NFC North: Orlando Pace

Before we spend any more time on the Chicago Bears' need to select at least one offensive linemen early in next month's draft, we need to ask a seemingly obvious question: Didn't they do that three years ago?

Indeed, in 2008, the Bears made a draft decision that should have supplied them an anchor for the next decade. They selected Vanderbilt left tackle Chris Williams with the No. 14 overall pick, but his well-chronicled struggles since then are a big reason the Bears' line faces so much uncertainty this spring.

[+] EnlargeChris Williams
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWhere Chris Williams will play along the offensive line in 2011 remains uncertain.
As you probably know by now, Williams' first NFL start didn't come until 2009 -- and it was at right tackle. He started the final five games of 2009 and the first two games of 2010 at left tackle before the Bears moved him to left guard out of short-term desperation.

In what should sound alarm bells about Williams' future, the Bears still haven't decided where they want Williams to play in 2011. Presumably, that decision will depend on the draft and the results of free agency. You could be an optimist and suggest Williams offers the Bears valuable flexibility, or you could join me in skepticism and wonder if he is now an expensive utility man.

At the scouting combine last month, coach Lovie Smith seemed certain that Williams will have a defined role in 2011 -- at some position. But his full comment on the subject isn't something you want to hear about a former first-round pick.

"I'll just say that we have a few options, a few directions we can go," Smith said. "Chris has played both tackle positions, has played guard for us. Might've played little center in college. We don't have to make those decisions right now. We just know that Chris is a part of our future ... once we lock him in to a position, maybe the one he's in right now. [Offensive line coach] Mike Tice did a super job molding an offensive line this past year and I'm anxious to see as we continue to talk on exactly where we end up playing him."

To be fair, I'm not sure if seven starts at left tackle over three seasons is enough to determine whether Williams is a bust at the position he was drafted to play. It's also hard to attribute his position moves purely to performance; in each instance they were related to a larger plan.

In 2009, for instance, the Bears needed a second starting tackle and decided their best option was veteran free agent Orlando Pace. Rather than shift Pace from his longtime position on the left side, the Bears chose Williams. Last season, the Bears had more game-ready tackles than guards. So when Williams returned from a hamstring injury in Week 6, they determined they were better off with Frank Omiyale and J'Marcus Webb at tackle, and Williams at left guard, than with Webb on the bench and an unworthy guard -- be it Lance Louis or Edwin Williams -- on the field.

With all that said, if the Bears still consider Williams a future anchor to their line, they will lock him into a position soon and keep him there. The longer they hold off that decision, the less confident I will feel about his future.

Smith seemed to be indicating left guard as a real possibility, and I would be fine with that. The No. 14 overall pick of a draft is a little high to find your future left guard, but it would be far worse if it's where the Bears drafted a future utility backup.

Is Faneca a match for the Bears?

April, 24, 2010
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The New York Jets just released Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca. Chicago recently moved left guard Frank Omiyale to right tackle. The Bears have no obvious replacement. Could Faneca come into play?

Faneca
Faneca
That’s the question the Bears are no doubt considering as the draft winds down Saturday. Faneca, 33, might not be at the height of his career but is clearly an upgrade over the Bears’ current personnel. Still, I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk the Bears will pursue him.

First, the Bears took a similar approach last season by signing veteran left tackle Orlando Pace, whose skill slippage was clear from the start of last season. It took the Bears a while to get him out of the lineup, however, and they will have to make sure Faneca wouldn’t put them in the same position.

Second, the Bears have hired an offensive line coach in Mike Tice who excels at developing young players. It’s possible they will want to give Tice a chance to work with Josh Beekman and Lance Louis, among others, before deciding to plug in a veteran. Stay tuned.
It was only a matter of time before Chicago released left tackle Orlando Pace, who lost his starting job at the end of last season and appears headed for retirement.

After several years of injury-shortened seasons, Pace was nowhere close to his former self in the 11 games he started for the Bears. Chris Williams will resume his role as the starting left tackle in 2010.

