The highly anticipated 2012 season comes loaded with lofty expectations from Bears fans. But, despite a seemingly successful off-season campaign, there are still plenty of questions to be answered (as with any team). So, in this—the first of a three-part series focusing on offense, defense and special teams—we’ll look at what those questions are as the Chicago Bears head “Back to Bourbonnais.”
Part 1: Defense . . . If it really does win Championships, do the Bears’ have enough left in the tank?
Because, like it or not (and especially in the NFL), coaching is a factor. I won’t shine the spotlight on every position coach on the Bears’ staff, only the one and only Rod Marinelli.
One of my favorite parts of camp is actually watching the coaches do their thing.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. He’s a phenomenal teacher. He makes sure everybody know exactly what to do. He teaches each individual.” – Matt Millen on Rod Marinelli.
In just one season under Marinelli’s tutelage, the Bears went from 23rd in the league in defending the run to second. They went from 21st in the league in points allowed to fourth. And they went from allowing 23.4 points per game to allowing just 17.9.
Was it all Marinelli? No. The Bears added DE Julius Peppers prior to the 2010 season and also had their starting middle linebacker return following a season-long hiatus. But for those of us who sat through the all-Lovie show in 2009, the difference was clear: Marinelli was the man for the job.
It’s likely no fluke that safety Chris Conte showed us far more than expected in his rookie campaign when asked to step in last season. He had lows, as rookies will, but his highs were, many times, scheme related, and for that you can directly credit Marinelli with a certain degree of success.
Marinelli is the type of coach who puts his players in a position to succeed, and there’s no reason Bears fans should be uncomfortable with him running this defense for a third season. I’ll be excited to watch it unfold at camp!
Moving on . . .
The Defensive Line
It’s pretty clear what the Bears have to do better on defense in 2012: pressure the quarterback. Smith’s system is predicated on that guiding—if not sometimes cliché—principle. The Bears trailed teams like Minnesota and Philadelphia last season, which each had 50 sacks, with just 33. That was middle-to-bottom of the pack.
That’s just not going to get it done.
Heading into camp, the ability to get pressure is easily the biggest question facing this line, and it’s the question that when answered will set the stage for every other aspect of the Bears’ defense in 2012. Having said that, here are the players I will be watching closely in Training Camp:
Shea McClellin – He may not put up 10+ sacks this season (he likely won’t), but the defense can be successful even if he doesn’t. He needs to contribute early and often, but he’s a rotational guy at the start. He’ll share snaps with Israel Idonije.
Many thought McClellin was best suited to OLB in a 3-4 defense, but he’ll play a down DE in the Bears’ 4-3. So, while I’m excited to see how comfortable he looks at the position, I’m more excited just to watch him play the game. He’s full-throttle all the time, and if nothing else, he’s a damn good football player.
Corey Wootton – Wootton may be going on his last chance to stick. The Bears had high hopes for him, and Bears fans even higher. He needs to stay healthy and make an impression in camp in order for him to hang around this season. The Bears don’t have a lot invested in him, and hungry guys like Chauncey Davis will be itching to unseat Wootton.
Stephen Paea – I’ve gone on record saying that I believe the Bears are expecting their second-round draft selection, whom they traded up to acquire, to take a big step in 2012. And that’s likely the main reason why the offseason moves at DT were competition-based and nowhere near blockbuster. My eyes will be all over him and how the Bears use him during camp.
The linebackers are a still-strong unit for the Bears, but the group is not without its deficiencies. Here are the guys I’ll be watching closely:
Brian Urlacher – The knee is still a concern. Is it a huge concern? No, not yet. The fact that the Bears held Urlacher out of the majority of the off-season program leading up to camp is no big deal in my book. Nothing during OTAs and/or mini-camps was going to serve to help make Brian Urlacher, a 12-year veteran, a better player. I’ll expect him to take the standard veteran days off while in camp but will be watching the amount to be sure it’s not in excess. This team needs a healthy Urlacher, and he’ll hopefully be there.
Geno Hayes – Hayes heads to camp in an immediate roster battle with Nick Roach for the starting strong-side linebacker spot. It’s Nick’s position to lose, but the Bears signed Hayes for a reason. He’s young, he’s athletic, and he plays the run very well. I’ll have my eyes—as should you—on this battle throughout camp.
This group scares me. Even more than that, I’m not sure how much we’ll know about them once Training Camp is all said and done. As I said above, much of their success will be predicated on the line getting solid pressure up front. If the line does their job, things will be easier on this group—the most concerning on the defensive side of the ball. Here’s where my eyes will be trained:
Kelvin Hayden – Hayden is looking to steal a starting cornerback spot from Tim Jennings, something I think he’s capable of doing, but something I doubt will happen. I hate to bring business into it, but unless Jennings struggles mightily and Hayden performs exceptionally, the Bears paid Jennings too much this off-season to have him warm the bench (at least to start with). As with Roach, it’s Jennings’ job to lose.
Safeties (you name it) – This group is the most concerning of the bunch. It’s been a long time since the Bears have had a consistent tandem at safety, and it looks like it’s going to be at least another year before they do. Chris Conte showed us some flashes in his debut season—more than expected—but he still lacked discipline as a rookie, something he’ll be expected to improve on this season.
Major Wright hasn’t totally looked the part from day one. And while I’m glad the Bears brought Craig Steltz back, he’s not going to be the savior either, and the Bears know it. Rookie safety Brandon Hardin, who didn’t play his entire senior season, can’t be expected to start right away either, although I believe he has the all the tangibles you look for at the safety position. I’ll be watching this group closely to see who is emerging. Hopefully someone will.
Next week . . . Part 2: Special Teams
Filed under: Back to Bourbonnais