The next five weeks saw a significant climb into the top half of the NFL rankings in all categories except the Defensive Hog Index where their Negative Pass Play percentage ranking dragged them down in that ranking the entire season. Brian Urlacher has the ability to play both the run and pass. He has the lateral quickness to fill running lanes and is the key to the "cover-2" pass coverage with his ability to drop back into the middle of the field and act as a third safety. Both he and Lance Briggs led the team in tackles in 2011. No. 3 on the team in tackles was cornerback Charles Tillman who also had one of his best seasons in pass coverage. Tillman drew the assignment of the opponent's No. 1 receiver each week, had three interceptions and led the team in passes defended, even though he was rarely challenged by opposing quarterbacks. All three were elected to the Pro Bowl last season, Tillman for the first time in his career.
Weakness: Offensive Line/Wide Receiver.
Jay Cutler was sacked 52 times in 2010, by far the most of any quarterback. The next highest total was 40 times for Joe Flacco. To address that, the Bears drafted tackle Gabe Carimi out of Wisconsin with their first pick in the draft. It was announced that he was being brought in to start at left tackle but he ended up playing right tackle when the season began. It didn’t matter much since he injured his knee week 2 against the Saints and ended up on injured reserve for the season. In the end, there was zero improvement in pass protection by the Bears' offensive line in 2011. Bears' quarterbacks were sacked 49 times, five more times than the next highest total of 44 for Alex Smith of the 49ers.
Since the Bears made the trade for Jay Cutler they’ve failed to provide anyone more competent than Earl Bennett at the receiver position. While Bennett has been Cutler’s favorite third down receiver with his ability to haul in nearly any pass thrown within the same zip code as he is, Bennett would be no better than a No. 3 within a quality receiving corps. They’ve had mixed results at the position with Devin Hester and Johnny Knox and there’s no telling when Knox may be ready to resume full contact workouts again after the horrific hit he suffered against Seattle in week 15 last season.
As for the rest of last season’s receivers, Roy Williams was signed and brought in to be the No. 1 receiver because of his 6’ 4” size, which would have been a great signing if Williams hadn’t played like he was 5’ 10”. Dane Sanzenbacher was signed as an undrafted free agent after being the leading receiver at Ohio State his senior year, which is the equivalent of winning Miss Congeniality at a beauty pageant. 40 years from now Sanzenbacher should be fondly remembering that one season he spent in the NFL. As for Sam Hurd, he’ll be MVP in the Federal Penal League soon.
General off-season strategy/overview:
The Bears’ inability to draft and develop players has led to a depth problem in every position group on the team. They still have a talented starting lineup on offense and defense that can compete at a high level, but their window for making another deep playoff run with that lineup is closing fast.
On defense, linebackers Brian Urlacher is 33 years old and is an 11 year veteran and Lance Briggs is 31 with eight years in the league. Charles Tillman is 30 and was in his eighth season. With no successfully developed back-ups at their positions the Bears need to hope none of these three lose substantial time to injury in 2012.
The Bears also will need secondary help with only Tillman and D.J. Moore currently under contract at cornerback. Major Wright and rookie Chris Conte played well at safety when they were paired together but Wright’s ability to stay on the field more than two games in a row has become a big question mark. Craig Steltz provided some solid play last season and is the only other option the Bears currently have available since Brandon Merriweather took up permanent residence in the Lovie Smith doghouse and very likely won't be back.
There has been a lot of talk lately that the Bears should target a receiver in the first round of the 2012 draft but if they want to get better immediately at that position, free agency is where to look. With the wealth of receiver talent on the market for the coming free agent period, if the Bears can’t land anyone who can step in as, at minimum, a No. 2 then Phil Emery was the wrong man to bring in as general manager of the team.
As for offensive linemen, all Bears fans should think back to the mid-80’s “Shufflin’ Crew” edition of the team. The foundation of that team was put together by Hall of Fame general manager Jim Finks who had a simple formula for building a team that was meant to win over the long haul. In the first round of his drafts Finks drafted linemen, on offense and defense, with the occasional linebacker or safety thrown in, and he rarely missed on an early round pick. He built the 70’s Vikings the same way. It works and it’s how the Bears and Phil Emery should approach the upcoming draft.
Totally premature 2012 diagnosis:
The patient is at a critical point and can go either way, depending on what moves are made in the coming months. Because the Jerry Angelo years were marked by so many subpar, and a couple of completely abysmal drafts it’s going to take more than one free agency and draft cycle to put a solid foundation for long-term success in place. If the Bears’ core starters can stay injury free for another season, they’ll be serious contenders to make a deep run into the playoffs, even with being in the same division as the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.
The likely scenario is that the long, slow downward slide begins on the defensive side of the ball after so many years of excellence out of the core group. Green Bay will still be a Super Bowl caliber team and the Lions have built a solid foundation that should lead to a long run of winning football. The Bears are going to need time to begin closing the talent gap that exists between them and the elite of their division and conference.
Besides the teams in their own division the Bears play the NFC and AFC South next season. While that means they have to face the 49ers, Texans and the improving Arizona Cardinals, it also gives them games against the Rams, Colts and Jaguars. After looking at the entire list of teams they face next season, unless the Bears stay completely healthy and don't lose key players to injury, matching their 2011 season of 8-8 is realistically about the best record they can expect.