The Bears signed Pace on the same day they traded for quarterback Jay Cutler, a euphoric day in franchise history. Ultimately, Pace couldn't give the Bears what they were hoping for: A one-year bridge to Williams' eventual transition.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Bears general manager Jerry Angelo doesn't think he'll be able to trade up into the first two rounds of the 2010 draft, he said during an interview with the Bears' Web site.
  • Jason La Canfora of NFL.com: "The Lions had spoken with the Chargers over the weekend about a possible trade for former first-round pick Antonio Cromartie. But, despite needing help in its secondary, Detroit is unlikely to consummate a deal when the league year begins March 5."
  • Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com writes it is "highly unlikely" the trade will be made.
  • One reason talks might not have progressed, according to John Niyo of the Detroit News: The Chargers might be asking for running back Maurice Morris in addition to a draft pick.
  • Green Bay plans to use its original-round tender on cornerback Will Blackmon, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • The Packers plan to bring back left guard Daryn Colledge, writes Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but he will face some competition for his starting job.
  • One suitor for Minnesota tailback Chester Taylor could be the Bears, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
It is only a matter of time before longtime NFL executive Tim Ruskell lands in Chicago, according to Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald.

LeGere terms the union "more than likely" and quotes a source saying "it's almost a given" that the Bears will hire Ruskell into the slot vacated by ousted director of pro personnel Bobby DePaul. In his new job, Ruskell likely would be vice president of player personnel.

But David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune suggests the Bears should expand their search and identify an heir apparent to general manager Jerry Angelo, who could be nearing retirement in the next few years. (Although I wonder if Ruskell, who had a similar job in Seattle, would be a candidate to replace Angelo one day.)

Haugh: "That's the most inspired, aggressive way to proceed now for the Bears if they want to ensure they have a trusted football guy in place in anticipation of a regime change in 2011. Start searching now for Angelo's eventual successor and give him whatever title you want in the press release. The role will be obvious."

Angelo's contract runs through 2013.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com doesn't believe Orlando Pace will return as the Bears' left tackle, even under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
  • Detroit coaches are grading players twice on their 2009 performances, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press: Once after the season and once after watching cut-up videos of each performance.
  • Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson isn't ruling out using the franchise or transition tag this offseason, although it appears unlikely he will use either. Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has more.
  • Minnesota assistant defensive backs coach Derek Mason has accepted a job as the secondary coach at Stanford, according to the National Football Post via the Star Tribune.

All-decade team: Eight from NFCN

February, 1, 2010
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MIAMI -- I didn’t want to overload you Sunday night, what with the Pro Bowl going on and everything, so here now are the players with NFC North connections who were named to the NFL’s all-decade team this weekend:

OFFENSE
Left tackle Orlando Pace (Chicago)
Left guard Steve Hutchinson (Minnesota)
Center Olin Kreutz (Chicago)
Receiver Randy Moss (Minnesota)

DEFENSE
Cornerback Charles Woodson (Green Bay)
Linebacker Brian Urlacher (Chicago)
Tackle Kevin Williams (Minnesota)
Safety Darren Sharper (Green Bay, Minnesota)
Punt returner Devin Hester (Chicago)

More Rewind'09: Weekend mailbag

January, 9, 2010
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Wow. We just wrapped up one of the busiest weeks in the NFC North in some time. I felt like I was writing all day, every day. We had two teams headed to the playoffs, a third planning to swap out two coordinators and a fourth making some news late in the week.

It all happened while we were trying to put a bow on some of our central themes of the season, including Brett Favre’s impact on Minnesota, the changing face of NFC North offenses and the development of young tight ends within the division. Let’s continue that wrap-up, using questions from the mailbag and Facebook. (You can also send questions and thoughts to me via Twitter.)

Let’s get to it:

Kyle of West Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Early in the preseason, there was a discussion between you and the AFC North blogger about which division would come out on top between the two. I was wondering if you could revisit that discussion!

Kevin Seifert: Great idea Kyle! I presume you’re talking about this post from July. I offered seven points on the AFC North–NFC North matchup.

First, we should count up the record and realize the 16 games between the four teams were split down the middle. Each division went 8-8 against the other. Let’s look at the breakdown, naturally from an NFC North perspective:

Minnesota (3-1): Beat Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati. Lost to Pittsburgh.
Green Bay (2-2): Beat Baltimore and Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Chicago (2-2): Beat Pittsburgh, Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati, Baltimore.
Detroit (1-3): Beat Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Now, let’s look at the seven points I made at the time and reconcile them with the facts.

I wrote then: Detroit was 0-16 last season, but its new coach went 4-0 against the AFC North in his previous job. As the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, Jim Schwartz helped the Titans defeat Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Included in that run was a 31-14 late-December shellacking of the Steelers. Schwartz's new team is in a much different place than the Titans were last season, but it's a rare advantage to have seen all four interconference opponents the previous season. The Lions can use every edge they can find.

