The Bears surprised me last year making it to the NFC Championship game. I saw them against the Giants, when they gave up 10 sacks in the first half, and I wasn’t sure any of them would survive the season, especially Jay Cutler. Mike Martz was trying to install his Kurt Warner offense, releasing a lot of receivers into the route forcing the Cutler to protect himself with quick reads and hot throws. It worked great with Warner, but Jay Cutler had much to learn. To make matters worse, the Bears offensive line had to be shuffled. Frank Omiyale and Chris Williams basically traded positions at left guard and left tackle after Williams’ injury, but the Bears drafted Gabe Carimi for a reason, their left side has to be better. Look for J’Marucs Webb, the surprising bright spot on this OL, to get a shot at LT with Carimi moving to RT. Long time center Olin Kruetz could also leave which may force Roberto Garza to center.
The Bears receivers probably take the most heat, but Johnny Knox and Devin Hester can fly, Greg Olsen is a fast tight end, Earl Bennett inside catches everything and really shined after an early injury, and Matt Forte is an intelligent guy who is a talented receiver. I have seen much worse receivers than those five on teams. I thought the biggest issue was getting settled on the offensive line and learning the new style of offense. The Bears were never great on offense, but they sure improved from that night against the Giants. The question is will the lockout inhibit their ability to take the next step. Cutler has to live in Mattz’ offense to learn it. Quick decisions by Kurt Warner intimidated defenses out of blitzing. The Bears never got there with Cutler. Jay will also have to overcome the questions from the Championship Game, but I don’t think that will be much of an issue after week one.
Defensively, the Bears really inserted two superstars into the lineup last year. Brian Urlacher was hurt the entire year before and surprised some people with a really good year. But, the story was Julius Peppers. Peppers may have been the best defensive line acquisition since Reggie White. He dominated in all phases of the game. The NFL players voted him the 10th best player in the league and from what I saw could have been higher. DT Tommie Harris is gone, but the combination of athletic Henry Melton and rookie strongman Stephen Paea could improve the three technique tackle. The other “Major” change may come at safety where Major Wright (Gator) made a big impression when healthy last year. Daniel Manning is a free agent and may be gone. Both strong side linebackers, Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach will be free agents and the Bears will need to get at least one signed quickly. Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman will battle at corner opposite Charles Tillman.
Finally, the Bears coaching staff is second to none and have to get a lot of credit for turning their team around. Lovie Smith, Mike Martz, Mike Tice, and Rod Marinelli are all former head coaches who were able to put egos aside and make it work. 2011 will come down to another reshuffle on the offensive line and how much Jay Cutler can grow in Mike Martz’ offense. Nothing new really, but with the way the Bears finished last year, they cannot be ignored going into year two of Martz’ system.