Cutler must shake off doubters, carry Bears
Gene Chamberlain Sporting News
A look at the Chicago Bears heading into the 2011 NFL season. Prediction: Third, NFC North.
One deflating leftover from a 2010 run to the NFC championship game lurks in the background, ready to take down the Bears in 2011
Jay Cutler's knee sprain will be there all season. Yes, his knee injury healed, and the Bears swept any scars from the incident into the past and trudged undaunted into 2011. However, when a team's offensive star leaves an elimination game under circumstances peculiar enough to stir league-wide ridicule, it's possible that doubt will creep into his teammates' thoughts. "We finished off this past year on a sour note with the loss," coach Lovie Smith said. "But again, there's so much excitement and we know we have things in place to win it all." However, there may be decline because of an offensive line that allowed a league-high 56 sacks last season, a retooled defensive line and the potential for teammates to question the quarterback's leadership in pressure situations. What's new
Offense: The Bears still don't have personnel to become "The Greatest Show on Soldier Field's Bad Turf." Whether coordinator Mike Martz can continue to keep his true gambling nature under wraps, as he did in the second half of 2010, will remain a point of interest all season.
First-round pick Gabe Carimi should be in the mix at left tackle with Frank Omiyale or Chris Williams next to him at left guard. Carimi made news by telling all who would listen that he was the best left tackle in the draft; now he'll get to prove it. Carimi played left tackle his entire college career, and it would be surprising if any of the other candidates for the job -- including J'Marcus Webb, last year's surprising rookie at right tackle -- force him to right tackle or guard. Defense: The decision to release defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who had an $11.5 million cap value and had 1.5 sacks last season, was smart. The Bears bolstered the position by drafting Stephen Paea, who has great explosiveness and strength, in the second round. They think they got a gem.
Defensive tackle Marcus Harrison faces a make-or-break season. He has teased the team with potential but has followed that with periods of inactivity.
Ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije were very productive last season, but they both played too many snaps. The team needs second-year end Corey Wootton or someone else to produce in a relief role.
The Bears rely heavily on their nickel defense, with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs playing the linebacker spots. It's here where they need rookie J.T. Thomas to step up and bolster depth.
(An anonymous opponent breaks down the Bears)
"Their offensive line needed an overhaul more than most people realized. (Line coach) Mike Tice was trying to get plays blocked with players -- yeah, some of them were older, like (Olin) Kreutz -- but they aren't suited for Martz's system. Most are guys better for the West Coast style
: movement guys, quickness and technique. They haven't been able to beat teams at the point of attack physically with their running game for a long time. They resorted to some deception and got (Matt) Forte on the edge in gimmick plays, but really have trouble blocking the run. ...
"On defense, you know what you're getting, and that's the problem. I don't think it's going to change. They run their cover 2. They might disguise it, but they've basically got to do it all with athletic ability. Their coverage guys are using the outside shoulder leverage to funnel receivers into the middle, where there's help. You know all of this going in, right away. That's why you see some teams hurting their defense early in games with the prearranged plays."
Last season, the defense benefited by facing three third-string quarterbacks, and the team had no starters on injured reserve. Such good fortune rarely occurs for any team, let alone in successive years. Combine that expectation with an aging defense, the reduced impact of special teams and keen competition from dominant Green Bay and rising Detroit, and it all adds up to more pressure on the offense in 2011 -- Cutler in particular.
For more than a decade, this has been Olin Kreutz's or Brian Urlacher's team. The burden of leadership is changing as these players get on in their careers. To a greater extent, this now becomes Cutler's team to carry, for better or worse.
Major Wright, S Expect huge strides from Wright. In 2010, he showed a knack for getting into a hole and making plays in the backfield or covering ground against the pass. But he lacked proper preparation due to injuries and, as a result, had little confidence and didn't trust his instincts.
"He gets to the ball carrier in a hurry and proved to us he's a good tackler. I think we knew that very early on. What he needs to do are things that just come with more game experience: communicate better in the defense and understand his role even better. He's had some injuries (in 2010) that limited his development, but the more playing time he gets, we think we'll see even more of what we've seen so far." -- defensive backs coach Jon Hoke
Offense WR Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett
QB Jay Cutler, Caleb Hanie
FB Brandon Manumaleuna, Kellen Davis
RB Matt Forte, Chester Taylor
LT Gabe Carimi, Frank Omiyale
LG Chris Williams, Frank Omiyale
C Olin Kreutz, Roberta Garza
RG Roberto Garza, Edwin Williams
RT J'Marcus Webb, Frank Omiyale
TE Greg Olsen, Kellen Davis
WR Devin Hester, Rashied Davis
DE Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton
DT Matt Toeaina, Stephen Paea
DT Anthony Adams, Marcus Harrison
DE Israel Idonije, Henry Melton
SLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, Nick Roach
MLB Brian Urlacher, Rod Wilson
WLB Lance Briggs, Brian Iwuh
LCB Tim Jennings, Zack Bowman
SS Major Wright, Craig Steltz
FS Chris Harris, Chris Conte
RCB Charles Tillman, D.J. Moore
K Robbie Gould
P Brad Maynard
KR Devin Hester
PR Devin Hester
LS Patrick Mannelly