Doug Farrar: What everyone wants to know about Kyle Orton is: which Kyle Orton is the real one? The one who riddled the pathetic Detroit secondary last week, or the one who put up iffy performances against the Bucs and Eagles before? Is he getting the hang of this quarterback thing, or was he just beating up on a bad defense?
John Crist: You have to take into account the fact that this is the first time in a four-year career that Orton has truly been The Man under center for this franchise. Sure, he started 15 games as a rookie, but that was only because the coaching staff was desperate after Rex Grossman went down with an injury in the preseason – would you have handed the keys to Chad Hutchinson or Jeff Blake? While it's natural that Orton would be subjected to somewhat of a learning curve over the course of 2008, he's looked pretty good for stretches in all five games and finally put in all together at Detroit this past Sunday.
I'm not saying that Orton is on his way to a Pro Bowl berth, plus there's no denying that the Lions are just dreadful right now, but the former Purdue Boilermaker has the confidence of his locker room and is getting increasingly comfortable every day.
DF: Matt Forte has proven to be a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate, but there's already some concern about how much the Bears are using him. Do you see the Bears managing his workload carefully through the season, or is it a situation where they have so few playmakers that they have to ride whatever horse shows up? What other options are there in the backfield?
JC: Forte was getting way too much action the first four games of the season, so the Bears pretty much held him out of the second half in Week 5 because their blowout of Detroit provided a prime opportunity to rest the prized rookie. Head coach Lovie Smith knows that Forte is his only true playmaker on offense, and his desire to have a dominant running game means he'll be on the field more often than not in crunch time. When asked after Week 3 about subjecting Forte to too much punishment this early in the season, Smith responded that his primary ball carrier is still young and full of energy – he also admitted that the offense just isn't as good with No. 22 on the sideline.
I've been saying for weeks that backup Kevin Jones needs to have a bigger role in the running game, not only to save Forte but because he's a very good player in his own right.
DF: How has the receiver situations shaken out so far? Brandon Lloyd has been the most productive, but he's got injury issues. Who else is in the mix, and how is the Devin Hester experiment working out?
JC: Lloyd was starting to establish himself as the featured receiver in this passing attack with a 124-yard effort in Week 3 against Tampa Bay, but he banged a knee in Week 4 against Philadelphia and hasn't been able to play or practice ever since. With Lloyd in street clothes last Sunday, Orton was still able to sling the ball all over Ford Field with slot specialist Rashied Davis, veteran Marty Booker, and the aforementioned Hester getting all the snaps at wideout. The tight end combo of Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen – both of them capable of creating mismatches in the secondary – has helped cover for the fact that this group isn't particularly deep or talented.
Hester is still a work in progress and may never become a No. 1 option despite Smith's claim that he can, but he did catch five passes for 66 yards and a TD against the Lions and looked pretty polished doing it.
DF: Do you see the situation with Tommie Harris as a long-term problem? How far can the Bears go in disciplining their No. 1 defender before the rest of the defense feels the effects?
JC: The Harris situation is a curious one because not only is he a terrific football player when operating at full capacity, but he's also a terrific person and a good candidate to win Man-of-the-Year honors in this league one day. Harris has been hounded by injuries for a few seasons now, which gave him an excuse to stray from his faith and forget just how lucky he is to be where he is in life. But listening to him talk to the media after practice Wednesday, he sounds like the happy-go-lucky Harris once again and claims that he's more appreciative than ever of the opportunities that have been presented to him.
Fortunately for the Bears, they are deep at D-tackle with the rotation of Dusty Dvoracek, Israel Idonije, Anthony Adams, and rookie Marcus Harrison all performing well in Harris' stead, but I'm expecting the three-time Pro Bowler to return to form before long.
DF: The NFC North has proven to be a bit more wide open than I thought. The Packers are trying to find their feet on offense and dealing with key defensive injuries. The Vikings still have no passing game to speak of whatsoever. The Lions are, well, the Lions. What do the Bears have to do through the rest of the season to steal this division? Do they have the potential to do so?
JC: If you ask me, the Bears need to keep doing what they've been doing most of the season: run the football consistently (ninth in the NFL), stop the run just as consistently, (fourth), and keep playing sound special teams in every phase. This club should be 5-0 right now since they gave away double-digit leads in the second half to both the Panthers and Buccaneers in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively, which is doubly impressive since they've gotten almost nothing from what has been their ace in the hole the last two seasons: Hester and his return-game wizardry. The Midway Monsters have done a much better job dealing with injuries than they did a year ago, both offensively and defensively.
The NFC North is far from the best division around, so there's no reason why the Bears can't put together 10 wins with a favorable schedule and their twice-a-year rivals failing to meet expectations.
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