- Kevin Seifert, NFL Nation
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Power Rankings: Preseason 21. This week: 19.
Where they stand: The Bears have spent much of the season atop the NFC North thanks to a revitalized defense than has limited opponents to 16.6 points per game, the fourth-lowest mark in the NFL. The re-emergence of Devin Hester as a punt returner -- he has two touchdowns and leads all qualifiers with a 15.9-yard average -- has also bolstered the team. Hester and the Bears' defense have compensated for an offense that has transitioned slowly to Mike Martz's pass-happy scheme. But at the season's midpoint, the Bears are the only NFC North team with an undefeated division record (2-0), an important head start in potential tiebreakers. They've positioned themselves for a run at the division title, which at this point is all they could have hoped for.
Falling: Martz hasn't adjusted well to the Bears' existing personnel, and it's still not clear if quarterback Jay Cutler is capable of executing his offense as originally contemplated. The Bears have started five different personnel groupings on their offensive line and currently have only one player -- center Olin Kreutz -- in his Week 1 position. Martz needed to anticipate that deficiency and adjust accordingly. Instead, Bears quarterbacks have been sacked a league-high 32 times, due in equal parts to the line and the deep-drop passes Martz has insisted upon. Cutler could have helped himself by releasing the ball quicker, but his instincts seem to tell him to hold the ball. His four-interception game against the Washington Redskins was a reminder of how reckless he can be when flustered.
Rising: In his first-ever stint as a defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli has taken the Bears back to their roots. The Bears are playing a near-pure version of their Tampa 2 scheme, utilizing the addition of defensive end Julius Peppers to limit his blitz calls and devote more players to coverage. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Marinelli has blitzed on less than a third of opponents' pass plays. Last season, the Bears approached 50 percent. Peppers has only two sacks, but he's also forced two fumbles and drawn substantial attention from opponents. All told, the Bears are following the pattern they set in their mid-2000's prime. They are using their front four to control the point of attack, leaving their back seven to make big plays. The Bears have 20 takeaways, the second-highest total in the NFL.
Midseason MVP: Peppers has disappointed fantasy owners but few others. His impact on this defense, and its resulting ascendance in NFL rankings, is undeniable.
Outlook: As long as their defense continues to force turnovers and perform well on third downs, the Bears should be competitive in every game they play this season. The prospect of continuity on the offensive line, along with the promise of a more balanced offense, also raises optimism. But if they want to win this division, the Bears at some point must start protecting Cutler -- and he must throw the ball effectively and consistently. To put it kindly, that would require substantial adjustments from both Martz and Cutler.