Preview: The peril of predictions

The Bears were predicted by many to be the favorite in the NFC North because of QB Jay Cutler. With 10 games in the rear-view mirror, Cutler has been part of the problem, not the solution. And other parts of the Bears are failing as well. We take an in-depth, position-by-position look at the new and not-so-improved Bears.

When the 2009 season started, there were a lot of fans and media analysts alike looking at Sunday's meeting between the Vikings and the Chicago Bears as a potential clash of the titans in the NFC North. With the arrivals of Jay Cutler and Brett Favre, both offenses looked to be ready to take the next step into the wide-open race for NFC supremacy.

The Vikings have clearly held up their end of the bargain. At 9-1, Minnesota is battling it out with New Orleans for the top seed in the NFC playoffs. The Bears, on the other hand, are losers of five of their last six and, with a loss to the Vikings would be eliminated from division title contention. The Chicago sports media is buzzing about the potential of Lovie Smith being fired and the Bears starting fresh in 2010 with a new coaching staff and a new plan of attack. So how did things go so wrong when hopes were so high?

A considerable amount of the blame should land at the feet of Cutler. Part of a pre-draft blockbuster trade with Denver, Cutler was expected to be the savior of the Bears franchise – a young, top-flight quarterback who would give the Bears their first legitimate NFL QB since Jim McMahon almost 25 years ago. Instead, his transition to the smash-mouth Bears offense has been much rockier than expected. A run-oriented team by nature, through 10 games Bears running backs have carried the ball just 190 times. Cutler has thrown the ball 381 times – a 2:1 pass-to-run ratio. Teams have known Cutler is going to pass often and have consistently brought the heat. He leads the league in interceptions with 18 and his passer rating of 74.5 is among the lowest among starters that haven't been benched at some point. It has been a disastrous opening act in the Cutler Era and the Vikings will look to bring the pressure early and often.

One of the biggest problems the Bears offense has faced this season has been the ineffectiveness of second-year running back Matt Forte. He burst on the scene last year, becoming an opening-day starter and posting some eye-popping numbers – rushing for 1,238 yards, catching 63 passes for 477 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns. This year has been a vastly different story. He has rushed 157 times for 516 yards (a dismal 3.3-yard average) and has caught 42 passes for 399 yards but scored just three touchdowns. He has been a major disappointment in the running game and that ineffectiveness has forced the Bears to abandon the run game at times. It hasn't helped that two of the anticipated primary backups – Kevin Jones and Garrett Wolfe – have both been placed on injured reserve. The two remaining backs – the "other" Adrian Peterson and former Viking Kahlil Bell – have combined to carry the ball just 12 times and catch just two passes. It's all Forte's show and, seeing he has been held to 55 yards rushing or less in seven of 10 games, this could be a dominating advantage for the Vikings.

As big a part of Cutler's struggles in his new home has been the lack of experience in the receiver corps. The Bears' leading receiver is Devin Hester, a converted cornerback in only his second year as a full-time wide receiver. He has 52 catches for 614 yards and three touchdowns and, while he has open field explosion, he has just one reception of more than 40 yards and has been transformed into a slant receiver who looks for yards after the catch. Second-year pro Earl Bennett didn't catch a single pass as a rookie and has struggled at times this season, despite being a college teammate of Cutler with a built-in rapport and shorthand with each other. He has caught 40 passes for 511 yards, but has yet to score a touchdown and has been replaced as a deep threat by rookie Johnny Knox. Knox has caught 32 passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns and has pushed his way into becoming one of Cutler's favorite targets. However, the primary receiver in the offense, especially in the red zone, is tight end Greg Olsen. He has caught 40 passes for 403 yards and has a team-high six touchdown catches. Expect to see Cutler look Olsen's way a lot and the Vikings defense being forced to account for him on just about every passing down.

The Bears offensive line has been effective in protecting Cutler but has failed to consistently open holes for Forte. It is a veteran group that has plenty of veteran talent. The Bears acquired 13-year pro Orlando Pace to anchor at left tackle. While he's not the dominant force he was in his earlier years with St. Louis, he is still a force to be reckoned with. The Bears have two other crafty veterans on the offensive front with 12-year center Olin Kreutz and nine-year right guard Roberto Garza. The Bears have also built a foundation for the future in the draft with third-year left guard Josh Beekman and second-year right tackle Chris Williams. As a unit, this is a solid group capable of dominating late in games when protecting a lead. But, considering how rarely that has happened over the last month-and-a-half, their efforts have gone largely unnoticed.

