Experts' Picks (Consensus: second)
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 Counting the postseason, the Bears haven't beaten the Packers in six consecutive meetings. So for this team, a split would be a major victory. Even without Lovie Smith running the show, the defense will be as potent as ever. But quarterback Jay Cutler is the key. Playing in a new offense, Cutler won't be able to generate enough firepower to oust the Packers.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 Marc Trestman should get better scoring out of Jay Cutler, but a tough schedule might make it tough for the Bears to get back to 10 wins.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 If Jay Cutler cannot thrive under Marc Trestman, he will struggle to thrive under any head coach.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 The Bears will miss Brian Urlacher's leadership, but they still have enough talent to compete for a wild-card spot. It's time for Jay Cutler to take the next step in his maturation.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 Contract year for Jay Cutler. He has a lot to prove.|
Five things you need to know about the Bears:
1. Another system for Jay Cutler: New Bears coach Marc Trestman brings in a new offense, which will be Cutler's fourth in five seasons with the Bears. That's a difficult challenge for any quarterback to prosper in, but Cutler is optimistic that this new system fits. Look for Cutler to get the ball out of his hands more quickly than he has in the past on shorter throws and crossing routes that allow the receivers to gain yardage after the catch. The key for Cutler in the new system is to produce success early, because if things go awry and the quarterback doesn't completely buy in, he's shown a penchant for bucking the scheme and doing his own thing.
2. Offense runs through Forte: If receiver Brandon Marshall catches another 118 balls in 2013, it's safe to say the offense has been somewhat of a failure. In 2012, the Bears got away from setting the tone with the rushing attack to knock opponents off balance. By relying too much on the pass in 2012, the Bears became predictable. In the new offense brought over by Trestman, look for the Bears to feature Matt Forte as a rusher in addition to feeding him the ball as a receiver out of the backfield. One of the game's most elusive backs, Forte was misused last season to the team's detriment. This year, the offense will run through him.
3. Improved protection: The Bears invested heavily in the offseason on improving Cutler's protection. They added left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson in free agency and used their first-round pick on guard Kyle Long to beef up the interior. The concern appears to be the right side, where the club could go into the season with rookies Long and fifth-round offensive tackle Jordan Mills as the starters. Early returns in the preseason have been positive for Long and Mills, and the team is optimistic they'll perform when called upon.
4. Pass rush is better: The Bears try hard not to manufacture pressure by blitzing linebackers and corners and rely mostly on the front four of Julius Peppers, Henry Melton, Stephen Paea and Corey Wootton. The foursome, which played a major role in the club's finishing 2012 with 41 sacks (eighth in the NFL), returns and appears to be improved. Melton is playing under the franchise tag, making 2013 an important season for him to earn a long-term deal. Paea put on muscle and added speed. Wootton dramatically improved his hands. Add improved rushers Shea McClellin and Nate Collins into the mix, along with some of the new wrinkles brought in by new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, and the Bears seem poised to improve on the 41 sacks generated last season.
5. The defense will score: The defense put points on the board in 2012 with nine touchdown returns off turnovers (eight interceptions, one fumble return) to tie for the second most in NFL history, and there's no reason to believe the Bears can't duplicate that feat this season. Outside of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach, the personnel for 2013 remains the same. Seven of the club's TDs off turnovers in 2012 came with the score within 10 points, six came with the score within seven, and three took place with the score tied or the Bears trailing. Simply put, Chicago's defense looks to score touchdowns, which is a huge complement to the struggling offense.
-- Michael C. Wright, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
Jay Cutler finished the 2012 season with a Total QBR of 22.0 when facing five or more pass-rushers. That number ranked 33rd out of 36 qualified quarterbacks.
Cutler's struggles against extra pass-rushers weren't limited to plays where he was actually put under duress. In fact, Cutler posted a better Total QBR (37.2) when under duress against five or more rushers than when he wasn't pressured (21.1).
Cutler's 21.1 Total QBR when avoiding duress in the face of added rushers was his worst since joining the Bears and a far cry from the 61.7 QBR he posted in those conditions in 2009.
• Brandon Marshall was targeted on a league-high 41.4 percent of the pass routes he ran in 2012, the highest single-season percentage for a player over the past five years. Marshall also accounted for 57.9 percent of Cutler's targets to wide receivers.
• Bears tight ends finished last season with a league-low 33 receptions but ranked sixth with 10 drops. Martellus Bennett, who was signed in the offseason, had 55 receptions to seven drops last season.
• The Bears led the NFL with 139 points off turnovers in 2012. That made up 37.1 percent of their total points scored, the second-highest percentage in the NFL.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
DE Julius Peppers (16.2 avg. AV since 2010)
By far the league's most prolific defensive lineman over the past decade, Peppers shows no signs of slowing down after posting the 10th-best sack season (11.5) in NFL history by a 32-year-old.
-- Pro Football Reference