Preview: Bears’ talent doesn’t match record

For years, the Bears were known for their defense, but with that fading and an offense loaded with talent that isn’t clicking, the Vikings might be able to turn around a six-year losing streak at Soldier Field.

The Chicago Bears have been one of the stranger teams in the NFL this season – a team that looks too old at some spots and too young at others. Despite having 12 players with eight or more years of experience (not including injured Charles Tillman), they also have an astonishing 16 rookies on their 53-man roster. The result of this bizarre make-up of aging veterans and green youngsters has gone a long way to explaining Chicago’s 3-6 record – leaving them on the verge of playoff extinction just nine games into a season that began with high hopes.

For years, the Bears were identified by a strong defense that could dominate games and, along with electrifying special teams, had a propensity for scoring touchdowns to take the heat off the offense. The Bears have sought over the past few years to change that dynamic by adding talent to the offense, but, for much of the season, the offense in Chicago hasn’t done enough to make change.

At the center of the firestorm is quarterback Jay Cutler. In his first nine games, he has accounted for 15 turnovers – 10 interceptions and five lost fumbles. He has been careless with the ball, fumbling 10 times and losing five of them, and, when pressured, has a propensity for throwing the bad pass. For years, the Bears offense was pretty balanced, but this year has been a different story. Chicago has called 363 passes, while running just 212 times. Much of the onus has been put on Cutler to be the savior of the offense. When he’s good, he can be very good and when he’s bad, he can be very bad. With the Vikings improving their pass rush, coming after Cutler will be a premium because he has elite weapons at his disposal.

The true centerpiece of the offense is running back Matt Forte. In an era when running backs are part of a committee system and even the top running backs are typically on the field no more than 60 or 65 percent of the time. Forte routinely is on the field for 90 percent of offensive plays and is the game’s premier dual threat. His 147 carries is more than five times more than anyone else on the team and even those numbers are skewed because Forte has been pulled late in the last two games because the Bears have been blown out. Not only does he lead the team in rushing, he’s also the leading receiver with 61 catches. At his current pace, Forte will rush 251 times for 1,095 yards and catch 108 passes for 919 yards and 11 touchdowns. If the Vikings are looking to shut down Chicago’s offense, it all starts with Forte, but it doesn’t end there.

The Bears have two of the game’s elite big receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Between the two of them, they are one of the most formidable tandems in the NFL. Jeffery has caught 44 passes for 626 yards and three touchdowns, while Marshall has caught 42 passes for 496 yards and a team-high six receiving touchdowns. Neither of them have sprinter’s speed, but they are two of the most physical receivers in the league and, combined with tight end Martellus Bennett (49 catches for 592 yards and five TDs), the Bears have three dangerous downfield receiving options that can test the Vikings secondary with big targets and great hands, and they make difficult to focus on one because, when it comes to catching passes, the three are almost interchangeable.

While the Bears have a ton of offensive weapons, they have yet to score more than 28 points in any game, which has been problematic because the defense has allowed 27 or more points in five games. Compounding the problem is that, after a 2-1 start, those five games have come in the last six and all of them have been losses.

The Bears have been steadily dropping in the defensive rankings over the last month, just as the Vikings defense has been climbing the charts. In those five losses, the Bears have allowed 31, 38, 27, 51 and 55 points. It has been defensive failings that have sped up Chicago’s tailspin – not only allowing 106 points in the last two games, but being outscored by the Patriots and Packers by a total of 80-7 in the first half.

The Bears attempted to shore up the defense by adding free agents Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen in the offseason, but Houston has been lost for the season for the stupidest of reasons – with his team behind badly, he registered a sack and, during his sack celebration, he tore his ACL and had to be placed on injured reserve. Allen, who made his name as a pass rusher, has posted just 1½ sacks through nine games and is on pace to have the worst sack season of his career.

Just as Allen has started to look his age, so too has linebacker Lance Briggs. A potential Hall of Famer after his career is done, Briggs is playing what many expect to be his last season. He has been a team leader for more than a decade, but has been forced to no longer be an every-down player because of the wear and tear years in the league have done to his body. Flanked by D.J. Williams and Shea McClellan, the Bears linebackers haven’t harkened the ghosts of great Bears linebackers of the past. Between the entire linebacker corps – all eight of them on the roster – they have combined for just one sack, despite being asked to blitz fairly often. They are a group that can be exploited and the Vikings will likely look to take advantage of the middle of the field when they get out of position and pound the ball on the ground.

The secondary is without its inspirational leader in Charles “Peanut” Tillman, who was lost to a season-ending injury. Veteran Tim Jennings is still at one corner spot, but the exciting newcomer to the starting lineup is Kyle Fuller. He leads the team with three interceptions and has a bright future. He takes risks, but has the makeup speed to account for the occasional misstep. Still, depth is thin and part of the reason why the Bears have been torched for 23 touchdown passes.

When the Vikings head to Soldier Field, they will be looking to exorcize the demons that have haunted them since 2007 – the last time the Vikings beat the Bears in Chicago. Players have gone their entire careers without knowing what it feels like to win a game at Soldier Field. But with the Bears looking like a punch-drunk fighter on the verge of being knocked out, the Vikings may have their best chance in years to finally get over that hump and come away with a much-needed victory.

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