Nate Caminata: Let's get the Rod Marinelli stuff out of the way first. Personal feelings of the Lions' faithful aside, the guy is respected throughout the league for his defensive teachings and approach. It didn't pay dividends in Detroit. As Chicago's defensive coordinator, is there confidence that Marinelli will be successful? Do you think he takes the season opener more personally considering the opponent?
John Crist: The Marinelli "promotion" from defensive line coach and assistant head coach to defensive coordinator was more of a non-decision than a decision, especially since it appeared to the trained eye that coach Lovie Smith offered the job to Marinelli right after the season, but Marinelli originally said no and sent the organization on an embarrassing search for a new DC, which resulted in former colleague Perry Fewell turning them down – Marinelli eventually said yes, probably because there was no one else available. Make no mistake about it: This is still Smith's defense. Marinelli has never been a play caller in the NFL, and since both Smith and Marinelli are disciples of Tony Dungy and to-the-grave believers in the Cover 2, look for Chicago to be remarkably similar on defense in 2010 despite the coaching moves.
With regard to Marinelli having some sort of axe to grind Sunday against his former employer, because he's the antithesis of an attention seeker, we'll simply never know for sure, but based on what I hear coming out of his mouth, I doubt it.
NC: With the Mike Martz offense in full swing, Bears fans have already witnessed some of the drawbacks, including interceptions and sacks, without the result: points. How has Jay Cutler adjusted to Martz's approach? Can he finally fulfill what Chicago fans have expected from him?
JC: Although Cutler brings as many tools to the table as any quarterback in the league, as he has prototype size, a cannon for an arm, runs pretty well, studies hard and doesn't mind having Atlas-like weight on his shoulders, it's possible he's not an ideal fit for Martz's timing-based offense. Because Cutler has spent his football career to date making the kinds of throws few QBs even dream of thanks to his big arm, what Martz is asking him to do is a different skill set entirely: Take a seven-step drop, throw to an open spot and trust your receiver to be there. Cutler, on the other hand, has been afforded the luxury of throwing off his back foot or waiting an extra half second since he can spin the pigskin with such authority, but it's worth noting that the signal callers having had success in this scheme – like Jon Kitna when he was in Detroit – were more cerebral players than skills-rich golden boys.
That being said, the inevitable personality clash between Cutler and Martz everyone seemed to be expecting hasn't happened yet, and as a matter of fact they seem to be getting along beautifully both on and off the field, so perhaps this is a match made in heaven after all.
NC: You recently wrote that the Martz and Cutler have devised a game plan to specifically exploit Detroit's defense. What do you think the duo has in store for the season opener? Should there be a concern that the weight of those two – massive, somewhat unwarranted – egos combined might sink Chicago's offensive ship?
JC: As I stated above, at least for now, Cutler and Martz look to be on the same page thus far and can't stop praising each other every time the cameras are rolling. Cutler loves Martz's aggressive philosophy and seems to be taking to it hook, line and sinker, while Martz is just as impressed with Cutler the person as he is Cutler the quarterback – why, I have no idea, as most of the Chicago media has always found No. 6 to be incredibly unlikeable. Nevertheless, as you are implying, we'll see how much hugging and kissing goes on the first time Cutler throws four interceptions, the Bears lose a winnable game as a result and the fans boo them mercilessly.
Getting back to what the actual game plan may be Sunday, I'm pretty confident the Bears will throw the ball early and often to take full advantage of a Detroit secondary that continues to be shaky year after year, coupled with a fair amount of rolling-pocket stuff to mask some of the protection issues the offensive line had in the preseason.
NC: Olin Kreutz isn't getting any younger, and the Bears' offensive line is anything but solid. Can they give Cutler the adequate protection needed in a Martz system, including in Sunday's tilt against an improved Lions' defensive line?
JC: We had Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on conference call Wednesday at Halas Hall, and when I asked about the confidence he has in his unproven offensive line, he pointed out the fact that he was only sacked once the entire preseason – Cutler, conversely, was sacked 10 times. Maybe Cutler was holding on to the ball too long, maybe the receivers weren't getting open and maybe the lack of game-planning for exhibition contests exposed him too much, but it's impossible to deny that the blocking up front has been below par since the Super Bowl campaign of 2006 and doesn't appear to be any better right now. While all five players are familiar names for Bears fans, four of the five positions will have new starters, with the aforementioned Kreutz being the only holdover at center.
Smith says the hiring of Mike Tice should go a long way in helping Chicago become a better blocking team in the trenches, although the same thing was said about Marinelli and the pass rush last season, with minimal improvement to show for it.
NC: Lions fans would love to have their team depart the confines of the NFC North cellar. The only problem is that Green Bay and Minnesota seem to have the top two spots locked up. Even with the addition of a player like Julius Peppers and a revamped offensive strategy, do you anticipate Chicago finishing above or below the .500 mark?
JC: The Bears were a 7-9 team a year ago, and even though I firmly believe they are currently better on both sides of the ball in terms of personnel, they may not win any more games because of the strength of the division and their schedule overall. The Vikings were one step shy of the Super Bowl last season and continue to have an embarrassment of riches talent-wise, and this season Green Bay is a trendy pick to go all the way – Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is my pick for MVP, by the way. As you know, the NFC North plays both the NFC East and the AFC East this time around, with both looking to be much more competitive than, say, the AFC West.
I'm not going to unveil my official prediction until Friday at BearReport.com, but if you combine one part porous offensive line, two parts merry go-round at safety and three parts killer schedule, you can probably detect which direction I'm leaning on Chicago's postseason hopes.
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Behind Enemy Lines: Part II
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