Standing at 4-3 at the bye week, the Chicago Bears have endured a full season of twists and turns during the first half of the 2013 NFL campaign. As first-year head coach Marc Trestman and company look ahead at what promises to be a rugged second-half schedule, let’s review what we’ve learned through seven games.
Quarterback: Jay Cutler’s injury makes this a difficult position to grade. Prior to the Washington game, Cutler had demonstrated the playmaking skills the Bears envisioned when former GM Jerry Angelo engineered the trade with Denver. Cutler’s play has been heightened by the protection offered by a rebuilt offensive line and a bevy of skill position weapons. His mobility, arm, and comfort level with Trestman’s offense meshed well with the other pieces, but his propensity to accumulate injuries is troubling.
Questions about his long-term future with the Bears will continue to hang over the franchise. It’s a small sample size, but Josh McCown performed admirably during last week’s second half. He offers experience, mobility, and veteran instincts that may help him become more successful than previous Bears backup QB’s. McCown will be tested in the coming weeks by defenses in Green Bay, Detroit, and Baltimore that can gameplan for him, possibly limiting his effectiveness.
Considering Cutler’s injury and prognosis, the grade could be incomplete. But, positives outweigh the negatives, at least for now. Call it a B+.
Running Back: Matt Forte still hasn’t hit the 100-yard mark rushing, but there’s no denying his explosiveness on the field. He’s recorded three 50-yard plus runs and appears quicker and more deceptive than previous years. Forte’s ability to catch passes as well as pick-up blitzers is a welcome sight. Expect him to hear his name called more over the second half as the Bears try to maintain some semblance of ball control with Cutler on the sidelines.
Back-up Michael Bush has been a disappointment, failing to provide a change of pace or the inside power running the Bears expected. Whatever the reason, his playing time has decreased substantially. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him released before the end of the year.
Wide Receivers/Tight End: After years of struggling to find one receiver, the Bears have two top-flight pass catchers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. They complement one another well, with Marshall a physcial specimen not afraid to mix it up with defenders in traffic. He’ll drop an occasional ball, but is usually money in the clutch. Marshall commands double- teams, allowing the Bears to spread defenses and open the field.
Jeffery is quickly developing into a quality downfield option. His size, big hands, and ability to high-point the ball make him an inviting target and matchup nightmare.
Backup Earl Bennett had a huge touchdown catch against Pittsburgh, but dropped two passes in the Saints loss that could have kept drives alive. His playing time has diminished with the ascension of Jeffery to a more prominent role.
Martellus Bennett provides the Bears with a dependable receiver capable of getting down the seam. He’s a quality red zone option who usually finds a way to get open and can make the difficult catch. His play affirms the Bears decision to spend big money in the offseason. Bennett isn’t a stud blocker, but generally is effective in walling off defenders. Backup Dante Rosario is the definition of an NFL journeyman. The Bears could use some younger talent in reserve at the position.
Offensive Line: The extreme makeover of the Bears offensive line is paying dividends. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod has been a solid addition. His veteran presence, both on the field and in the locker room offers a starked contrast to last year’s failed J’Marcus Webb experiment. Matt Slauson and Roberta Garza are experienced battlers who get by more on guile and instincts than talent.
The biggest surprise might be the rookie right side tandem of Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, Long, the first-round pick, and Mills, the fifth rounder, jumped right into the starting lineup from day one and have surpassed early expectations. Sure, they’ve been beaten on occasion, but they’re athletic skills and early indoctrination to the league will payoff in the long run.
The one disappointment is the Bears inability to develop a consistent run game.
Defensive Line: Injuries robbed the Bears of starter Henry Melton, a Pro Bowler last season, and backup Nate Collins. However, the line showed cracks even with them. The Bears simply lack explosive defensive ends who can collapse the pocket and get home. Julius Peppers first step quickness is gone, and he no longer commands the attention from opposing offenses. On the other side, Shea McClellin hasn’t lived up to his lofty first-round status, and may not have the strength or elite quickness to be anything more than a situational pass rusher at best. He doesn’t possess a counter move to his outside rush technique, and fails to use his hands properly to disengage from blockers.
