As the 2015 season began, the Chicago Bears were turning a page into the future. They had cleaned house of the coaching staff and brought in John Fox and his crew to turn the team around. The Bears have spent the entire season trying to dig themselves out of a hole created by a 0-3 start in which they were arguably the worst team in the league.
In those three losses, the Bears were outscored 105-46 and it looked as though Fox had taken over a lost cause. Since then, they’ve gone 5-5, but it’s clear that the Bears are a much different team than the one the NFL world left for dead when they held the infamous “fire sale” in which they traded Jared Allen and Jonathan Bostic and cut a handful of other players, mostly on defense because they weren’t a fit in Fox’s system.
Of those five losses since their brutal start, they have been by three points in overtime at Detroit, three points to the Vikings, two points to Denver, in overtime to San Francisco and three points to Washington. A case could be made that the Bears could just as easily be 8-5 as 5-8, but they’re in the situation they’re in because they haven’t made the plays needed to close out games.
At the center of the offense is quarterback Jay Cutler. He has struggled at times, but who wouldn’t? First, the Bears took away his favorite target – Brandon Marshall – in a trade for a Day 3 draft choice. The way Marshall has played for the Jets has showed that was a mistake. Marshall’s expected replacement was first-round draft pick Kevin White, but he hasn’t played a down after being injured in the offseason. Joining him on injured reserve has been tight end Martellus Bennett, wide receiver Marquess Wilson and receiving running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Throw in Eddie
Royal, who has missed six games and still isn’t 100 percent and Cutler couldn’t be blamed if he didn’t know the first names of some of the players he is throwing to.
Complicating matters was that, when the Vikings played the Bears at Soldier Field, Cutler lost his security blanket, running back Matt Forte. It can be argued that, at a time of specialization in the NFL for running backs, that Forte may be the last legitimate three-down back in the league. He routinely has led the league in snaps on the field for running backs, often playing more than 90 percent of downs. In the final year of his contract, Fox, who has a history of being extremely loyal to veteran players, was squeezing all the juice he could get out of Forte, who has been rumored to be allowed to leave in free agency at the end of the season. The team drafted Jeremy Langford to take Forte’s place eventually, but, since Forte has returned from missing three games following suffering a MCL sprain against the Vikings, the two have been in a virtual time share, forcing Cutler to get used to both of their varied styles and strengths.
The receiver corps has been gutted by injuries and roster moves. They have Alshon Jeffery as their marquee player, but, aside from him, it’s a crapshoot. With Royal on a pitch count, even Bears fans have little familiarity with the rest of the receiver corps, which includes such luminaries as Josh Bellamy, Marc Mariani, Cameron Meredith and Deonte Thompson as wide receivers and Zach Miller, Khari Lee and Rob Housler at tight end. Teams have started doubling and even tripling Jeffery because they have no fear of any of the rest of them – for good reason.
The problem that Fox has faced in taking over the Bears is that his philosophy is based on a 3-4 defense and the Bears were a team built on a 4-3 scheme forever. Every draft pick and free agent signing for years was brought in to run a Tampa-2 defense, not Fox’s 4-3, and the changes have taken time to take hold, but they’re starting to get there.
The Bears currently have seven rookies on the roster, including three starters – nose tackle Eddie Goldman, safeties Harold Jones-Quartey and Adrian Amos – and four others that have been primary backups. Of those seven rookies, only two of them were drafted – Goldman in the second round and Amos in the fifth.
The Bears have decided to use free agency to fill the short-term void on the front seven to execute Fox’s 3-4 vision on the field, including defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, linebackers Pernell McPhee, Lamarr Houston, Sam Acho and Willie Young.
Although their record doesn’t show it, it has been effective. After allowing 79 points in their first two games, Chicago has allowed 26 or fewer points in 10 of their last 11 games, including 20 or fewer in six of them. Despite not having players expressly designed for the defense, they’re doing a solid job of making it work and what makes those points-allowed numbers more impressive is that many of those points haven’t been the fault of the defense.
Chicago leads the league in one extremely dubious category. They have allowed seven touchdowns that have had nothing to do with their defense – three interception returns for scores, two kickoff returns for touchdowns, one fumble recovery for a TD and one punt return score.
As things currently stand, the Bears have the look of team in transition, which is true. But they are a team that is coming together, much like the 7-9 Vikings of 2014 needed time to become a playoff contender. Their only game since Oct. 4 that hasn’t been decided by less than a touchdown was a 37-13 blowout win on the road against St. Louis. Chicago has won four of six games away from home this season and, even in their losses, they’ve had a chance to win every game in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings are a significant favorite Sunday – depending on where you check, between five and six points – but make no mistake. Beating Chicago Sunday won’t be easy and beating them in 2016 may be markedly more difficult.