Fresh off of their 27-21 victory against the winless New York Giants, The Chicago Bears sit atop the NFC North with a 4-2 record. With a bye in two weeks, the Bears are scheduled to play only once between now and November 4. The lull in the schedule allows us to take inventory of the team at the six-game mark of the season.
Pass defense: The Bears did hold Giants’ QB Eli Manning to 14-26 for 239 yards, but the pass defense has been porous all season. They rank 29th in opponents’ yards/game (271) and yards per attempt (8.4) and 27th in completion percentage (67%). They are 26th in opponents’ third down conversion percentage (43%), including seven of eleven by the Giants. Finally, they are 30th in sacks with a paltry eight. This is a problem area that must be addressed to assist a beleaguered secondary being tasked with maintaining coverage for far too long on passing plays.
Phil Emery: While Bears’ GM Emery deserves tremendous credit for the majority of his roster moves, he has failed woefully to address the team’s anemic pass rush and injury-depleted defensive line. Starter Henry Melton, who amassed the second most sacks among DT’s between 2011 and 2012, was lost for the season with a knee injury in the Bears’ third game. His replacement, Nate Collins, who was exhibiting some of Melton’s trademark explosiveness, followed him to season-ending injured reserve last week with a knee injury.
The Bears other starting DT, Stephen Paea, has missed the last two games with a foot injury. The only additions Emery has made to compensate for the losses are DT’s undrafted rookie free agent Christian Tupou and journeyman Landon Cohen. Cohen, in five seasons with five teams covering thirty games, has never recorded a sack and amassed a measly 42 tackles. Two veterans, Amobi Okoye and Antonio Garay, remain unsigned. In six seasons, including two with the Bears, Okoye, 26, had 177 tackles and sixteen sacks. In seven seasons, including two with the Bears, Garay, 33, tallied 93 tackles and nine sacks. Both would be far better options than Cohen.
Rush Defense: The injuries are starting to take a toll on the Bears’ run defense. In two of their last three games, the Bears have yielded over 100 yards rushing. Against the Lions, RB Reggie Bush carried eighteen times for 139 yards. The previously-anemic Giants’ rushing attack grinded out 123 yards on 26 carries. The Bears still rank thirteenth, allowing 102.6 yards/game, and are tied for eleventh, yielding 3.8 yards/carry, but there was cause for concern even before the devastating news that veteran MLB D.J Williams was lost for the season with a pectoral injury following the Giants game.
Julius Peppers: In addition to Emery adding at least one interior lineman who is an upgrade over Cohen, DE Julius Peppers could be part of the antidote for the Bears’ substandard defense if he simply plays at or near the same level he did last year, when he tallied 39 tackles and 11.5 sacks. Through six games, Peppers has eight tackles and one sack and has failed to record a single tackle in two consecutive games. On several occasions, the owner of 112.5 career sacks has gone six or more games with one or no sacks. However, until this season, Peppers had never produced as few as eight tackles in a six-game stretch.
The Bears just need him to be his usual, all-around destructive force to help overcome the team’s injuries. This may be difficult because Peppers is facing constant double-team blocking schemes due to the substandard replacements around him. Moreover, but for the fact that the Bears are tied with the Seattle Seahawks for the best turnover differential in the league at plus seven, including four returned for touchdowns, they might be in a much more precarious position in the division standings.
Lance Briggs: Just as Peppers has been a disappointment for the Bears thus far, WLB Lance Briggs does not even slightly resemble an eleven year veteran who will turn 33 next month. He currently leads the league in tackles with 56 and has tallied two of the Bears’ eight sacks. Briggs is on pace to eclipse his career highs in tackles, passes defensed, forced fumbles and sacks. His leadership and production are even more vital now in light of Williams’ injury.
Jay Cutler: Joining Briggs as Bears having exceptional seasons is Cutler. Cutler’s production finally appears to be coextensive with his talent for the first time since joining the Bears prior to the 2009 season. He ranks in the top ten in the league in passer rating, net yards per pass attempt and completion percentage. He orchestrated fourth-quarter comeback wins in the first two weeks of the season. He has also achieved tremendous balance with his offensive weapons. Three Bears, WR’s Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey and TE Martellus Bennett, rank in the top fifty in receiving yards per game. RB Matt Forte is thirteenth in the league in yards from scrimmage per game. Five Bears’ offensive players have scored at least two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Cutler appears to be comporting himself with more maturity and composure.
Special Teams: The Bears’ special teams have been a mixed big. They currently rank fifth and third worst in opponents’ kickoff return and punt return average, respectively. Punter Adam Podlesh’s easily-returnable boots early in the season almost cost him his job following the Lions loss. However, in the last two games, Podlesh has been exceptional, punting seven times for a 41.3 yard net average and placing four kicks inside the 20 yardline. Kicker Robbie Gould has been a perfect ten for ten attempting field goals, and returner Devin Hester leads the league in kickoff return average. Hester must improve his punt-return average, and the Bears must shore up their kickoff return coverage.
Outlook: Despite a spate of injuries, the Chicago Bears are still 4-2. They still have two meetings scheduled with the Green Packers, against whom Cutler is 1-7 as a Bear. If Emery can make a move or two to shore up the defensive interior, and Peppers enjoys a second-half resurgence, the Bears should win the division and post at least a 10-6 record.