Most would consider the eighth game the halfway point of a sixteen game season. Those people are what I refer to as math-dependent. The Bears have played seven games and now must wait fifteen days before playing again as they lick their injury wounds. Hell, the team is off this entire week. If ever there was a line of demarcation signally HALFWAY, this is it.
So what follows are responses to the first half, thoughts on the second half and the normal awards, predictions and general folly that have filled this space lo these eight years. You’re not going to see everything below but you’ll see the things on my mind. I’ll leave it to you from there.
- Phil Emery gambled in 2013 by hiring a caretaker defensive coordinator in Mel Tucker. Tucker not only didn’t come to Chicago with a specific approach to defensive football but he was willing to leave Lovie Smith’s calls in place; desperate for continuity. The goal was status quo and it was the only approach possible with the shear number of veteran defenders and expiring contracts. But the Bears lost all their defensive tackles. Charles Tillman hasn’t finished a game yet. Julius Peppers has become a run-stopping defensive end making premier pass rusher money. Major Wright and Chris Conte have been a disaster. The result is the Bears are now playing their worst defense in a generation.
- As poor the defense, that’s how inspiring the offensive output has been. Phil Emery added wide receivers last season to the quarterback/running back combination of Cutler and Forte. This year he added tight end and offensive line to the mix. But he also added an offensive head coach to breathe new life into a organization that felt like it was sinking into the Stone Age. Another gamble. The result of this one being an offense ranked 11th in yards per game and 2nd in points. Every Bears fan on earth would have signed for that before the season.
- He’s taken a lot of criticism but Devin Hester is once again the most dominant and feared kick returner in the sport. While fans still greedily expect a touchdown every five returns and chastise The Skunk for not reaching that “ridiculous” goal, opposing coaches are staying away at all costs. There’s simply never been anything like him.
- The saddest part of Lance Briggs missing the next 4-6 weeks is just how good his first seven weeks were. Briggs, James Anderson’s early work in coverage, Corey Wootton’s move inside and Tim Jennings’ ballhawking have been just about the only positives on that side of the ball.
- Alshon Jeffery has been every bit the key to the offense I thought he’d be. His emergence has opened up the playbook for Brandon Marshall to play the role of number one receiver without having to receive 75% of the targets. Jerry Angelo never seemed interested in acquiring a true number one receiver. Phil Emery’s first moves seem to have been the acquisition of two.
- Pro Football Focus has given the Bears a significantly negative grade when it comes to pass protection but I don’t see it and I think PFF can not accurately grade an offensive line without knowing the protection assignments. Bears are getting solid play from four of five offensive linemen and Jordan Mills, while struggling, is showing signs that he was a steal in the fifth round.
- I predicted Matt Forte would have 1,750 yards in his first season under Trestman. He is on pace for 1,817.
- First Half MVP: Jay Cutler, QB. His evolution was constant and while he wasn’t without momentary lapses one can not overlook his late plays to win the Bengals, Vikings and Steelers games. Before suffering a depressing groin injury Cutler had climbed into the NFL’s top ten in every important QB statistic. The downside of Cutler’s first half performance (aside from Detroit/injury) has been his unwillingness to accept the easy throws in Trestman’s design and move the chains.
- First Half LVP: Major Wright, S. We entered the 2012 season concerned the Bears did not have a viable player at the safety position. After a surprising year, we entered 2013 without anyone questioning the combination of Conte and Wright. Both have been bad through seven games. Wright has been abysmal. Poor angles in run support. Missing tackles. Late to everything. You name an element of safety play and Wright has struggled. Without a pass rush, Wright has been forced to cover deep. He’s proven incapable of such, especially when the opposing quarterback uses the dreaded pump fake.
- Is the Record Fair? More than fair. The Bears did not deserve wins against New Orleans and Detroit and their defense could not have played worse in Washington.
- Everything starts with the ability of Marc Trestman to design an offense Josh McCown can execute over the next few weeks. With the defense sure to struggle even more in the absence of Lance Briggs it will be incumbent upon the offense to carry the day and secure at least two wins from the next four games: at Green Bay, home Detroit, home Baltimore, at St. Louis. 2-2 over the stretch would put them at 6-5 and give them a chance. Better than 2-2 and they’re well into the race.
- Bears special teams need to continue the improvement shown in Washington, especially punter Adam Podlesh and the coverage units. The Bears defense is simply not going to be good. I can’t give you a single logical reason why they would be. Podlesh and the coverage units need to keep opponents traveling long fields because long fields and ten-plus play drives will increase the possibility of the Bears creating turnovers. Without turnovers I don’t see the defense succeeding.
- One can’t understate the importance of Game Eight, Monday night November 4, in Green Bay. And the Bears don’t even need to win the game! They need to play well. They need to be competitive. They need to send a message to their fans, the blood-thirsty media and the rest of the league that the team is not going to let injuries tie weights to the feet of this season and toss it into the ocean.
- These are the most pivotal games of Mel Tucker’s coaching career. Does he answer for the injuries to the defensive tackles, Tillman, DJ Williams, Briggs…etc.? No. Does he answer for Shea McClellin being an ineffective pass rusher or Julius Peppers declining? No. Does he answer for the regression of Major Wright and Chris Conte? He has to, at least somewhat. But now the Bears will be working young players consistently into the rotation at both linebacker and defensive line and Tucker is in charge of their development. Many have been rightfully critical of Tucker’s first seven games. He has nine more to stop the hordes from calling for his head in January. (Even that may not be enough.)
- Of the nine games remaining, only four are against teams that would currently make the postseason. Three of those games – Lions, Cowboys, Packers – will be played at Soldier Field and two of them should feature Cutler back on the field. The other is the next game at Lambeau. The schedule is not particularly difficult.
- I mentioned earlier Forte is on pace for 1,814 yards. With Jay Cutler’s arm strength out of the lineup over the next few weeks, I think Forte’s role in both the run and pass games will increase. I see him reach 2,000 yards from scrimmage this season.
- The Bears offensive line, especially Slauson-Garza-Long, need to start playing better at the point of attack and springing the run game. Bears may need to rely on Forte during the McCown starts.
- Second Half MVP: Matt Forte, RB. In case the last two comments didn’t make it clear, I believe Matt Forte is going to carry this team through the next month and a half.
- Second Half LVP: Julius Peppers, DE. First off, I would love to be proven wrong. I would love to see Peppers emerge from these fifteen days off and plant Aaron Rodgers fifteen feet below the city of Green Bay. But I don’t like the way he’s talking about his 2013 season and I just haven’t seen anything by way of a pass rushing burst. His entire game this season has felt reactionary and it was quite sad to see Robert Griffin’s option read runs pass his edge without so much as a hand on him. I think Peppers’ 2013 gets worse before it gets better.
- Record Prediction: 9-7. Remember, I thought this was a 10-6 team with a healthy Jay Cutler and a good defense. Now with Josh McCown for about a month and a nonexistent defense, how can I predict them to double digits? 9 wins would mean 5-4 down the stretch and would be an impressive, inspiring result for Marc Trestman. I think he get em there and they miss the postseason.