The big difference between the Bears of 2009 and Chicago teams of previous years has been a defense that has been able to be exploited. Opponents are rushing more times and for more yards than the Bears and also finding ways to light them up through the air. When a defense gets hit both on the ground and in the aerial game, there are usually multiple reasons for the problems – typically problems on the defensive line and injuries. The Bears have had both, but the defensive front has been the biggest issue.

Teams are averaging 28 carries for 122 yards (a 4.3-yard average) and a touchdown a game against the Chicago defense, which boasts a pair of strong defensive ends and a Pro Bowl quality defensive tackle, which only adds to the frustration. Adewale Ogunleye leads the team with five sacks from his left end position, while eight-year veteran Alex Brown at right end is close behind with four. In the middle, Tommie Harris can be a dominant force at times when healthy, but has let his emotions get the best of him at times and can be neutralized by his own aggression. Nose tackle has been the biggest issue. With Dusty Dvoracek gone for the year, the Bears have turned to second-year man Marcus Harrison and seven-year veteran backup Anthony Adams. Neither has fully adapted to the nose tackle spot and teams have been able to run up the middle. The Bears have some depth at end, where former sack phenom Mark Anderson and former first-round pick Gaines Adams come in a steady rotation. Expect to see all four ends, both nose tackles and backup defensive tackle Israel Idonije to all see action as the Bears mix and match their troops based on situation.

The identity of the Bears defense from back in the days of Dick Butkus has always been the play of its linebackers. But the fangs of the defense have been removed with the loss of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher for the season and the recent loss of Pisa Tinoisamoa from the linebacker corps. As a result, the Bears have been forced to put together a patchwork unit that has struggled mightily. Lance Briggs is one of the most dominating outside linebackers in the league and, on the other side, Nick Roach is becoming more of a consistent playmaker in his third season. But the loss of Urlacher can't be measured. His place in the starting lineup has been taken by backup OLB Hunter Hillenmeyer, who is clearly a step down. Teams have been able to attack his zone in the short passing game and he isn't a punishing tackler like Urlacher, allowing too many runs to gain an extra yard or two after contact. Depth is thin with untested players like Jamar Williams and Darrell McClover providing backup help. What has always been a strength of the Bears franchise, while not completely without merit, isn't nearly as dominant as opponents have been used to seeing.

With all the problems the Bears have had this season, the play of the cornerbacks has been strong. Seven-year vet Charles Tillman is a playmaker, adept at both interceptions and stripping receivers of the ball. He is so respected around the league that he often takes away a team's best receiver. But, considering the Vikings spread the ball around, some of that advantage is somewhat negated. On the other side, second-year man Zackary Bowman has stepped in for Nathan Vasher and leads the team with four interceptions. He has earned an apprenticeship by fire, as opposing quarterbacks have attacked his side of the field consistently. Much like Cedric Griffin when he became a starter, his game has improved as a result of being picked on and Bowman has become a steady, consistent replacement. The same can't be said at the safety position. Entering training camp, it was thought that 2008 starters Kevin Payne and Josh Bullocks would be the starters. But both have been supplanted due to poor play and nagging injuries by Danieal Manning and rookie Al Afalava. Both have been moved out of position by veteran quarterbacks and Brett Favre will likely go after them over the top middle at least a couple of times during the game. Vasher remains as the team's nickel back and will see plenty of time on the field. While all the component parts are there, as a group, they have had some difficulty meshing together. Look for Favre to take his fair share of shots at this group, while conveniently avoiding Tillman.

For a team predicted by many to run roughshod over the NFC North, the Bears have laid a huge egg this season. A loss to the Vikings Sunday would eliminate them from division title contention and likely put a dagger in any hopes of rallying to a wild card spot. Teams in such desperate situations often play their best ball under such circumstances, but the Bears have struggled on both sides of the ball and have all the looks of a team ready to fold up its tent for the 2009 season. If so, the Vikings can deliver the final blow and put the Bears and their disappointed fans out of their misery.


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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