Chicago Bears: 2013 Five Things We Learned

5 things we learned vs. Packers

December, 29, 2013
CHICAGO -- Here are five things we learned in the Chicago Bears’ season-ending, 33-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers:

1. Bears took a step backward in 2013: The offense made strides in both personnel (Phil Emery) and scheme (Marc Trestman), but when Aaron Rodgers misses almost half the season due to injury and Green Bay still wins the division, that is a massive disappointment. Not only that, the Bears had two straight chances to clinch the NFC North and failed to do so. Lovie Smith won 10 games in 2012 before he was fired; Trestman won eight games in 2013. In doing so, the Bears lose out on the playoffs for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. Week 17 was a harsh reminder the road to the NFC North crown still goes though Green Bay, Rodgers or no Rodgers. Josh McCown kept the Bears afloat when Jay Cutler missed five games himself because of injuries, and the Bears still failed to seal the deal. On every level, 2013 is full of disappointments for Trestman & Co.

2. Massive efforts are needed to rebuild the defense: Julius Peppers’ failure to corral Rodgers on the Randall Cobb game-winning touchdown, and the Bears’ busted coverage in the secondary that allowed Cobb to get wide open in the first place, were symbolic of the team’s struggles on defense this season. The Bears badly need to find a defensive line that can pressure the quarterback and smart, ball-hawking safeties who can protect the back end of the defense. Expect a minimum of four new starters on defense in 2014, maybe more. The NFL is a league based on offense, but the Bears can’t go through another season in which the defense gives up 160 rushing yards and close to 30 points per game. There is no excuse for those types of numbers, even with all the injuries the Bears suffered on the defensive side of the ball.

3. Cutler enters the offseason on relative high note: Cutler and the offense accomplished little in the first half versus the Packers, but the second half proved to be another story. With the season on the line, Cutler finished 15-of-24 for 226 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception (on the Bears’ final desperation play) and a quarterback rating of 103.8. Kind of hard to pin that loss on Cutler, in my estimation. Expect the Bears to try to sign Cutler to a multiyear deal in the offseason, but it’s doubtful the team breaks the bank to do so. Still, the odds of Cutler returning in 2014 are favorable. At least the Bears can sell the public on Cutler’s efficient game against Green Bay when/if they announce the quarterback has been locked up for the foreseeable future. Put it this way: If Cutler plays the way he did in Week 17 for the bulk of next season, the Bears should be in position to win quite a few games.

4. Matt Forte has career season: Lost in the agony of defeat is the fact Forte rushed for a career-best 1,339 yards and nine touchdowns this season. That is the ninth-highest total in franchise history and more than any Bears player other than the great Walter Payton. How important is Forte to the Bears? The club is 17-3 overall when the two-time Pro Bowl selection runs for at least 100 yards. Forte also had a career-high 1,933 yards from scrimmage, the fifth most in franchise history, and ends the season with 100 yards or more rushing in four of the final five games.

5. Shea McClellin to linebacker, please: With all due respect to former Bears defensive lineman Chris Zorich, there has to be a better spot on the defense for McClellin than with his hand on the ground at defensive end. To blame McClellin for the Bears’ failures on defense is silly. He had plenty of company and at least McClellin delivered the shot that knocked Rodgers out for seven weeks in the Nov. 4 game at Lambeau Field, in which he won NFC Defensive Player of the Week. But it’s hard to watch McClellin try to defend the run. He just cannot keep containment or set the edge, and he often gets stonewalled at the line of scrimmage while attempting to rush the quarterback. Sometimes, McClellin is able to use his quickness and be disruptive, but asking him to play defensive end in this defense is the equivalent of asking a right-handed pitcher to throw left handed. McClellin is not meant to be a 4-3 defensive end, but I do believe he has value. The Bears need to figure out how McClellin fits in their defense moving forward. Otherwise, the team might have to eventually chalk him up as a busted pick.

