Still More Questions Than Answers

While the defense is expected to carry the weight of the Bears, will the offense be able to do enough to overcome the growing pains of a rookie quarterback?

Any team coming off a 5-11 season with a fourth-round pici starting at quarterback has a lot of questions to answer heading into opening day.

It's difficult to expect much from a team as weak at quarterback as the Bears seem to be. Quarterback Kyle Orton shows potential, but arm strength and confidence will only take him so far. The running game has flashed the ability to take the pressure off the young quarterback, but first-round pick Cedric Benson, who was supposed to provide a big boost to the ground game, was 36 days late reporting and won't contribute much in the early going. And, it remains to be seen how effective incumbent running back Thomas Jones will be when opposing defenses sell out to stop him, gambling that Orton won't be able to beat them.

The defense will have to carry the team, and they have that type of talent if everyone stays healthy and continues to improve, which is likely because of the youthfulness throughout the lineup. But beyond the defensive starters, depth is a concern, so if injuries mount up as they did last season, things could so south in a hurry.

Bottom line, an improvement over 5-11 is quite possible considering the advantageous early schedule, but the playoffs are a long shot at best.

*Three keys for the season:
1. WR Muhsin Muhammad must come close to the numbers he put up last season.

Muhammad earned a Pro Bowl trip after catching 93 passes for 1,405 yards and 16 TDs for the Panthers, who had no one else to go to after Steve Smith suffered a season-ending injury in September. Muhammad might find himself in a similar situation this year, considering no other wideout on the team is a proven NFL player.

2. The defense must play better than it did in the early going last season, when it ranked in the top 10 in several categories before injuries decimated the unit.

3. Rookie QB Kyle Orton must show that he can avoid the costly mistakes and sacks that have plagued every Bears quarterback except Rex Grossman in the past two years. Because of WR Muhsin Muhammad and rookie RB Cedric Benson, plus an upgraded offensive line, Orton is better equipped to succeed than his recent predecessors.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Mark Bradley: Second-round rookie has every physical trait needed to be a star, and he made big plays in abundance during the preseason. But he has also made some bad plays in the past and struggled with the mental part of the game. The Bears plan to bring him along slowly, and he has the kind of game-breaking ability to contribute one or two plays every game that can make a difference.

DE Adewale Ogunleye: If he commands a double-team presence, the Bears will have taken a big step toward developing the style of defense they believe they have been building for years. No one else is nearly as much of a pass-rush threat, but talented players like MLB Brian Urlacher, WLB Lance Briggs and DT Tommie Harris will only be better if Ogunleye plays as well as he did in 2003.

QB Kyle Orton: He talks a good game and seems to have the ability to back it up. He doesn't get flustered by mistakes and actually seems to play better after an error.


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