A Major Step Forward

Lake Forest - Clearly the Bears have a ways to go until they're as good as they thought they were before the Panthers humbled them Sunday.

"I talked to the team about taking steps," Smith said. "We took a big step, but there are more steps we have to take to ultimately get to the top. We're not there yet, but we will be."

The 29-21 divisional-round loss to Carolina highlighted some of the Bears' shortcomings and will give Smith and his coaching staff, along with general manager Jerry Angelo, plenty to think about in the offseason. Still, Smith said the Bears are progressing at a pace he envisioned after taking the job from Dick Jauron following the 7-9 finish in 2003. Last season the Bears fell to 5-11, but finished 11-6 this season.

"We're definitely on pace," Smith said. "I wouldn't say necessarily ahead (of pace) based on where we started. But progress has been made."

The Panthers showed the Bears how far they still have to go, but they've already come a long way.

"Winning 11 games, turning it around, winning an NFC North title, establishing ourselves as one of the (top) teams in the NFC," Smith said, listing the accomplishments. "We'll build on this effort and this season. We have our core players in place. So there's no reason to think we can't accomplish more next year."

The Bears won't have to replace a lot of key players because of departures.

Of the defensive starters, all are expected back. They're all are under contract through next season, except for strong-side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, who will be a restricted free agent in the offseason but is not expected to leave.

"I want to be a Bear," said Hillenmeyer, who was seventh on the team with 71 tackles. "I don't see any reason why I wouldn't be."

Offensively, right guard Terrence Metcalf is an unrestricted free agent who the Bears will not get into a bidding war over, especially after recently getting a six-year extension done with Roberto Garza. Although Metcalf was the starter and Garza the backup, there was little if any difference in their performance.

According to Smith, most of the changes to the roster will be minor.

"I think we'll tweak our roster this year," he said. "I don't see any major upgrades that we need. When you win 11 games, you're headed in the right direction with what you're doing scheme wise, personnel wise, everything. But those 11 wins aren't enough, and I think just adding a couple guys will hopefully get us over the top."

Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith exposed the Bears' need for better cover cornerbacks.

After watching Smith post one of the top five receiving games in NFL playoff history, the Bears' search for improvement is likely to begin on the corner.

Nathan Vasher made the Pro Bowl on the strength of eight interceptions and some exceptional returns, but one isn't enough. Charles Tillman was up and down during the regular season and bottomed out against Smith. Nickel cornerback Jerry Azumah is an unrestricted free agent with an arthritic hip that kept him sidelined for much of Sunday's game. If he gets a big offer in the offseason, it won't be from the Bears.

"In the secondary, yes we could use a few more guys," Lovie Smith said. "But I'll say that about a couple of other positions, too. We need some depth at quite a few positions."

The Panthers were able to take advantage of weaknesses in the Bears' secondary by moving Smith from side to side and occasionally lining him up inside in the slot.

"They do a god job of moving him around, and he made plays at all the different positions," Smith said. "That's why you need at least two or three good corners where (opponents) can't get that (unfair) matchup, and our system isn't set up that way. Ideally we would like to play a corner to the left and a corner to the right and have two good guys we feel comfortable doing that with."

Sunday the Bears were short one corner.

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