LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Eight games in means it's time to take inventory on where the Bears stand at the halfway point of the season, in addition to what needs to be done across the board for the club to reach the playoffs.
Chicago escaped the Bills 22-19, showing nary a hint Sunday of the playoff-caliber team the coaching staff envisioned at the start of the season. That doesn't mean the Bears aren't capable of developing into that. Bears coach Lovie Smith says the team hasn't peaked.
Certainly, it needs to.
"As we said -- I'm talking about the group within -- we're a good football team, and I think in time we'll prove that more and more," Smith said. "I like our position. We talked about October [as the time for] getting in position. We just finished up the halfway point of our season. But in November, that's when that playoff run begins. For us, we're in pretty good shape."
That appears to be the case, with the Bears -- 5-3 -- in an ideal position to seize back control of the NFC North, with the first-place Green Bay Packers on the shelf this week because of a bye. The club pointed to the importance of gaining momentum with a win after its own bye, which was used to correct several issues.
Still, the club knows it didn't fix everything.
"The bye week wasn't what we expected, but we highlighted some areas -- it was pretty well documented what they were -- and for the most part, we took a little bit of a step," tight end Greg Olsen said. "For this final stretch with the teams we're playing, we have to continue to improve each week. That's going to be our focus when we get back to practice Wednesday, learning from yesterday and getting ready for a huge home game against a division rival."
At the halfway point of the season, we take a quick position-by-position look at the Bears:
Jay Cutler gave the team a Week-1 deadline to master the complicated scheme of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. But clearly multiple extensions were in order. The break-in period for the new offense has come and gone.
It's time now for production, which starts with No. 6.
"Everyone is getting more and more comfortable with the system, and how to line up, and our motions are more crisp, and guys are just getting into a rhythm," Cutler said.
Although he produced a near error-free ballgame -- only one turnover and a passer rating of 97.6 -- against the Bills, Cutler still shows slight hints of distrust in the system, which translates into hesitation at the top of his drop that throws off the timing of the entire offense. Cutler also continues to throw off his back foot, and make a few questionable decisions.
Moving forward, Cutler won't be able to eliminate all the kinks in his game. But he'll need to refine some of them, while playing with more trust in Martz's system for the offense to reach its capabilities.
The team can point to only one signature game -- Carolina -- all season for running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. Such production won't cut it when the Bears start to rely on the rushing attack in the coming weeks as the temperature starts to drop and affect the passing game.
"We need to run to control the clock, keep the other offense off the field, and help our passing game go," Forte said. "When we get back to Chicago for those home games, it's going to be too cold to throw the ball a lot."
Forte and Taylor have each run for more than 43 yards in the same game only once -- Carolina -- all season. While it's not expected for the duo to put up 100 yards apiece on a weekly basis, Forte and Taylor need to put forth a significant enough of a contribution for the Bears to show real commitment to the rushing attack.
Chicago did that against the Bills -- the league's worst at stopping the run -- but each of the Bears' next three opponents -- Minnesota, Miami and Philadelphia -- rank in the top half of the league in run defense. All but one -- the New York Giants -- of the club's previous eight opponents currently rank 18th or worse against the run.
They can't all force it, but the receivers need to continue to develop chemistry with Cutler because the club faces three teams -- the Vikings, Dolphins, and Eagles -- ranked in the top 15 against the pass. Philadelphia and Green Bay, who the Bears face again Jan. 2, are tied for first and third, respectively, in interceptions.
Communication issues continue to fester between the quarterback and receivers, and there haven't been any signs of them diminishing. Despite the Bills playing a significant amount of man coverage Sunday, the Bears still struggled on occasion.
"They were either going to press us and play on," Cutler explained, "[to] make us beat them through the air a little bit."
Johnny Knox remains on pace for a 1,000-yard season while Olsen, a tight end, has become a more prominent target in the passing game, along with Earl Bennett. The club still needs more production out of No. 1 receiver Devin Hester, who hasn't posted more than 30 yards receiving in seven consecutive games.
For once, the offensive line seems to be one of the club's bright spots.
The Bears rolled out their fifth combination of starters up front against the Bills, and it appears the current group -- comprised of Frank Omiyale, Chris Williams, Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, and J'Marcus Webb -- is the one the club wants to focus on developing the rest of the season.
"We're not there yet," Kreutz said. "But we'll keep trying to improve. It's coming. We've been saying as a line all year [that] we'll take the criticism we deserves, but if we improve every week we'll be where we want to be by Week 10, 11, 12. That's when playoff football is played, and that's when we want to be playing our best. That's what we want to get to."
Such a goal isn't unrealistic. Cutler's sack numbers have gradually decreased in his each of his last three outings, from 9 to 6, 4 and 1 on Sunday against the Bills.
Sacks aren't coming in bunches for the Bears, who are tied for 25th in the league with just 12. But don't let the statistics deceive; the Bears are putting plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
"We could have all the sacks in the world and [not be] winning games," said Idonije, who leads the team with five sacks. "On the other hand, we could just get a lot of pressures, win games and have a defense that's ranked high. I'll take the pressures and a team that's winning over having all the statistics, and not the team performance. We're moving in the right direction."
The front four has proven stout against the run, allowing just 83.9 yards per game, which ranks as third in the NFL. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who struggled early, also appears to be coming on while Matt Toeaina and Anthony Adams continue their steady play.
The Bears deploy one of the most active and disruptive linebacking groups in the NFL, headlined by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, who lead the team in tackles. Pisa Tinoisamoa, who beat out Nick Roach for a starting job at camp, has also emerged as a playmaker.
"I wish we weren't 5-3," Urlacher said. "I wish we were 7-1, 6-2, or 8-0, but we're not. We're 5-3, and we've got to keep playing well."
To do that, though, the trio needs to remain healthy. Urlacher fought through a groin injury recently, and Briggs has missed practice time with an ankle injury dating back to the team's Oct. 10 win over Carolina. Injuries have plagued Tinoisamoa in the past, too. But he's remained healthy so far this season, and that needs to continue for the entire group.
Struggles in the secondary allowed the Bills to convert 63 percent on third downs as Fitzpatrick rolled up 294 yards through the air. The Bears currently rank 21st in the league against the pass, but surely the team can live with the yardage if the unit continues to make clutch game-defining plays.
"Some of the [yardage given up] we were doing to ourselves," safety Danieal Manning explained, "maybe out of misalignments, not making tackles."
The Bears rebounded though to turn a fumble recovery by cornerback Charles Tillman and one of Tim Jennings' two interceptions into 15 points against the Bills. Each of the turnovers proved to be game-deciding plays.
Still, Smith wants to see the unit play more consistently in the coming weeks. The group should also get a boost with the return of rookie safety Major Wright, who saw his first action since Week 2 against the Bills, and cornerback Zack Bowman, who has missed the past two games with a sprained foot.
"All players make mistakes," Smith said. "I can think of very few players who have gone through a game without making a mistake. You want their big plays to stand out more than some of those not-so-good plays, I'll say that."