Smith Ready to Put the Pads On Now

Even head coach Lovie Smith admits his Chicago Bears still have a long way to go, especially since they will not even put the pads on for another six weeks, but he liked what he saw from his ballclub throughout the offseason program. Get the Inside Slant from the NFL experts at Scout.com.

INSIDE SLANT
With Jay Cutler under center, the Bears offense could look a lot different than last year's mediocre unit that finished 26th in total yards.

Cutler's talent was undeniable during the offseason program, and he has been quick to assume a leadership role without overstepping his bounds.

"When he came here, I started evaluating him from that point on," head coach Lovie Smith said. "Everything we've asked him to do, he's been able to do. He's been here every day working hard. Each day he worked more into a leadership role, and I don't think there's any question right now what his role will be on this football team this coming season: to perform well. Of course he can throw the ball, but also taking command of the offense and being that face that's out front."

But the upgrade at quarterback won't be the only change.

Don't expect running back Matt Forte to carry such a heavy burden this year. He's absolutely the heart and soul of the ground game and the best pass receiver of the backs, but 379 touches a year is a recipe for early burnout.

"We're a running football team," Smith said. "It's great to have Jay here, but we're a running football team and that won't change. So the offensive line and, of course, what Matt Forte can do was big for us, and we got a lot of work done with that."

But Smith is hoping Kevin Jones can provide more backup for Forte. Jones should be an effective alternative in short-yardage situations after a subpar 2008 season, during which he did not appear to be all the way back from late 2007 knee surgery.

"A guy like Kevin Jones has really stepped up," Smith said. "I feel like he's really healthy for the first time in a while."

If 11-on-11 sessions during OTA practices are any indication, tight end Greg Olsen could have a monster year. He and Cutler seem to already have established a rapport.

"I really liked what Greg Olsen has been able to do this spring," Smith said. "Of course, we know his talent. But I've really seen him move more toward being a dominant player always."


Olsen was targeted rather frequently in the passing game by Cutler during OTA workouts.
David Banks/AP Images

NEWS AND NOTES
LB Brian Urlacher did not practice in Wednesday's final OTA because of a strained groin, but he did some running on the side. Afterward, Smith calmed any fears about Urlacher's health, saying he was back to the "old Brian."

"Once you've gone through an entire offseason," Smith said, "a lot of players have sore muscles. No more than that. I'm putting Brian along with quite a few other players that we have right now, and we try to take precautions with the guys at this point of the season.

"When I say he is back to old form, we haven't performed the way we need to, period. Brian has been a part of that. But all you can do in the offseason is get your body ready to go. There are no issues with his neck, back or anything like that. He is excited about where our football team is. We feel like we're going to be pretty good, and he's one of our leaders." …

The defensive star of Wednesday's OTA practice was backup corner Trumaine McBride.

In one three-play sequence during the 11-on-11 period, McBride, a seventh-round pick out of Mississippi in 2007, had an interception followed by back-to-back pass break-ups. The pick came after a Jay Cutler high fastball glanced off Devin Hester's hands and into McBride's grasp a few yards downfield.

Cutler wasn't pleased with the outcome of the play, even though the regular season is almost three months away.

"This is the time when we have to have everything going right," Cutler said, "and if it's not, we have to get it corrected. That's the first time I think it's happened to Devin like that, so he's going to be fine. It's going to happen. It's going to happen in games, but we just have to try to limit it as much as possible." …

S Kevin Payne seems to have a solid hold on the starting spot, but the free safety position is clear as mud at this point.

Corey Graham, a converted cornerback, would provide better coverage than any of the other contenders, and he is physical enough to help in run support. Craig Steltz has been getting most of the work with the first team, but he is far from entrenched.

"Payne has played a lot of football for us here," Smith said. "Steltz [is] in that category of guys that have really made a lot of improvement and made plays. We feel good about him."

The Bears also signed free agent veterans Josh Bullocks and Glenn Earl and drafted Al Afalava in the sixth round. …

Expect to see a lot of 2008 second-round pick Marcus Harrison in the defensive tackle rotation, along with rookie Jarron Gilbert. Harrison could even wind up starting ahead of incumbent nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek, although it would be a mistake to forget about veteran Anthony Adams.

DE Israel Idonije is primed for his best season ever, and he should back up both starters, Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown. Mark Anderson is playing for a roster spot after two years in decline.

They are all expected to benefit from the addition of assistant head coach/defensive line Rod Marinelli.

"Defensively, I talk a lot about Rod being one of our most important free agents that we've gotten in the offseason, and I think that held true," Smith said. "He has done a super job with the line. I have seen improvement in all of our line, Adewale, Alex, Mark Anderson, Israel Idonije, and all of our inside players."

QUOTE TO NOTE
"We still have to come together as a team. I'm excited about what we have done in shorts, but we need to get in pads. We'll find a lot more about our football team then, especially with some of our linemen we brought in." – Head coach Lovie Smith on looking forward to training camp.


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