Nate Caminata: Other than the blowout at Detroit, Chicago's season has been interestingly narrow. Five of their seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less. Is this more typical, keep-it-close Bears football, or are they maybe as close to being a mediocre .500 team as they are a legitimate playoff contender?
John Crist: I could make both sides of this argument until I'm blue in the face. On the one hand, the Bears are a few plays away from potentially being 7-0 after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory late against the Panthers, Buccaneers, and Falcons in stunning fashion – especially that 11-second change of fortune in Atlanta. On the other hand, Chicago could be 3-4 or worse and probably should be had Philadelphia been a little more creative on the shadows of the goal line late in that ballgame.
This isn't an especially good or bad football team, but the offense has been much better than expected and the defense has the personnel to be upper-echelon once again provided they get healthy.
NC: With an opportunity to take sole ownership of the division lead, and hosting a winless Detroit team, is this a potential "letdown" game by the Bears?
JC: Normally I would have to agree with you, but the fact that Detroit – divisional-rival Detroit, remember – is winless might actually help the Bears be a little more focused in this game. Lovie Smith had an extra seven days to drive home the fact that this team is dangerous, especially since the Lions have played much better in their last three games and gave the Vikings, Texans, and Redskins everything they could handle. Defensive tackle Israel Idonije talked in the locker room Wednesday about being undefeated and heavily favored against a bad Dolphins club in 2006, but Miami slapped the Bears all over Soldier Field to knock Chicago from the ranks of the unbeaten.
While the Midway Monsters are 4-3 and currently tied atop the NFC North, they can't afford too many more losses – especially within the division – because a wild-card berth is quite unlikely after dropping decisions to conference opponents Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta already.
NC: Chicago has always been notorious for its defense. But they're allowing 21 points a game, ranked 26th in sacks and have been ravaged by injuries in the secondary. Also, they haven't exactly been playing offensive juggernauts. Is the bottom beginning to fall out on the Bears once-staunch defense? What is the reason for their defensive faults?
JC: There is a lot of talk around Chicago that perhaps the best days of the Cover-2 scheme are in the rearview mirror as offenses have learned how to attack it, but I believe the demise is more a product of the players and coaches than the system itself. Lance Briggs said on his radio show the other day that, in reality, defensive coordinator Bob Babich has called much more Cover-3 looks this year than usual, lending one to believe that all the injuries have necessitated a fairly conservative approach. While this defense looked better than ever harassing Peyton Manning and Co. to no end in the season opener, Gus Frerotte was able to stand and deliver in the pocket from start to finish two Sundays ago.
Not only has Babich come under fire, especially because he's perceived to be Smith's puppet by some, but Pro Bowlers like Tommie Harris, Brian Urlacher, and Mike Brown just aren't making plays as they have in the past.
NC: What has allowed Kyle Orton – he of the 91.4 passer rating – to be so efficient as the Bears' starting signal-caller? Is there still a wait-and-see approach with how he'll fair in the second half of the season, or has he made everyone in the organization a believer?
JC: For some reason, Orton is being given more freedom at the line of scrimmage to call audibles and make adjustments than Rex Grossman ever had, and Orton is the kind of quarterback who doesn't mind taking what a defense gives him as opposed to worrying about the final stat sheet – it's no secret that Grossman was never 100 percent satisfied with a win unless he also had a big day through the air. Orton's growth and maturity has been evident since the first day of training camp, something for which you must give him credit since he didn't seem to take his job very seriously his first few years in the league. Now he's a team captain, an honor Grossman never had bestowed upon him, and making a push for the Bears' first Pro-Bowl nod at the quarterback position since Jim McMahon in 1985.
There's no reason to rush into a contract extension with Orton since he's signed through 2009, although most Bears fans would rejoice if general manager Jerry Angelo decided to go ahead and open up his checkbook.
NC: Matt Forte is on pace for a 1,000-yard season. Has the rookie running back exceeded expectations already? Do you believe he's in position to be a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate? And how is former Lions running back Kevin Jones doing these days in the Windy City?
JC: Along with Tennessee's Chris Johnson, Forte is absolutely on the short list for Offensive Rookie of the Year and has single-handedly made the offense more versatile. Cedric Benson was an utter waste in the passing game a year ago because he couldn't catch the ball and was a terrible blocker, while Forte is a fantastic recever and doesn't mind doing some of the dirty work in pass protection. Although he's averaged under three yards per carry in three of his last four outings, he has faced a ton of eight-man fronts designed to stop him – perhaps partially explaining Orton's success under center.
Jones is way ahead of schedule coming back from last year's knee injury and has looked good in spurts, but it's too hard to get Forte off the field right now based on how well he's playing.
Be on the lookout for Part III of this three-part series on Friday. To go back and read Part I, where Nate answers five questions from John, Click Here.
Behind Enemy Lines: Part II
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