6 rating and a -12.4 rating respectively. Louis spent most of last year as the right tackle in place of an injured Gabe Carimi, while Spencer was the starting right guard. Louis ranked 70th out of 73 tackles, while Spencer ranked 55th out of 76 guards.
Edwin Williams, meanwhile, was their best offensive lineman with a 0.5 rating last year, playing primarily at left guard in place of an injured Chris Williams. He has versatility and can play at both guard and center. He deserves a starting job, but might not end up getting one. Rachal, meanwhile, was once a 2nd round pick and a solid starter in San Francisco, but weight issues cost him his job.
He spent this offseason getting back into shape and could be a steal for the Bears at guard this season. He’s now down to 310 pounds, after once weighing 340. In 2010, he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked guard in 2010 and he’s only heading into his age 26 season. Rachal and Edwin Williams deserve to start at guard, with Chris Williams starting at left tackle, but it might not happen like that.
The only two starting spots set in stone are center and right tackle where Roberto Garza and Gabe Carimi respectively will start. Garza was awful last year in his first season at center, with a -19.7 rating, good for 2nd worst among all centers. He was solid in pass protection with 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 15 quarterback pressures, while committing 3 penalties, but he was an awful run blocker. Carimi, meanwhile, barely played, playing 100 snaps thanks to injury, but he was a 1st round pick in 2011 and played well when he did play. He should be their best offensive lineman in 2012.
The Bears’ offensive line won’t be as bad as it’s been in the last couple of years because Mike Martz is gone and because they will be holding a lot of open competition to make sure they have their 5 best linemen out there. Jay Cutler is a quarterback who has great pocket presence so he’ll be fine behind a mediocre line. Cutler will also having an improved receiving corps. With Cutler and Forte healthy, the Bears could be a top-10 offense. Believe it or not, the 26.7 points per game they scored in their first 10 games last year before Cutler went down would have ranked 5th in the league last year over a whole season. That total also would have ranked 5th in 2010.
The Bears have had a great defense for years. Last year, they weren’t quite up to their standards, ranking 14th with 21.3 points per game allowed and the 20.7 points per game allowed in their first 10 games would have only ranked 11th. However, they still have plenty of talent and ranked in the top-10 against both the pass and the run, ranking 7th against the pass with 6.8 YPA allowed and 10th against the pass with 4.0 YPC allowed. They could have a top-10 defense again in 2012, which would be a great compliment to a top-10 offense.
One of the reasons their defense is so good is because of Julius Peppers. Peppers is one of the league’s most well rounded defensive ends, playing the run and rushing the passer equally well. With a 29.3 rating, he was ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end last year and, though he’s heading into his age 32 season, he should be able to be an elite defensive end once again. With 12 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 53 quarterback pressures on 562 pass rush snaps, he had a 12.5% pass rush rate.
Opposite him, the veteran Israel Idonije will continue to start in base packages. Idonije had a solid year in 2010, but struggled last year and, heading into his age 32 season, he’s not getting any better. He’s solid against the run, but doesn’t offer much of a pass rush, with 5 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures on 594 pass rush snaps, good for a pass rush rate of 7.6%. The Bears drafted Shea McClellin in the 1st round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He’ll play immediately in sub packages and push Idonije inside on passing downs. That will help their pass rush. Opposite Peppers, the athletic McClellin should be able to get a good amount of pressure on the quarterback.
Idonije will play on passing downs inside with Henry Melton, another strong pass rusher. Melton is only average against the run, but managed 7 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, and 23 quarterback pressures on 437 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 8.9%, very good for his position. With Amobi Okoye and Anthony Adams gone, Melton could see an increase in snaps in their defensive tackle rotation, but that would mean playing the run more.
The veteran Matt Toeaina, a decent run stuffer, will also be in that rotation and play primarily on running downs, as will Stephen Paea, a 2011 2nd round pick who could be due for a breakout year. He’s also a strong run stuffer, but might be able to offer something as a pass rusher as well. He played alright in limited action last year.
At linebacker, the Bears have their two mainstays, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. The long time duo is getting up there in age as they are entering their age 34 and 32 seasons respectively, but both continue to get it done and I expect that to continue in 2012. Both players never come off the field as they played 1116 and 1102 snaps respectively last year. No other Bears’ front 7 player played more than 944. They are well rounded players who stop the run and cover very well. Briggs ranked 14th among 4-3 outside linebackers with a 8.1 rating and played more regular season snaps than any other player at his position. You can’t quite say the same thing about Urlacher, who ranked 4th at his position in total snaps played in the regular season, but his 16.3 rating ranked 12th at his position.
