Bears preview: Just simply solid

The Bears don't have a lot of flashy players, but they have strong front-line depth. The key, however, could be the health of some of those starters, as inexperience reigns in backup roles at some precarious positions. We detail the Vikings' opponent with a position-by-position look at the Chicago Bears.

While the Vikings-Packers rivalry is likely viewed by most fans as the most intense, a strong case can be made that the rivalry with the Bears is a close second. It seems like every meeting contains hitting that is just a little rougher and, whether it is on offense, defense or special teams, there always seems to be a huge play that turns the fortunes of the game. As the teams prepare to meet today at Soldier Field, both are at 3-3 in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC North. One of them will leave the field with the division lead. The other will head into its bye week behind by a game with a head-to-head loss in hand.

The Bears aren't all that different from the Chicago teams Vikings fans have come to loathe over the years. They always seem to play in tight, low-scoring games. Their three losses this year have been by a combined eight points and, of their last 18 games, 12 have been decided by eight points or less. They are always in games at the end and are always dangerous to make the big play late to turn a game around.

While many of the Bears personnel is the same and brings much of the same style that we've been accustomed to seeing, one marked difference is at quarterback. Kyle Orton has replaced the oft-maligned Rex Grossman as the starting quarterback and has done a very solid job. He has been efficient, throwing eight touchdowns as opposed to just four interceptions, which is impressive when you consider that the only team the Bears have faced that currently has a losing record is Detroit. Orton isn't a mad bomber, but has spread the ball around effectively – only one player (Matt Forte) has more than 20 receptions, but six different players have caught 14 or more passes. Orton has shown vast improvement in his ability to read the field and deliver the ball to the open man. If the Vikings don't generate a strong pass rush, he will be able to pick them apart with short, controlled passes.

The running game is still the hallmark of the Bears, but the faces have changed quickly. Over the last two years, the Bears traded Thomas Jones and released Cedric Benson. Forte has come in as a rookie and been about as dominating a runner this side of Adrian Peterson can be. He not only leads the team in receptions with 27, but he has 127 carries (21 a game), 665 total yards (111 a game) and five touchdowns. If he keeps up that pace, he could be headed to the Pro Bowl. He hasn't been overly elusive, averaging 3.6 yards a carry, but he has been the double-threat the Bears envisioned he would be on draft day. The team has a nice stable of backups, including former Lion Kevin Jones, the "other" Adrian Peterson and Garrett Wolfe. Jones hasn't been nearly as effective as hoped and Peterson has completely disappeared – through six games, he doesn't have a rushing attempt or a reception. Also in the mix is fullback Jason McKie. A heavy hitter and effective lead blocker, McKie has scored a couple of short touchdowns at the goal line and been a spot receiver of dump-off passes. He doesn't pile up a lot of stats, but he is an important component of the Chicago run offense and will be leading Forte into the hole between the tackles most of the day.

The Bears have been hit hard with injuries at wide receiver. Rashied Davis is the leading receiver of the group (19-230-1), but he has been hampered with a knee injury. He will start Sunday, but his availability for the entire game is in question. The same can be said for veteran Marty Booker, who has been slowed with a back injury. The dean of boys with the young receiver corps, Booker has made just eight catches and has been largely a non-factor this season. That will have to change with Brandon Lloyd, the top deep threat with a 16.6-yard reception average, sidelined with a knee injury. With Lloyd out as the primary deep threat, look for the Bears to employ return specialist Devin Hester more in the passing game. Last year in the game at Soldier Field, the Bears made things interesting late when Hester caught an 81-yard touchdown pass, displaying his exceptional speed and a bomb catch-and-run. Rookie Earl Bennett rounds out the receivers, but he hasn't caught a pass yet this season. Few teams use their tight ends as often or more effectively than the Bears. The combination of Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark has caught 30 passes for 368 yards and one TD. Clark is a very effective blocker and Olsen brings the ability to stretch the seam for a deep completion. One way or another, both of them will be targeted often enough to give the Vikings cause for concern.

The one constant with the Bears over the years has been a strong offensive line. So impressive and durable is the front-line unit that the Bears have kept only eight O-linemen on the roster most of the season. Although usually anonymous, most Vikings fans are familiar with the Front Five of the Bears – 10-year vet John Tait and nine-year man John St. Clair at tackle, eighth-year man Roberto Garza and seven-year vet Terrence Metcalf at guard and 11-year veteran Olin Kreutz at center. Combined they have 45 years of NFL experience and, more importantly, most of it has been together as a unit. They are like a well-oiled machine of players who have been through the wars. To their credit, the Bears looked to the future on draft day by selecting Chris Williams in the first round when a run on offensive tackles began early. He is currently laying in wait, but, because of St. Clair's versatility – he started at three different positions last year – if someone was to go down on the line, St. Clair would likely slide over to that position and ascend Williams into the starting lineup. The Bears coaches love his potential as both a pass protector and run blocker and it will only be a matter of time before he becomes a starter and potentially keeps it for 10 years.

The Chicago defense has always been the hallmark of their success. With a revolving door at quarterback that has lasted since the Jim McMahon era more than 20 years ago, the one constant has been a strong, pressure defense. The defensive side of the ball has always received draft priority and it shows. Despite having some turnover and some angry contract talks with some of the defensive standouts, anyone who plays Chicago knows that their defense is aggressive, takes chances and makes big plays.

