Plenty of questions as Bears open season

Heading into their eighth season under the tutelage of Lovie Smith, the 2011 Bears face a number of questions — many of which will be answered during the first three weeks.

The Bears open with a brutal stretch that includes a home game with the Atlanta Falcons, whose 13-3 record was the best in the NFC last season. They then hit the road against the New Orleans Saints, who were 11-5 last season on the heels of their Super Bowl XLIV victory; and return home to face the Super Bowl XLV champion Green Bay Packers.

Can the Bears survive that three-game land mine to open the season?Only if the defense plays as good or better than it did last season, when it was No. 4 in points allowed. The Falcons were No. 5 in scoring last season and added wide receiver Julio Jones, a popular early pick for rookie of the year. The Saints were No. 6 in total yards, 11th in scoring, third in passing yards and first in third-down efficiency. They rang up 34 points on the Packers in the season opener.Even worse news, the Packers scored 42 in their victory over the Saints. They were No. 5 in passing yards last season, even without injured tight end Jermichael Finley, who could be a beast this season.But the early season schedule isn't all that bad for the Bears. They play just three road games in the first eight weeks of the season. The down side is four road trips in the final six weeks.Will the offensive line provide better protection for Jay Cutler?It's difficult to answer #8220;yes,#8221; given that four of the five positions will have different starters than in last season's NFC title game loss to the Packers. But this year's group is younger, bigger, more athletic and more physical than last year's unit, which allowed more sacks (56) than any team in the NFL. Much of the responsibility for Cutler's well-being is in the hands of 23-year-old tackles J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi. Webb was a revelation last season, when the seventh-round pick wound up starting the final 12 games at right tackle. This year he's being asked to handle the more critical left tackle spot, where he must provide protection on Cutler's blind side. Carimi, this year's first-round draft pick, takes over at right tackle, and the coaching staff has no doubts that he will be a force in the run game. What remains to be seen is how well he can pass protect. What about the rest of the rookie class?Second-round DT Stephen Paea has been slow to grasp the intricacies of either the nose tackle or the 3-technique tackle spot, but the Bears are deep enough that they can slowly bring him along. Safety Chris Conte, the third-rounder from Cal, doesn't figure to be much more than a special teams player, especially with the late addition of free-agent Brandon Meriweather. If fifth-round quarterback Nathan Enderle sees significant playing time, it can only mean that something has gone horribly wrong. He's a project, but one that offensive coordinator Mike Martz is high on.Undrafted wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher was the hit of training camp, and he has the qualities to eventually become a Wes Welker type of player in the slot.Which players could be the most pleasant surprises this year?Defensive lineman Henry Melton flashed pass-rush ability last season in limited playing time, and he earned the starting job at the 3-technique tackle, where his quickness could give him an advantage inside. His backup, former first-round pick Amobi Okoye, who was cut by the Chiefs, had 3 sacks in the preseason, and he provides depth and versatility because he can also play end.Safety Brandon Meriweather is another former first-round pick who was cut by his former team but could benefit from a change of scenery. Meriweather has a history of making plays on the ball, something the Bears did not get from Major Wright in the preseason. Expect Meriweather to be on the field as soon as he becomes more familiar with the defense.Is the defense too old?All of the impact players are 30 or older, but none has shown any signs of diminishing production. Brian Urlacher (33) went to his seventh Pro Bowl last season, Lance Briggs (30) made it six straight Pro Bowls, and Julius Peppers made it for the sixth time. Charles Tillman (30) remains the Bears' best solution for the big wide receivers who have become more prevalent in the league, Anthony Adams (31) does the dirty work inside required of the nose tackle, and Israel Idonije (30) has become much more than the Bears' #8220;other#8221; defensive end.How will the new rule moving kickoffs up 5 yards affect the Bears' return game?Adversely. It's a lousy rule for a team like the Bears that is annually one of the NFL's best at kickoff returns, whether it's Devin Hester or Johnny Knox toting the ball. But the Bears will not succumb to the touchback just because kickoffs go 5 or 6 yards deep in the end zone. The kickoff return will still be an exciting part of the Bears' attack, but they won't have nearly as many opportunities as in the past, since many kickers in the league will be able to drive the ball completely out of the end zone.Follow Bob's Bears reports via Twitter @BobLeGere and check out our Bear Essentials blog at 1764776Veteran linebacker Brian Urlacher and his defensive teammates need to play as well or better than last season for the Bears to survive their opening three-game stretch.RICK WEST/ FBN29402784The health and well-being of quarterback Jay Cutler and the BearsÂ’ hopes this season will depend upon how effective the offensive line performs. Associated PressFBNFBN22881652Bears quarterback Jay CutlerAssociated PressFBN