The 3rd linebacker is Nick Roach, a solid 2 down run stuffer. That’s all they really need him to be because Urlacher and Briggs play every snap in 2-linebacker sets in sub packages because of their coverage abilities. Roach played just 534 snaps last year and their depth linebackers combined for just 4. They don’t need much from him.
They’re not often talked about, but the Bears have one of the league’s top cornerback duos. #1 cornerback Charles Tillman allowed 67 completions on 115 attempts (58.3%) for 850 yards (7.4 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 4 penalties. Opposite him, Tim Jennings allowed 63 completions on 110 attempts (57.3%) for 700 yards (6.4 YPA), no touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 4 penalties. He was one of only two eligible cornerbacks (60% of their team’s snaps) to not allow a touchdown. He ranked 16th at his position on ProFootballFocus, while Tillman ranked 12th. They’re the backbone of a tough Bears pass defense.
The Bears also have no shortage of depth at cornerback, bringing in Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite through free agency and drafting Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy. Hayden, a natural fit for their scheme, will compete with Dre Moore, who did an alright job last year, for the #3 cornerback job. The other guys won’t be much of a factor unless injuries strike and they will have to cut a couple. Frey and McCoy have practice squad eligibility, so it’ll probably be them. Both were just late round picks.
At safety, Brandon Meriweather is gone, but he was benched midseason last year and pretty bad before being benched so he won’t be missed. The Bears drafted Brandon Hardin in the 3rd round to take his place and now have a trio of 3rd round picks from the 2010, 2011, and 2012 NFL drafts with Major Wright and Chris Conte as well. Wright and Conte are expected to be the starters, while Hardin will be the top reserve. Neither of those two starters have played all that well so far in their careers, so Hardin could provide competition for one or the other before the season is over. Meanwhile, Craig Steltz actually played the best of any of their safeties in ProFootballFocus’ eyes last year with a 4.9 rating, playing 419 snaps as primarily an injury replacement.
The Bears have some age defensively, but they still have plenty of talent. They have two of the best and most well rounded linebackers in the league, who fit their scheme perfectly and never come off the field. They have a talented cornerback duo and should exceed the 33 sacks they had last season. They could easily have a top-10 defense next season in terms of scoring, just like they were top-10 against the run and against the pass last year. If they have a top-10 offense as well, that will make them one of the most well rounded teams in the league and bring them back to being a contender in the NFC.
Lovie Smith might not be the best coach in the NFL, but he’s one of the longest tenured, coaching since 2004 and he has a 71-57 record, 3 division titles, and a Super Bowl appearance. He has a great coaching staff and his teams always play defense well. As long as the team remains in playoff contention, he deserves to be the Head Coach for at least a few more years.
The Bears are just a season removed from a NFC Championship appearance. They may have been lucky to get there, playing an easy schedule, exceeding their Pythagorean Expectation by more than a game, getting a 1st round bye despite 11 wins, and facing sub .500 Seattle in the 1st round. However, I think they played better last year than in 2010 before injuries derailed everything and they made positive changes to their offense this offseason, adding Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, while firing Mike Martz.
The Bears were part of the “5 down” last season, referring to the fact that 5 teams that previously made the playoffs miss the playoffs every season. Fortunately, the opposite is true and 39.6% of the “5 down” teams rebound to make the playoffs the following season, which is up from the 37.5% of all teams who make the playoffs every season. They have one of the most well balanced teams in the league and could rank in the top-10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Barring major injuries, they’ll be in contention in the NFC once more.
The Bears are not quite on the Packers’ level and the fact that they’ve lost to them in their last 4 matchups backs up that statement. However, they could steal one of those games this season. They should also at least split with the Lions and could sweep the Vikings for the 3rd straight season. They could go 4-2 in the division and 3-3 seems like a worst case scenario.
Outside the division, they host Indianapolis, St. Louis, Carolina, Houston, and Seattle. With the exception of the Houston game, those are all very winnable games. I would be pretty surprised if they lost more than 1 of those games. They also go to Dallas, Jacksonville, Tennessee, San Francisco, and Arizona. That’s not a very tough slate either, especially since I think the 49ers are overrated. They have a tough in division schedule, but benefit from getting to play the AFC North and NFC West, while facing Dallas and Carolina in their other conference games. 11-5 or 12-4 definitely seems plausible.
Projection: 12-4 2nd in NFC North