Pompei; Bears Mid Term Grades.....................
Bears' mid-term grades are as you might expect — incomplete
Still, there are enough positive signs that suggest playoffs in sight
Dan Pompei On the NFL 3:50 p.m. CDT, October 29, 2011
With two weeks between games, the Bears are taking a hard look at the last two months to determine how they can improve.
There are strengths to fortify (running and special teams). There are areas that need strengthening (safety play and the passing game).
Here is one assessment of the 4-3 team with nine regular-season games remaining.
Grading key: Grades are between 0 and 10 with 0 being complete failure and 10 being perfect.
Quarterback; Grade: 6
First seven games: We all know there have been breakdowns in pass protection. But quarterback Jay Cutler sometimes could respond better to those lapses.
According to STATS, his passer rating against the blitz is 62.5, and that doesn't take into account the 10 times he has been sacked. Some of that passer rating is on the receivers as well as the offensive linemen. And some of it is on offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
But it needs to improve.
Cutler, a notoriously streaky passer, went through a miserable three-game stretch after the opener in which he completed only 49 percent of his passes and had a rating of 68.1. He has played better in recent games.
Next nine: Cutler's overall rating of 84.0 is the second-worst of his career. So he is capable of a better performance in the second half.
He is being protected better and looks more comfortable in the pocket lately. He has been more mobile and using his instincts to create second chances.
He needs to avoid sacks and stay away from desperate, ill-advised throws that can be intercepted. If he does that, he can win some games in the fourth quarter, as he must.
Given the makeup of this team, Cutler needs to be somewhat of a caretaker. He has thrown six interceptions and fumbled four times, losing two. I counted nine passes defenders dropped.
Running back; Grade: 9
First seven: There really was only one unproductive game — against the Packers, when Matt Forte kept getting tackled in the backfield.
Forte is playing way better than he has at any previous point in his career.
He ranks first in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, first in touches, second in runs of 10 or more yards, second in yards after the catch, third in rushing yards and third in average per carry.
The Bears have been getting even more out of the backfield since Tyler Clutts established himself as the fullback and Marion Barber returned to health.
Next nine: Forte has to keep up his pace while not getting beat up too badly. Forte has been remarkably durable in his career, but he's taking more hits than ever.
Wide receiver; Grade: 5
First seven:This unit had a rough patch after the opener. Earl Bennett got hurt, taking away a critical role player. Roy Williams was not ready to contribute consistently.
That highlighted the deficiencies of others. As the season has gone on, Devin Hester and Dane Sanzenbacher have shown improvement. Williams started to justify his roster spot over the last two games.
Next nine: Bennett's anticipated return next Monday and Williams playing up to his potential should enable others to return to roles that fit them best.
The Bears need to involve Johnny Knox more and get him in sync with Cutler. He was underutilized the first seven games. Knox — not Forte — should be the Bears' leading receiver over the last nine games.
Sanzenbacher's snaps should go down even though the rookie's effort has been valiant.
Tight end; Grade: 4.5
First seven: The problem with this unit has been consistency. At times, Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth have been vital cogs blocking and catching. At other times, they have disappeared on routes, blocked poorly or committed penalties. Davis' performance, in particular, has been all over the board.
Next nine: This group rarely is a target for Cutler, but Davis should catch the occasional throw when coverage is loose. What's most important is that the tight ends don't cost the Bears with sloppy pass protection and that they contribute with solid run blocks.
Offensive line; Grade: 5
First seven: This unit has struggled at times mostly for two reasons — it has been asked to do things it is incapable of executing and it has been unsettled.
The Bears have started the same five players in the same spots for two straight games only twice all season.
The two major shortcomings have been pass protection (21 sacks allowed is tied for third in the NFL) and penalties (20 false starts — six more than the next closest team).
Two players have been consistent — center Roberto Garza and left guard Chris Williams.
