Bears In Disarray

It's reload time again for the Bears. While their receivers look much the same, they have a new free-agent quarterback (what's new?), the running back position is up for grabs, the tight end is new and the offensive line is in shambles. It's a chance for the Vikings to take advantage in front of a national television audience.

The Vikings will open the home portion of the 2003 regular season under the lights of a nationally televised Sunday night contest with the Chicago Bears. Last year, the Vikings pounded the Bears 25-7 at the Metrodome and are looking for more of the same this year. But the Bears team they will face has a much different look from the Bears team they saw last year.

The biggest change is at quarterback, where the Bears addressed short- and long-term needs. In the short term, Kordell Stewart is being given a chance to reclaim his career. A dangerous running threat and possessing a strong arm, Stewart can hurt you in several ways and the Vikings will have to be prepared to contain him in the pocket. In the long-term, the Bears used one of their first-round draft picks to take QB Rex Grossman, who they hope will be their man of the future. Former starter Chris Chandler remains as a stop-gap if Stewart goes down and Grossman isn't ready, giving the Bears more stability at the position than they've had in years.

Stability isn't as good at running back, however. Following a huge 2001 season in which he carried the offense, Anthony Thomas fell on hard times last year and has fueled speculation that he will be replaced as the Bears' every-down running back. The A-Train is more of a mauler than a breakaway threat and it could open up opportunity for second-year back Adrian Peterson. Another big back, Peterson has better initial speed but is part of a Bears RB corps in which all are big, with Daimon Shelton, Stanley Pritchett and former Buccaneer Rabih Abdullah providing depth.

The receiver corps is young and deep, giving the Bears more offensive options than the "3 yards and a cloud of dust" mentality that used to haunt the team. Marty Booker has developed into one of the game's top possession receivers, having caught almost 200 passes the last two years. Dez White still holds down the other starting receiver spot, as the Bears continue to wait for third-year man David Terrell to make an impact after being a first-round pick two years ago.

The team did upgrade at tight end by signing former Bronco Desmond Clark, who, like Byron Chamberlain, was caught in the long shadow of Shannon Sharpe before going first to Miami and now Chicago. Clark can stretch the field down the middle and could be a key offensive weapon Sunday night.

The offensive line is already in shambles. Marc Colombo, who was slated to start at right tackle, is gone with a knee injury and left guard Rex Tucker was lost for the year in the final preseason game. Now Chris Villarrial is also out with an injury. That forced the Bears to sign former Viking Corbin Lacina, who they hope to plug in at left guard. He entered the season as a backup to Steve Edwards as he quickly learns the Bears system. Joining Edwards and Lacina are tackles Wayne Gandy and former Lion bust Aaron Gibson, and center Olin Kreutz to try to open holes for Thomas as well as protect Stewart. But, with two of the projected starters already down, that will be a tall order.

The Bears shocked many fans when they traded Ted Washington, one of the best run stuffers in the league, to the Patriots this summer, leaving more questions on the defensive front. Keith Traylor, who was slated to be a part-time sub for Washington, moves back into the lineup at DT, joining seven-year vet Bryan Robinson on the inside. At the ends, Phillip Daniels and Alex Brown aren't eye-popping pass rushers but have the strength to cause problems. The player to watch here Sunday will be rookie Michael Haynes. Taken 14th overall in this year's draft, Haynes is expected to be an edge rusher who can be very disruptive. The Bears hope he can do what Dwight Freeney did for the Colts last year as a situational pass-rush specialist. He will be asked to pin his ears back and go after Daunte Culpepper on passing downs.

The linebacker corps was potentially one of the best in the league the last couple of years, but the Bears allowed Rosevelt Colvin to leave for salary cap reasons and took away one of a young trio that was making a name for itself. MLB Brian Urlacher has become one of the dominant defensive players in the game today, and he is flanked by Warrick Holdman and second-year man Bryan Knight. This group is quick, strong and active, and the Bears will be banking heavily on their ability to stop the short passing game and clog the running lanes for the Vikings.

In the secondary, the Bears have one star player and three fringe starters. At the corners, R.W. McQuarters was released by the 49ers at a time when they were desperate for anyone to play cover corner. He has revived his career with the Bears, but neither he nor Jerry Azumah is viewed as a player that is a top cover corner — although both have improved a lot the last couple of seasons. At the safeties, the Bears have a star in Mike Brown, who has a great nose for the ball and is always around to make big plays when the Bears defense needs one. At the other safety, Mike Green was second on the team in tackles last year but is a player some teams have targeted in the passing game because of his coverage limitations. Depth is thin here, too. In passing situations, all the Bears can fall back on are second-year backup Brock Williams and rookie Charles Tillman, a pair of raw prospects who are still learning the game.

The Bears are a team that got the Vikings' 2002 season off on the wrong foot with a come-from-behind win in the final minute of last year's season opener. The Vikings have a chance to return the favor this time around and, on paper, it looks like it should happen — as Minnesota tries to send Chicago into its bye week with a loss.

MATCHUP TO WATCH
RANDY MOSS VS. R.W. MCQUARTERS —
For the last five years, the Chicago Bears and other NFC North (formerly Central) teams have been terrified of Randy Moss. The Packers and Lions have gone so far as to use high draft picks and free-agent money to shore up their CB corps. The Bears haven't, and that's why Moss vs. R.W. McQuarters is the matchup to watch Sunday night.

McQuarters almost saw his career go up in smoke after he was released by the 49ers. A player with a lot of talent, McQuarters got burned too often for Steve Mariucci's liking and fell out of favor with the coach. His release sent a message to the rest of the players. He has found new life with the Bears, but because of Chicago's style of play, he is left on an island in one-on-one situations for as many as a dozen plays a game.

The Vikings are aware of this and will look to take advantage of it. Although Moss may spend much of the game with safety Mike Brown chasing him down as well, the Vikings are looking to return the deep pass as a regular part of the Moss arsenal this season. Because of the Bears' defensive philosophy, there will be plays that Moss will have one-on-one coverage from McQuarters. Those will be plays Moss can't "take off" because they could well be the difference in winning and losing.

The key to this matchup will involve Daunte Culpepper. When he sees the one-on-one scenario present itself, he will have to recognize it and audible to the deep route to Moss. If he gets more than two chances, you can bet Moss will be on the receiving end of at least one long touchdown pass. The extent to which the Bears will expose McQuarters to man-on-man coverage will go a long way to determining a winner.


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