Five things we learned vs. Browns

December, 15, 2013
CLEVELAND -- Here are five things we learned in the Chicago Bears’ 38-31 victory over the Cleveland Browns:

1. Marc Trestman can exhale: The reaction in Chicago if the Bears had lost to Cleveland after Trestman decided to start Jay Cutler over Josh McCown would have been ugly. Trestman left himself open to tons of criticism by sitting the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week in favor of Cutler, but in the end, Cutler responded in the second half to finish with 265 yards and three touchdowns to go along with two first-half interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. He didn’t play his best game of the season, but Cutler shook off the rust of sitting out the past four weeks with a high-ankle sprain to make enough plays to defeat the pesky Browns. Now that Cutler is back in the win column for the first time since Oct. 10, he clearly gives the Bears the best shot to win at the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday night in a game many expect to be a shootout.

2. Cutler handled national reports in stride: Cutler didn’t appear rattled when confronted with the information that two national reports surfaced prior to the game that questioned the level of commitment to the quarterback inside Halas Hall. Cutler described how he received reassurances from the offensive line that he “was the guy” despite McCown’s success running the offense the past four weeks. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of either report, but the notion of a mutiny in Lake Forest, Ill., seems unlikely now that Cutler won a game for the Bears on the road. Winning cures everything in the NFL. Players might still prefer McCown to Cutler, but the decision is set in stone: Cutler is the Bears’ quarterback for the rest of 2013, and perhaps beyond.

3. Career season for Matt Forte: Amid all the attention paid to the quarterback position, Forte is quietly having his best professional season. Already with a career-high 66 receptions, Forte’s 127 rushing yards against the Browns give the tailback 1,200 for the season. Forte is just 38 rushing yards shy of his career-best mark, 1,238, that he tallied his rookie season of 2008. With the effort in Cleveland, Forte has four 100-yard rushing games on the season and appears to be hitting his stride right in time for the Bears’ playoff push. For all the talk about running backs falling of a cliff in terms of production when they reach a certain age, Forte, 28, looks to be getting stronger.

4. Zack Bowman in the 2014 mix? With the Pro Bowl cornerback duo of Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman set to be free agents in the offseason, Bowman, who’s contract also expires after the season, could be a candidate to return next season and compete for a starting spot in the event Tillman or Jennings signs with another team. Bowman’s best game of the season came Sunday, when he intercepted two passes and returned one for a touchdown, but the veteran has done a serviceable job since replacing Tillman in the starting lineup on Nov. 17 versus the Baltimore Ravens. Bowman’s size and speed, 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds, lends itself to playing both zone and man coverage, depending on what style of defense the Bears ultimately run in 2014.

5. Alshon Jeffery deserves to be a Pro Bowler: No disrespect to Brandon Marshall (90 catches for 1,185 yards and 10 touchdowns), but Jeffery is the Bears' most dangerous weapon in the passing game. Jeffery’s catch radius is off the charts. The latest in Jeffery’s long list of highlight-reel receptions occurred in the fourth quarter Sunday, when he somehow managed to haul in a Cutler Hail Mary pass in the end zone for a 45-yard touchdown. In the past three weeks, Jeffery has a combined 23 catches for 404 yards and four touchdowns. Three of the touchdowns were worthy of NFL play of the week honors. The upside for Jeffery appears to be limitless. He now has 80 receptions for 1,265 yards and seven touchdowns. If the Pro Bowl is designed to showcase the very best the league has to offer, then Jeffery ought to be included.

5 things we learned vs. Vikings

December, 1, 2013
MINNEAPOLIS -- Here are five things we learned in the Chicago Bears' 23-20 overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings:

1. Bears seasons continue to unravel in the Metrodome: Fittingly, the Bears' final game in the Metrodome turned out to be a complete disaster. That might sound a bit dramatic, but when you factor in the importance of the game with all the opportunities the Bears were given to win it, this is one of the most painful losses in recent memory. The Bears have won just two games in this old and run-down building since 2002, with several of those defeats altering the outcome of the season -- and that includes Sunday’s overtime thriller. With the Detroit Lions now holding essentially a two-game lead over the Bears in the NFC North with four left to play, you have to wonder if the Bears ruined their chances to make the playoffs. As far as the Bears are concerned, they can’t tear this place down fast enough.

