After missing the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, the Bears showed Lovie Smith the door and decided to start a new era with a new head coach, Marc Trestman. Now it’s time to see how the team Trestman inherited fits with the system he plans to implement.
The good news for the Bears is that there’s abundant talent on both sides of the ball, and on special teams. There are a whole lot of Pro Bowl-caliber players on this roster.
The bad news is that the talent was assembled for a different coaching staff, and the Bears may have some growing pains under Trestman.
Our six-person PFT panel voted the Bears in the bottom half of the league, at No. 18. We explore the reasons below.
Say this for Lovie Smith: The guy knew how to build a good defense. Chicago’s defense was excellent last season, and although Smith and Brian Urlacher are gone, most of the personnel remains.
Cornerback Charles Tillman was one of the best defensive players in the NFL in 2012. He routinely took on the opposing team’s best wide receiver, and almost always got the better end of the matchup. It’s telling that in Calvin Johnson’s record-setting season with the Lions, two of his worst games came against the Bears, when Tillman led the way in holding Johnson to 34 and 72 yards. (Johnson averaged 133 yards a game in the other 14 games of the season.) With Tillman at cornerback, the Bears are in good shape against any wide receiver who comes their way.
The Bears’ defensive front seven is also strong. Julius Peppers is 33, but he doesn’t appear to be slowing down and is still one of the league’s top pass rushers. Chicago should be able to count on Peppers for double-digit sacks. Like Peppers, Lance Briggs will turn 33 this season but remains in fine form. Briggs started all 16 games and had another strong season in 2012.
Henry Melton has emerged as one of the league’s best defensive tackles, with six sacks last year and seven the year before. A former college running back who tips the scales at 300 pounds, Melton has a rare burst for a guy who’s big enough to play defensive tackle in the NFL, and at age 26 he’s in the prime of his career.
The Bears have a very good pair of offensive skill position players in wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte, both of whom are among the best in the league at what they do. Marshall is a tough and physical receiver who has long been Jay Cutler’s favorite target, and Forte is versatile enough to be both the Bears’ No. 1 running back and their No. 2 receiver.
After Marshall, the Bears don’t have any proven commodities at wide receiver. They’d love to see last year’s second-round pick, Alshon Jeffery, become a solid No. 2 receiver. They’d also love to see Earl Bennett, who plays very well at times but also disappears at times, become a more consistent part of the passing game. But until someone steps up, No. 2 receiver has to be considered one of the Bears’ weaknesses.
Tight end has been a weakness for the Bears the last couple of years, when Kellen Davis averaged barely more than one catch a game. The arrival of Martellus Bennett should make Chicago better there, but Bennett is a long way from elite.
The Bears’ offensive line has long been a weakness, and the No. 1 priority of the offseason was shoring that up. That’s why guard Kyle Long was Chicago’s first-round draft pick, and why left tackle Jermon Bushrod was Chicago’s first priority in free agency. The biggest issue with the offensive line being a weakness has been that it has exposed Jay Cutler to injuries, and backup quarterback has been a major weakness for the Bears. That remains the case this year: If Cutler goes down, Josh McCown will step in, and that’s a significant drop-off.
By far the biggest change is the arrival of head coach Marc Trestman, who’s been coaching the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League for the last five years. Trestman has plenty of experience on NFL coaching staffs, but he hasn’t been with an NFL team since he was on the Dolphins’ staff in 2004. It’s not often that NFL teams reach into the CFL ranks for their head coaches, and it will be fascinating to see whether Trestman — who has a reputation as an innovative offensive mind — comes in with fresh ideas that take NFL defenses off guard.
The changes to the coaching staff are also significant, particularly on defense, where Lovie Smith and his Tampa 2 disciples are giving way to Trestman’s new defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker. But Tucker and Trestman have both said that they plan to run very similar schemes to what the Bears have been running during Smith’s time with the team.
The retirement of longtime middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is a major change in the appearance of the defense, but it’s not a change that will have a huge effect on the field. Urlacher was once among the NFL’s best defensive players, but he was noticeably slower last season and didn’t have a lot left. The unfortunate thing about Urlacher’s departure is the way it happened: The Bears decided early in the offseason that they didn’t want him back, while Urlacher didn’t determine until later in the offseason that he was ready to walk away from the game. Urlacher was a great player who deserved the opportunity to say goodbye to the Bears on his own terms, and it was disappointing that it didn’t quite work out that way, as it did for Ray Lewis in Baltimore.
Replacing Urlacher at middle linebacker will fall to either D.J. Williams, the former Bronco signed in free agency, or rookie Jon Bostic, the second-round draft pick from Florida. Neither one of them is going to step right in and be the kind of player Urlacher was at his best, of course, but it’s easy to picture either player being an upgrade over the 2012 version of Urlacher.
As a first-round draft pick, Kyle Long is penciled in as a starting guard, but he’ll have to compete to earn the job. Derek Dennis, Edwin Williams and James Brown will all get an opportunity to beat out Long. Matt Slauson, who started all 16 games at guard each of the last three years for the Jets, is expected to be the other starting guard.
How well does Jay Cutler fit in Marc Trestman’s offense? And can Chicago’s offensive line keep Cutler healthy for 16 games? Those are the biggest questions facing the Bears this season.
Defensively, the Bears should look much like they looked last year, and that’s a very good sign. And the special teams, with punter Adam Podlesh, kicker Robbie Gould and returner Devin Hester, should be solid. There’s a lot of reason for optimism there.
But last year the strong defense and special teams weren’t enough to get the Bears into the playoffs thanks to a disappointing offense, and unless Trestman can make significant progress offensively, the Bears will probably fall just a bit short of the playoffs again this year.