This year's Chicago Bears team is following the same path as last year's version. Both teams were 4-3 after seven games and both had a Week 8 bye. Both had issues with the consistency along the offensive line, with a pass happy coordinator and a defense many considered over the hill. Very few felt either team could, or can, make the playoffs.
Yet, after a number of shifts in strategy and personnel, last year's group went 7-2 after the bye, won the NFC North division and hosted the NFC Championship game. There is no reason to believe that this year's team can't accomplish the same in the second half of the season.
Last year, the Bears came out of the bye ranked 27th in points scored per game (18.5), 29th in total offense per game (289.5), 27th in rushing offense per game (90.6) and 21st in passing offense (198.9). The unit as a whole was in disarray. They were coming off one of Jay Cutler's blowup games, a four-interception affair to the Washington Redskins. Martz was throwing the ball three times as many times as he was running it. The passing game was stale and could not find a rhythm. And the offensive line could not pass protect to save their quarterback's life.
QB Jay Cutler & OC Mike Martz
Brian D. Kersey/Getty
Yet after the bye, Martz started running the ball more and the group started to click. Changes were made to get the ball out of Cutler's hands quicker, players were shifted along the offensive line until the group became serviceable and the play calling in general was stripped down.
At the end of the year, the offense had improved every one of their bye-week rankings – except for total yards per game, which stayed the same.
In 2011, we find an offense that is actually much farther ahead than last year's group. The current team is ranked 13th in points per game (24.3), 16th in total offense per game (337.4), 15th in rushing offense per game (114.7) and 17th in passing offense (222.7).
Last year, coach Lovie Smith waited until the bye week to sit down with Martz and demand he run the ball more. It appears that conversation took place much earlier in the campaign this year.
After Week 2 and Week 3 this season, when the Bears ran the ball just 25 times in the two contests combined – compared to 82 pass attempts – Martz tossed aside his pass happy ways. It was the same scenario as last season, yet it happened four weeks earlier. In Weeks 4-7 this year, the Bears averaged 29.3 rushing attempts and 160.5 yards per game – a huge jump in production and a sign that Martz has committed to the run.
Much of the success on the ground has been due to an offensive line getting better each week. The group struggled early, just like last season. In 2010, it was a 10-sack performance against the Giants in Week 4 that woke up the front five and forced offensive line coach Mike Tice into action. This year, the team surrendered six sacks to the Saints in Week 2, yet since then have given up an average of just two sacks per game. Again, the team quelled the trouble quicker than it did last season.
Cutler has also taken big strides this year, in both his accuracy and his decision-making. Through seven weeks last season, he had 7 TDs and 7 INTs; through seven weeks this year he has 9 TDs and 6 INTs. Has hasn't taken a hug leap forward but he's getting better each week under Martz and that should continue for the remainder of the year.
Then there's Matt Forte, who is having an MVP-caliber season this year. Barring injury, Forte will go on to league the lead in yards from scrimmage this year. He's shown a combination of speed, agility, strength and elusiveness that is unmatched in the NFL right now. He'll be even more dangerous in this year's second half than he was in 2010.
As much as some folks might not want to admit it, the arrow is pointing up for this offense.
Work left to do
Normally, the Bears' defense is the least of the team's worries. Not so for this year. Chicago's defenders were outstanding for the entirety of last season, carrying the club to a number of wins. That hasn't been the case in 2011. Coming out of the bye last year, the Bears ranked 4th in points allowed per game (16.6), 8th in yards allowed per game (309.6), 3rd in rushing yards allowed per game (83.9) and 19th in passing yards allowed per game (225.8).
With some poor play at all three levels of the defense this year, those numbers have plummeted. The 2011 defense ranks 13th in points allowed (21.4), 23rd in total defense (380.6), 12th in rushing defense (108.7) and 28th in passing defense (271.9).
LB Brian Urlacher
Obviously, if Chicago's defense continues to perform as they have through their first seven games, the chances of the team making the playoffs are slim. Yet there's reason to believe the group can rebound and again perform at an elite level. The Bears have allowed an average of 14 points the past two games, compared to 29 in the first five contests. They've cut down on the big plays and have forced a number of critical turnovers.
Linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are again playing at Pro-Bowl levels, while rookies Chris Conte and Stephen Paea have added life to the secondary and defensive line respectively. With the Chris Harris saga now behind them, this group should be able to return form.
Health, schedule and momentum
Three other factors bode well for Chicago in this year's second half. The first is that the team is at nearly 100 percent health coming out of the bye. They sustained, and ultimately weathered, a number of serious ailments in the front portion of the season. If they can stay relatively healthy for the remainder of the campaign, as they did last year, then the playoffs are a definite possibility.
The schedule gets easier for Chicago in the second half. The Bears get Detroit and Seattle at home, while also having the luxury of facing all four AFC West teams in a row – a group that has an overall record of 14-14 so far. Every one of those games is winnable. Chicago will go on the road to face the Eagles, Packers and Vikings, none of which will be easy. Overall though, it's the type of schedule that could net six or seven more wins.
Heading into the bye last year, the Bears had lost three of four and were reeling. They had to make a litany of changes during their week off to right the ship. This year, Chicago went into the bye on a two-game win streak where all three phases of the team played well. All they have to do now is carry that momentum into the second half.
I see the Bears going 3-1 against the AFC West, while also losing to Philadelphia and Green Bay on the road. They'll win the remainder of games and end 2011 with a 10-6 record. That may or may not be good enough to make the playoffs. Most likely, it would come down to tiebreakers.
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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.