Inconsistent, hard to watch, and downright woeful for most of the 2012 season, the focus will be squarely on Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears offense as they make a bid for the playoffs in Sunday’s regular season finale in Detroit.
First-year offense coordinator Mike Tice has fared no better, and in many cases worse, than predecessor Mike Martz. The Bears (9-6) once again lag in the lower tier of NFL offenses, unable to score points or move the ball with any degree of consistency. Though hampered by the same ineffective offensive line play that has dogged the franchise for most of the past decade, Tice has proven unable to make effective use of the Bears offensive weapons, and appears to be over-matched as a play caller. Too many instances this season, the Bears have been forced to use timeouts due to getting a play in late, and there’s no apparent continuity from one play to the next.
While Tice is an easy target, Cutler must also bear some responsibility. Now in his fourth season in Chicago, the often-maligned QB hasn’t shown the ability or leadership skills to elevate the play of his offensive cohorts. A disturbing season-long trend, dating back to training camp, of throwing inconsistently and inaccurately has manifested itself in slow starts over the second half of the year. In addition, there’s some real question as to whether Cutler will ever develop the decision-making skills that separate the good QB’s from the great ones. An even scarier question for Bears fans might be, if Cutler is the franchise signal-caller for the club, who is it? Aside from the 2010 NFC Championship game against Green Bay, Sunday’s do or die matchup might be the biggest game in Cutler’s career because it holds so many keys to the Bears future. A loss not only dooms the Bears playoff chances, it could very well open the floodgate to high-level changes.
Meanwhile, running back Matt Forte, coming off his third ankle injury this year, will give it a go against Detroit. The Bears certainly need an effective ground game as part of a ball-control offense, but Forte will be operating at less than 100 percent. Through most of the year, he’s seemed tentative and unwilling to drive through tacklers at the point of contact.
Like previous Bears opponents, the Lions (4-11) will double cover wide receiver Brandon Marshall, the only Bear offensively who has surpassed expectations. That leaves Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett in play-making roles, though neither has proven totally reliable. Tight end Kellen Davis, perhaps in his final Bears game, will also have opportunities down the seam, but he’s inconsistent at best.
Defensively, the Bears must make sure they don’t neglect the run. Detroit will employ a two back offense, with Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell featured. Lions QB Matthew Stafford can sling it with the best, but makes too many costly mistakes and is lazy with the ball. He can make defenses pay if given time, but will put the ball up for grabvs when hurried. The Bears hope to take advantage, but need to generate a strong pass rush to make Stafford jittery.
Detroit wide out Calvin Johnson didn’t practice all week, but everyone knows he wants to set the single-season receiving mark. Johnson needs 108 yards to reach 2,000, and he’d like nothing better to get it against the division rival Bears as part of a Lions offensive onslaught. Bears corner Charles Tillman has played Johnson well, and needs another strong effort to contain Megatron.
Paw Prints: To make the playoffs, the Bears need a win coupled with a Vikings loss or tie to Green Bay. Minnesota holds the tie-breaker over the Bears (division record), so Chicago needs to finish with a better record…The Bears have won eight of the last nine meetings between the two clubs, including a 13-7 victory at Soldier Field earlier this season.