2012 Record: 10-6
Pass Can't Get Going
The enduring image of a frustrated Jay Cutler shoving J'Marcus Webb during a Week 2 flaying at the hands of Green Bay came to vilify the quarterback.
But put yourself into the cleats of the polarizing Cutler: you'd be frustrated with your line protection too.
While not as bad as the 2010 season that saw Cutler get dropped 52 times, the sneering signal-caller endured 38 drag-downs. Backup Jason Campbell had a part in six games, and he himself experienced six sacks, bringing the team total to 44.
The line was considered among the league's worst last season. Gabe Carimi and Jonathan Scott struggled to pass protect on the right side, Chilo Rachal only gave half a season at left guard, and Webb failed to adequately protect Cutler's blind side.
Second Half Slide
In spite of the comedy of errors that Chicago's offense sometimes resembled, the defense proved to be one of the league's best. With five games in which they recorded four or more turnovers, 41 sacks, and nine defensive touchdowns, this was a Bears defense that would bring tears of joy to Mike Ditka.
Because of some nasty drubbings like the ones doled out to the Colts, Cowboys, and Titans, the Bears supercharged their way to 7-1. Over the final eight games, the defense only gave up more than 23 points once, but the team could only go 3-5 on the homestretch.
In all five of their final losses, the offense couldn't score more than 17 points. Two of those losses saw outputs of six points vs. Houston, and seven vs. San Francisco. One-score losses to Minnesota and Green Bay in December dropped them to 8-6, and in painful third place.
2013 Projected Wins: 8.5
Top 3 Rookies
-Kyle Long, T (1/20): Son of Howie and brother of Chris is a natural run blocker who tends to stun defensive linemen after the snap and forcibly plow them backward.
-Jon Bostic, LB (2/50): No one's asking him to replace Brian Urlacher, but has great ability to read and react in pass coverage, and aggressively close on ball carriers.
-Khaseem Greene, LB (4/117): Considerably undersized, but makes up for it with reliable tackling and a killer instinct for forcing fumbles.
Marc Trestman runs a deeply-involved passing game, and he walks into a situation where line protection is minimal. Almost immediately, the team brought on Pro Bowl tackle Jermon Bushrod from the Saints. Bushrod's more suited to cover Cutler's blindside, and his presence moves J'Marcus Webb to right tackle.
Other pieces that will provide solid comfort for Cutler include reliable left guard Matt Slauson, who has 48 starts in four seasons. A couple of blocking tight ends join the fray in Martellus Bennett and Steve Maneri. Bennett is also a highly capable receiver.
On defense, with Urlacher gone and Lance Briggs getting older, no expense has been spared in keeping the Bears' bread and butter running strong. Incoming linebackers include ten-year pro DJ Williams (20.5 sacks, over 800 tackles) and strong sider James Anderson.
Potential Starting Lineup
QB - Jay Cutler
RB - Matt Forte
FB - Harvey Unga
WR - Brandon Marshall
WR - Alshon Jeffery
TE - Martellus Bennett
LT - Jermon Bushrod
LG - Matt Slauson
C - Roberto Garza
RG - Kyle Long
RT - J'Marcus Webb
DE - Corey Wootton
DT - Henry Melton
NT - Stephen Paea
DE - Julius Peppers
OLB - James Anderson
MLB - DJ Williams
OLB - Lance Briggs
CB - Charles Tillman
CB - Tim Jennings
FS - Chris Conte
SS - Major Wright
K - Robbie Gould
P - Adam Podlesh
LS - Patrick Mannelly
2013 at a Glance
After thirteen seasons of being everything a team could ask for in a linebacker and leader, Brian Urlacher was not retained by the Bears. He retired two months later.
Even as he battled bad knees later in his career, Urlacher was still good for a hundred tackles, and more than a handful of disruptive plays that sometimes created turnovers.
There is little doubt he'll one day be enshrined with fellow cave dwelling linebackers Butkus and Singletary in Canton, OH.
But memories of No. 54's explosive play take a backseat to the Bears' agenda going forward.
The punishing defense not only loses Urlacher, but head coach Lovie Smith as well, despite the 10-6 season. The second half slide was a major factor, of course. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is also out, fleeing to Dallas to head the D-Line.
Replacing Marinelli on Trestman's staff is Mel Tucker, a longtime defensive coach with Cleveland and Jacksonville. Tucker's defenses, particularly in Cleveland, have at their best been turnover machines, but the way Jacksonville sputtered the last couple years don't indicate his capabilities.
Tucker's real test will be transitioning younger players (Bostic, Greene) into becoming the playmakers while Briggs and others reach their golden years.
Of course, Tucker isn't the only new face tasked with ensuring a bright future in the Windy City.
Trestman had already been inundated with blogs calling for his firing before he'd even set his luggage down. But the Rivers Cuomo-lookalike has earned praise for his work with past prodigies like Rich Gannon, Jake Plummer, Bernie Kosar, and the great Steve Young.
For Trestman, a coach who notices every detail, from footwork, to the QB's eyes, to shoulder positioning, he has a project in Cutler, a player known to sulk with his head down if something doesn't go his way.
The meticulous and anal-retentive nature of Trestman can be tiresome to some players, as he expects everyone around him to be as detailed as he. Cutler has the ability, and Trestman has the intuition. This could be a happy marriage if they can overcome a sizable culture clash.
With the offensive line looking its potentially strongest in quite some time, the offense stands a good chance of demonstrating the clockwork effectiveness of its defensive counterpart.
The biggest question: if Cutler hits his stride early in the year and comes out throwing fire, does Chicago broach the contract issue, and risk frustrating him? Do they risk frustrating him by not bringing it up while he's hot?
It all comes down to Cutler. If Trestman can mold the brooding star into the winner he certainly can be, and if the line finally provides good protection, there's no telling how far this offense can go. Forte, Marshall, and the Bennetts would also hit their fullest strides.
The defense is going to be fine, even without Urlacher. It's a group that already knows how to wreak havoc with turnovers, and that's a game Tucker understands entirely. But if that offensive connection comes to pass (in more ways than one), the Bears will be a force.