Commentary

Midseason grade: Needs improvement

Only Bears' special teams doing relatively well

Originally Published: November 10, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- We expected a playoff football team, maybe even, after a few glasses of wine, a Super Bowl team. What we have midway through the Bears' season is a flawed team -- hurt by injury, yes, but also standing at .500 because they are mediocre at best.

How to fix them?

"Play harder," defensive tackle Tommie Harris said, and it came across about as badly Tuesday as it sounded. The Bears said they are glad they get the chance to be back out on the field Thursday night at San Francisco; the quicker to right the wrongs of Sunday's blowout by Arizona.

They are also glad, they said, that there are still eight games remaining, the longer to fix the problems from the first half of the season.

"Just as quickly as things seem to have fallen apart, it's just that easy to turn it around," linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. "We just have to do it. We have to quit talking about it and do it."

But how easy is it to fix the Bears' problems at this point? And how far off were we in our expectations? In some cases, pretty darned far.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jerry Lai/US PresswireIn Jay Cutler, the Bears got a quarterback with big-play ability but also one with a penchant for turnovers.

Quarterback

What we expected: A big arm, mobility, toughness, attitude, a penchant for the careless mistake but the ability to make those around him better as Jay Cutler was going to prove that all the Bears really needed all these years was a big-time quarterback.

What we got: A big arm, mobility, toughness, some attitude, and enough ability to make his receivers better but not enough to carry an entire team on his shoulders. We got a player who can take a beating but who also, yes, has a penchant for interceptions (12 so far), which is not entirely a coincidence.

How it can be fixed: Settle down in the red zone, where the Bears rank near the bottom of the league. And stay healthy long enough to have a real impact.

Offensive line

What we expected: A unit that was at least more talented than last season's with the addition of veteran Orlando Pace at left tackle and the return at right tackle of 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams, who saw very limited action in his rookie season after suffering a back injury and missing the first seven games. We also thought the signing of right guard Frank Omiyale would be a bonus.

What we got: A group that is worse than last year's, looks old rather than upgraded, has put Cutler in peril to the tune of 15 sacks and ranks 28th in rushing yards per game.

How it can be fixed: They tried by replacing Omiyale with Josh Beekman, but the unit continues to be one of the team's major weak spots. Cutting down on penalties would be a start.

Running backs

What we expected: The continued development of Matt Forte, still another Bears running back slated for greatness, and the re-emergence of Kevin Jones. Adrian Peterson was going to continue to be dependable enough that his fans would call for more playing time, and little Garrett Wolfe would be there in the wings, if necessary.

What we got: After accounting for 35 percent of the Bears' offense in 2008, Forte has looked more like just another guy than like a future All-Pro. The offensive line obviously is at least partly to blame, but Forte is ranked 24th in the league among running backs, averaging 3.6 yards per carry and three touchdowns for less than 15 percent of the scoring offense. Jones' season ended before it began with an injury in the final preseason game; Peterson missed a couple of games with a knee injury and has yet to be a factor; and Wolfe has a touchdown but just looks small.

How it can be fixed: Forte still shows the ability to break the long run occasionally when the holes are there. But good blocking is not likely to magically happen at this point.

Receivers

What we expected: Not a whole heck of a lot. Many of us went as far as to peg this group as the weak link of the team, and the only question was whether Cutler could relive his college days with Earl Bennett. As for Devin Hester, the skeptical among us wondered whether he was better suited as a slot receiver and whether he was better off before his wide receiver contract when he was wreaking havoc on special teams. Fifth-round draft pick Johnny Knox looked good in camp, but since when does that mean anything?

What we got: Something of a surprise with Hester tied for 12th among NFL receivers with 41 receptions for 548 yards and three touchdowns. Knox has been one of the very few reasons for optimism, with his speed and sure-handedness, and Bennett has been serviceable or better.

How it can be fixed: A running game would help. A lead once in a while and more time in the pocket for Cutler also could do wonders.

Tight end

What we expected: Only a Pro Bowl berth or at least an argument for Greg Olsen, that's all.

What we got: Olsen's promotion over Desmond Clark, based on little more than potential and draft position -- and further evidence that Olsen is not going to become a good blocker.

How it can be fixed: Olsen looked better Sunday with three touchdowns, but then looking better wasn't going to be that difficult. He needs to continue to hang on to the ball in traffic, and Cutler needs to continue to find him. And don't depend on him for blocking.

Defensive line

What we expected: Rod Marinelli was supposed to work wonders. Harris was supposed to return to form; Dusty Dvoracek was supposed to grow into a real force inside; and there was some hope, dim as it might have been, that Mark Anderson would regain the magic he had with 12 sacks as a rookie. Alex Brown was a given as a solid, somewhat unappreciated end, and we could only hope that Adewale Ogunleye would catch a spark.

