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Thursday, September 5, 2013
Four Downs: Can they protect Cutler?

By ESPNChicago.com

Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler was sacked 38 times last season, fifth in the NFL.
General manager Phil Emery made fixing a porous offensive line a priority in the offseason, investing free agent money and draft picks on the Bears' Achilles' heel. Free agents Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson and rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills give the Bears four new starters on the line to go with a head coach who has a history of keeping his quarterbacks upright on Sundays.

Will it be enough to give Jay Cutler the time he needs to live up to his potential in Chicago? Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler will be sacked less this season than in any of his previous four as Bears quarterback.


Jay Cutler
Can the revamped Bears offensive line better protect Jay Cutler this season?

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. However, I'm not including 2011 when Cutler was sacked 23 times in just 10 games. The number the Bears need to beat is 35. That's the amount of times Cutler went down in 2009, his first season in Chicago after arriving from Denver via trade. I think with Marc Trestman's emphasis on Cutler getting rid of the ball quickly, coupled with the obvious improvements made on the offensive line in the offseason, I predict the Bears surrender fewer than 35 sacks. It could get a little rough for the Bears on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive line, but the Bears will eventually figure it out.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. He was only sacked 23 times in 2011. Beat that. What's that? He only played 10 games that year. Oh yeah, that explains it. But I'd guess he gets sacked less times than in any full season in a Bears uniform, which would be fewer than 35 from 2009. That was a West Coast-style offense under Ron Turner with a better line. I'm guessing Cutler gets sacked around 30 times this year as the Bears work with two rookies on the line and a new playbook. Let's just hope he gets up every time.


Second Down

Fact or Fiction: Barring an injury, Jon Bostic will be the Bears' middle linebacker this season.


Jon Bostic
Jon Bostic impressed during the preseason with his hard-hitting style.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. If this week is a true indication, the Bears still feel strongly about veteran D.J. Williams anchoring the middle of their defense. Why else would they apparently push Bostic to the side to make room for Williams to see an unspecified amount of action against the Bengals? Before Williams hurt his calf, he was the unquestioned starter at middle linebacker. And even after Williams missed the entire preseason, Trestman left the door open for the veteran to play defense on Sunday, despite the fact that Bostic did a nice job in the preseason. No, it doesn't sound to me like Bostic has the position wrapped up anymore, unless Williams' calf gives out.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I'm starting to think Bostic won't start this week, despite D.J. Williams missing the entire preseason with a leg injury. The Bears might want to ease him in, while not being the kind of team that demotes a veteran because of injury. Despite his promise, speed and big-hit ability, Bostic is going to struggle some this season, enough that a healthy Williams should start at the middle linebacker spot, especially early in the season. Bostic will play a major role this season, but I'm guessing the veteran free agent will get his time, too.


Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Alshon Jeffery will have at least 50 catches this season.


Alshon Jeffery
Alshon Jeffery had 24 catches for 367 yards in 10 games last season as a rookie.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Jeffery is an elite talent who just needs to stay healthy. If the preseason was any indication, Jeffery has gained the trust of Cutler, an important hurdle every receiver must clear in Chicago. Cutler is hesitant to throw the ball to receivers he doesn't trust, but Jeffery and the quarterback seem to have built some chemistry over the summer. When Brandon Marshall struggled to catch the ball in the third preseason game in Oakland, Jeffery picked up the slack with seven catches for 77 yards on eight targets. Marshall is still the unquestioned No. 1 wideout on the roster and should catch around 100 balls again this season, but if Jeffery doesn't finish with much more than 50 receptions, then something has gone horribly wrong for the Bears on offense. Or Jeffery got hurt again. But it's hard to imagine a healthy Jeffery not putting up impressive numbers in this system.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Health willing, I bet Jeffery is good for about four catches a game, or 64 for the season. Marshall needs the ball, and will get the ball, but expect Cutler to look for Jeffery often during the game. The Bears are pretty thin at receiver and the second-year player will get plenty of targets. If he can be a game-breaker, this offense has a real shot.


Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Corey Wootton will have more sacks than Shea McClellin this season.


Corey Wootton
Corey Wootton made progress in his third season with seven sacks in 2012.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. I envision McClellin making a much greater impact on the Bears' defense in his second season, but Wootton looked so impressive firing off the ball in training camp that I think it's a safe bet (barring injury) that he either matches or exceeds his 2012 total of seven sacks. Wootton is also expected to be on the field more, bumping inside to defensive tackle when the Bears flip to their nickel package. Funny thing about Wootton is that the Bears didn't really have any expectations for him last year, but he turned out to be a pleasant surprise and had a breakout season. The cat is out of the bag: Wootton can play. And if he stays healthy, he could be in line for a sizable bump in pay heading into free agency next offseason.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Wootton had seven last year and McClellin 2½ in a more limited role. General manager Phil Emery is sensitive to any insinuation that he'd like McClellin, his first first-round pick, to assert himself and be an every-down pass rusher. But Wootton, a physical marvel, is in his way. I see the Northwestern product improving on his breakout season. He likely won't have more than seven sacks, but he'll still get more than McClellin.