A look at the Bears' biggest needs for 2009.
It’s easy to see why Bears GM Jerry Angelo wants to start any offseason improvements with quarterback. Only six NFL teams had worse offenses than the Bears (9-7) this year, and those six had a combined record of 19-76-1. And they also had an excuse: The starting quarterbacks for the Rams, Lions, Seahawks, Browns, Bengals and Raiders missed a combined 43 starts with injuries.
Yet Chicago’s offense keeps getting a pass.
“We improved in a lot of areas,” left tackle John St. Clair said this week. “That’s all you can do. We just have to keep building on it.”
Chicago’s defense draws the more critical eye. The Bears say their defense is a shadow of the unit that led Chicago to a 24-8 record in 2005-06.
“You have to,” Angelo said. “You can’t put your head in the sand. You could say there were reasons for some of the things we went through (in 2007), but this year things didn’t come along the way we wanted them to. We need to look harder now.”
A hard look will show that Chicago’s defense wore down like a steady drip of water eroding rock. The Bears’ No. 21 defense was No. 6 in yards allowed per play. The Bears allowed their lowest rushing average (3.4) in 20 years. And their No. 30-rated pass defense was 10th in opponent’s passer rating.
The defense’s main problem was it was on the field for an NFL-high 1,087 plays. That’s five more plays per game than the winless Lions.
“We let them have the football too much,” coach Lovie Smith said.
The Bears returning to the playoffs in 2009 revolves around solving that simple problem. And that lies equally with the offense and the defense.
The offense needs quarterback Kyle Orton to improve or be replaced by a short-term free-agent veteran such as Jeff Garcia or Kurt Warner; Matt Cassel will be too expensive. Chicago also should clean house at receiver except for Devin Hester. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Devery Henderson, Shaun McDonald and Bobby Engram headline a thin free-agent crop at receiver. And when Lovie Smith and Angelo talk about looking at everything they do, they should examine their play calling.
The Bears were better at converting on third-and-4 to third-and-6 (45 percent) than they were on third-and-2 and third-and-3 (38 percent). Instead of running so often on short-yardage, the Bears should throw, and perhaps throw deep, like the Texans throwing a 33-yard pass to their tight end on third-and-1 in Sunday’s win over the Bears. That would open up more room for Matt Forte to run.
On defense, the Bears need a new free safety and to bring back Mike Brown at strong safety, keeping Kevin Payne and Brandon McGowan as backups, not starters, and Danieal Manning at nickel back. Manning has found a home as a big-play nickel, but he makes too many mental mistakes at safety. Darren Sharper, Brian Dawkins and Dawan Landry will all be unrestricted free agents.
The Bears also need to get rid of defensive end Mark Anderson and hope Adewale Ogunleye bounces back in a contract year and defensive tackle Tommie Harris returns to his Pro Bowl form.
“I feel strongly that (Harris) is going to come back and give us the kind of play we paid him for,” Angelo said. “I see the arrow going up.”
It needs to. The Bears were 29th in sacks per play, a huge reason the defense couldn’t get off the field. Chicago could even pick a defensive end high in the draft.
“You can never get too many edge rushers,” Lovie Smith said. “Everything starts up front.”
And everything depends on finding ways to not overtax a defense that remains good, but no longer dominates.
“You’ve got to tweak this,” Ogunleye said. “We’ve played good enough some games to say it can work, but we’ve played bad enough to say it’s not going to work the way it is. We’ve got to change things around and find a way to get that spark on defense.”
Rockford Register Star assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.