2. Bears' botched overtime field goal attempt: Robbie Gould has made so many clutch kicks for the Bears in his nine-year career that I completely understand why Marc Trestman felt confident with Gould from 47 yards with 4:12 left in overtime. But Trestman’s decision to kick the ball on second-and-7 from the Vikings' 29-yard line was curious. Coaches tend to attempt game-winning kicks before fourth down to guard against a possible bad snap, but the Bears have the best long snapper in the NFL, Patrick Mannelly. So that rationale doesn’t make a ton of sense. Matt Forte was also averaging 5.2 yards per carry on Sunday. Why not hand him the ball a couple of times to give Gould a shorter kick? Forte fumbled the ball last week in the first quarter in St. Louis, but he’s generally pretty careful with the football. In the end, Gould missed the kick. That’s the bottom line. But Trestman had an opportunity to help out one of his players win the game for the team, and he failed to pull the trigger.


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3. Josh McCown did his job: McCown made his share of mistakes versus Minnesota, but he passed for 355 yards and two touchdowns for a 114.9 quarterback rating. That means McCown is 120-of-184 for 1,461 yards, 9 touchdowns and 1 interception on the season. That’s a passer rating of 103.6. I know we mention this every week, but what McCown has done in 2013 is remarkable. It’s a pity the Bears went only 2-2 when McCown started. He played well enough for the team to win every game he appeared in. As McCown gracefully moves aside for Jay Cutler to return, likely next Monday night versus the Dallas Cowboys, one has to marvel at how efficient McCown looked since entering the mix when Cutler tore his groin muscle in Washington. We spent a lot of time in the preseason wondering if Cutler could be the next Rich Gannon, a former quarterback that tasted an inordinate amount of success with Trestman later in his career. This might sound crazy, but maybe the next Rich Gannon is actually McCown. That’s not to say that McCown is a better player than Cutler, but you have to wonder what McCown, 34, could accomplish with a full season running this system.

4. Defense played hard; results were the same: The Bears' defense showed some fight on Sunday, aggressively stacking the box in an attempt to slow down Minnesota’s star tailback, Adrian Peterson. Strong safety Craig Steltz, who filled in for the injured Major Wright, made several key stops and led the team with 12 tackles, while Julius Peppers ignited the pass rush with 2.5 sacks. The return of nose tackle Stephen Paea and the debut of defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff seemed to help the defensive line, but in the end, Peterson still rushed for 211 yards and veteran reserve quarterback Matt Cassel came off the bench to pass for 243 yards and one touchdown. Individual improvements are great, but collectively, it was the same old story for the Bears on defense.

5. Alshon Jeffery is in rare company: Outside of Matt Forte in 2008, Jeffery is the Bears’ best offensive draft choice since the 1980s produced the likes of running back Neal Anderson, left tackle Jimbo Covert and quarterback Jim McMahon. Bears general manager Phil Emery hit a home run when he moved up in the second round to grab Jeffery out of South Carolina in 2012. Jeffery broke his own single-game franchise record for receiving yards with 249 on 12 catches, including two impressive touchdown receptions. Jeffery is now over 1,000 receiving yards on the season. He has some of the strongest hands in the NFL. He can do it all. The future seems full of all kinds of exciting possibilities for the Bears and Jeffery in this offense.

5 things we learned vs. Ravens

November, 17, 2013
CHICAGO -- Here are five things we learned in the Chicago Bears' 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens:

1. The Josh McCown story keeps getting better: We are witness to a truly remarkable NFL story. Just when you think McCown is about to fall back to reality, he goes out and posts a 92.9 quarterback rating against a tough Ravens defense. McCown has now attempted 101 passes without throwing a single interception. Do you realize how difficult that is to do for a backup quarterback in the NFL? Once again, McCown delivered with the game on the line, firing a strike to tight end Martellus Bennett for 43 yards that set up the game-winning Robbie Gould field goal. McCown is now 2-0 with a 100.0 quarterback rating in four appearances. Jay Cutler is the Bears’ clear-cut No. 1 quarterback, but there is absolutely no need for him to rush back from his high-ankle sprain before he’s ready. McCown has it under control.

