Alain Poupart: The Bears find themselves with a 6-3 record, yet they just don't look like a 6-3 team. Is their won-lost success mostly the result of an easy schedule (Carolina, Buffalo, Detroit, Dallas), or is this a legitimate playoff contender that just finds a way to win?
John Crist: Aside from the 7-2 Falcons, who are still clearly a better team at home than they are on the road, I don't see any outfit in the NFC that has resembled a legitimate Super Bowl contender week in and week out, so the Bears have nothing to be ashamed of at 6-3 and tied atop the NFC North with the rival Packers. Yes, they have beaten some bad teams, although they played their most complete game of the season this past Sunday in topping the desperate Vikings by two touchdowns, and the club as a whole has shown more rhythm the last two weeks. Trust me, I'm far from a believer and picked Chicago to go 7-9 after what I witnessed in training camp and the preseason, but I see some of the kinks being ironed out and a much better product of football on the field lately.
With both the defense and special teams playing at or near an elite level most of the season, which was the case during their Super Bowl campaign of 2006, the offense only needs to be middle-of-the-road effective and limit mistakes.
AP: Jay Cutler has been known to drive fans and coaches crazy with his erratic ways and his penchant for trying to force things when there's nothing there. Has he changed those ways, or has it still been the same old Cutler?
JC: Cutler hasn't put those fans and coaches on as much of a rollercoaster ride this year, as for the most part he has taken pretty good care of the pigskin, but every now and then he'll revert back into the hopeless gunslinger that tries to do too much and ends up making a careless error. Week 10 against Minnesota was a perfect example, as even though he finished with a passer rating of 87.4 and fired three touchdowns along the way, he had another red-zone pass intercepted trying to keep a play alive and throwing across his body into a crowd of defenders. Even his first TD of the day, a 17-yard lightning bolt to Greg Olsen on third-and-14, somehow made its way into the arms of his tight end with three Vikings in the vicinity.
If you eliminate the Redskins debacle, when he seemed to lose his mind and allowed DeAngelo Hall to tie an NFL record with four picks, Cutler's TD-to-INT ratio on the season is a respectable 11-to-5.
AP: The Bears threw a lot of money at Julius Peppers in the offseason, yet he's only got two sacks so far. Has he been a major disappointment, or do the stats not do justice to the kind of season he's having?
JC: The Monsters of the Midway are at or near the top of quite a few defensive categories, but if there is one area in which they're struggling so far, it's taking the quarterback to the turf. However, that should not be interpreted as Peppers not living up to the $91.5 million contract he signed this past offseason, and neither should the fact that he has only recorded two sacks himself, because the five-time Pro Bowler has been every bit as good as advertised when it comes to putting pressure and getting hits on the passer. Additionally, I don't think Bears fans had any idea how impressive a run defender Peppers is, as he has done a terrific job holding the point of attack and putting ball carriers on the ground when they come his direction.
With all the attention Peppers is getting from enemy blockers, first-time starter Israel Idonije leads the defense with a career-high five sacks from the other end position, plus all those rumors about the former No. 2-overall pick taking a play off here and there don't have an ounce of truth to them.
AP: Looks like Devin Hester is at it again as a major force on special teams. What has happened to cause this revival after two seasons, when his return numbers were mediocre at best?
JC: His first two seasons in the league, after coming to the Bears as a second-round cornerback out of Miami, Hester was arguably the greatest return man the game had ever seen and never went more than a few weeks without finding a way to score on a punt or kickoff – he even went 108 yards on a missed field goal. But because the front office didn't know how to compensate such a unique player, even though general manager Jerry Angelo knew he was never going to let the former Hurricane slip away, Hester signed a four-year, $40 million contract extension loaded with incentives tied to his progression as a wide receiver. From Angelo to the coaching staff to the player himself, they all contributed to Hester's lack of effectiveness as a returner in 2008-09 because every effort was made to ascend him to the top of the depth chart as a wideout, and it has also been argued that Hester stopped going all out on returns for fear of getting hurt and, therefore, not being able to fully cash in on his deal.
Hester was never going to be a legitimate No. 1 in this league, but since it took the decision makers at Halas Hall the better part of three years to realize that, only now are we seeing him in the role that best suits him: a part-time offensive weapon and full-time special-teams sensation.
AP: Why have the Bears been so good against the run all season?
JC: It helps tremendously that both starting ends, Peppers and Idonije, play the run honestly and don't just tear after the quarterback snap after snap, plus the worker bees in the tackle rotation have done enough to compensate for the revelation that three-time Pro Bowler Tommie Harris is permanently damaged and will never be a difference maker again. As a matter of fact, Harris isn't a starter anymore and plays behind Anthony Adams and Matt Toeaina, plus third-year pro Marcus Harrison appears to have righted the ship and should see plenty of snaps Thursday night. The Cover 2 is a gap-control defense when it comes to stopping the run, and with the front four staying in their gaps more often than not, the linebacking trio of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Pisa Tinoisamoa only needs to do what it does best: sprint to the football without having to shed blockers first.
Lovie Smith also demands that his corners are quality tacklers, which is part of the reason why a supposed star on the rise like Zack Bowman was benched a while back in favor of the tougher Tim Jennings.
To read Part III of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where John and Alain highlight matchups and make final predictions, Click Here. To go back and read Part I, where Alain answered five questions from John, Click Here.
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Behind Enemy Lines: Part II
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