Kyle Orton went from having a slightly down game to an efficient game to a dreadful game. He's a rookie, and this is what we've signed on for as Bear fans. On the up side, he appears to have good recognition at the line of scrimmage. He's standing strong in the pocket, and has a good arm with usually good accuracy. On the down side, Orton is still adjusting to the closing speed of the secondary on some of his deeper passes, and is at times falling for some of the false looks opposing defenses are giving him (especially fake blitzes). Two of his interceptions have been underthrown passes that went out hot to the correct read up the left sideline. Both of those passes could have been touchdowns if the ball was better thrown. The area of Orton's game that needs greatest improvement, which will come with more reps, is his timing and progressions. He's throwing to his primary receiver (without looking him off) far too often, and if he's going to do that he's going to need to deliver the ball a few clicks sooner or throw it away when he sees double coverage. The bye week will allow him to work on his timing and ability to quickly find the correct target.
Thomas Jones is among the leading rushers in the league. He's running with good power and has shown there is no reason why he can't be the running back to make Ron Turner's offense go. Rookie Cedric Benson has shown flashes in limited reps. He'll take advantage of the bye week to get further acclimated to the nuances of the passing offense. Bear fans will know he has arrived when he's seeing reps on passing downs and actually running routes as a receiving target. If the Bears thought enough of him to make him a high first round draft pick, they should find ways to work him into the games. Fullback Marc Edwards had been up and down. He's a stop gap player with limitations, but isn't going to commit critical errors to disrupt the offense. His blocking has been decent overall, and he deserves some credit for how quickly he became acclimated to the offense.
Muhsin Muhammad has been as good as advertised. He's a leader and a playmaker, and is as tough as nails. He had a couple of drops but leaves no doubt he'll shake them off. Justin Gage was a mystery during the preseason and has done nothing to make anyone feel any better about his play. His poor handling of an Orton pass in the early going against Cincinnati led to an interception and set the stage for a bad day. Rookie Mark Bradley has a lot to learn, but already has more to immediately offer than Gage. Bernard Berrian would be a likely alternative but he has disappeared since he injured his fingers in the preseason. Bobby Wade has crept back into the picture, but his propensity to put the ball on the ground and lack of speed are limiting factors. The Bears desperately need for Bradley or Berrian to step up their play a few notches, and for Kyle Orton to feed them the ball with regularity. This is easily the biggest ingredient still lacking from the offense.
Tight end Desmond Clark has caught the ball well but continues to have trouble holding onto it as he is tackled. His blocking is a deficit most of the time. John Gilmore and Gabe Reid have not caught the ball with consistency, and are rarely put in situations to prove themselves. This is a problem since Clark is nursing an injury, and his blocking either exposes the person with the football or presents predictable situations.
In the space of a single season, the offensive line has gone from an abomination to a plus. Apart from a few breakdowns against Washington, the pass protection has been very good. They have allowed five sacks through three games. This would project to less than thirty for the season, which would be less than half the amount they allowed in 2004. Run blocking has been much improved as well. Ruben Brown and John Tait have played at a high level on the left side, while Olin Kreutz and right tackle Fred Miller have been steady. Terrence Metcalf had some breakdowns in the first game but has improved his play in each of the last two weeks. Thomas Jones is averaging 4.5 yards per carry. The line's efforts in getting Jones consistent yardage has helped contribute to a 40 percent third down conversion rate in spite of the poor state of the passing offense. Communication issues that plagued the line in the Washington game will need to be looked at closely this week as they prepare for their second road game, coming up against Cleveland. Another positive comes from the fact that this isn't a group of rookies. As much as there are good things that have come so far, the potential for it to get even better with a few more games is likely as they continue to gel as a unit.
Ian Scott and Adewale Ogunleye have been big playmakers. Ogunleye is the only consistent pass rusher among the defensive line. Scott has made plays against both the run and pass. Tommie Harris and Alex Brown have done a decent job against the run, but have been disappointments rushing the passer. It takes a good memory to recall Brown's last quarterback sack. Tank Johnson and Michael Haynes have been productive as rotation players but have not made many impact plays. Alfonso Boone went from being a world beater in the preseason to a substitution at end more than tackle. It was a surprise he played as little as he did against the Redskins. The entire group needs to be more disruptive to opposing passers. They're the starting point for a defense that's only allowing 92 rushing yards per game on just 3.0 yards per carry. With a few exceptions, they've shown good discipline against some very good running backs (Clinton Portis, Kevin Jones, and Rudi Johnson).
Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have been making impact plays. Urlacher leads the team in sacks with three. Briggs has had a hand in forcing several turnovers. He still runs past the ball at times, and can be taken out of position on cutbacks. However, the aggressive nature of Lovie Smith and Ron Rivera's schemes minimize his shortcomings and maximize his talents. Hunter Hillenmeyer has been steady, and is not the liability some feared he would be. It will be fun to see what kind of numbers this group puts up over an entire season. They're a big reason the defense is able to hold opposing offenses down against both the rush and pass.
Charles Tillman has had a few breakdowns over the last two weeks that have turned into touchdowns. He's not as good as some people thought he was, but he's a much better corner than he has shown of late. Nathan Vasher completely missed a jam at the line, resulting in a quick touchdown against Cincinnati. Leading the defense with three interceptions, his ball skills are undeniable. Jerry Azumah has been slowly eased into the defense and should be close to fully healthy after preseason hip surgery. Safety Mike Brown is making a smooth transition to strong safety. He's one of the leading tacklers on the team, and is a big part of forced turnovers. Rookie Chris Harris has done a solid job at the other safety, after supplanting incumbent Mike Green. Both Harris and Brown have had some issues in help coverage, but this too should get better as Harris settles in.
Doug Brien has only connected on 1 of 4 field goal attempts. Only one of those attempts was beyond 45 yards, so his performance has been largely unacceptable. His kickoffs have been fair, but any transgressions there could be forgiven if he was hitting closer to his 80 plus percent career rate. Coverage has not been as good as in the past. The Bears have allowed 25.6 yards per return, ranking 28th in the league. Adrian Peterson is worth singling out for poor form. He has not been wrapping up, and appears to only be going for the strip. Justin Gage has been an embarrassment on kickoff returns as the lead blocker for Azumah. It's surprising Azumah has gained any yards at all. The penalty Gage drew for an illegal block last week is almost hilarious, because it would imply Gage blocked someone. Usually he runs through holes as if he's a ball carrier, not touching anyone. At other times he drunkenly staggers around as wedge busters fly past him. Then he falls down after going untouched. Enough already. There is no excuse for leaving him on the field. This is a wasted position. Bobby Wade has looked very natural returning punts.
Offensive Coordinator Ron Turner faces many challenges. He has taken over the league's worst offense, and has been saddled with taking a rookie quarterback through his paces. On the plus side, sacks have dramatically been reduced. This is partially the result of adding Fred Miller and moving John Tait from right to left tackle. The other part has to do with using shorter drops and quicker developing plays. On the minus side, the running game has been the best part of the Bears' offense, and is currently in the middle of the league. It's a minus because the Bears should rely even more heavily on it, and take some of the pressure off Orton. The Lions game should serve as a blueprint for success. There were enough reps for both Jones and Benson. They have the horses to run the ball 35-40 times per game. They don't have the horses at the receiver positions to throw it that often. The Bears are working some shotgun formations into their repertoire. Used in the right situations, this can play to Orton's strengths and hopefully raise their weekly passing totals the additional 50 yards or so they need to reach mediocrity.
Ron Rivera's defense has done well to put people in position to make plays. There have been a few breakdowns that have led to touchdowns, but they have not usually been scheme-related. They've blitzed offenses from all angles to generate a pass rush and to force turnovers. Since Ogunleye has the only sacks on the line, he'll need to continue that strategy until someone else steps up. The frequent use of nickel and dime coverage has led to numerous situations for Azumah, Vasher and Tillman to be on the field at the same time, at the expense of playing time for Hunter Hillenmeyer. This underscores Jerry Angelo's lack of concern to add a high profile linebacker via the draft or free agency.
BYE WEEK GAME BALLS
Mike Brown on Marcus Pollard