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updated: 10/30/2011 8:23 PM

Grading the Bears at the bye

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  • Bears running back Matt Forte (22) is a legitimate NFL MVP candidate through the first seven games of the season.

      Bears running back Matt Forte (22) is a legitimate NFL MVP candidate through the first seven games of the season.
    Associated Press

  • Bears running back Matt Forte is a legitimate NFL MVP candidate through the first seven games of the season.

      Bears running back Matt Forte is a legitimate NFL MVP candidate through the first seven games of the season.
    Associated Press

 
 

Much like Delta House president Robert Hoover in "Animal House," the Bears were really hoping their midterm grades would lift their averages.

Midterms for the Bears were their Week 6 and Week 7 games against Minnesota and Tampa Bay, and they won both.

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So unlike Otter, Bluto, Flounder and D-Day -- whose local draft boards were notified after they stole the wrong test answers, failed midterms and flunked out of school -- the Bears passed.

But they still have much room for improvement.

At 4-3, the Bears are positioned for a playoff run, especially considering they have survived the most difficult portion of their schedule and are as healthy as any NFL team.

Final grades won't be in for another couple of months, but so far the Bears have a good shot at making the honor roll.

Quarterback:

Jay Cutler was excellent in the season-opening victory over the Atlanta Falcons despite getting sacked five times.

He was mediocre over the next three weeks, getting sacked nine times in losses to the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers and being a nonfactor for much of the victory over Carolina.

With better protection, Cutler was impressive in a loss to the Detroit Lions and the rout of the Vikings, throwing 3 TD passes without a pick.

His passer rating of 60.2 against the Bucs was skewed when a catchable ball bounced off Marion Barber's hands and wound up as an interception. Cutler's 84.0 passer rating is in the middle of NFL QBs.

Grade: C

Running backs:

Matt Forte has a legitimate claim as the NFL's MVP at the halfway mark. He leads the league with 1,091 yards from scrimmage. Forte is tied for eighth in the league with 38 catches, and his average of 5.4 yards per carry is second among players with more than 50 carries.

Marion Barber was slowed by a calf injury through the first three games but has scored in three of the last four games and is beginning to resemble the hard-charging, short-yardage complement the Bears were hoping for.

Fullback Tyler Clutts has contributed solid lead blocking.

Grade: A

Receivers:

The Bears again lack a legitimate No. 1 receiver. They have just one 100-yard receiving game, and that came from Forte.

Different wideouts have stepped up with big games at various times, but no one on a consistent basis, and drops have been a problem at times.

Johnny Knox has lost playing time to Roy Williams but still is averaging more than 18 yards per catch. Devin Hester still is plagued by inconsistency, although he has at least 4 catches in each of the last three games.

After a sputtering start, Williams seems to be developing a bit of a rapport with Cutler.

The return of tough, sure-handed Earl Bennett should give Cutler a security blanket underneath. In Bennett's absence, rookie Dane Sanzenbacher has stepped up.

Tight ends Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth don't figure much in the passing game, but their blocking has been vital to the run game's success, and 2 of Davis' 8 catches have gone for touchdowns.

Grade: C-

Offensive line:

Even though five different combinations already have been utilized in seven weeks, improvement was evident after a rocky start in which Cutler was sacked 14 times in the first three games.

The Bears, however, have allowed just 7 sacks in the past four games, during which the run game has produced an average of 160.5 yards per game and an average gain of 5.5 yards per rush.

Roberto Garza has made an impressive transition from 10 years as a guard to a strong line leader at center.

The return of rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi automatically makes the unit stronger. But it may take some time for the first-round pick to win his starting job back.

When Carimi was injured, Lance Louis eventually moved from right guard to right tackle and has played well. Chris Spencer took over at right guard and has been OK.

But even with Carimi, this O-line isn't any better than average, and it's far from a finished product. However, Carimi and left tackle J'Marcus Webb both are 23, and Louis and left guard Chris Williams are 26, so there is room for growth.

Grade: C-

Defensive line:

This group was beginning to look like an overrated, underachieving bunch until it spearheaded the resurgence of the previous two weeks.

Six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers was conspicuous by his absence during several of the early-season games, but he shifted into another gear in the back-to-back victories, showing the dominance he still possesses.

His linemates have been solid for the most part but far from elite, although nose tackle Matt Toeaina, left end Israel Idonije and backup tackle Amobi Okoye all have played well in spurts.

It took rookie tackle Stephen Paea six weeks and a knee injury to Toeaina to get on the field, but it appears as if he belongs.

Grade: C+

Linebackers:

WLB Lance Briggs was the NFC defensive player of the week for his interception and 10-tackle performance against the Bucs, and he leads the team with 71 tackles. He doesn't appear to have lost much from his game, which has earned him invites to the last six Pro Bowls.

MLB Brian Urlacher is second with 54 tackles, and he already has 3 interceptions, tied for the team lead. Unheralded SLB Nick Roach has quietly done an efficient job.

Grade: B

Secondary:

The musical-chairs game at safety has grown tiresome, but the Bears believe the current tandem of rookie Chris Conte and second-year man Major Wright have the speed, range and athleticism to provide an upgrade in pass defense that was lacking with Brandon Meriweather and recently released Chris Harris.

Both youngsters have room for growth, and the hope is that their development is accelerated by increased playing time.

The Bears lack a shutdown corner, but Charles Tillman matches up well against big, physical receivers and 5-foot-8 Tim Jennings plays bigger than his size. Both are willing run supporters who don't shy from contact.

Nickel corner D.J. Moore has 3 interceptions and seems to have a Mike Brown-like knack for being around the ball. One complaint is that, aside from Moore, this group has a total of 1 interception.

Grade: C

Special teams:

Devin Hester continues to make a case for his future inclusion in the Hall of Fame as a return specialist. He has 1 punt-return and 1 kickoff-return TD this season, adding to his career NFL record.

Place-kicker Robbie Gould has missed just 1 field-goal attempt, the one that would have tied him for the most accurate FG kicker in NFL history. His kickoffs have been better than ever, with a career-high 18 touchbacks already. As usual, the coverage teams are among the league's best.

Grade: A

Coaching:

Offensive coordinator Mike Martz must continue to utilize the run game, call pass plays that get the ball out of Jay Cutler's hand more quickly and provide more max protection when he wants to go deep. He doesn't always remember all that.

Coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli need to occasionally create more pass-rush pressure with blitzes when the front four falters.

If special-teams coordinator Dave Toub isn't the best in the NFL, he's in the top two.

Grade: B-

•Follow Bob's Bears reports via Twitter @BobLeGere and check out our Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com.

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