Bears Inside Slant: February 16th

The Chicago Bears suffered through a miserable season, yet the Super Bowl champion Giants just proved that remarkable turnarounds are possible in the NFL. Most importantly, the Midway Monsters are still capable of playing top-notch defense. Get the Inside Slant from the NFL experts at

The Giants' Super Bowl victory is a further example that while offense may sell tickets and offensive players get the supermodels and lucrative endorsements, defense still wins championships – and that's good news for the Bears.

Quarterback Rex Grossman, who may or may not be re-signed as an unrestricted free agent, can still only dream of elevating his game the way Eli Manning did during the Giants' run to the title. And the Bears don't appear to have even one running back as talented as New York's Brandon Jacobs or Ahmad Bradshaw. The Bears also don't have a wide receiver comparable to Plaxico Burress, especially if Bernard Berrian leaves via free agency, and their offensive line is rickety with age.

But it wasn't the Giants' offense that spoiled the Patriots' undefeated season. It was the defense, and defense remains the heart of this Bears' team. It's the side of the ball where the majority of their impact players reside, and defense remains the Bears' best – and maybe only – chance to get back to the playoffs next season.

Despite the Bears' 7-9 record, the unfortunate injuries and the disappointing statistics, their defense is capable of playing as well as the Giants and of putting almost as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The Giants were able to practically eliminate Randy Moss from the Patriots' offense for most of the game, even though their cornerbacks are not considered as talented as the Bears' Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher – whose 12-game groin injury was a killer last season. And the Giants held the Patriots to just 45 rushing yards, even though none of their interior defensive linemen are as talented as the Bears' Tommie Harris and none of their linebackers are as good as Brian Urlacher.

The Giants led the NFL in sacks during the regular season, but the Bears weren't far behind finishing sixth. And that was with defensive end Mark Anderson suffering through a sophomore slump that cut his sack total from 12 to five and a rash of injuries at defensive tackle that bordered on an epidemic, not including Harris, who played hurt for most of the season.

During the regular season the Bears actually allowed 3 points less than the Giants, as the two teams finished 16th and 17th, respectively, in the league standings.

The Bears may have a long way to go offensively, but when it comes to their defense, they're not that far from being a playoff team. And once you get to the postseason, it's still defense that makes the difference.

Just ask the Patriots.

The Bears aren't about to reveal the extent of Brian Urlacher's neck injury until perhaps the day before training camp starts in late July.

LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images

But if the team's attitude toward free-agent-to-be Lance Briggs changes on Feb. 29 or later, it will be an early indication that they're concerned about Urlacher's future – even though it doesn't appear that the injury or the surgery are career threatening. The Bears have been resigned to letting Briggs leave since he declined their six-year, $33 million offer nearly two years ago.

But they will be forced to change their tune if Urlacher's neck injury, which required early-February surgery, is considered a threat to his continued excellence. Letting a three-time Pro Bowl player like Briggs walk away when you have a healthy six-time Pro Bowler in Urlacher to anchor the defense is a business decision the Bears felt they could afford to make. But going into battle next season without Briggs and with Urlacher's health tenuous could undermine the Bears' chances of returning to the playoffs and the Super Bowl, which they still consider a very real possibility. …

Green Bay used a four-game win streak at the end of the 2006 season as a springboard to a 13-3 season in 2007, and the Bears hope their only "win streak" of 2007, victories in the final two games, can do the same. But general manager Jerry Angelo isn't getting carried away, although he was encouraged by the 68 points that one of the league's worst offenses was able to put up in the final two weeks – 35-7 over the Packers and 33-25 over the Saints.

"Those were two good football games," Angelo said. "I'm not going to get euphoric and say that's who we're going to be in `08. But it was good to see that we could still play that kind of football. You did see consistency, more so on the offense. You did see the kind of defense that we're accustomed to seeing, and again you saw good special teams."

It was enough, though, to convince Angelo that he didn't need to undertake a major housecleaning in the offseason to get back to the playoffs after a 7-9 season.

"We played well as a team, but we weren't able to do that throughout," he said. "Does that mean we're going to have to make [wholesale] changes to get to that point? I don't feel we need to." …

The Bears finished No. 1 in the NFL on special teams in 2007 for the second straight season in rankings compiled annually by Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin.

Gosselin ranks the league's 32 teams in 22 categories and assigns points according to their standing – one for the best, 32 for the worst. The Bears' score of 236.5 was 5.5 points better than the second-place Chargers. In addition to Devin Hester's NFL-record six kick-return touchdowns, the Bears also topped the NFL with eight blocked kicks in 2007 – twice as many as any other team. They led the league in kickoff coverage, ranked third in punt coverage and second in field goals. Plus they sent two players to the Pro Bowl, Hester and coverage ace Brendon Ayanbadejo.

"It's very special," said special teams coordinator Dave Toub. "It says a lot about our guys and how important it is to them that we are the best. That's always our goal. Our goal is obviously to win the Super Bowl. But our No. 2 goal is to be the best special teams unit in the league. And to do that two years in a row, it's a great honor. I'm very proud of the players." …

The 2007 season was typical of many recent (unsuccessful) Bears seasons in that there was a lack of continuity at the quarterback position.

"It's always tough when you play three quarterbacks, no matter what the reason," head coach Lovie Smith said. "If you play three quarterbacks, no matter what the reasons are, it's always tough to get into your rhythm and things like that."

Solidifying the QB spot is a major concern this offseason, but for now it's anybody's guess how the position will look when training camp starts. Rex Grossman, who played poorly in the first three games of 2007 and was benched, is an unrestricted free agent who may or may not be back but certainly won't be handed the starting position without earning it. Grossman's fate appeared sealed until backup Brian Griese suffered a shoulder injury after starting Games 4-9 last season. In his second go-round, Grossman was much better but still far from superb. Grossman's knee injury allowed No. 3 Kyle Orton to get three starts after a two-year stint on the bench, and he showed enough to be given a chance to compete in 2008 – at least for the backup spot. The former fourth-round pick is under contract for another season at a bargain rate. Griese, who was a decent backup, period, probably won't be back at almost $3 million a year if Grossman is re-signed.

"I've come to the point now where I just say that, 'After the catch, he's the best.' There is nobody better." – Bears special teams coach Dave Toub on Devin Hester

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