I see now: The Lions won only one of the four, but it’s worth noting they were relatively close against the Steelers (28-20) and Bengals (23-13) before getting crushed by the Ravens (48-3).


I wrote then: Who will have the last laugh between Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson (Oct. 18)? As you might recall, Peterson said at the Pro Bowl that he wanted to gain 12 pounds during the offseason. "I don't think too many guys would be excited to see me at 230 two times a year," Peterson said. But his father told USA Today last month that a group of veterans -- including Lewis -- "set up" his son, hoping to convince him to make a change that ultimately would slow him down. Let's see if Peterson, who by all accounts will remain close to his playing weight of 217 pounds, returns the favor.

I see now: Peterson ran for 143 yards on 22 carries in the Vikings' 33-31 victory. Case closed.


I wrote then: The AFC North boasts two of the game's best pass-rushing linebackers in Pittsburgh's James Harrison (16 sacks in 2008) and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (eight). You never know exactly where outside linebackers will line up in a 3-4 defense, but I'm guessing they'll find their way toward the NFC North's host of young right tackles. Chicago (Chris Williams), Minnesota (Phil Loadholt) and Green Bay (Allen Barbre or T.J. Lang) are all expected to have new starters at the position -- and Detroit's Gosder Cherilus is entering his first full season as a starter. Defensive coordinators would be remiss not to test all four spots.

I see now: I don’t have the breakdown of where he was lined up, but I can tell you that Harrison had five of his 10 sacks this season against NFC North opponents. Three came against the Lions and two against the Vikings. Suggs, limited by injuries this season, did not have a sack against the NFC North.


I wrote then: This season will be a referendum on whether Orlando Pace can still play left tackle in the NFL. During the free-agent period, Baltimore heavily courted Pace but wanted him to move to right tackle so that youngster Jared Gaither could continue his development on the left side. Pace, however, wanted to maintain his traditional position and ultimately signed with Chicago. The Ravens have installed rookie Michael Oher as their new right tackle and suddenly have a raw set of tackles. We'll soon find out if Pace can give the Bears a full year at left tackle, or whether the Ravens were right to hold firm on youth.

I see now: The Ravens won on this decision. Pace was ineffective for most of the season before being sidelined by a leg injury. Even after he returned to health, the Bears respectfully left him on the bench. Oher, meanwhile, was one of the NFL’s best rookies this season.


I wrote then: To the extent that practicing against a 3-4 defense helps in game preparation, Green Bay should have a clear advantage over its NFC North rivals. The Packers' offense spent all spring practicing against its 3-4 scheme and won't face that choppy in-season transition when preparing for the Steelers, Ravens and Browns. This is becoming less of an issue every year as more NFL teams return to the 3-4 -- the total is expected to be 13 in 2009 -- but familiarity can only help the Packers in this vein.

I see now: The Packers finished 2-1 against AFC North teams that run a 3-4, beating the Ravens and Browns while losing to the Steelers.


I wrote then: The Bears, Packers and Lions all are working hard to improve their weak pass rush. Two AFC North teams -- Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- are hoping to shore up their pass protection. Which teams can make quicker enhancements? You might know that the Bengals gave up the NFL's third-most sacks last season (51). But it might have escaped you that the Steelers were right behind them with 49 sacks allowed. It almost goes without saying that the best way to stop the Bengals' Carson Palmer and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is to keep them from throwing the ball.

I see now: The Bears had no sacks against the Bengals and two against the Steelers. The Packers had two and five, respectively. The Lions had two and three.


I wrote then: AFC North teams like to think of themselves the same way we do here in the Black and Blue, as hard-nosed, bad-weather running teams. Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are two of the best run-stoppers in the game, and there's a little stretch of the season where they would be particularly missed should their NFL suspensions kick in. (Such a scenario would require a prolonged but ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to their NFL discipline.) The Vikings play Baltimore and Pittsburgh in consecutive October weeks (Oct. 18 against the Ravens and Oct. 25 at Pittsburgh). That makes for two old-fashioned football matchups -- if the Williams Wall is on the field.

I see now: With both members of the Williams Wall on the field, the Vikings gave up 81 rushing yards to the Ravens and 107 to the Steelers. Neither total figured in the outcome of either game.