What we got: Inconsistency. Harris also underwent secret knee surgery in the offseason and missed most of training camp, and Dvoracek was waived before the season with a knee injury, ending his fourth straight season on injured reserve. Beyond that, Marinelli's influence has been tough to detect as his group has made a habit of missing tackles and getting gashed by mediocre-at-best running backs.

How it can be fixed: Harris' "Just play harder," begs the question, "What was he doing before?" Harris added this: "Don't get in any trouble on the field," referring to his ejection for punching an Arizona lineman last Sunday, and you can't discount that if you assume Harris' presence is still helping the Bears.

But you know what they say about those who assume. Harris' comment about playing harder suggests exactly what is wrong with a Chicago defense that often looks undisciplined. "I don't think we're getting outmuscled," Anthony Adams said. "I just think guys are getting out of their gaps and freestyling. You get off the ball and then you're looking in the backfield to see if it's a play-action or a pass, as opposed to just reading your keys and doing what you do best.

"You get behind and start to try to make the big play as opposed to just doing your job first."

Makes sense, certainly, but Ogunleye said it's a combination of getting pushed around and just not playing smart, and that seems to nail it.

"If you look at the big picture, it's definitely been our gaps," he said. "We're not getting off blocks like we should. All in all, we don't let people punch us in the mouth. But the two times we've lost big, that has happened. That's a little bit depressing. And I think that's where you're going to see a little bit more attitude come out of this defense."

Linebacker

What we expected: Once again, we hark back to the good old days. That's what we do. Neck and back problems apparently behind him, Brian Urlacher looked great and fitter than ever in camp. No reason to start doubting Lance Briggs. And Pisa Tinoisamoa was going to round out the best Bears' linebacking corps in years.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireBrian Urlacher appeared primed for a big season before a broken wrist sidelined him for the season after Week 1.

What we got: Disaster with the season-ending wrist injury to Urlacher in the opening game, and more bad news when Tinoisamoa went down twice with knee injuries that have reduced his season to two games. Hillenmeyer and Nick Roach have filled in, but the void has been noticeable, as evidenced by the 40 or 50 passes completed by Kurt Warner on Sunday in Urlacher territory.

How it can be fixed: Remove Urlacher's cast and glue his wrist together?

Secondary

What we expected: Even less, perhaps, than we expected of the Bears' receivers. At cornerback, Charles Tillman was questionable to start the season after back surgery in the offseason. Nate Vasher, the player formerly known as The Interceptor, was looking at a demotion after fighting injuries and ineffectiveness the past two seasons. And other than Danieal Manning, safety was even more of a hodgepodge with Craig Steltz, Kevin Payne, Corey Graham, Trumaine McBride and Josh Bullocks.

What we got: Vasher and Payne lost their jobs after the opener, and Zack Bowman and rookie Al Afalava emerged at corner and safety, flashing some potential but also inexperience. And Tillman has not had a Pro Bowl season thus far (see: Chad Ochocinco and Larry Fitzgerald).

How it can be fixed: Dump the Cover 2, which isn't happening.

Special teams

What we expected: Dependability at placekicker Robbie Gould and punter Brad Maynard and, optimistically, a return to greatness for punt returner Hester as he settled more comfortably into the wide receiver role.

[+] EnlargeRobbie Gould
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRobbie Gould is 8-of-10 on field goals this season.

What we got: Dependability in Gould (8-for-10 on field goals) and Maynard (16-of-34 on punts inside the 20-yard line) and something short of greatness from Hester (no touchdown returns yet, eighth in the league in punt return average). Knox, however, has been a revelation in more ways than one as the fifth-ranked kickoff returner with one touchdown (a 102-yarder in Week 4, the longest in the NFL this season). Coverage has been just OK.

How it can be fixed: Hard to pick on them too much considering the Bears' other problems. Don't fix what isn't shattered.

Coaching

What we expected: Good things with Marinelli and cautious optimism with Lovie Smith taking over for Bob Babich as defensive coordinator. Throw in some creativity from offensive coordinator Ron Turner with his new toy at quarterback, and hence the Super Bowl predictions.

What we got: An offense that can't run and has a serious red zone problem; a defense that is 21st in total points allowed, is 21st in rushing yards allowed, and has been at the short end of 45-10 and 41-21 losses in the span of the past three weeks; and a 4-4 team that has players saying they need to try harder.

How it can be fixed: Bill Cowher is available, among others. Short of that, the coaching staff seems as confused as the players. A few victories would help, but it won't cover up for some serious and potentially long-term shortcomings.

As Cutler said Tuesday when asked what's holding the team back: "There's a million reasons. There's a millions reasons why a play doesn't work. There's a million reasons why, defensively, we might get hit for a 10-yard gain. All it takes is one guy missing one assignment. There's a lot of reasons why things don't work. We have to just find a way to overcome it."

And there you have it.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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