Tim Yotter: According to the defensive rankings, the Bears look like the Vikings of the previous two years – good against the run and struggling against the pass. What are the issues with the passing game?
John Crist: As is the case for most any team in the NFL that is struggling in one particular phase of the game, injuries are a factor right now. Nathan Vasher has been held out of the last two games with a bothersome wrist/thumb injury, although he practiced all last week and appeared to be healthy enough to play against the Falcons – and they could have used him with rookie Matt Ryan throwing for 301 yards. Brandon McGowan was moved to injured reserve earlier in the year, forcing talented-yet-underachieving Danieal Manning into the role at nickelback.
But if you ask me, the biggest concern for Bears fans should be former Pro Bowler Mike Brown, who has been able to stay on the field but simply isn't making the big plays we're used to seeing from him while patrolling the middle.
JC: Even though Grossman is the more talented player in terms of what he brings to the quarterback position, I agreed from the start of training camp that Orton would be the better choice under center based on the personality of this football team. The Bears need to win with a strong running game, tough defense, and superb special teams, but Orton has gotten better from week to week and really shined his last few outings now that offensive coordinator Ron Turner is giving him more leeway at the line of scrimmage. Even with a collection of has-beens and never-will-bes lining up at receiver, he's delivered a passer rating of 87.6 and a TD-to-INT ratio of 2-to-1.
Unquestionably the biggest difference between Orton and Grossman so far is their ability to deal with pressure, as Orton simply makes quicker decisions under duress while Grossman got into trouble too often trying to make a big play.
TY: Having never been impressed with Cedric Benson, it seems that the speedier Matt Forte is a solid option for years to come. Is it just his speed that has helped turn around the running game, or have there been improvements in the offensive line as well?
JC: Simply put, Forte has been the anti-Benson in every sense of the term, both with his performance on the field and his personality off the field. Not only is he a tougher runner who doesn't mind lowering his shoulder between the tackles to get that extra yard, but he offers some speed and elusiveness once he reaches the second level – a necessary element of the running game that has been missing in Chicago the last few years. Even though Forte hasn't had a big day on the ground for a while now, he's been terrific catching passes out of the backfield and has single-handedly made the offense as a whole lot more flexible.
The offensive line has been better than expected, and the decision to move John Tait from left tackle to right tackle in favor of career backup John St. Clair seems to have worked so far, but this is a case of the running back making his blockers look better than they actually are.
TY: The Vikings seem pretty set on trying to keep the ball out of Devin Hester's hands on returns, but he doesn't seem to be the same returner this year. Why is that?
JC: This is one of the below-the-radar questions here in the Windy City that doesn't seem to have an agreed-upon answer, as Hester is averaging a pedestrian 22.6 yards per kickoff return and a pitiful 5.4 yards per punt return. He hasn't registered a touchdown yet off a return, which is usually a pretty unfair criticism for a return man, but Hester has spoiled everyone from the moment he entered the league with his ability to seemingly score any time he wants. The rib injury he dealt with earlier in the season doesn't appear to be bothering him at wideout, where he's caught 11 passes the last two games and really looks to be turning into a legitimate offensive threat.
Not only has he been fielding the ball when he should let it bounce into the end zone and calling for fair catches with running room ahead, but Hester just doesn't seem to be accelerating with his usual burst and looks tentative from time to time.
TY: What were the Bears' feelings toward Bobby Wade and Bernard Berrian when they parted ways with each of them, and how do you expect the crowd will react in Berrian's first return there since leaving?
JC: Wade never did much as a receiver and wasn't going to amount to more than a third option out of the slot, but I believe he was set free in large part because of his slippery fingers as a return man. The Bears wanted to keep Berrian and truly believed him to be a legitimate No. 1 option in this league, although there was no way they were going to pay the price that Minnesota ultimately did for a player who'd never cracked the 1,000-yard plateau. Financially, general manager Jerry Angelo admitted later that he was forced to spend his money on either Berrian or Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs – there simply wasn't enough in the pot for both of them, and defense always gets the nod over offense in this town.
Wade wasn't viewed as much of a loss for the Bears even though he's been a quality player since departing, but look for Berrian to receive a fair amount of cheers (he was always pretty popular) and boos (but signed with a hated rival) at Soldier Field on Sunday.
Be on the lookout Part II of this three-part series, where Tim answers five questions from John, on Thursday.
Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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