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Four Downs: Can Cutler endure?

Jay Cutler has been sacked 11 times in the first two games of the season. AP Photo/Bill Feig

Flying high after a rout of the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1, the Chicago Bears crashed on Sunday with a 30-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints. The offensive line showed shades of 2010, surrendering six sacks, including five in the fourth quarter, and the defense was picked apart by Drew Brees.

With the Green Bay Packers next up on the Bears' brutal opening stretch of the season, there are plenty of issues to address for our ESPNChicago.com panel in the first installment of Four Downs:

First Down

Fact or fiction: The Bears’ offensive line is worse than last season.

Jeff Dickerson, Bears reporter: Fiction: Eleven sacks over the course of the first two games is a troubling number, but the pass protection woes go beyond just the five guys up front. There's still hope, injuries notwithstanding, that right tackle Gabe Carimi and new center Roberto Garza turn out to be upgrades from the 2010 version of the offensive line.

Michael C. Wright, Bears reporter: Fiction. The unit’s performance against the Saints came down to the defense bringing more than the Bears could block, and the fact sacks are merely the cost of doing business in Mike Martz’s offense. The offensive line is probably worse off with Carimi and Lance Louis out of the lineup, but I’m not ready to call the group worse than last year’s.

Jon Greenberg, columnist: Fiction. Don't let bad playcalling and a quarterback's fatal flaws (happy feet, sad face) fall all on the big uglies up front. Granted, they didn't play great in New Orleans, but losing Carimi in the second quarter led to fourth quarter meltdown. With Carimi, the line is marginally better than last year's edition.

Melissa Isaacson, columnist: Fiction. Way too early to say definitively, but potentially this line should be better than the first half of last season and at least as good as the second half. The X factor is injuries and the Bears are certainly not off to a good start with starters Louis and Carimi currently hurt. But Louis should be back in a couple weeks and unless Carimi’s knee is worse than thought, there is no reason to think that despite the expected ups and downs, they won’t be better.


Second Down

Fact or fiction: Jay Cutler will start 16 games this season.

Jeff Dickerson, Bears reporter: Fact. Cutler's durability over his five-plus years in the league is impressive. Remember, he only missed the road game at Carolina and the second half of the NFC Championship Game. Plus, there's no way the Bears continue to call a ridiculous amount of pass plays if the protection issues don't get cleaned up. Right?

Michael C. Wright, Bears reporter: Fact. Cutler has been durable throughout his career, missing only one start because of an injury. Besides that, the Bears won’t repeat mistakes from the Saints game. So it was actually good for the team to have such a horrendous showing so early. The team will firm up the protection in the coming games, and Martz will call more running plays to take pressure off Cutler and the passing game.

Jon Greenberg, columnist: Fact. Cutler is as tough as Martz is stubborn. He'll survive. The sacks weren't even the worse hits he got. Cutler wasn't "sacked" in the first half, but he got knocked around plenty. The Bears should be worried about him getting skittish, like he did on Sunday. Only way he misses a game is if he flies to Los Angeles to propose again to K-Cav on "Dancing with the Stars."

Melissa Isaacson, columnist: Fiction. Tough or not, this is an accomplishment for any NFL quarterback as just 11 managed to do it in 2010, not including Cutler. The fact that Cutler missed only one game [with a concussion], despite being sacked a league-high 52 times last season was an accomplishment. But with 11 sacks already in two games this season, not to mention 18 quarterback hits (which puts the Bears in a three-way tie for worst in the league), an injury-free year is unfortunately looking like a longshot for Cutler.


Third Down

Fact or fiction: The Bears are the third-best team in the NFC North.

Jeff Dickerson, Bears reporter: Fiction. The Detroit Lions need to win more than two games for me to declare them superior to last year's division winner.

Michael C. Wright, Bears reporter: Fact. Look at the NFL standings. As of right now, the Bears are the third-best team at 1-1, behind the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. That’s not to say this can’t and won’t change in the coming weeks. But as of right now, the Bears are third in the division. Luckily for the Bears, they have a shot to change things on Sunday with a win over the Packers. I see the Bears putting forth a much better performance at home against the Packers, and moving to at least a tie for second in the division.

Jon Greenberg, columnist: Fiction. Yes, the Lions are wowing the NFL right now, but I won't believe they're better than the Bears until they beat them. The Monday Nighter in Detroit will be the hottest game in Motown since Barry Sanders was jitterbugging over the league. I just won't buy the Lions hype until they take down the defending champs. Green Bay, however, is still atop the division.

Melissa Isaacson, columnist: Fiction. Might look that way right now with Matthew Stafford on fire for the 2-0 Lions. After two games, Stafford is ranked fourth among NFL quarterbacks behind Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Brees with a 65.3 completion percentage, seven touchdowns, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 112.0. But let’s not get carried away. The two Lions victories were against mediocre Tampa Bay and Kansas City. And though the Lions were terrific against the Chiefs, so too, remember, were the Bears against the Falcons. Plus, Stafford has to stay healthy. We’ll know more Oct. 10, when the Bears play Detroit on Monday Night Football.


Fourth Down

Fact or fiction: The Bears need to sign Matt Forte now.

Jeff Dickerson, Bears reporter: Fact. The Bears need to up their offer to Forte and get a deal done soon. He's the best player on the Bears' offense and needs to be paid like it. Aren't you supposed to reward draft picks who actually perform?

Michael C. Wright, Bears reporter: Fact. Let’s break it down mathematically. Having gained 324 total yards over the past two weeks, Forte has been responsible for 52 percent of the team’s offense this season. Shoot, the running back generated 67.5 percent of the offense against the Saints so he’s definitely proven worthy of a large pay day. The problem is the front office doesn’t value running backs the way it does linebackers and defensive linemen, which is understandable and not outside of the league norm. The brass needs to take a closer look at how valuable a player such as Forte is to what the team does offensively. Martz’s offense requires a running back with a very specific skill set for the system to operate at full capacity. The Bears have that in Forte, and need to compensate him accordingly.

Jon Greenberg, columnist: Fact. The Bears need to sign Forte for their own good before he gets too expensive. He's finally making a national name for himself after three years of being a second-tier running back. It helps when your offense consists mostly of checkdowns, but Forte's versatility has probably cost the Bears millions already. Maybe, though, they shouldn't sign him if this is how he plays for a new contract.

Melissa Isaacson, columnist: Fact. Now that it has been firmly established that Forte is the most potent offensive weapon -- and on Sunday, the only one -- the Bears have, their bargaining power isn’t likely to improve much, if at all. More importantly, the longer they wait, they risk Forte becoming frustrated enough that he goes into free agency after the season intent on signing somewhere else. With Martz at the offensive helm, the versatile Forte is a component the team needs for the system to work. Best for all concerned that they do it sooner, rather than later.