Chicago Bears 2014 Season Preview

2013 Record: 8-8

2013 Offensive Ranking: 2nd

2013 Defensive Ranking: 30th

Additions:

WR Domenik Hixon, WR Josh Morgan, C Brian De La Puente, DE Jared Allen, DE Lamarr Houston, DE Willie Young, DE Trevor Scott, OLB Jordan Senn, S Adrian Wilson(later cut), S M.D. Jennings, S Ryan Mundy, S Danny McCray. 
Key Draft Picks: 
CB/S Kyle Fuller, DT Ego Ferguson, DT Will Sutton, RB Ka'Deem Carey, S Brock Vereen. 
Offseason Losses: 
QB Josh McCown, RB Michael Bush, WR Earl Bennett, DE Julius Peppers, DE Corey Wootton, DT Henry Melton, OLB James Anderson, CB Zackary Bowman, S Major Wright, P Adam Podlesh, KR Devin Hester. 

2014 roster:

QB: Jay Cutler, Jimmy Clausen David Fales

RB: Matt Forte, Ka’Deem Carey, Shaun Draughn

FB: Tony Fiametta

WR: Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Josh Morgan, Marquess Wilson (IR), Santonio Holmes, Michael Spurlock

TE: Martellus Bennett, Dante Rosario, Matt Mulligan

OL: Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long, Jordan Mills, Michael Ola, Brian de la Puente, Charles Leno Jr

DL: Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Jeremiah Ratliff, Stephen Paea, Willie Young, Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton, Trevor Scott, David Bass, Cornelius Washington

LB: Lance Briggs, D.J Williams, Shea Mclellin, Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene, Christian Jones

CB: Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Kyle Fuller, Demontre Hurst, Sherrick McManis

S: Ryan Mundy, Chris Conte, Danny McCray, Brock Vereen

S/T: Robbie Gould, Pat O’Donnell, Brandon Hartson

The Chicago Bears ended a season in 2013 that was for the most part, completely unusual. A club with a history of defensive dominance making up for offensive ineptitude enjoyed the surreal experience of having one of the best passing attacks in the league. Meanwhile, injuries and poor performances resulted in a once-vaunted defense struggle to historically bad lows. However, one thing was the same as it has been for years. In the end, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers broke Chicago’s hearts and kept the Bears from an NFC title and a subsequent play-off berth, as they have for six out of the last seven years in which Chicago failed to make the play-offs.

If the Bears are to finally overcome the Packers in 2014 and end up in the NFC play-offs, then several things need to go right. Here are the key questions going into the 2014 season for the Chicago Bears.

Has Phil Emery fixed the defense?

Like in 2012 where Phil Emery correctly diagnosed that the need for an offensive line to keep Jay Cutler healthy and a couple of wide receivers were unavoidable priorities, the Bears GM attacked the off-season in gusto to help fix a defense that gave up 2,583 rushing yards in 16 games and produced just 32 sacks.

Out went Julius Peppers and a large portion of his $16 million cap hit and in came former Minnesota Viking Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young draft picks Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton while former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff was re-signed after joining midway through last season.  The Bears figure to use a starting defensive line of Allen, Ratliff, Paea and Houston and in obvious passing situations, bring in former Detroit Lion Willie Young and kick Houston inside. Decimated by injuries last year starting with Pro Bowl three-technique Henry Melton against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3 last season, Mel Tucker should have much more options than he did last year. For example, role players like David Bass ended up playing starting roles last year, and will now be useful depth. Overall, the line should be much improved, even if rookies Sutton and Ferguson don’t develop quickly.

Further on back however, the depth is a little more worrying. Lance Briggs is the only linebacker any Bears fan would be confident about seeing on the field given the play of Jon Bostic last year and the fact that one of the starting LB’s is probably going to be Shea Mclellin, who was a disappointing defensive end in his first two years as a Bear.