2. The Bears are suddenly right back in the mix: Such is life in the week-to-week NFL. The Bears’ locker room was full of despair last week after their second loss of the season to the Detroit Lions that effectively put the Bears two games behind Detroit in the NFC North standings. But fast-forward seven days and the Bears are neck and neck with the Lions at 6-4 (Detroit still holds the head-to-head tiebreaker) following the exciting overtime win against the Ravens and Detroit’s disappointing defeat in Pittsburgh. Plus, Green Bay dropped to 5-5 with a loss to the New York Giants. With winnable games on the horizon versus the St. Louis Rams (4-6) and Minnesota Vikings (2-8), the Bears are poised to stay in contention for the foreseeable future. Of course, the vibe of the season could change again if the Bears are upset Sunday in St. Louis, but that’s what makes the NFL so great. With only a handful of elite teams, the second-tier outfits usually keep their fans interested until the bitter end.

3. Rookies deliver on defense: There are still gaping holes in the Bears’ run defense -- Baltimore rushed for 174 yards and one touchdown -- but the play of rookies Jon Bostic and David Bass can be best described as encouraging. Bass came up with the defensive play of the game when he managed to avoid a cut block and leapt into the air to intercept a Joe Flacco pass at the line of scrimmage and return it for a touchdown. That sequence proved to be a turning point in the game for the Bears. Bostic later showcased his athleticism and speed by dropping into the middle of the field and snaring a Flacco throw for a big interception. Although the jury is still out on some of the Bears’ recent defensive draft picks, it was enjoyable to see a couple first-year players contribute to the victory.

4. Never a doubt with Gould: Despite the horrible weather conditions on Sunday, Gould went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, including the 38-yard game winner in overtime. Kicking at Soldier Field is not easy, but Gould has mastered the art better than almost anybody in the history of the franchise, with the exception of Kevin Butler. However, if Gould receives a new deal from the club in the offseason, he will eventually break all of Butler’s team kicking records. Gould is 19-of-20 on field goal attempt this season. As the weather continues to change and the games get closer as the season wears on, Bears fans will appreciate Gould more than ever. When called upon, Gould almost always comes through in the clutch.

5. Soldier Field workers deal with adversity: Soldier Field takes its share of abuse because of the grass playing surface, but the stadium workers responsible for evacuating the crowd during the weather delay deserve kudos. It is not easy to evacuate 60,000 people from their seats in a short period of time, but, from my vantage point, the workers got most of the stadium cleared before the really bad weather rolled in on Sunday. Now, I obviously cannot speak for what happened when the fans reached the covered areas of the concourses, but given the serious nature of the weather we experienced in the Chicagoland area, I thought the Soldier Field staff did its best to keep the paying customers as safe as possible. There was an issue in the upper deck on the northwest corner of the stadium, but that appeared to be more of a problem with the design of the stadium, not the effort or approach by the security guards charged with the task of getting fans to shelter. And, finally, the security guards tackled a Ravens fan who rushed onto the field during the delay. It was a good effort all around.

5 things we learned vs. Giants

October, 11, 2013
CHICAGO -- Here are five things we learned in the Chicago Bears’ 27-21 victory over the New York Giants:

1. Brandon Marshall is content: As expected, Marshall was the focal point of the Bears’ offensive attack Thursday night after he had a modest five-target, four-catch, one-touchdown outing last Sunday. Marshall is a great player -- that was never in question -- but his unhappiness despite leading the team in receptions heading into Week 6 struck many observers as curious. But Marshall can now relax and have an enjoyable three-day weekend after he hauled in nine passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns on a team-high 11 targets. Marshall now has 40 receptions on the year and is on pace to catch 106 balls. Despite being under contract only through 2014, Marshall has little to complain about.

2. Jay Cutler continues to grow: Kudos to Cutler for protecting the ball. Maybe the Bears lose that game if the offense turns the ball over, but it never happened. Cutler was smart with his decision-making, throwing the ball out of bounds when necessary or using his feet to scramble and pick up first downs when nothing opened down the field. Cutler’s quarterback rating through six weeks is 95.2, and while an improved offensive line and better weapons certainly play a role in his success, Cutler just seems smarter this year. The Bears win games with this Jay Cutler. If he sticks around all year, even with a shaky defense, the Bears are legitimate playoff contenders in the NFC.