I wrote then: Who benefits most? In some ways, this schedule ensures that each NFC North team will be playing 10 divisional games this season. There are many similarities between the general styles of the Black and Blue and AFC North. Minnesota's defense should match the intensity of the physical offenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Green Bay's offense shouldn't be surprised by the 3-4 defense, but its own defense won't have the advantage of surprise, either. It's too early to make specific predictions, but it's safe to say that whoever has the divisional advantage in the NFC North will also fare best against the AFC North.

I see then: The Vikings won the NFC North and also had the best record against the AFC North. Ding-ding-ding!


Robert of Oostburg Wis., writes: Hello. Dom Capers was not the first choice for defensive coordinator for the Packers last offseason. Could you compare the job he got done this year with the few others that got away. I think the Packers got the steal of the year.

Kevin Seifert: You’re right. The Packers interviewed several candidates who ultimately went elsewhere, including Mike Nolan (Denver) and Gregg Williams (New Orleans). The Broncos defense finished the season ranked No. 7 in the NFL. The Saints finished No. 27, but Williams scheme did create the second-most turnovers in the NFL and played a big role in the Saints’ hot start.

That said, I don’t think there’s any doubt Capers’ defense had the best season of that group. Capers is well known for making an immediate impact, and that’s exactly what the Packers got this season.


Keith writes: Is there a more natural way to make Week 17 more competitive than to seed teams based on overall record? Arizona surely would've showed up last week.

Kevin Seifert: I wish there were, Keith. To date, I haven’t heard or thought of any that make sense.

Awarding teams draft picks to continue playing their starters seems counterintuitive. Would a sixth- or seventh-round pick be enough to risk the health of a key player? I don’t think so. And what would it say about the league that it must reward teams for competing?

Penalizing teams for sitting starters is also problematic. The decision can have too much gray area. How long would the player have to be on the field? What would prevent him from leaving because of “tightness?” or some other nebulous injury?

Weighing playoff seedings disproportionally based on late-season record doesn’t fly with me, either. Shouldn’t every game count the same?

Ultimately, I think the NFL should be patient and see what happens to Indianapolis, especially, this postseason. It’s a copycat league. If the Colts are bounced early from the playoffs, you can bet future coaches in the same position would think twice about benching starters.


Jonathan writes via Facebook: So....when do we find out that Woodson won DPOY?

Kevin Seifert: The Associated Press will announce the Defensive Player of the Year Award next Wednesday, Jan. 13. That’s when we’ll find out if Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson won it.
It’s all but official in Chicago: The Orlando Pace experiment is over.

Pace has returned to full health after rehabilitating a groin injury, but with three games left in a lost season, the Bears have no intention of reinserting him into the starting lineup. Instead, according to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune, the Bears will leave second-year player Chris Williams at left tackle and veteran backup Kevin Shaffer at right tackle.

This makes perfect sense for a number of reasons, and give some credit to the Bears for not being blinded by the money they paid Pace during the offseason. Williams is their left tackle for the long term, and he needs to use these games to continue developing at the position. Pace, 34, had a sub-par year and isn’t likely to return next season.

For his work this year, Pace will receive about $6 million in compensation. It was an expensive gambit, but at least the Bears aren’t extending its life to save face.

Continuing around the NFC North:

NFC North Friday injury report

December, 11, 2009
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Getting inside quite a newsy injury report:

Chicago Bears: Receiver Devin Hester (calf) and offensive lineman Orlando Pace (groin) are both listed as questionable, but it’s very possible that neither will play Sunday against Green Bay. Hester didn’t practice all week, including a glorified walk-through on Friday. ESPN Chicago's Jeff Dickerson reports that Pace might dress for Sunday's game but won't start, leaving Chris Williams as the left tackle. All other players will be available for the game.

Detroit Lions: Tight end Casey FitzSimmons (concussion) won’t play Sunday against Baltimore. It’s unlikely that defensive lineman Andre Fluellen (groin) will either. Like quarterback Matthew Stafford (shoulder), Fluellen is listed as doubtful. Defensive tackle Joe Cohen (knee) and offensive lineman Daniel Loper (back) are questionable and will be game-time decisions.

Green Bay Packers: Nose tackle Ryan Pickett (hamstring) is doubtful to play against the Bears, meaning rookie B.J. Raji likely will make his first career start at nose tackle. Defensive end Johnny Jolly (knee) returned to practice Friday and is questionable but is likely to play.