Left tackle J'Marcus Webb has been a little up and down, but he continues to do some good things and show signs he can develop into a decent player.
Next nine: This unit has the potential to play better. In fact, the trend already is toward more efficient blocking.
The line had its best performance Sunday against the Bucs. Soon, right tackle Gabe Carimi, the most gifted blocker on the team, should be back in the lineup.
In the meantime, Chris Spencer and Lance Louis both have made strides.
The coaches now realize the Bears linemen, like most of their peers in the NFL, need some help.
Earlier in the year there were too many five-man protections and seven-step drops. Martz has called for fewer of them and more chips recently, and the performance has improved.
Defensive line; Grade: 6
First seven: Its best game was the opener against the Falcons. In the next four games, the defensive line was not productive or proficient. But it has come on the last two games.
Production is contagious for the pass rushers. When one or more get off a good rush, everyone starts doing it. But when a couple of the big dogs are struggling, others follow suit.
Julius Peppers has been one of the better defensive ends in football through seven games even though 16 players have more sacks than his four.
Next nine: That Peppers will keep rushing well is almost a given. The Bears need him to finish his rushes more.
The Bears also need Henry Melton, Amobi Okoye, Israel Idonije and others to help Peppers by taking advantage of one-on-one situations. Stephen Paea has helped the last two weeks to earn more opportunities.
Losing Corey Wootton for all but 12 snaps so far has hurt this unit. The Bears need him.
Linebacker; Grade: 6.5
First seven: Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have been outstanding at times, but both have had breakdowns against the run.
Each has won an NFC defensive player of the week award. Urlacher is tied for the lead among NFL linebackers with three interceptions and has a fumble recovery for a touchdown. His leadership has gotten the team through some tough patches.
Next nine: It would be nice to see Nick Roach play the way he did against the Vikings, which clearly was his best game. The Bears could use more from him at strong-side linebacker.
If Urlacher and Briggs can be more effective on blitzes, it will help the pass rush.
Safety; Grade: 4
First seven: The Bears have used six starting combinations in seven games as the play has been predictably inconsistent.
In fact, it has been the Achilles' heel of the defense. We have witnessed poor reads, bad angles, sloppy tackling and missed big-play opportunities.
At least the Bears have learned Chris Harris no longer has enough speed for their scheme and Brandon Meriweather is not disciplined enough for it.
The problems forced rookie Chris Conte into the lineup, and the early returns have been encouraging.
Next nine: This position now is in the hands of a 22-year-old (Conte) and a 23-year-old (Major Wright). Their speed is comforting, but their inexperience is disconcerting. How they develop — or fail to — could determine how far the Bears go this year.
Wright has been a disappointment midway through his second season. The third-round pick has missed three starts this year: twice with separate injuries and a third time because he was benched. The Bears need him to play to his potential.
It would be great to see big plays, but it's more important the safeties aren't allowing big plays.
Cornerback; Grade: 5.5
First seven: The corners have given up some yards against better receivers, especially against the Panthers. But overall Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and company have played decently in coverage and run support.
Nickel back D.J. Moore has been the playmaker of the group with three interceptions. He also has been the team's best blitzer.
Next nine: The coaches should be happy if the cornerbacks stay healthy and maintain the status quo.
Special teams; Grade: 7
First seven: Kicker Robbie Gould has been outstanding, and punter Adam Podlesh hasn't been far behind. Gould's 22 touchbacks are tied for sixth in the NFL, and he has missed only 1 of 15 field-goal attempts.
Devin Hester has scored on a kickoff return and a punt return and continues to change games.
The coverage units held opponents to a 4.6-yard average on punt returns (second in the NFL) and 22.1 yards on kickoff returns (eighth).
A blocked kick by Peppers helped the Bears beat the Panthers.
Next nine: Hester may have fewer return opportunities because he has been on too many highlight reels lately.
Still, the Bears should continue to have one of the league's best special teams units.
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