Bears Front Four The Key

The Bears may be hurting in their defensive back seven, but they will still be relying on their defensive front four to keep them in the game, as that is where their personnel is strongest.

There have been two schools of thought about how to build a winner in the NFL. For teams like the Vikings, Chiefs, Colts and Seahawks, it has been building up a strong offense and hope the defense can keep up. For others, like the Patriots, Eagles, Dolphins and Cowboys, the plan to get to the playoffs began with defense in hopes the offense would follow.

The Chicago Bears are on a much similar path. Retooling on offense with several new faces, the Bears have loaded up on defense in hopes that scores will stay low and wins will follow. So bent on building a defense are the Bears that they traded their top veteran wide receiver to add a young pass rusher — hoping the offense can deliver while knowing the defense can get the job done. However, that defense will be missing three of their four starters in the secondary.

The big change on offense is at quarterback. Chris Chandler and Kordell Stewart each started last year, but both are gone — giving way to Rex Grossman. While still learning the game, Grossman has a solid pocket presence and proved he can be a winner by beating the Vikings last December. Veteran Jonathan Quinn is Grossman's backup, but this is Grossman's offense to run. With the Bears still trying to pick up on Lovie Smith's hybrid St. Louis-Kansas City offense, the timing may be right to try to disrupt Grossman's rhythm while his learning curve is still quite pronounced.

The offensive changes don't stop there. Thomas Jones is the new featured back. The Bears targeted Jones in free agency so hard that they got into contract talks with his agent mere minutes after the free-agent period began and had him signed by sunrise the following morning. Jones is a solid runner and receiver who never lived up to his high first-round selection by the Cardinals, but he is looking for new life in Chicago. He's backed up by former starter Anthony Thomas and third-down back Adrian Peterson, but, barring injury, Jones will get every opportunity to be a 20-carry-a-game runner.

The receiver corps took a hit when the Bears traded Marty Booker, leaving several unanswered questions about the productivity of a young, inexperienced group. David Terrell, who has been a first-round disappointment, has taken over the No. 1 role and has looked solid thus far as the go-to guy. He's joined by second-year men Bobby Wade and Justin Gage and rookie Bernard Berrian as the speed receivers Smith wants to complement the running game. While they have speed, experience is lacking and the physical Vikings corners should dominate the matchup. At tight end, Desmond Clark is one of the top receiving tight ends in the NFC and could be Grossman's most reliable targets as the year wears on — which should draw defensive attention from the young Vikings linebackers.

While the receivers are young, the offensive line is experienced and got a huge boost with the free-agent signing of right tackle John Tait. He joins LT Qasim Mitchell, a second-year pro, as the bookends. An injury to guard Rex Tucker has forced some changes, as veteran tackle Mike Gandy moves to right guard. He's flanked by Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz and left guard Ruben Brown (who moved from RG after the Tucker injury) to give the Bears a solid front line on offense. If games are won in the trenches, Chicago set itself up nicely not only on offense, but on defense as well.

The Bears had a solid core up front on the D-line to begin with, but adding pass rusher Adewale Ogunleye in the Booker trade makes them even stronger. He joins fellow DE Alex Brown and tackles Tommie Harris and Alfonso Boone in the starting lineup, with youngsters Michael Haynes and Tank Johnson providing depth for the future at DE and DT, respectively. This is the group the entire team is building around.

At linebacker, Brian Urlacher is one of the game's top middle linebackers, and he is the sideline-to-sideline playmaker for the Bears. He is listed as questionable with an aggravating hamstring injury, but the Bears can hardly afford to not play him. He is surrounded by a pair of second-year players in Lance Briggs and Joe Odom, who, like the Vikings linebackers, have the speed of youth but lack the experience. Urlacher will be leaned on heavily to be a coach on the field as teams like the Vikings look to attack the inexperience of the OLBs.

The secondary took huge hits with injuries to cornerbacks Jerry Azumah and Charles Tillman and safety Mike Brown. Mike Green is the only solid starter left, making this the obvious area for the Vikings to attack — if they aren't pressure too badly by a strong defensive line. Brown and Tillman were both defensive studs who make plays, leaving R.W. McQuarters to fend against Randy Moss with help from Green Depth is, of course, razor thin, with rookie Nathan Vasher likely to see significant time, along with safeties Bobby Gray and Todd Johnson. Johnson is expected to get the start in place of Brown.

The Bears have enjoyed as much success against the Vikings as any team in the NFC North. Even when the Vikings win, they have to claw and scratch for the victories. Sunday's game should be no different, but, with the Vikings poised to head into their bye week on a high note, the Bears will have to play a near-flawless game to come away with a victory.

KEY MATCHUP

RIGHT TACKLES vs. ADEWALE OGUNLEYE —
After last season, the Vikings were one of the teams interested in restricted free agent Adewale Ogunleye. He led the NFL in sacks for Miami and his outrageous contract demands took the Vikings out of the running, but the Bears didn't have the same qualms — trading wide receiver Marty Booker to get him. Ogunleye will be lined up against Adam Haayer, making his first start for the Vikings, Sunday and looking to pressure Daunte Culpepper. Rookie Nat Dorsey will also see time, as the Vikings look to replace the injured Mike Rosenthal.

Unlike players like Green Bay's Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Ogunleye isn't a one-trick pony. He has the power moves and speed to force offensive linemen back on their heels and, while most of the league's top pass rushing defensive ends line up on the right side against the more skilled left tackles, Ogunleye has carved a niche for himself on the left side. His 15 sacks last year were testament to his ability to routinely beat right tackles and create havoc in the backfield.

Haayer and Dorsey's assignment won't be to dominate Ogunleye, just to try to contain him and keep him from being a disruptive influence. Opposing teams remain convinced that, if pressured, Culpepper will make mistakes. This isn't a new philosophy for the Bears, who have limited Culpepper to six touchdowns in their last six meetings, and three TDs and three interceptions in his last three games at Chicago. That was without Ogunleye. With him, they expect not only a sack or two, they also think "Wale" can force more bad passes from Culpepper that could result in turnovers.

If Ogunleye dominates Haayer and Dorsey, the Bears will have a better-than-expected chance to win. One commonality in the recent history of the rivalry between the Vikings and Bears is that there are rarely blowouts. The games are always tight — a key play or two can turn a win into a loss. Haayer and Dorsey will have the assignment to make sure one of those key plays isn't provided by Ogunleye, making this the key matchup.





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