Minnesota Vikings: Safety Tyrell Johnson (concussion) is doubtful and almost certainly won’t play Sunday against Cincinnati. Rookie Jamarca Sanford will get the start. The Vikings are keeping their fingers crossed about receiver Percy Harvin, who missed his third consecutive day of practice because of migraines. The hope is that the migraines will dissipate before Sunday, but there is no way to predict when that will happen. If offensive lineman Phil Loadholt (shoulder) can’t play, he’ll likely be replaced by Artis Hicks. Cornerback Cedric Griffin (neck) is questionable but is expected to play. The status of cornerback Antoine Winfield (foot) will be determined Sunday morning.

NFC North at night

December, 9, 2009
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Chicago Bears: Offensive lineman Orlando Pace (groin) and linebacker Lance Briggs (knee) both returned to practice. ESPN Chicago’s Jeff Dickerson suggests the Bears leave Pace on the bench and continue starting Chris Williams at left tackle. I agree. Meanwhile, read Dickerson’s account of a testy exchange between quarterback Jay Cutler and a reporter on the subject of officials.

Detroit Lions: We covered the decision to rest quarterback Matthew Stafford here. Coach Jim Schwartz said Daunte Culpepper will start at Baltimore and that he gave no thought to starting No. 3 quarterback Drew Stanton. “No,” Schwartz said. “Daunte is our backup quarterback. We’ve had no change in our depth chart.”

Green Bay Packers: Coach Mike McCarthy said he is concerned with the availability of four defensive linemen for Sunday’s game against Chicago. Nose tackle Ryan Pickett (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday. Fellow linemen Cullen Jenkins (hamstring), Johnny Jolly (knee) and B.J. Raji (ankle) were limited. … Linebacker Nick Barnett (knee) also sat out Wednesday’s practice but isn’t expected to miss Sunday’s game.

Minnesota Vikings: Four key players missed practice Wednesday: Tailback Adrian Peterson (foot/ankle), safety Tyrell Johnson (concussion), receiver Percy Harvin (illness) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (shoulder). Johnson and Loadholt are iffy, at best, for Sunday’s game against Cincinnati. Right guard Anthony Herrera (concussion) returned to practice, meaning backup Artis Hicks could replace Loadholt if necessary.

NFC North Friday injury report

December, 4, 2009
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Getting inside the Friday injury report:

Chicago Bears: Offensive lineman Orlando Pace (groin) and linebacker Lance Briggs (knee) are listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game against St. Louis. Neither are expected to play.

Detroit Lions: Receiver Eric Fowler (knee) and safety Kalvin Pearson (hamstring) won’t play Sunday against Cincinnati. … Safety Louis Delmas (ankle), guard Daniel Loper (back), linebacker Ernie Sims (hamstring) and defensive end Dewayne White (toe) are all listed as questionable. Loper isn’t expected to play. Delmas and Sims both have a good chance.

Green Bay Packers: There was a frightening situation at the end of practice Friday when linebacker Jeremy Thompson suffered what coach Mike McCarthy termed a “neck stinger.” Thompson remained on the ground and eventually was taken to a hospital. Teammates told reporters that Thompson had movement in his hands and feet. Here is coverage from the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and ESPN Milwaukee. … Rookie offensive lineman T.J. Lang suffered a concussion in Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. That leaves the Packers hoping that starter Chad Clifton (hamstring) will recover in time to start Monday night against Baltimore. Green Bay will release status designations on Saturday.

Minnesota Vikings: I’ve given up trying to guess when cornerback Antoine Winfield (foot) will return. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier acknowledged that Winfield had a setback last week. Although he again made it through a full week of practice, I’ll believe Winfield is returning when I see him on the field. … Right guard Anthony Herrera practiced for the first time since suffering a concussion two weeks ago, but his availability for Sunday night’s game at Arizona is questionable at best. The remainder of the Vikings’ questionable players -- running back Chester Taylor (ribs) and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (ribs) -- are expected to play.

NFC North at night

December, 3, 2009
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Chicago Bears: Linebacker Lance Briggs (knee) and left tackle Orlando Pace (groin) both sat out practice Thursday. Pace isn’t likely to play Sunday against St. Louis. Here’s what Briggs told reporters: “My health? I'm breathing well. My temperature is about 98.6. I feel good. It's not my call [on playing Sunday]. Right now, I'm questionable, with a possibility of being possible.” Jamar Williams is Briggs’ likely replacement if needed, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago.

