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In newsrooms and men's rooms and conference rooms around Chicagoland conclusions have been reached following the Bears 27-21 victory over the New York Giants. The Bears can't play defense anymore. Dave Toub's exodus to Kansas City has left the special teams units in shambles. The offense can't put together four successive quarters. There are no question marks at the end of the diehard sports fan sentences. These are facts and they are indisputable.
Except they're not.
There was a time in the NFL when how a team played over the first half of the season had a real bearing on how they finished the year. That time is long gone. The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens were blown out 43-13 in the seventh week of the 2012 season, leading to panicked screams from the mussel-soaked lips of the Bertha's patrons. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants lost week ten of the 2011 campaign. Not a big deal, you say? They also lost week eleven, twelve and thirteen. John in Wantagh (long time listener, first time caller) was despondent. The 2010 Green Bay Packers lost back-to-back overtime games to bad Redskins and Dolphins teams week five and six of their Super Bowl year. For a fortnight no cheese was produced.
Now it's about piecing a season together. It's about discovering, week-to-week, the elements necessary to win games in December and January. And as the Bears now enter a period of time wherein they'll only play one game in twenty-four days, this is as good a time as any to take stock, ask questions and start to look for answers. Here are my questions.
- Why can't the Bears tackle anymore? I am not big on Pro Football Focus' evaluative numbers. (They barely gave Tim Jennings a passing grade Thursday night.) But they Tweeted a stat the Bears must consider alarming: "Chicago
#Bears D has averaged 79 missed tackles each of the past 5 seasons. They already have 55 this season." So much of what the Bears have done wrong defensive thus far in 2013 can be blamed on extending drives with missed tackles.
- What are they going to do at defensive tackle? I thought Corey Wootton played well Thursday night and Stephen Paea is not expected to miss any more time with his toe injury. But those are now the fourth and fifth options at defensive tackle. If the Bears consider themselves title contenders (I don't think they are) would they attempt to make a deal for a new body? Can Cohen and Minter become legitimate, contributing pros?
- Pass rush? Anyone? Moving Wootton inside means the Bears must have Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin get to the quarterback. Right now that's simply not happening. Yes, I like what I've seen in limited action from David Bass and think the Bears must get Cornelius Washington reps in the coming games.
- Will Jordan Mills continue to improve? Mills has been the only subpar performer on the Bears offensive line, struggling in pass protection more than in the run game. The Bears would love to see Mills ascend as the season progresses and not hit the "rookie wall" often emerging sometime after Thanksgiving. If Mills continues to improve and Cutler's pocket continue to remain relatively empty there is absolutely no limit to the Bears passing game.
- Can the Bears stay healthy on offense? Yes, the defense is banged up. The offense is not. We all know the Bears can't afford to lose Cutler, Forte or Marshall for any extended period of time. But what about Martellus? Alshon? Slauson? Health is a huge factor in a successful postseason run and the Bears offense has been unscathed through half a dozen contests.
- Can Jay Cutler avoid games like Detroit moving forward? Cutler is having a terrific season through six games. But just as we ask questions about the negatives through six we must also ask questions about the positives. Can Jay Cutler, a player who has struggled with consistency through his career, be consistent in this contract year? Can he continue limiting turnovers? Can he continue developing in the system?
- Where is the blocking/coverage on special teams? For the first time in a decade I think two things when watching Bears special teams: (1) Every coverage unit is susceptible to a long, game-changing return and (2) Devin Hester is going to be hit within 2 yards on a punt and 7 yards on a kickoff. I am one to always put the onus on players before coaches but...I can't do that here. I know Robbie Gould is going to make field goals. I know Devin Hester is going to get every yard available. But everything else on specials these days has a question mark attached. Will Joe D get this fixed?
These are the questions. These are the storylines to follow as the season progresses. Approaching any of these trends - positive or negative - with any certainty is an error. Sure, we may think we know who the Chicago Bears are as we we enter the middle of October. But we have no idea who they'll be when the ball drops in Times Square.