The Bears have stockpiled talent on the defensive line, so much so that they were able to release starter Tank Johnson last year in disgust and not miss a beat. On the outside, the Bears have a three-man wave of defensive ends that harass quarterbacks and create big plays. Adewale Ogunleye had a career resurgence last year after starting a strict off-season workout regimen and regained much of the big-play ability he brought when the Bears traded with Miami to get him. Alex Brown isn't flashy, but he is consistent game in, game out. A good pass rusher who leads the team with three sacks, he has also shown strength in run support by holding his ground and letting the aggressive back seven take their shots. He lost his starting job last year to Mark Anderson, who had a standout rookie year as a designated pass rusher, but regressed badly when playing full-time. Back in a position to be a disruptive third-down force, Anderson could rekindle some of the magic from his rookie season. In the middle, the Bears have had injuries to three of their top tackles – Tommie Harris, Israel Idonije and Marcus Harrison. Idonije and Harrison have combined by four sacks in the rotation system at DT that Lovie Smith swears by, but none of them will enter today's game at 100 percent. At the other tackle spot, it was thought nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek would lock down the starting spot in his third season, but that hasn't happened. Anthony Adams is not an elite physical specimen, but the sixth-year pro gets the job done and has kept Dvoracek on his toes. The D-line has accounted for eight-and-a-half sacks through six games and will be a constant threat to do so against the Vikings. With the rotation system the Bears run, their linemen will rarely be tired, whereas the Vikings offensive linemen will be facing a fresh defender on almost every play while they wear down by playing every snap.

It's almost become cliché to talk about the Bears' defensive strength as being at linebacker. Just as it has been decades since the Bears have had a truly dominant quarterback (some would argue the last one was Sid Luckman), there has never been a time that Chicago hasn't had at least one game-changing linebacker. From Dick Butkus to the present day, active, tooth-rattling linebackers have been a staple of the Bears defense. Brian Urlacher is clearly the center of attention at middle linebacker, where his sideline-to-sideline pursuit annually has him among the league leaders in tackles. He will get to know Adrian Peterson intimately throughout the game as the player assigned by the Bears to be the spy on A.D. all game long. On the outside, Lance Briggs is a big-play threat at all times and has more than 100 tackles in four of his five seasons. He is a perfect complement to Urlacher and is critical in both the rushing and passing game. On the strong side, Hunter Hillenmeyer is like the Ringo of the linebacker corps – not outstanding at any single facet of the games, but doing a competent job. Depth is thin here, so the front-line starters will need to be healthy for the Bears to succeed, but as long as the Big Three are on the field, the Bears linebackers can draw favorable comparisons to any LB trio in the league.

The key not only to this game, but perhaps the rest of the season, will be the health of the secondary, which is currently in a shambles. Both starters – Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher – are banged up and neither is a certainty to play Sunday. Tillman has a shoulder injury that, even if his does play, could knock him out of the game at any time. When a physical corner like Tillman has only one good wing, there is the chance he will get tentative and fall victim to a quick move at the line or a broken tackle. Vasher is recovering from surgical procedure on his wrist and has been very limited in practice. He will likely wear a cast of some form if he plays, which will likely alter his ability to get a jam at the line as well. To complicate matters, backup CB Trumaine McBride is likely out with a shoulder injury unless Tillman or Vasher are inactive, and safety Danieal Manning is already ruled out with a hamstring injury. Veteran Mike Brown is a playmaker at free safety, but his career has been marred with season-ending injuries for much of his career. Brandon McGowen, who has his own laundry list of injuries in his first three seasons, is the starter at strong safety. He turned heads as a starter last year and has a very physical style. He enjoys making the big hit on passes over the middle and, while he may not be a household name to casual fans, the Vikings wide receivers are very familiar with him and his heavy hitting. Depth is a huge concern, since the only healthy cornerbacks are second-year pro Corey Graham and rookie Zackary Bowman, and the only backup help at safety is second-year man Kevin Payne and rookie Craig Steltz. If anything happens to one of the starters, there will be a lot of inexperience in the secondary, something the aggressive Bears defense can ill-afford to expose.

No discussion of the Bears is complete without mentioning the special teams. Few teams have ever scored as many points as Chicago has in the return game. Hester is known as one of the game's most electrifying players, and, while he has yet to break a long punt or kickoff return, he is always a danger to do so. In his two career meetings against the Vikings at Soldier Field, he has returned a punt for a touchdown in both. Kicker Robbie Gould has made 11 of 12 field goal attempts and has learned to kick in the often tricky winds that whip through the stadium off of Lake Michigan. Punter Brad Maynard was listed on the team's injury report with a bad hamstring, but he is expected to play.

Games between the Vikings and Bears have historically been close. The Vikings won both games last year by scores of 35-31 and 20-13, and the Bears swept Minnesota in 2006. Other than that, the teams split all four season series from 2002-05. Seven of the last nine meetings have been decided by 10 points or fewer, and four of those have been decided by four points or fewer. These games always come across as wars of attrition and today should be no exception. With the division lead on the line, don't expect anything less this time around.


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