Tim Yotter: The Bears are 5-3, but they have only one win against a quality team (Green Bay). Is there a cautious feeling in Chicago when viewing their prospects for the rest of the season as their schedule turns more difficult in the second half?
John Crist: Yes, the Bears are in contention for the postseason and have managed to right the ship following a two-game losing streak at home before the bye in Week 8, but this has been the hardest team for me to get a read on since I started covering them. With all the changes on both sides of the ball, not to mention a near-complete overhaul of the coaching staff, so many things had to go right in order for Chicago to be a winner in 2010, and for the most part that was happening during its 3-0 start. But the Bears were exposed as a potential pretender in Week 4 at the Giants, when the offensive line allowed an NFL-record nine sacks in the first half alone, and although the fifth different configuration up front finally protected the passer this past Sunday, "cautious" is indeed a good way to describe this fan base right now.
Week 10 is critical for the Bears because they can essentially bury the Vikings once and for all with a win and make it a two-team race in the NFC North between them and the Packers, while a loss would officially put Minnesota back on track.
TY: How confident are you that the Bears have turned the corner when it comes to protecting Jay Cutler, and how much is it his fault for holding the ball too long in Mike Martz's offense?
JC: You can look at the stat sheet from Week 9 and see that the Bears only allowed Cutler to be sacked once in Toronto against the Bills, which is an improvement since he had gone down anywhere from three to nine times his last four starts, but don't be fooled into thinking this team has figured things out up front. As I mentioned above, Sunday was the fifth different O-line combination employed in eight games, and while injuries have played a part in the turnover to some degree, flat-out ineffectiveness cannot be brushed aside. Buffalo still got a decent amount of pressure on Cutler, although he did a good job buying extra time with his legs and Martz went away from calling so many seven-step drops.
Sure, Cutler deserves some blame for not getting the ball out quickly enough, plus Martz has made it more difficult on his QB by periodically forgetting about the running game, but the offensive line continues to be the Achilles' heel of this club.
TY: The Bears clearly don't have a go-to receiver yet. How have they been able to move the ball without a big-time receiver and still having troubles in the running game, and why isn't Chester Taylor being used more, especially in the passing game?
JC: I'm getting to the point where I would argue it's better NOT to have a primary target in Martz's offense, as it's generally designed to spread the ball around and asks the passer to stop his progression the moment he sees an open man and fire immediately. Johnny Knox has turned into a legit big-play threat and is among the league leaders averaging 19.5 yards per catch, and Earl Bennett has fought back from an injury-plagued offseason, training camp and preseason to be an ideal fit in the Percy Harvin role: slot specialist. Now Devin Hester has been an enigma and is starting to get snaps reduced in order to keep him fresh for punt returns, plus Greg Olsen has disappeared here and there at tight end, but the Bears have been effective when they pick up the pace at the line of scrimmage and then hit the short- and intermediate-range routes.
As for Taylor, I'm actually not shocked with the amount of touches he has gotten since the coaching staff said from Day 1 that Matt Forte is still the starter, and it's also worth noting that Forte is a better receiver than Adrian Peterson, so the need to have Taylor in there on third down isn't as glaring.
TY: Defense still rules the day in Chicago. How do you see the matchup of Adrian Peterson against the NFL's No. 3 rush defense unfolding? Is the defense a mirage because of the opponents they have faced to date, or are they that good?
JC: I was actually more critical of the defense than the offense during training camp, as I didn't believe simply inserting Julius Peppers into the lineup at end would solve everything on that side of the ball, but he has been terrific, Brian Urlacher has turned back the odometer a few thousand miles and the safeties have been surprisingly reliable. While the D-tackles haven't put much pressure on the QB in Chicago, the group has been rather sturdy defending the run, and both Peppers and Israel Idonije do a lot more than just rush the passer. All this has allowed Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Pisa Tinoisamoa – he's the perfect third banana at linebacker – to make a ton of tackles near the line of scrimmage.
If the Bears take the lead early and force the Vikings to go to the air, they can possibly neutralize Peterson, but if they're playing from behind and Brett Favre doesn't need to chuck and duck all day, chances are Peterson will pound Chicago into submission in the second half.
TY: Julius Peppers has only two sacks so far this season. What gives? And will his matchup with Bryant McKinnie be the tonic he needs since McKinnie struggled badly against Peppers last year?
JC: The stat sheet doesn't do Peppers much justice, as he has been a difference maker in nearly every game so far this season. With Peppers seeing two and three blockers on a regular basis, Idonije already has a career-high five sacks and the aforementioned linebacker triumvirate of Urlacher, Briggs and Tinoisamoa hasn't been wasting its time shedding blocks beyond the line of scrimmage. Naturally, Peppers has also delivered his fair share of "Wow!" plays, since he's probably the most athletic player in the league at his position.
I said before the year began that the much-ballyhooed Peppers signing would not be viewed as a success if he led the NFL in sacks, but rather if other defenders benefitted from his mere presence and the Bears were again among the league leaders in points allowed and turnovers created – both are happening.
Be on the lookout for Part II of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where Tim answers five questions from John, on Thursday.
Behind Enemy Lines: Vikings-Bears, Part I
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