Bears preview: Underperformance mars season

The Bears added talent to their roster this season, but the parts haven't been able to come together to form an improved team. We take an in-depth, position-by-position view of the Bears, which players have underachieved and where their best talent remains.

Ben Leber of the Vikings said he circled the date on the schedule when it came out last spring and he saw the Vikings at Chicago on Monday night.

"When I saw that," Leber said, "I said to myself, ‘That's going to be a big game.' We fought it out with them last year and I figured that game could decide who wins the NFC North this year."

As it has turned out, the teams have gone in very different directions. The Vikings have wrapped up the division with a record of 11-3 and the Bears need to win their final two games to avoid losing double-digit games. The Bears' 2009 season has been an unmitigated disaster. After opening the season 3-1, Chicago has lost eight of its last 10 games and has been beaten by 20 or more points in four of those eight losses. The high hopes with which they entered the 2009 season have been dashed and there is plenty of blame to go around. Injuries have played a significant part, but much of the blame has been put squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Jay Cutler.

When the Bears pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Denver Broncos to acquire Cutler, he was expected to be the savior of the franchise. Instead, he has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, especially in the critical role of distributing the ball. He has thrown a whopping 25 interceptions and has two or more picks in seven of the 14 games he has played. To put that number in perspective, only three quarterbacks in the league have more than 15 interceptions and the other two are rookies – Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez each have 20 picks. Cutler has been consistently pressured and his numbers have dropped sharply as the year has gone on. He has been held under 175 yards in four of his last five games, throwing five touchdowns and eight interceptions while being sacked 12 times. If pressured he will make the big mistakes that cost his teams games, so look for the Vikings to dial up blitzes and stunts to create openings to take clean shots at Cutler, who seems content to let his first season in Chicago just come to a merciful end.

All the blame can't be laid simply at Cutler's door. There has been plenty of blame assigned to second-year running back Matt Forte. As a rookie, Forte burst on the scene and quickly established himself as one of the game's top rushing/receiving dual threats. While he remains one of the best receiving running backs in the league (53 catches for 455 yards), it has been his lack of explosion as a runner that has been the biggest issue. With backups Kevin Smith lost in the preseason and Garrett Wolfe lost at midseason, there has been little in the way of relief help for Forte, who has struggled to gain just 754 yards on 221 carries – a dismal 3.4-yard average. He has just one 100-yard rushing game, has been held under 60 yards rushing nine times and under 35 yards rushing six times. Considering that his only healthy backups – "the other" Adrian Peterson and former Viking Kahlil Bell – have combined to rush just 32 times for 206 yards, it would seem Forte is going to be the bell cow Monday night – for better or worse. If the Vikings can confine him like they did in their first meeting (just eight carries for 27 yards) and force the Bears to be one-dimensional, Chicago's nightmare season may end up repeating itself again this week.

One of the reasons given for Cutler's struggles – one pointed out shortly after the trade with Denver came down – was that he doesn't have the wide receivers in Chicago that he had with the Broncos. Whereas Denver had a stud like Brandon Marshall, a veteran like Brandon Stokley and a young speedster like Eddie Royal, the Bears were a much different story. Their top wide receiver is Devin Hester, a converted cornerback in his only his second full season as an offensive starter. Hester leads the team with 54 receptions and 682 yards, but is averaging just 12.6 yards a catch and has scored just three touchdowns. He hasn't had a play of 50 yards in any capacity this year – run, reception or return. He has become more of a possession receiver than the explosive playmaker who could turn a game in an instant and he is also listed as questionable with a calf injury. He is joined in the starting lineup by second-year pro Earl Bennett who, despite being highly touted and a teammate of Cutler's from college, hasn't established himself as a legitimate NFL starter. He has 48 catches for 655 yards, but has scored just one touchdown and seems best suited as a guy that moves the chains, not changes games. The most pleasant surprise among the receiver corps is rookie Johnny Knox. He has emerged from virtual obscurity to lead the wide receivers with five touchdowns and took a kickoff back 102 yards against the Vikings. He has become the big-play option of the pass offense and will need to be watched closely Monday night.

