Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
Power Rankings: Preseason: 11. This week: 19.
Where they stand: The Bears are 4-4 and technically tied with Green Bay for second place in the NFC North. But if the season were to end at its midpoint, tiebreakers would leave the Bears far from the NFC wild-card race. (They would be ninth in a six-team field.) Their defense has continued a slow slide from its height in 2006, and their revamped offensive line has left them with a less productive running game than a year ago. New quarterback Jay Cutler has improved the Bears’ passing numbers but, unfortunately for them, not their win-loss percentage.
Disappointments: Where to start? High-priced free agent Frank Omiyale flopped as a left guard and might find his way to right tackle. Veteran left tackle Orlando Pace is a shell of his Pro Bowl self. Tight end Greg Olsen’s 27 receptions ranks 15th among tight ends. New strongside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa suffered two knee injuries and was lost for the season. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris has continued to behave bizarrely and doesn’t appear to have the interior playmaking ability that once made him one of the NFL’s top defensive linemen. And finally, to this point at least, coach Lovie Smith’s takeover of the defensive play calling has failed to elevate the defense from its performance of a year ago.
Surprises: No one gave a second thought to receiver Johnny Knox when he was drafted in the fifth round. But Knox has given the Bears a legitimate offensive playmaker and filled a huge gap as the No. 3 receiver. He ranks third among NFL rookies with 28 receptions and fifth with 340 yards. Rookie Al Afalava, a sixth-round draft choice, emerged from training camp as a starting safety. But a shoulder injury Sunday puts his status in doubt. Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, in a contract year, is a half-sack away from matching his entire sack output (five) for 2008.
Outlook: The trade for Cutler brought high expectations for this team, and so a 4-4 first-half performance has raised the ire of fans and media members alike. The Bears have two games remaining against the Vikings, but even a sweep wouldn’t guarantee a division title. In all reality, the Bears are in a difficult fight for a wild-card spot. Without a substantial improvement in their defense, the Bears will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year.