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updated: 9/2/2012 8:22 PM

Bears have a few issues to be addressed

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  • He may like his team a lot, but Bears head coach Lovie Smith has to recognize the key issues facing the Bears this season and address them in order to contend for the NFC North title.

      He may like his team a lot, but Bears head coach Lovie Smith has to recognize the key issues facing the Bears this season and address them in order to contend for the NFC North title.
    Associated Press

 
 

The Bears have as many punters as quarterbacks on their 53-man roster, and that's just one aspect of Lovie Smith's team that's different this year.

The most noticeable change is that this team might win with its offense and in spite of its defense, rather than the other way around.

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It's not as if this year's defense is a liability, but considering the advanced age of its key players, a drop-off in performance due to injuries is a real possibility.

The Bears still are considered a strong favorite to make it to the postseason.

But there are a lot of issues facing Smith's ninth team, and they must be addressed in a positive manner or he might not be around for a 10th season.

Issue No. 1: The offensive line must be less offensive and more protective.

New general manager Phil Emery and Smith have built an offense with enough skill-position players to give them a state-of-the-art attack.

But it remains to be seen if a highly questionable offensive line can provide the protection quarterback Jay Cutler needs to maximize his array of weapons.

With Matt Forte and Michael Bush providing more than enough firepower in the ground game, even an average offensive line should enable the Bears to score more points than any of Smith's previous eight editions.

But if the O-line allows sacks at the same rate it has the previous two seasons -- a league-worst 105 -- it will undermine the talents of Cutler and Co.

Issue No. 2: The defense must reverse or at least delay the aging process.

This group was above average last season, but its key players are getting older, not better, and a couple of injuries to key veterans could derail the operation.

Hopefully for the Bears, eight-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's absence from the preseason was not an early glimpse of the 2012 season.

Without Urlacher, Nick Roach is forced to play the middle. Roach is normally a decent NFL starter on the strong side. Urlacher is a Hall of Famer.

There's a difference. A huge one.

Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs all were Pro Bowl players last season, but they're also all over 30. Expecting all or any of them to play 16 games is unrealistic.

Depth is not a team strength, especially at those positions.

Issue No. 3: The pass rush must come from more than Peppers.

In a division with Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, the defensive line must be able to provide pass-rush pressure, or defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli must dial up the occasional blitz to help the front four.

The Bears used their first-round pick on left defensive end Shea McClellin to provide help for Peppers, who had 11 sacks last season despite frequent double-teams.

Even with all the attention paid to Peppers, left end Israel Idonije produced just 5 sacks in 2011. The combination of Idonije and McClellin must do better this year.

So, too, must the linebackers, who didn't contribute a single sack last season.

Issue No. 4: J'Marcus Webb must take ownership of the left-tackle spot.

He is the weak link on a questionable chain.

The Bears hope Webb plays up to his physical abilities in his third season, but for now that's all it is -- hope.

Webb didn't really win the job in training camp. He failed to lose it to Chris Williams, whose play was equally as uninspiring.

Webb's lapses in pass protection last season were too frequent. Coaches believe the 6-foot-7, 333-pounder has the physical tools to protect Cutler's blind side, but the implication is that he doesn't work hard enough or take the job seriously enough.

Unfortunately, there isn't anyone on the roster who provides an upgrade, so the Bears may have to sink or swim with Webb.

However, the fact that young tackles James Brown and Cory Brandon were kept on the practice squad is another indication that the coaching staff isn't convinced Webb is the long-term answer.

Issue No. 5: Cutler must fulfill his destiny.

He will soon be 30, so it's do-or-die time for the chosen one.

The Bears gave him the big, go-to wide receiver he requested in Brandon Marshall. He has Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte to hand the ball to and an excellent backup in Michael Bush.

Rookie Alshon Jeffery is another big target who looks ready to make an impact, and Earl Bennett has been Cutler's security blanket underneath.

Now it's up to the supremely talented Cutler to play up to his potential and maximize his own physical gifts and take advantage of all the complementary gifts he has been given by an organization that has built a team around him.

He has yet to do that, and time's running out for him to reach the level of the elite quarterbacks such as Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning.

Lack of a talented supporting cast is no longer an excuse for Cutler.

Issue No. 6: Change the culture of change at safety.

Bears starters at safety over the past eight seasons usually have lasted as long as a pork chop in a pack of pit bulls.

Coach Lovie Smith has presided over a combined 46 lineup changes at free and strong safety since 2004.

This season was going to be different, with 2011 third-round pick Chris Conte (free safety) and 2010 third-round pick Major Wright (strong safety) allegedly entrenched.

But Conte's right shoulder popped out of its socket while he was making a tackle in the second preseason game, and he has yet to practice since, although he hopes to be back for Sunday's opener.

The Bears love Conte's size (6-2, 203) and range, and that he was fast and athletic enough to have started five games at cornerback at Cal.

Wright's progress has been fitful due to assorted injuries and occasional mental lapses, but he packs a punch and has the physical tools to be a longtime starter, if he remains healthy.

Veteran Craig Steltz is a capable fill-in at either spot, and he brings a linebacker's mentality when he comes down in the box to support vs. the run. But he lacks the speed and athleticism of the two starters.

Issue No. 7: Wide receiver Brandon Marshall must avoid off-field issues.

To say Marshall is the biggest, strongest, most dominant, most talented pass catcher in franchise history is to damn with faint praise.

That's a given. His off-season acquisition skyrocketed expectations, but now he has to put up the numbers to match the hype.

That probably won't happen if he falls prey to the off-the-field problems that have threatened to derail his runaway talent.

He has an ability to take over games that Bears fans have never seen. But he also has shown an ability to be a distraction, something he and the Bears cannot afford.

rlegere@dailyherald.com

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