Detroit Lions: The Lions aren’t sure if they’ll have guard Daniel Loper (ankle) for Sunday’s game against Cincinnati. “Probably a game-time decision,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “It’s nothing that’s going to be long term.” … Safety Louis Delmas (ankle) and linebacker Ernie Sims (hamstring) were limited Thursday in practice.

Green Bay Packers: Left tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring) was limited in practice, and coach Mike McCarthy said: “I'm not sure if Chad will go this week.” Clifton’s replacement Monday night against Baltimore likely would be rookie T.J. Lang. … Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (ribs) was listed on the injury report but had full participation in practice. Rodgers told reporters: “I have an injury that is not going to keep me out of [the] game.”

Minnesota Vikings: Right guard Anthony Herrera continued to miss practice as he recovers from a concussion. … Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said cornerback Antoine Winfield (foot) had a “setback” last Friday, explaining why Winfield didn’t play Sunday against Chicago. Winfield remains a limited participant in practice this week.

The future of Chicago's O-line

December, 2, 2009
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It appears Chicago is beginning an inevitable transition on the offensive line. Orlando Pace's groin injury has given the Bears a reason to move Chris Williams back to left tackle, the position Williams was expected to play he was drafted last year.

Here’s the news story from our ESPN Chicago colleague, Jeff Dickerson.

If this were a short-term situation, the Bears probably would have left Williams at right tackle and used Kevin Shaffer or another player at left tackle. But according to Dickerson, it’s likely that Shaffer or possibly Frank Omiyale will start at right tackle Sunday against St. Louis.

If it were me, I’d try Omiyale there just to find out if he can offer them an option in 2010. He’s given us no reason to believe he can be the Bears’ left guard next season. But with three more years remaining on the $11.5 million deal he signed last winter, it’s worth finding out if he can help somewhere.

Filling the holes in Chicago

December, 1, 2009
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Jay CutlerAP Photo/Andy KingBy nearly any measure, Jay Cutler's first season in Chicago has been a disappointment.
Brace yourselves. It’s time to revisit and perhaps conclude the bitter argument we started the morning after Chicago acquired quarterback Jay Cutler. At the time, I suggested the trade was a pivotal point in the 2009 NFC North race: It would either hand the division title to the Bears or bury them in a debt of unfilled holes and lost draft picks.

Larry David would probably join me in saying we’re getting pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty close to wrapping up that debate. Cutler’s arrival has coincided with the collapse of the Bears' defense and exposed several personnel gaps that limit his strengths as a downfield passer. Worse, the Bears are headed toward their second consecutive draft without a first- or second-round pick -- a substantial hindrance for upgrading/retrofitting their roster to make the Cutler trade work.

We hashed through the Bears’ defensive woes a few weeks ago. So today, let’s look at the impact of the Cutler trade on their offense -- and the entire franchise -- with 11 games of evidence to cull from.

Let’s be clear: Cutler has exacerbated the Bears’ issues with an NFL-high 20 interceptions and a sour demeanor that makes him easy to target. But I think we can safely say he parachuted into a team built for someone else.

The bus stalled out
When he was hired in 2004, Bears coach Lovie Smith announced his teams would “get off the bus running.” That was Smith’s way of describing an offense built around the power running game, a time-honored tradition in Chicago and the entire Black and Blue division. Smith had a 1,200-yard rusher in three of his first five seasons, along the way building a roster designed for that approach.

That style began to erode on that fateful day in March, when they acquired Cutler and signed former Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace -- known more for his pass blocking than a bull-dozing even in his best days with St. Louis. Free agent Frank Omiyale, their new left guard, was also better known as a pass-blocker during his time in Carolina.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Tony Medina/Icon SMIMatt Forte has seen his role in the offense diminish this season.
Neither Omiyale nor Pace has played to expectations this season, leaving the Bears with a double conundrum: Their run blocking has weakened and their pass blocking is less reliable than they had hoped for. Incredibly, the Bears now have the NFL’s lowest-ranked rushing game; they are averaging 85.1 yards per game. Even more surprising, their 232 rushing attempts are also a league-low.

Few quarterbacks, Cutler included, can succeed when a huge chunk of the playbook is rendered moot. Sunday, the Bears passed on their first three plays and punted. Then they ran on their next three plays before punting again. From that point, they passed on 17 of their next 20 plays.

