Preparing for the Playoff Push

The Bears are 4-3 through seven weeks, the same position they were in at this time last year. Chicago's players and coaches feel the team is primed to make a run at the playoffs.

Having battled through the most difficult portion of their schedule with a 4-3 record -- the same mark they had last season heading into their off week -- the Bears believe they're poised for a playoff push.

The Bears' first seven opponents have a combined record of 30-23. Their next nine are a combined 33-30, not counting the Monday night game between the Chargers and Chiefs.

"We feel good about where we're at right now," Bears coach Lovie Smith said late last week before giving his team a four-day break that ended with Tuesday's practice. "We're a good football team. It helps to be on a two-game winning streak, but we feel like our best football is ahead of us. We have a lot of improvements still to make, but getting a healthy team on the field is a step in the right direction. We can't wait to see how we compare to a good Philadelphia team."


DT Matt Toeaina
Scott Cunningham/Getty

Ah yes, "The Dream Team," as backup quarterback Vince Young dubbed the Eagles' collection of marquee free agents. Philadelphia's play was nightmarish during a 2-4 start, but coach Andy Reid's team looked pretty dreamy in Sunday night's lopsided victory over the Cowboys, their first win at home this season.

The Bears have the advantage of coming in well rested and almost completely healthy. Defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, who missed the previous two games with a sprained knee, should be back at practice this week, as should rookie offensive tackle Gabe Carimi, who has been out since suffering a partially dislocated kneecap in Week 2.

Both players were able to participate in last week's scaled-down practices.

Carimi earned a starting job on the second day of training camp and is expected to get his gig back at right tackle, but it's not guaranteed that he will start vs. the Eagles Monday night. Lance Louis has done a solid job since moving over from right guard, while Chris Spencer filled in nicely in the spot that Louis left.

REPORT CARD AFTER SEVEN GAMES

PASSING OFFENSE: C -- Jay Cutler was excellent in the season-opening victory over the Falcons despite getting sacked five times. He was mediocre over the next three weeks, getting sacked nine times in losses to the Saints and Packers and being a non-factor for much of the victory over the Panthers. But, with better protection, Cutler was impressive in a loss to the Lions and the rout of the Vikings, throwing three touchdown passes without a pick. Cutler's 84.0 passer rating is in the middle of NFL quarterbacks. The Bears again lack a legitimate No. 1 receiver. They have just one 100-yard receiving game, and that came from RB Matt Forte. Different wideouts have stepped up with big games at various times, but no one on a consistent basis, and drops have been a minor problem off and on.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus -- Matt Forte has a legitimate claim as the NFL's MVP at the halfway mark. He leads the NFL with 1,091 yards from scrimmage. Forte is tied for eighth in the league with 38 catches, and his average of 5.4 yards per carry is second among players with more than 50 carries. Marion Barber was slowed by a calf injury through the first three games but has scored in three of the last four games and is beginning to resemble the hard-charging, short-yardage complement the Bears were hoping for. Fullback Tyler Clutts has contributed solid lead blocking.


S Major Wright
Scott Boehm/Getty

PASS DEFENSE: C-plus -- This group was beginning to look like an overrated, underachieving bunch until it spearheaded the resurgence of the previous two weeks. Six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers was conspicuous by his absence from several of the early-season games, but he shifted into another gear in the back-to-back victories, showing the dominance of which he is still capable. The musical chairs game at safety has grown tiresome, but the Bears believe the current tandem of rookie Chris Conte and second-year man Major Wright have the speed, range and athleticism to provide an upgrade in pass defense that was lacking with Brandon Meriweather and recently released Chris Harris. Both youngsters have room for growth, and the hope is that their development is accelerated by increased playing time. The Bears lack a shut-down corner, but Charles Tillman matches up well vs. big, physical receivers and 5-8 Tim Jennings plays bigger than his size. Both are willing run supporters who don't shy from contact. Nickel corner D.J. Moore has three interceptions and seems to have a Mike Brown-like knack for being around the ball. One complaint is that, aside from Moore, this group has a total of one interception.

RUSH DEFENSE: B-minus -- NT Matt Toeaina, DLE Israel Idonije and backup DT Amobi Okoye have all played well in spurts. DE Julius Peppers has been hot and cold, disappearing for stretches but playing extremely well at other times. It took rookie DT Stephen Paea six weeks and a knee injury to Toeaina to get on the field, but it appears as if he belongs. WLB Lance Briggs was the NFC defensive player of the week for his interception and 10-tackle performance against the Bucs, and he leads the team with 71 tackles. He doesn't appear to have lost much from his game, which has earned him invites to the last six Pro Bowls. MLB Brian Urlacher is second with 54 tackles, and SLB Nick Roach has quietly done an efficient job.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A -- Devin Hester continues to make a case for his future inclusion in the Hall of Fame as a return specialist. He has one punt-return and one kickoff-return TD this season, adding to his career NFL record. PK Robbie Gould has missed just one field-goal attempt, the one that would have tied him for the most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history. His kickoffs have been better than ever, with a career-high 18 touchbacks already. As usual, the coverage teams are among the league's best.

COACHING: B-minus - Offensive coordinator Mike Martz must continue to utilize the run game, call pass plays that get the ball out of Jay Cutler's hand more quickly and provide more max protection when he wants to go deep. He doesn't always remember that. Coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli need to occasionally create more pass-rush pressure with blitzes when the front four doesn't provide it. If special teams coordinator Dave Toub isn't the best in the NFL, he's in the top two.


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