3. What a difference three years make: The last time the Bears faced the Giants in the regular season before Thursday night, New York sacked Cutler an NFL-record nine times in one half, and it gave the quarterback a concussion in a 2010 meeting at the New Meadowlands. Cutler was sacked a grand total of zero times tonight. Sure, New York is a much different team this year. In fact, the Giants are downright awful. But the Bears' pass protection played a huge role in Cutler’s productivity in Week 6. The group just keeps improving. It’s exciting to think where the Bears' offensive line will be later in the year, barring injuries of course.

4. Defense can’t do much: At least the Bears’ defense found a way to force three turnovers and score a touchdown. Because unless the Bears can take the ball away on defense, there isn’t much else the unit is capable of accomplishing. There is absolutely no pass-rush to speak of. None. The defensive line is a nonfactor. Some of that can be attributed to injuries, but the Bears simply aren’t getting enough from starting defensive ends Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin. Peppers wasn’t credited with a single tackle in the NFL stat book, and McClellin had a rough night, to put it nicely. McClellin was pushed around all night by the Giants and was a liability in run defense. Whatever gains McClellin made last week versus the New Orleans Saints, he gave it all back and then some against New York. Safety Major Wright was also all over the place and had several breakdowns in coverage.

5. Bears lucky to have Robbie Gould: A strong argument can be made that Gould is the best kicker in the league, going 2-for-2 Thursday night to extend his perfect streak on the season (10-for-10). He has also connected on 12 straight from 50-plus yards, tying him with Vikings kicker Blair Walsh for the NFL record. But Gould kicks outdoors. Walsh is an indoor kicker. That makes Gould’s accomplishments all that more remarkable. When the weather turns later in the year, don’t be surprised if Gould’s leg wins several games for the Bears.

Five Things We Learned: Bears-Raiders

August, 24, 2013
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Here are five things we learned in the first half of the Chicago Bears’ 34-26 win over the Oakland Raiders, when the starters carried the team to a 27-3 halftime lead:

1. Matt Forte is focal point of offense: Even before Forte’s brilliant performance (six rushes, 76 yards; two catches, 33 yards and one touchdown) versus the Raiders, the tailback had been nothing short of spectacular the entire preseason. Forte seemed to gain lower-body strength in the offseason without sacrificing an ounce of his quickness and agility. Now, it needs to be pointed out that Oakland is terrible (more on that later), but Forte glided with the football in the open field. And he also showed he can change direction on a dime and cut back when necessary. With Michael Bush expected to be used more under Marc Trestman, a fresh Forte will be a nightmare to opposing defenses throughout the season, if healthy. The Bears have made several moves to upgrade the offense the past two seasons, which is great, but the team cannot overlook one of the most tenured guys on the unit. This needs to be Forte’s offense.

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Five Things We Learned: Bears-Chargers

August, 15, 2013
Matt Forte, Eric WeddleAP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastMatt Forte rushed for 74 yards, including a 58-yard run that set up the Bears' first touchdown.
CHICAGO -- Here are five things we learned in the Chicago Bears' 33-28 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Thursday:

1. Matt Forte pumped life into the offense: After an inauspicious opening drive that lost 18 yards in three plays (two sacks, one negative rush) Forte ignited the offense with a 58-yard run around left end that showcased the tailback's speed, power and elusiveness in the open field. Forte then scored from 3 yards out on the Bears’ final drive of the first quarter, a rare feat for the former Pro Bowler, whom the Bears routinely took out of the game in the red zone in recent years. The bottom line is that for all the talk about the Bears' work-in-progress passing attack, Forte's contributions on the ground are vital to the success of the team. Forte looks to be in the best football shape of his life and there is no reason for the Bears not to use him accordingly.

2. Brandon Marshall remains the focal point: Jay Cutler attempted five passes Thursday, all five of which went to Marshall. Now, the results were OK, with Marshall catching four of those balls for 38 yards and one touchdown. If Marshall is the only guy open on those plays, then by all means, Cutler needs to fire the ball to his No. 1 wideout. But when the regular season rolls around, it would be nice for the quarterback to spread the ball around, a feat he was not able to accomplish last year for whatever reason. Marshall is a perennial Pro Bowl player. He needs the ball. But even Marshall said in the offseason he felt his hip injury that required offseason surgery was a result of being used too much in 2012. The Bears invested heavily to surround Cutler with better skill position players, and it would likely be in the best interest of the team if he also distributes the ball to them when the real games begin.

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