Was that really the Bears? Or was it Texas Tech?

“We didn’t really even try to establish a running game,” lamented tailback Matt Forte, a smooth runner who has proved unable to gain much in the way of unblocked yardage.

The idea in acquiring Cutler was to give the Bears a passing threat to match their long-held rushing prowess. Instead, he climbed aboard the bus just as it was stalling out.

Unbalanced roster
Unfortunately for Cutler, the rest of their offensive personnel wasn’t equipped to handle a shift to the passing game. If their receiving corps has been a pleasant surprise, it’s mostly because expectations couldn’t have been lower. Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox have combined for 136 receptions, but they’re still inexperienced and -- importantly -- none of them command a double-team from opponents.

That inexperience was on display early in the third quarter Sunday at the Metrodome. Knox’s 77-yard return of the second-half kickoff put the Bears in position to get back into the game, but on second down from the Vikings’ 8-yard line, Cutler looked confused and took a sack. Afterward, offensive coordinator Ron Turner said Cutler’s primary receiver ran the wrong route.

Turner wouldn’t identify the culprit, but in watching the replay, you see Cutler look to the left side of the end zone where Hester and tight end Greg Olsen were both running routes.

“[Cutler] is looking for a guy that’s supposed to be there that would have been wide open,” Turner said. “But he’s not there so he gets sacked. It’s a matter of us executing better offensively and giving him an opportunity. When you give him an opportunity, he’s a hell of a player. But we have to give him a chance on each and every play.

“It’s easy to look at the quarterback and blame the quarterback or whatever you want to blame,” Turner added. “But everybody has to execute. If one guy doesn’t do it, it’s tough for any quarterback to execute and that’s kind of been the story of what we’ve had. … We seem to bust base plays that we’ve had in [the playbook] and not give ourselves a chance. We have to clean that up.”

Limited options
Focusing only on the offense, you could argue the Bears have two and perhaps three critical needs entering the 2010 draft. They need a big-play receiver, an influx of new bodies to give them options along their offensive line and a running back to complement or share duties with Forte.

Hindsight is 20-20, of course. (But we wouldn’t have an NFC North blog without it.) If you look at the players available at what would have been the Bears’ first two picks of the 2009 draft, you see they could have filled at least one of those needs. (Remember that the Bears traded out of the second round in part to recoup a third-round pick they gave up in the Cutler deal.)

Now, they’ll have to address those same deficiencies during a draft that won’t start for them until the third round, completing the trades for Cutler and defensive end Gaines Adams. Free agency is always a possibility, but acquiring impact players through that avenue is usually the exception rather than the rule.

I’ll maintain that the Bears upgraded at quarterback when they installed Cutler in place of Kyle Orton. But that wasn’t the central question of our original debate. The real issue is whether the Bears would be able to surround Cutler with enough support to make the trade worthwhile. To this point, they simply have not.

How I See It: NFC North Stock Watch

December, 1, 2009
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Falling

1. Orlando Pace, Chicago left tackle: You have to wonder if the former Pro Bowler is reaching the end of the line. Before he left Sunday’s game at the Metrodome, Pace wasn’t coming close to slowing down Minnesota pass-rusher Jared Allen. The Bears signed Pace as a short-term solution to solidify their offensive line, but it looks like the gambit has been a failure. Pace, 34, appears old and brittle. It seems likely that 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams will return to left tackle in the near future, no later than next season. Pace might be entering his final month with the Bears -- and possibly the NFL.

2. Daunte Culpepper, Detroit quarterback: The Lions backup has been the picture of dignity this season while sitting behind rookie starter Matthew Stafford. Culpepper knows his future is elsewhere if he wants start in the NFL again, which is all the more reason he should have avoided a televised confrontation Thursday with Lions general manager Martin Mayhew. Culpepper was understandably disappointed by the decision to start Stafford against Green Bay, but his reaction was the opposite of what NFL teams will be looking for when they begin evaluating quarterbacks this offseason. The best Culpepper can hope for this winter is to sign with a team that offers him a chance to compete for a job. Some of those teams might think twice now.

3. Jerry Angelo, Chicago general manager: There has been a lot of criticism directed at Bears coach Lovie Smith. But when you take a look at the big picture, you see Angelo has steered the franchise into a tough spot. He acquired a franchise quarterback in Jay Cutler but has limited assets available to fill the numerous holes around him, on both sides of the ball. The Bears don’t have a first- or second-round pick in the 2010 draft, and none of Angelo’s top four selections from last April have offered hope for near-future impact. Angelo isn’t to blame for the Bears’ poor execution and questionable game planning, but he does share a role in the season’s collapse.