Further back, the cornerback situation looks alright provided Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings stay healthy and first round draft pick Kyle Fuller – who is expected to start at nickel – develops as expected. Fuller is athletic and rangy with great instincts and a penchant for getting after running backs in college, all things that should help in 2014. Given the age of Tillman and the fact that Jennings can’t be everywhere, Fuller could be an astute pick-up.

The secondary is a little more concerning, with only 4th round pick Brock Vereen from a draft that did have top safety talent in Ha-Ha Clinton Dix and Calvin Pryor. Meanwhile, costless agent pick-ups M.D. Jennings and Ryan Mundy shouldn’t be any-more than depth chart additions on a decent defense, yet could start in Week 1 alongside 2013 abomination Chris Conte. Not particularly reassuring.

The secondary concerns mean that the defensive line’s improvement is paramount. If the Bears can stop the run and disrupt the passer and Tillman-Jennings stay healthy, the secondary will be better by default. It doesn’t have to be the new Seahawks, it just has to be competent. Actually, same with the rest of the defense. Provided…

Can the offense continue its 2013 success?

Like the 2013/2012 defensive drop-off was shocking in its disparity, the offensive improvement from 2012/13 was just as seismic. From 16th in points scored (a large portion of which being defensive turnovers) to 2nd over the course of an off-season was production that few predicted.

The addition of Kyle Long, Jordan Mills, Matt Slauson, Jerome Bushrod ensured that Jay Cutler and Josh McCown enjoyed the fourth-fewest sack rate in the league while second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery exploded, making 1,421 receiving yards including two 200 yard games. Alongside Matt Forte (who put up just under 2,000 total yards in 2013), Brandon Marshall (100-1,295-12 line last season) and Martellus Bennett (65-759-5), the Bears have as varied and potent an offense as anyone in the NFC, including heavyweights New Orleans and Green Bay.

Even if the defense improves to the same degree the offense did, Chicago would be around middle of the pack in terms of points conceded. Meaning, that Marc Trestman’s West Coast offense must be as dynamic as it was throughout 16 games in 2013.

Although the weapons are elite, (Chicago also adding Santonio Holmes and second-year pass catcher Marquess Wilson to the collection of targets) it begins and ends with Jay Cutler. It’s unlikely that another QB will be as comfortable in the Bears’ offense as Josh McCown was when Cutler injured his groin against Washington, so it’s on #6 to remain healthy and prove he is worth the seven year commitment Phil Emery made to the former Bronco earlier in the year.

Jay Cutler was having his best year as a Bear before the injury, and his stats extrapolated over a 16 game season last year would have ended with a line of 3,800 yards, 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. That’s not taking into account that during McCown stretch, the Bears faced poor defences from Dallas, Minnesota and the remainder of the Washington game. It’s likely Cutler could have ended the year with 4,000 yards and 30 TD’s.

Although those stats are positive, they are mostly hypothetical. The fact remains that Cutler wasn’t around for 16 games last season. However, with an offensive scheme in its second year (which after a preceding five year period with four different co-ordinators is a nice change), it looks likely Cutler and will be more productive than he’s ever been in his career. That should be ood news for the Bears.

Schedule and predictions:

Home - Buffalo Bills: W

@ San Francisco 49ers: L

@ New York Jets: W

Home - Green Bay Packers: W

@ Carolina Panthers: W

@ Atlanta Falcons: L

Home vs Miami Dolphins: W

@ New England Patriots: L

@ Green Bay Packers: L

Home - Minnesota Vikings: W

Home - Tampa Bay Buccaneers: W

@ Detroit Lions: L

Home - Dallas Cowboys: W

Home - New Orleans Saints: L

Home - Detroit Lions: W

@ Minnesota Vikings: W

Predicted record: 10-6

This probably won’t be enough to win the decision, as the Packers will be looking to go 11-5/12-4 provided Aaron Rodgers stays healthy. However, an improved defense and a productive Cutler in a terrific offense? This should be a play-off team.

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