Matthew Postins: Just in the past few weeks the Bears have placed Fred Miller, Nathan Vasher and Dusty Dvoracek on injured reserve, ending their seasons. Yet, the Bears are still in the playoff hunt at 7-6. Aside from what certainly is a watered-down NFC North, what other factors have kept the Bears in the race?
John Crist: I suppose the right players are getting hurt, as Miller was nothing more than an over-the-hill backup, Vasher was routinely outplayed by second-year pro Corey Graham, and Dvoracek shouldn't have been taking all those snaps from Anthony Adams anyway. You can't hide the fact that the NFC North has been fairly mediocre most of the year, with the Vikings inexplicably going with Tarvaris Jackson under center to start the season, the Packers falling apart defensively, and the Lions being, well, the Lions. I'm not here to tell you the Bears are a great team and have fought their way into contention in the division, although they have played better than most every beat writer in the Windy City expected back in training camp.
It's going to be very difficult for Chicago to make the postseason since Minnesota now holds all the tiebreakers that could possibly come into play, but the Bears do have a much easier schedule down the stretch than their purple-clad rivals do.
MP: Some people probably wondered what the Bears were thinking when they took Matt Forte. But with well over 1,000 yards rushing and a team-leading 53 catches, the entire Bears offense is flowing through the rookie. If he's the Offensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL, make his case.
JC: I wanted to give Forte a Pro-Bowl nod, but I just couldn't justify leaving Clinton Portis of the Redskins, Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, or Michael Turner of the Falcons without a ticket to Hawaii. That being said, Forte will be my selection for Offensive Rookie of the Year no matter what happens the rest of the way. While Atlanta's Matt Ryan has led the Falcons' crazy turnaround and Tennessee's Chris Johnson has keyed the Titans' dominant running game, Forte has single-handedly carried the Bears offense and hasn't made so much as one rookie mistake along the way.
Last week he broke Hall of Famer Gale Sayers' mark for total yards from scrimmage for a Bears' rookie, and he sure looks to be a lock to break Anthony Thomas' rookie record of 1,183 yards rushing – Thomas was subsequently the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2001, by the way.
MP: This is Kyle Orton's second full season as a starting quarterback. Most notable to me is that his passer rating has jumped nearly 25 points from his rookie year in 2005, when he started 15 games. His interceptions are also down. Maturity and a good running game are factors. But what else is making Orton a solid player in Chicago, and is he the guy that will ultimately be their QB of the future?
JC: The easiest way to show that Orton has enjoyed a great season at the game's most important position for the Bears is to compare him to his infamous predecessor, Rex Grossman. While Grossman was capable of some sensational performances if he was feeling it, he could also lose a game by himself because of his penchant for turnovers and other big blunders. Orton hasn't necessarily delivered a lot of 100-plus passer ratings (just two), but he's managed to avoid those single-digit stinkers that Grossman put together from time to time.
I believe the Bears could do much worse than have Orton at quarterback for the long haul since premier passers never make it to free agency and the NFL draft is a crap shoot, although I wouldn't break the bank for him just yet – he's signed through 2009, so what's the rush to back up the money truck?
MP: We're used to Devin Hester having five or six return touchdowns by now. But this season he's scored no return TDs, although he is Chicago's second-leading receiver and has three scores on offense. So what gives? Is this a case of opposing coaches finally figuring out what it takes to stop Hester, or is he devoting so much time to offense that it's hampering his special teams-starring role?
JC: People tend to forget just how special Hester was his first two seasons in the league, especially when two or three kick-return touchdowns is considered an incredible accomplishment and worthy of a Pro Bowl selection. The fact that he scored five times as a rookie off punts and kickoffs and then delivered six more this past year is nothing short of unprecedented, so it's perfectly reasonable for him to revert back to the mean nowadays. That being said, I unquestionsbly think the Bears put too much on his plate in 2008 by expecting him to be a savant as a return specialist and a starting wide receiver at the same time, so pulling him in favor of Danieal Manning on kickoffs, which was done a few weeks ago, was a wise move.
Hester is never going to develop into a No. 1 wideout no matter what head coach Lovie Smith says, so I believe the Bears should yank him from the starting lineup on offense, let him get 10-15 snaps per game out of the slot, and make him focus on special teams again – the Bears have self-neutralized the greatest weapon in the NFL.
MP: The Bears defense has always been a potent unit. But this year they've leaked like a sieve against the pass, ranking 28th in the NFL. It's almost un-Bear like. It's a definite liability against a team like the Saints. What factors have put a dent in Chicago's pass defense?
JC: The Bears lack a cover corner in the classic sense of the term, even though Charles Tillman is Pro Bowl-caliber on the left side, plus neither Mike Brown at strong safety nor Kevin Payne at free safety is much of a cover guy. Teams have learned to exploit this version of the Cover-2 system with slant passes and corner routes, which traditionally are the weak spots in a scheme such as this one. All that aside, an inconsistent pass rush from the front four deserves the lion's share of the blame, as the secondary is simply being asked to run with receivers too long.
The Bears have proven they can sack the quarterback when facing a weak offensive line like St. Louis or Jacksonville, but way too many enemy passers have played an entire 60 minutes of football against them and hardly needed to wash their jersey after the game.
To read Part II of this three-part series, where Matthew answers five questions from John, Click Here.
Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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