Bears Cup Runneth Over

Lake Forest - Despite losing their starting quarterback before the start of the season the Bears have a two-game lead in the NFC North because of their depth. It appears the team should only get stronger with the return of injured players on the mend.

The Bears have been able to survive this season despite having key components miss time.

When Rex Grossman went down on Aug. 12th against the Rams many assumed the team's chances of winning might have followed. The picture darkened when Chad Hutchinson failed miserably as the starter and was cut less than two weeks after being named Grossman's replacement.

The Bears had to turn to a rookie fourth round pick to lead the offense. Despite having the lowest passer rating (62.5) of 30 starting quarterbacks listed in the league rankings, Orton has exceeded expectations and has played mistake free football for the most part.

Whether Grossman sees the field this season or not, the team suddenly has depth at the position that has plagued them for years and a true open competition can take place next season.

On the offensive line three of the five starters have missed at least one game. John St. Clair filled in one game at left tackle for John Tait and another for Fred Miller on the right side. Roberto Garza started four games for Ruben Brown.

Center Olin Kreutz is tied with Patrick Mannelly as the longest tenured Bears. During his seven seasons in Chicago, Kreutz has played with a lot of offensive linemen, but he believes the current group may be the best.

"It's pretty close," Kreutz said. "This line and 2001 line are pretty close to each other."

The '01 unit had the luxury of starting the same five members for all 16 games. The talent level between the two can be debated, but this '05 version is clearly deeper.

"Everybody knows how to play football everyone knows what's expected of them," Kreutz said.

Thomas Jones is having a Pro Bowl season, but when he went down with various injuries Adrian Peterson and Cedric Benson stepped up. All three are averaging over 4.0 yards per carry and have at least 200 yards rushing.

As Bradley began to emerge as a threat opposite Muhsin Muhammad, his season ended with a knee injury. In last four games Justin Gage has caught 14 balls, including a career high seven receptions against the Panthers.

"We've been close a few times with Mark and now Justin of finding that second guy and getting a lot of production out of him," Orton said. "(Gage) had a good game this week, hopefully he has a good game next week and just keeps on doing that."

There could more help on the way as Bernard Berrian continues to rehab from thumb surgery, while Airese Currie was activated to the 53-man roster on Wednesday after spending the first 10 games of the season on the non-football injury list. Both receivers have speed, which is something the position could use since the loss of Bradley.

With Bryan Johnson and Jason McKie sidelined for most of the first half, Marc Edwards was only true fullback on the roster. While the move may have been cold, the Bears believed Johnson and McKie were more talented than Edwards and he was waived.

Nathan Vasher would have challenged for a starting role no matter what, but took the job quicker when Jerry Azumah needed preseason surgery for the second straight year.

Vasher is tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions. Azumah, who had four picks the past two seasons, is now the third cornerback on the depth chart.

Depth hasn't just shown up when a player has gone down with an injury.

Chris Harris replaced Mike Green at free safety a week into the regular season. The rookie has started the past nine games and has become a reliable starter on the league's top rated defense.

The defensive line rotation has produced 20 sacks. Starters Adewale Ogunleye, Tommie Harris and Alex Brown have combined for 13 of those sacks. Reserve DT Tank Johnson also has three sacks, while Michael Haynes, Israel Idonije and Alfonso Boone have all gotten to the quarterback at least one time.

All of last season, eight different players had interceptions. Through ten games seven different members of the defense have already come up with picks.

After waiving QB Kurt Kittner and WR Carl Ford from the 53-man roster and elevating Currie, there are only 52 players on the active roster. Although it will likely be filled soon, it speaks to the depth the team has to carry an open spot on the roster this deep into the season.

If something unforeseen were to occur down the stretch, the Bears have the manpower to overcome injuries, which hasn't been the case in recent seasons.

"It definitely adds to the confidence just knowing our team is getting stronger, getting players back," said head coach Lovie Smith. "It definitely gives us more confidence."


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