The lack of wide receiver depth and effectiveness has forced tight end Greg Olsen to become a go-to receiver from the tight end position. He has responded. He has 52 catches for 471 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. With Desmond Clark banged up, look for Olsen to get a lot of looks, especially when the Bears get in the red zone.

Things haven't gone as well as hoped up front, where the offensive line has found it difficult to open holes for the running game and protect Cutler in the passing game. There is a significant change from when the teams first met just a month ago. Left tackle Orlando Pace has been shelved with a groin injury and hasn't started the last three games. He has been replaced by second-year right tackle Chris Williams, whose spot is now occupied by eight-year veteran Kevin Shaffer. In the middle are familiar names having uncharacteristic struggles – center Olin Kreutz and guards Roberto Garza and Frank Omiyale. Depth is paper thin with backup Josh Beekman listed as the only guy behind Kreutz and both guard positions. If the Bears have any chance of winning Monday night, this group will have to put together one of its best days of the season – something that has been sorely lacking most of the season.

As bad as the offense has been, the Bears' once-vaunted defense has struggled just as badly. The run defense has surrendered 1,800 yards (a 4.4-yard average) and the pass defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw 25 touchdowns and amass a combined passer rating of 90.6. Much of the problem has come up front and doesn't look to get any better with starting defensive end and leading sacker Adewale Ogunleye out of Monday's game due to injury. The Bears have had injury problems on the D-line, which was a strength coming into the season. At the end spots, when healthy, the Bears have one of the best rotations in the league with Ogunleye, Alex Brown, Gaines Adams and Mark Anderson. But with Ogunleye out and Adams dinged up, their numbers and effectiveness are greatly reduced. On the inside, Tommie Harris and Anthony Adams are a solid tandem, but Harris has been fighting injuries of his own and the run defense has been gashed far too often by even suspect running games. Look for the Vikings to attack the Bears on the ground and try to establish Adrian Peterson early and often if the holes are there.

The Bears haven't been the same defense since the loss of Brian Urlacher early in the season. An emotional veteran leader, the drop-off from Urlacher to backup Hunter Hillenmeyer has been pronounced. Hillenmeyer is a decent middle linebacker, but far from the game-changer that Urlacher has been so often over the years. On the outside, the Bears have talent in Lance Briggs and Nick Roach. Both have been bothered with nagging injuries this year, but are adept at pass coverage on backs and tight ends, blitzes from the outside and chasing down plays to the sideline. Depth is an issue with both Urlacher and Pisa Tinoisamoa on injured reserve. The linebackers have always been the centerpiece of the Bears offense, but with their numbers dwindled due to injury, they are far from dominant.

The secondary has its share of issues, as both starting safeties may be game-time decisions as to whether they play or not. The defensive backs are led by Charles Tillman, one of the better corners in the game. A big, physical corner who can take on receivers 1-on-1 even in the Cover-2 scheme employed by the Bears, Tillman is a playmaker with a knack for stripping the ball. At the other corner, Zackary Bowman has replaced Nathan Vasher as the Bears starter, relegating Vasher to nickel duties. The big question is at safety. Former starters Josh Bullocks and Danieal Manning were both supplanted during the season by Kevin Payne and rookie Al Afalava. But both Payne and Afalava have been limited in practice and remain question marks. If they can play, they won't be at 100 percent. If they don't, the depth at safety will be extremely limited, with Craig Steltz as the only healthy backup. That is the kind of scenario that gets Brett Favre jacked up to make big plays over the top.

What was once thought to be a matchup to decide the NFC North has become a test of wills. The Bears are a proud organization, but have been dominated in the recent series by the Vikings. Their hope of a return to prominence has been crushed and they have the looks of a battered and beaten team that knows the pain and suffering they have endured will be over within a week. There will be one of two teams that shows up – one that will come out with an inspired effort or one that will crumble if things start badly. If the Vikings can get off to a strong a start, we may see the latter rather than the former Monday night.


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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