Rookie DE David Bass is raw, but could develop with seasoning and a full offseason in the weight room. He possesses some initial quickness, but played at a very low level. Fellow rookie Cornelius Washington, the Bears sixth-round pick, has been inactive since the first two games and a non-factor.
On the interior, DE Corey Wootton is trying to assist the Bears by playing the “3″ technique defensive tackle position, though he’ s a long, angular player best suited to end. He’s penetrated at times, but doesn’t appear to have the quickness off the snap that he exhibited during the later half of the 2012 season. Stephen Paea is average, but gets pushed out of too many plays.
Journeyman DT Landon Cohen gives the Bears effort, though he’s not overly productive.
Grade: F, as in failing. The lack of pass rush is both surprising and disheartening.
Linebackers: The most solid unit of a porous defense. Lance Briggs was playing at a high-level prior to his injury, remaining active and around the ball. He’s probably lost a half step, but makes up for it with veteran savvy and instincts.
James Anderson’s performed adequately in his first year with the Bears. He’s in on a lot of tackles, unfortunately, they’re often down the field.
At MLB, D.J. was average before injuries sidelined him again for the year in the Giants contest. Doubtful he’ll return in 2014. Rookie Jon Bostic played better during the second half of the Redskins game and displayed his range on a couple plays. Hunch is he’ll get better with each game experience.
The Bears backups are awful, with only rookie Khaseem Greene showing promise. He’s probably not ready to play, but may be forced into action with the depleted numbers in the LB unit. Blake Constanzo is strictly a special teamer.
Grade: B-, and only because Briggs elevates the play of the group. Bostic and Greene give hope for the future.
Corner: Charles Tillman’s continuing knee struggles remain a week-to-week concern. He’s still a valued leader and playmaker, but is hampered in coverage with the knee issues. Fellow corner Tim Jennings has been solid, though a notch below his Pro Bowl play of last year. The lack of pass rush hampers the entire secondary in general, as they’re being asked to shut down the opponents for inordinate periods of time.
Zach Bowman has been a pleasant surprise when he’s being asked to fill in for Tillman, but isn’t a long-term solution. Nickel back Isaiah Frey is around the ball a lot, but hasn’t made the plays like he did in training camp.
The lack of depth and talent is covered up by Tillman and Jennings. Cornerback should be a focus for Phil Emery in 2014.
Safeties: Major Wright and Chris Conte have regressed from 2012. Both have blown assignments and got caught out of position, something the Bears can’t address due to depth issues. In addition, the duo’s sloppy tackling has shown up repeatedly. Wright and Conte appeared to be a solution to past issues in the deep patrol at the outset of 2013, but it now looks like a glaring hole opposing offenses will target.
Only veterans Craig Steltz and Anthony Walters remain in reserve. Neither is much to get excited about.
Special teams: K Robbie Gould has been outstanding, save for last week’s 34-yard miss at Washington. He’s developed into a reliable score weapon and improved both distance and accuracy over the years.
Devin Hester gave the team a lift with his punt return for touchdown last week, but overall, the Bears coverage units and kick return game are shaky.
Punter Adam Podlesh is getting better after a slow start.
Grade: B-, thanks to Gould and Hester’s TD.
Coaching Staff: Trestman gets points for elevating the Bears offense, and the players seem to enjoy his approach. The real test is forthcoming, as the schedule stiffens and the team plays without two cornerstones in Cutler and Briggs. Will Trestman be able to rally the Bears around adversity and a defense that is on pace to allow franchise records in points and yards allowed?
Front Office: Phil Emery earns accolades for his offensive additions and this year’s draft class. Jeffery appears to be a star in the making as well. However, he should have been more aggressive in shoring up a defensive line that looked thin, even with everyone healthy during camp. He must also “bear” some responsibility for the lack of development by McClellin, his initial first-round selection.