CHICAGO -- Here are Five Things We Learned following the Bears' 31-20 victory over San Diego.
1. Caleb Hanie's time is here: The season is not over, Bears fans. With Jay Cutler expected to be out for at least the remainder of the regular season, per sources familiar with the situation, the reigns of the offense will be turned over to Hanie, who almost rallied the Bears past the Green Bay Packers last year in the NFC Championship Game. Hanie isn't Cutler, but there is no reason the Bears can't win enough games down the stretch the qualify for the playoffs. With a solid defense, excellent special teams, Matt Forte, an improving offensive line and receivers who are starting to make plays, the Bears need to simply tailor the game plan slightly to accentuate Hanie's strengths. Hanie is a mobile quarterback who does a good job making plays with his feet. As we saw in the postseason, Hanie already has a nice rapport with Bennett, and he threw a lot to Johnny Knox in the preseason since the wideout ran the bulk of his reps with the second team. Don't expect Hanie to be Cutler, but he can still be a successful quarterback if the Bears put him in the proper position to excel.
2. The picture at wide receiver has become clear: Devin Hester is the greatest return man in history and a major contributor to the club's overall success. But after being used strictly in the return game against Detroit, Hester wasn't targeted once in the win against San Diego. It seems Earl Bennett, Knox and even Roy Williams (five catches for 62 yards) have staked their claims to the starting reps at receiver, which seems appropriate given how the three performed on Sunday at Soldier Field. This should allow the Bears, even under Hanie, to be selective with how they use Hester on offense. Don't look at this development in a negative light. Hester can still be a weapon for Mike Martz, but he might be more effective in spot duty. Let Hester concentrate on special teams while at the same time throwing him a few bones every week at wideout. People have been clamoring for this for years, but if this past week is any indication, it could be the new reality for Hester on offense. It's no slight on Hester, but he wins games on special teams, normally not on offense.
3. Bears secondary is eight deep: When D.J. Moore returns from an ankle injury, Lovie Smith will have eight experienced defensive backs at his disposal as the Bears make a push toward the playoffs. Reserve safety Brandon Meriweather played a much more disciplined brand of football when he came off the bench for a few series on Sunday, and made three solid tackles. Corey Graham filled in nicely for D.J. Moore at nickel and Zack Bowman pitched in when the defense shifted to its "TANK" personnel to better match up with Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates. Meanwhile, Chris Conte and Major Wright continue to bring stability to the safety position, with Wright forcing a turnover in each of the past three games, which is the lifeblood of Smith's defense. Even though Tillman had a rough time guarding Jackson, the overall performance of the starting corners this year has been well above average, and getting Moore back in the fold sometime in near future will only strengthen the group. What looked like a weakness early in the year, has become the backbone of the Bears' defense.
4. Graham can play defense: We all know Graham is on track to earn a Pro Bowl berth on special teams, but the Bears never seemed to believe he could contribute much on defense. Well, after intercepting a pass in each of the past two games while stepping in at the complicated nickel back position, Graham, who signed only a one-year contract at the start of training camp, is showing the rest of the league he should be given a chance to compete for a starting job on defense somewhere next season. Whenever Graham has been afforded the opportunity to be more than just a special teamer, he's responded. He did a nice job starting nine games at cornerback in 2008, but for whatever reason, he's never really been in the mix the past two and half years. But Graham is making a strong case to be more involved in the game plan, even when Moore returns to field.
5. Perhaps the Bears should pursue Jackson in free agency: Wow. What a performance by Vincent Jackson, who hauled in seven passes for 165 and repeatedly got the better of Charles Tillman. Jackson turns 29 in January and appears to have plenty left in the tank. I know it's going to cost a ton of money, but a 6-foot-5 threat who has already posted a pair of 1,000 yard seasons and has four 100-yard games in 2011 is worth the big contract. Drop Jackson in with Bennett and Knox and let the good times roll. The Bears have a history of signing free agents who played well against them the year before. They need to continue that tradition and snare Jackson once he hits the open market in the offseason.