Brian McIntyre: In previous seasons, an injury to a player like Brian Urlacher would cause many to write off the Chicago Bears' postseason chances. Has the addition of Jay Cutler changed that, and if so, how?
John Crist: When Urlacher was shelved with a bum hamstring for half of 2004, which was coach Lovie Smith's first season in Chicago, the defense totally fell apart on the way to 5-11. I've been on record for quite some time that Lance Briggs is the best linebacker on this team and has been for a few years now, but Urlacher is much more difficult to replace because of all the things the Bears ask their middle linebacker to do – from a mental perspective as well as physically. Both Hunter Hillenmeyer and Nick Roach have started games in the middle during the Pro Bowler's absence, and the coaching staff has been smart enough not to ask either to be a pure Urlacher replacement because that would be unfair.
Smith deserves a lot of credit for calling a more creative scheme and getting this defensive unit back to respectability after back-to-back disappointing years, masking the loss of Urlacher in the process.
BM: Bears general manager Jerry Angelo didn't pull the trigger on adding a high-profile target for Cutler in the offseason. What's the skinny on Cutler's young receiving targets?
JC: Devin Hester will never be a classic No. 1 in this league no matter how much this franchise wants him to be, but he's a better route runner than most experts think, his hands are very good and the big play is always going to be on the table because of his open-field ability. Cutler worked with Earl Bennett for one year at Vanderbilt, and it hasn't taken long for the two former Commodores to get acquainted with each other again – he's more of a possession target. The newbie is fifth-round pick Johnny Knox, who was originally just thought to be a speed merchant with his 4.3 40-yard dash but has thrived as the third option because the Bears are only asking him to play the X, or split end, position.
Perhaps not having a classic primary target like Brandon Marshall has made Cutler spread the football around better than he did in Denver, plus the tight end combo of Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark provides a dependable security blanket.
BM: The Bears' pass rush is tied for the fourth most sacks in the NFL this season with 14. Is this more a function of personnel, Lovie Smith calling the plays, the addition of Rod Marinelli as defensive line coach or all three?
JC: The simple way to answer questions like this is to say "all of the above," but I'm of the belief that Marinelli's influence has been worth its weight in gold to this point. Adewale Ogunleye only had 5.0 sacks all of last season but has 4.5 already this season in just four games, Alex Brown looks better than ever and Tommie Harris – he's never going to be as good as he once was with that troublesome knee – is more productive at this point than he was a year ago. Brown told me earlier this season that even though he's a veteran in this league and thought he knew everything there was to know about defensive line play, Marinelli has shown him some things he had never thought of before.
The scheme has definitely been more aggressive with Smith at the controls instead of defensive coordinator Bob Babich, but Marinelli's knowledge and enthusiasm have been invaluable.
BM: Hunter Hillenmeyer is battling a rib injury and may not play on Sunday. What can you tell us about his replacement, Nick Roach?
JC: As tends to be the case with the Bears when they sign lesser-heralded players, Roach was originally plucked off the San Diego practice squad in 2007 because he had a reputation for being a demon on special teams. Many thought he may be a new Brendon Ayanbadejo after the Pro Bowl special teamer left for Baltimore in free agency two offseasons ago, but Roach ended up as the starter on the strong side after Hillenmeyer went down with injury last year. He was since beaten out for that job by free agent addition Pisa Tinoisamoa, but with Urlacher on IR and Hillenmeyer banged up again, Roach has gotten a look in the middle – and members of the coaching staff like what they see.
Roach is probably better suited to play on the weak side because he is a little undersized and can run from sideline to sideline, but he won't get a chance to play there any time soon with Briggs in town and playing at an All-Pro level.
BM: Matt Ryan is going to see a secondary that looks quite a bit different than the one he faced last October. Which DBs should he be targeting?
JC: Not that the then-rookie didn't play well or anything, but Ryan faced a depleted Bears secondary last year in Atlanta – Marcus Hamilton, who gave up that infamous deep out to Michael Jenkins in the closing seconds, didn't have a chance to make this team in training camp. Former Pro Bowl cornerback Nathan Vasher has been replaced in the starting lineup by second-year pro Zack Bowman, and while Bowman was overwhelmed by Calvin Johnson in Week 4, Vasher is a shell of the player he used to be. Believe it or not, Al Afalava may be Chicago's best safety right now even though he's a rookie sixth rounder.
Kevin Payne comes in to play free safety when the Bears go to the nickel package, and since he's a strong safety by trade, that's someone Ryan may look to exploit down the field if he's forced to run stride for stride with the likes of Roddy White.
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Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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