Bears Bring It On Defense

The Bears bring the NFC's best defense from last year to Champaign for Sunday's opener, but a solid performance from Michael Bennett would help open up the Vikings offense.

No team was a bigger enigma last year than the Chicago Bears. Picked by few to finish at .500, the Bears won 13 games, despite being favored in just seven games — and earned a first-round playoff bye.

This year, there is no surprise to the Bears. Every team on their 2002 schedule knows they are the defending division champs and one of the favorites to return to the playoffs. A year ago, the Bears dropped the Vikings to 0-2 in a game at Chicago, which put the Vikings in a hole they never fully recovered from and started the Bears on a six-game winning streak. This time around, the Vikings are looking to return the favor at Champaign, Ill., in the regular-season opener.

One problem area for the Bears historically has been at quarterback. Even when the Bears won the Super Bowl, Jim McMahon was never viewed as a great one. The team has tried over the years to trade for a franchise QB or even draft them — remember Cade McNown, taken one pick after Daunte Culpepper in 1999? — but to no avail.

The fans love starter Jim Miller as a gutty, gritty competitor, but, like his predecessors, he has limited ability. The best move the team made was signing veteran Chris Chandler in the offseason, but, like Miller, he is so prone to injuries that he's earned the nickname Christal Chandelier. The position may be stronger, but it is far from strong.

The key to the Bears offense last year was RB Anthony Thomas. The A-Train was an unheralded draft pick who began the season as a backup and finished with almost 1,200 yards. The Bears are so confident in his ability that they let former starter James Allen go to Houston, which could come back to haunt them if Thomas gets hurt. Behind him are Leon Johnson and rookie Adrian Peterson, who unlike the A-Train don't have the same collegiate pedigree he brought to the table. At fullback, Daimon Shelton is merely an offensive lineman with a fullback's number.

The emerging area of the Bears team is one that had previously never been a strength — the receiver corps. Marty Booker emerged as a go-to threat with 100 receptions last year. Last year's first-round draft pick, David Terrell, is expected to supply some big numbers. Marcus Robinson is back after missing significant time the last two years. And, probably most troublesome for opposing defenses, many think Dez White is the best receiver of the bunch. The Bears will run many varied formations to get each of these receivers a chance to shine and, to the extent they can share one ball, the Bears have an offense that could come into its own this year.

Tight end remains a reclamation yard, where Fred Baxter, Luther Broughton and John Davis all came from other teams' scrap heaps.

One of the reasons for the Chicago's rise last year was the unsung duty of an excellent offensive line. Anchored by center Olin Kreutz and guards Chris Villarrial and Rex Tucker, the Bears have youth in the middle with growing veteran savvy. Villarrial fractured his thumb but has been upgraded quickly to probable for Sunday's game. His availability isn't the only question mark. Tackle is another concern. At right tackle, James "Big Cat" Williams is coming off his first Pro Bowl but, in his 12th season, is starting to show the signs of age. Perhaps more scary for Bears fans is left tackle, where rookie Marc Columbo and second-year man Bernard Robertson and both vying to replace Blake Brockermeyer at that critical position. If the Bears can settle that issue early, there could be reason for offensive optimism.

While the Bears are improved on offense, it was defense that got them to the playoffs and defense that will get them back. Up front, the Bears have an impressive front four, led by space-filling defensive tackles Keith Traylor and Ted Washington — a pair of free agent steals last year. On the outside, Phillip Daniels and Bryan Robinson are in their seventh and sixth years, respectively, giving the Bears one of the most experienced front fours in the game.

Without question, one of the best defensive players in the league resides in the middle of the Bears defense — LB Brian Urlacher. Cut from the mold of Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary, Urlacher leads a trio of linebackers that all could be headed to Hawaii at season's end. With Rosevelt Colvin and Warrick Holdman flanking Urlacher, the Bears not only have speed at the position but the ability to stuff the run, drop in pass coverage and make massive hits to cause turnovers. The Vikings will have to be as wary of this group of players than anyone on the roster.

The secondary is the weak link of the defense and a unit the Vikings will have to attack to have any success. Jerry Azumah and R.W. McQuarters are the only cornerbacks on the roster with any starting experience, and safeties Mike Brown and Mike Green have limited experience playing together. Brown is emerging as a big-play safety, but the others will have to elevate their play to keep the Bears among the NFL's defensive elite.

The Vikings will be prohibitive underdogs heading into Sunday's game, but if history has taught us anything, the Bears by design are a team that will let a high-octane offense stay within reach of a victory. If the Vikings want to make a statement for 2002, knocking off the defending division champ would be the ideal way to do it.

Key Matchup
Michael Bennett vs. Keith Traylor and Ted Washington —
The buzz in training camp was how much the Vikings need RB Michael Bennett to become the player they envisioned he would be when he was taken in the first round last year. In short, they need him to be a game-breaker who forces defenses to stay honest to the run and not simply overload on the passing game.

Daunte Culpepper has talked about it. So has Mike Tice. So has Randy Moss. So has Bennett himself. He is the key to making the Vikings offense the free-wheeling unit is was for three years prior to last season's collapse.

However, his first test of the 2002 season will be a difficult one. Ted Washington and Keith Traylor are among the best defensive tackles in the game. They led the Bears to the best rush defense in the NFC and second only to the Steelers in the entire NFL.

The problem Washington and Traylor provide is that they are so massive — they're listed at a combined 685 pounds, but many think it's over 700 pounds combined — that they not only occupy the center and both guards, they effectively eliminate running between the tackles. While Bennett will have to try a few runs up the middle, it will be his ability to hit the corner on sweeps and cut inside the tackles for gains up the middle that will be needed to occupy the Bears' All-Pro linebacker corps.

If the Bears don't feel they need to stop Bennett or that he can't get his share of yards, the Vikings will be in trouble. If Bennett can put the idea in the heads of the defenders that he can break off a long run, it will open up everyone else to do the home-run hitting for the Vikings.

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