When looking at the Chicago Bears' 2011 schedule this past offseason, most agreed that the first part of the season would be the team's toughest. The Falcons, Saints and Packers were all playoff teams last year, with the Saints and Packers being the two most-recent Super Bowl champions. To most, it wasn't a matter of coming strong out of the gates. It was a matter of surviving.
If that was the case, then mission accomplished.
The club has had plenty of ups and downs the first four weeks and there are a few things that have to get cleaned up if the Bears are going to make the playoffs. Yet at 2-2, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who expected more from the team given the early slate of competition.
Chicago has laid the foundation for a playoff run. Whether they can raise their level of play and take advantage of the relatively soft portion of their upcoming schedule remains to be seen, especially considering the numerable question marks surrounding the team. Still, this group could have easily gone 0-4 to start the season. There have been times this year where they looked like a 1AA college team, so a .500 record should provide some relief to even the most-cynical fans.
Let's look back at how the team has performed through the first quarter of the season, grading each position individually.
QB Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler has completed just 54.2 percent of his passes for a QB rating of 77.8 – both numbers near the bottom of the league. He has not been sharp with his accuracy and, as usual, his decision-making has been questionable. Yet it's hard to place all the blame for Chicago's 25th-ranked passing attack on the signal caller. Cutler has been sacked more than any other QB in the league, which has given him happy feet. He has a permanent case of the jitters in the pocket, which causes him to rush throws off his back foot. The fact he only has 4 interceptions compared to 5 touchdowns is quite amazing actually.
To add insult to injury, the team has failed to run the ball in all but one game and the receivers have dropped a number of catchable passes. Cutler has not been outstanding but it's hard to imagine any quarterback in the league thriving in a system that has no run game and mediocre receivers.
The lone bright spot on Chicago's offense has been the play of Matt Forte. The fourth-year player leads the team in rushing attempts, rushing yards, receptions, receiving yards and targets. In essence, he's been the entire offense up to this point. He's shown outstanding field vision, quickness, agility and open-field maneuvers. There's no doubt in my mind that without him, the Bears would be 0-4 at this point. And he's done all of his work behind a suspect offensive line. Forte is the unquestioned MVP of the team so far and, barring injury, will earn the first Pro Bowl appearance of his career this year.
Roy Williams is to this team as Orlando Pace was to the 2009 squad: a high-profile free-agent acquisition that has completely bombed. He was supposed to provide the size the receiving corps needed and be the team's No. 1 receiver. He was outstanding under coordinator Mike Martz in 2006 when the two were in Detroit together. Yet he's been awful since donning the navy and orange. He's dropped as many balls as he's caught, which is bad enough, but it's his lack of effort that is so disturbing. He has no desire to make the tough catch in traffic or to fight off smaller defenders. Basically, if he's wide open and the ball is thrown right to his chest, he'll catch it. Otherwise, it's an almost-guaranteed incompletion or interception.
The other receivers haven't been much better. Johnny Knox and Devin Hester have been non-existent for most of the year, each dropping a number of crucial balls. Apparently, Williams is rubbing off on them. Earl Bennett has missed most of the year with a chest injury. His sure-handedness may provide some stability to the group upon his return.
The biggest surprise has been undrafted rookie Dane Sanzenbacher, who is quickly become Cutler's favorite target. He's a quick, shifty receiver that excels working the underneath routes. Drops have been an issue for him as well but he shows a lot of promise and could serve in a Wes Welker-type role going forward.
Disappointing doesn't begin to describe this group. Greg Olsen was traded so as to open the way for Kellen Davis, a big-bodied tight end who has good speed and hands. Yet he's been used as a blocker for the vast majority of plays and he's been downright putrid. Over and over he's been blown off the ball and he does not have the footwork to handle defensive ends off the edge. He's a liability in the run game. Yet he's been very successful as a pass catcher, in the miniscule number of chances he's received. He's been targeted just nine times so far this season. The misuse of Davis, who could be deadly in this offense, is Martz's most-egregious mistake of the first quarter.
OL Lance Louis
First-round pick Gabe Carimi was playing at high level at right tackle before dislocating his knee in Week 2. This has forced line coach Mike Tice to insert Frank Omiyale, who has been spotty at best. His poor play last week initiated a shuffling on the right side that slid Lance Louis to right tackle. Louis has played right guard all year and has dealt with injuries. He doesn't show great power inside and actually looked better on the edge.
In the middle, Roberto Garza has been average at center, a new position for him. He was never an outstanding player to begin with, so him being just serviceable in the middle was expected. Chris Spencer, signed this offseason to ostensibly replace Olin Kreutz, played right guard in Louis' absence and has performed very well. In fact, Spencer has been the most impressive of any lineman through the first four games.
At left guard, Chris Williams seems to be getting worse. He cannot maul in the run game, has a hard time getting out in front when asked to pull, often cannot find defenders at the second level and easily loses his balance in pass protection. Next to him, left tackle J'Marcus Webb hasn't been much better, although he's improving. He started off the season letting everyone and their brother get by him in pass protection but has been decent the past few weeks. It's all about baby steps with the former 7th rounder.
Mike Martz is slowly losing the confidence of everyone in Chicago and we're starting to see it a bit from the players as well. Through four games, his pass/run ratio is 131/82. Against the Saints and Packers, he completely abandoned the run. If not for facing Carolina's anemic defensive front last week, the numbers would be far worse. Opposing defenses have blitzed like crazy and Martz has had no answer for it. He does not use hot routes as he should and allows Cutler to call no audibles. His infatuation with five- and seven-step drops, even in the face of consistent blitzing, is wearing thin. The Bears are ranked 26th in total offense. That number will not improve unless Martz begins building game plans to properly utilize the talent he has on this roster.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.