Allen
Elsa/Getty ImagesJared Allen has saved his best for NFC North opponents.
Rising

1. Jared Allen, Minnesota defensive end: This season, Allen has saved his best games for division opponents. He sacked Cutler twice Sunday at the Metrodome, giving him 10.5 sacks in five 2009 NFC North games. Overall, Allen’s 12.5 sacks rank second in the NFL behind Denver’s Elvis Dumervil (14.5). And it’s worth updating this statistic: In his first 27 games with the Vikings, dating back to the 2008 season, Allen has 27 sacks. That’s a pretty solid pace.

2. Charles Woodson, Green Bay cornerback: With apologies to Allen and Dumervil, Woodson has put himself on pace for a serious run at the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Known mostly for his coverage in the Packers’ previous defensive scheme, Woodson has embraced responsibilities around the field this season. His monster Thanksgiving game at Detroit last week -- seven tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a sack -- was another example of the damage he can do near the line of scrimmage. For the season, Woodson has seven interceptions, four forced fumbles, two sacks and 18 passes defensed.

3. Brett Favre, Minnesota quarterback: There’s not much more we can say after Sunday’s 392-yard performance other than to reiterate that the Vikings can now light up the scoreboard even when their running game is held in check. The Bears focused on tailback Adrian Peterson, giving Favre favorable matchups all over the field. Favre carved them up with little trouble, throwing on 46 of the Vikings’ first 65 plays. That should put a shiver down the spine of future opponents.

Final Word: NFC North

November, 27, 2009
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[+] EnlargeJared Allen
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJared Allen seems to save his best games for when he faces division opponents.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 12:

In case you forgot, Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen welcomed Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler to the division with these words: “Twice a year, I'm going to peel the back of his head off the turf. I love the guy, but business is business." In all seriousness, Allen does tend to save his best games for division opponents. Of his 10.5 sacks this season, 8.5 have come in four NFC North contests. You would think he has another favorable matchup Sunday afternoon against the Bears’ declining left tackle, Orlando Pace. Plus, Allen came up big in both games against Chicago last season, with two sacks in the teams’ first matchup and 2.5 in the second. This is the type of game where Allen usually makes his presence known.

Of all the ways Chicago’s defense has been maligned this season, it still has managed to minimize big passing plays. Opponents have 23 completions of 20 or more yards this season, the sixth-lowest figure in the NFL. We should find out Sunday if that’s a legitimate statistic or not. Minnesota has 35 completions of at least 20 yards this year and 10 of more than 40 yards. Both marks rank among the NFL’s top 10. Vikings quarterback Brett Favre has the NFL’s highest passer rating on passes of 21 or more yards (130.2), according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Bears won’t have a chance Sunday if they can’t stop the Vikings’ big passing plays.

With all that said, we’re only doing our duty by acknowledging this statistic: Favre has thrown two touchdown passes and 13 interceptions in his past six games against the Bears. Three of those interceptions have been returned for touchdowns. The Bears were 5-1 in those games, all of which came against Green Bay. Every year stands on its own merits, but history is history.

Given the anger and optimism in Chicago and Minnesota, respectively, few people probably think this game could come down to field goal kicking. But if it does, we’ll have two of the NFL’s best this season. The Vikings’ Ryan Longwell ranks fourth in the NFL with a 94-percent conversion rate this season (16 of 17). Chicago’s Robbie Gould isn’t much behind, having converted 84 percent (16 of 19). Longwell’s only miss was a block. Gould? Of his three failures, two were blocked and the other was from 53 yards. If you’re a fan of rock-solid kicking, be sure to tune in.

Green Bay has a mini-bye week after getting through Thursday’s game at Detroit. The Packers have a full 10 days between games and won’t take the field again until Dec. 7 for a Monday night matchup against Baltimore. Who knows what the playoff scenarios will be at that point, but as of now the Packers are sitting in pretty good position. The New York Giants’ Thanksgiving loss at Denver leaves the Packers as the only 7-victory team among the NFC’s top wild-card contenders. Philadelphia could join that group Sunday with a victory over Washington. Regardless, the Packers have a nice stretch here to rest up for the final playoff run.

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