Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 8/15/12
To put it bluntly, the Bears had a critical deficiency in pass blocking last season. The porous protection by the team’s offensive line caught up to Jay Cutler.

He broke the thumb on his throwing hand, entrusting Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown to continue the team’s path to a Wild Card playoff berth.

The team fell apart under the substandard stewardship of Hanie and McCown, falling out of playoff contention while running the unforgiving gauntlet that is the NFC North.

With Cutler’s loss causing their backups to become exposed, GM Phil Emery took notice. He made a bold move this season to make sure that the team would not again experience such a drop-off in offensive production by losing their starting quarterback.

He signed a much better backup quarterback in Jason Campbell.

The offensive scheme under Mike Tice, to his credit, has focused on shorter drops and plays that develop more quickly than Mike Martz employed, minimizing Cutler’s exposure in the pocket.

Unlike Martz, he has allowed Cutler to check out of plays based on the defense and greater flexibility to improvise, taking advantage of his uncanny ability to save seemingly broken plays.

Chicago has brought in two receivers suited for the shorter passing game through trade and the Draft: Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, respectively. Jeffery entered the league with work ethic questions after playing overweight his last collegiate season, but Marshall has surprisingly transformed into a role model after a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and is providing mentorship to Jeffery.

They have similar skill sets, both with big bodies that box out defenders, sufficient quickness and concise route-running ability to create separation from defenders, and the ability to climb the ladder over defensive backs. Marshall’s experience allows him to run the more complex route tree while creating opportunities for Jeffery.

In order to take advantage of opportunities available in the intermediate game, Jeffery must first learn to consistently beat press coverage off the line of scrimmage. If he can not do that, then he will constantly become re-routed off the line and would not be reliable in the timing routes used in three-step drops. His development combating defenders off the line of scrimmage will determine his contributions to the Bears this season.

Either way, the new passing scheme could take advantage of Cutler’s monster arm, which allows him to make plays outside the pocket or under pressure. Because of his arm strength, he throws balls with enough velocity to fit through tight windows even off his back foot. He can also throw across his body without a noticeable loss of velocity.

His underrated scrambling skills and ability to throw without setting his feet will be essential to staying healthy and leading the Bears to the playoffs.

While Cutler has overcome substandard defensive performances in the past to elevate teams, the absence of Brian Urlacher in the middle linebacker position would not bode well for the team’s playoff hopes. Nick Roach has been filling in during training camp and preseason games, but Urlacher’s instinctive play is an asset in the running game.

His uncanny ability to open his hips and get downfield in the passing game is vital to Chicago’s Tampa-2 scheme. Without his pass coverage, more pressure would be placed on the safeties to close the gap in the middle of the field in pass coverage.

Urlacher recently underwent a minor procedure on his knee after trying to let his sprained MCL recover on its own. He expects to be ready to play on opening day, but that would be an awfully quick recovery.
Best-Case Scenario In this scenario, Cutler thrives in the new offense and is able to keep defenses honest with his backfield combination of Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Jeffery utilizes the tricks of the trade that he can glean from Marshall to win battles at the line of scrimmage, while Marshall and Cutler rekindle the chemistry that they displayed together in Denver.

Managing to keep the many explosive offenses on the schedule in check with a physical zone defense led by a healthy Urlacher, the Bears control the tempo of the game with an offense less conducive to turnovers and a defense that will appreciate the extra time on the sidelines.

The Bears will finish 10-6, surprisingly knocking off the Cowboys, Seahawks, Jaguars, Panthers, Titans and Cardinals, while splitting with the Lions and Packers and sweeping the Vikings. That is good enough for a Wild Card berth, but their patchwork offensive line and work-in-progress secondary will be exposed by the heavy hitters in the playoffs.
Worst-Case Scenario The wheels will fall off the Bears and the offensive line will be exposed for the patchwork mess that it is, and in the battle between J’Marcus Webb and Chris Williams for the starting left tackle position, the best choice will be “none of the above.” Cutler will be pounded until he is a blackish-blue hue that resembles the Bears’ uniforms.

Campbell, while one of the best backups in the league, lacks Cutler’s rocket arm and playmaking ability in a broken pocket. That limits the potential of the Bears' offense to a level of adequacy.

Adequacy is not sufficient enough to overcome a defense that will be without Urlacher, whose lingering knee problems will keep him in street clothes on Sundays. Roach will be moved from SAM-backer to MIKE, while free-agent pick-up, Geno Hayes, will be forced into service at SAM. While an intriguing possibility could be to use Shea McClellin in a role similar to Von Miller, another player perceived as an ill fit for a 4-3 defense.

McClellin could prove disruptive in a role as a pass-rushing defensive end and run-stopping SAM linebacker, but his inexperience will prove too big of a barrier from making the immediate leap from Boise State to the NFC North.

While the Bears’ running game and swarming pass-rush duo of Julius Peppers and McClellin will allow them to beat the bottom-feeders on the schedule, subpar competition is few and far between on the Bears’ schedule. They will end up at a disappointing 7-9, performing just well enough for Lovie Smith and his staff to survive another season to develop the most promising offensive squad in Lovie’s tenure.

The defense, however, will undergo serious evaluation over the offseason. That is par for the course when a defense seemingly ages simultaneously, but a draft heavy on defensive players could inject youth and vigor into a tired unit. Above all, Phil Emery will know he needs to draft game-ready offensive linemen in order to evade yet another letdown in the Windy City.
 

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