For the last few years, the Bears have been the class of the NFC North for a couple of primary reasons. First was a defense that created turnovers and won games and the fact that the team was able to avoid many of the injuries to key players that have killed many NFL teams over the last three seasons.
That, however, has come to an abrupt end this season, as the Bears have been devastated by injuries on both sides of the ball that have turned them from a Super Bowl entrant to a team that needs to win its final three games just to avoid a sub-.500 season. The injuries have been rampant and it starts with the quarterback position.
Like him or not (there is little gray area on that question), Rex Grossman is a lightning rod for controversy. But whether he should play or not became a moot point when he was lost with a knee injury. While Grossman did little to inspire confidence, neither did backup Brian Griese, who has thrown 12 interceptions on 262 passes. Instead of going back to Griese, the Bears have opted to give third-year pro Kyle Orton a shot. Orton, who started 15 games as a fourth-round rookie, hasn't played a game for the Bears since the season finale of the 2005 season at the Metrodome, best remembered for the haste in which Mike Tice was fired following the Vikings win. Orton did little in 2005 to put him in the mix to remain starter despite a 10-5 record as a starter. He is getting his chance to make a stand for a roster spot with the Bears for next year, but he is very rusty and will almost assuredly be attacked by blitzes and stunts from the Vikings' defensive front.
The running game was a strength of the Bears when they had both Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, but in the offseason the Bears were convinced Benson could carry the full workload and traded Jones. That may have been a decision the team regretted. Benson averaged just 3.4 yards a carry before going down to injury and has been replaced by "the other" Adrian Peterson. He has fared little better, averaging just 3.2 yards a carry on 91 rushing attempts. The only other halfback on the roster is rookie Garrett Wolfe, who has just 12 carries this season. Peterson is likely going to be asked to take a full workload against the Vikings, but, after facing some of the game's best backs this year, the Vikings may be salivating at the chance to get a pedestrian runner like Peterson carrying the mail on a full-time basis. His ideal role has been as a third-down receiver, but now being asked to be a three-down back may be asking too much, especially if the Vikings can stuff him early.
If the Vikings can stuff the run, the Bears will be forced to pass. They do have talent at the position and it's one of the few areas of the team that hasn't been ravaged by injury. Bernard Berrian remains the top receiver. He needs just 117 more yards to top 1,000 yards and has a team-high four touchdown catches. He has good deep speed and is always a threat to make the big play. He lines up opposite Muhsin Muhammad, one of the game's top possession receivers. Signed by the Bears after a monster 2004 season with Carolina, Muhammad hasn't put up those kind of numbers with Chicago. He has just 35 catches this season, but, for a possession receiver, he has a surprising 14.6-yard average per catch – best on the team for anyone with 15 or more receptions. The Bears have some decent depth with youngsters Rashied Davis and Mark Bradley, but their desperation wild card might be return man extraordinaire Devin Hester. He has just 14 catches this year, but one of them was an 81-yard touchdown against the Vikings, which in and of itself might be enough to get him on the field with the offense more.
The Bears have a pair of good tight end options as well with veteran Desmond Clark and rookie Greg Olsen. They were both used extensively in the first meeting this year and, if the Bears have to pass, they will be Orton's primary safety valves, so look for their numbers to get called often.
The Bears O-line has been one of the best in the NFC for years, but a key injury to left guard Ruben Brown has weakened what was once a strength. He has been replaced by sixth-year man Terrence Metcalf, who has played adequately, but not at the level most coaches want for a starter. The rest of the line remains intact, but has dropped off significantly in its production. Center Olin Kreutz is viewed along with Matt Birk as the best centers in the NFC and tackles John Tait and Fred Miller aren't far behind in terms of respect from their peers. Right guard Roberto Garza has also been a solid run blocker over the years, but the entire unit has suffered this year, as the Bears have averaged a meager 3.2 yards a carry this season on 335 attempts.
As disappointing as the Bears offense has been, the biggest shock has been the failure of the Bears defense. It comes into Monday's game ranked No. 29 in the league and has been equally futile against the run and the pass. The biggest culprit has been the defensive line, which has seen a revolving door at the defensive tackle spot. The team released Tank Johnson in the offseason after a run-in with the law and he was replaced by veteran Darwin Walker, who had the Bears convinced that he would be an adequate replacement. However, Walker has been sidelined with injuries, as has fellow starter Tommie Harris. To complicate matters, backups Anthony Adams and Antonio Garay have also been sidelined and placed on injured reserve. So desperate are the Bears for depth at defensive tackle, they signed former Rams bust Jimmy Kennedy off the street and Cincinnati practice squad player Matt Toeaina within the last week. This is an area that has been a strength for years, but now looks like an Achilles heel. The end position is still solid with a three-man rotation featuring Adewale Ogunleye, second-year man Mark Anderson and veteran Alex Brown. They can still get the job done – Ogunleye has nine sacks and Anderson has five – but their effectiveness has been stymied by the inability of the line to stop teams from running on them.
With all the Bears' problems, the linebackers remain stout. Brian Urlacher is one of the best middle linebackers in the game and Lance Briggs is one of the top outside ‘backers in the league. Both can make big plays from sideline to sideline and remain the heart and soul of the defense, although Urlacher has been hindered with a back injury much of the season. Strongside linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer is adequate, but not spectacular. Depth is thin, but these three are all three-down linebackers, so there isn't a lot of depth needed as long as they can stay healthy.
The secondary has also been hit hard with injuries. At the beginning of the season, cornerback Nathan Vasher and safeties Mike Brown and Adam Archuleta were all penned in as starters. Injuries have sidelined Brown for the year and kept both Vasher and Archuleta out of the lineup. The only regular starter that has remained is cornerback Charles Tillman, who is tied for the team lead in interceptions. The problem? He only has two – not the kind of numbers football fans have equated with the Bears for quite some time. If Vasher can't go, he will be replaced by rookie Trumaine McBride, a seventh round pick who was very close to being Mr. Irrelevant in this year's draft. At the safety spots, Danieal Manning is a second-year pro and Brandon McGowan is a third-year player who played in only one game prior to this season. Opposing quarterbacks have built up a passer of 92.1 against this group with 16 touchdown passes. While the Vikings are likely to try to run the ball to control the pace of the game, this is a group that is depleted and ripe to be picked.
If there is a wild card in Monday's game, it could be Hester. Some teams have decided simply not to kick to him. He's already near the top of the all-time list for kick and punt returns for touchdowns and he's only in his second year in the league. He leads the Bears with six TDs, five of those coming on returns. While the Vikings won't kick off out of bounds against Hester, don't be shocked if they come up with some sort of scheme to limit when and where he gets his hands on the ball.
The Bears recent run of success clearly is over this season. They are a beaten and battered team that has little to play for at this point other than pride. On paper, this looks like a mismatch in favor of the Vikings, but the Bears and Vikings have always seemed to play games that come down to the final few minutes to decide. While this Bears team doesn't look like they can put up much of a fight considering most of their top talent is sidelined, they are a team that can't be taken for granted.
Preview: Bears Beaten and Battered
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