(Editor’s note: ESPN Chicago provides the following quick primer on the Bears, this week’s Patriots opponent.)
Coming off three consecutive years without a playoff appearance, the Chicago Bears made significant changes to the roster, coaching staff and front office heading into the 2010 season.
Julius Peppers and running back Chester Taylor in free agency, while high-profile coaches Mike Martz and Mike Tice were brought in to kick start an offense that struggled under former coordinator Ron Turner.
After a 3-0 start, the Bears hit rock bottom, losing three of their next four, none of the defeats more bitter than a 17-14 home loss to the Washington Redskins, when quarterback Jay Cutler threw four interceptions.
But since their bye week, Lovie Smith's Bears (9-3) have reeled off five consecutive victories and currently own a one-game lead over Green Bay in the NFC North. For Patriots fans looking for a scouting report on Sunday's opponent, here are some key points behind the Bears' turnaround:
1. Jay Cutler playing like a franchise quarterback: Finally, Cutler is looking like a guy worthy of two first-round picks and a hefty contract. Bears fans were starting to worry they were sold a bill of goods after Cutler endured a miserable 2009 season (26 interceptions), plus an awful stretch in October, where the quarterback's poor decisions essentially cost the Bears a victory against Washington in Week 7. But since the bye, Cutler is taking care of the football, keeping plays alive with his feet, and scrambling when necessary to pick up important yards. Cutler may still revert back to his old ways, but if he continues to play at this current level, the Bears have a serious chance to make some noise in the postseason.
2. Meet the new Mike Martz: Besides Cutler's suspect play, Martz's insistence on his standard, pass heavy, seven-step drop offense hurt the Bears in the early going. Martz completely ignored the run game, and for some reason kept calling deep drops for Cutler even though the offensive line proved incapable of providing the necessary protection. But the light also went on for Martz during the Bears' bye week, and the offense became a balanced attack moving forward. Because Martz changed his long-standing philosophy, the Bears have cut down on the turnovers, while dramatically increasing their time of possession and third-down conversion ratio. Throw the rankings out the window (No. 29 total offense, No. 21 points scored, No. 26 passing offense), the offense is doing its part in the Bears' playoff push, because simply, Martz is no longer trying to do too much.
3. A healthy defense: Only one defensive starter, strongside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, may be forced to miss Sunday's game due to injury. That's a major accomplishment for a team that was plagued by injuries the last few seasons to core veterans Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman and Tommie Harris. There are several additional reasons why the Bears rank No. 3 in total defense, No. 2 in rushing defense and No. 3 in points allowed, but having essentially all the front-line players on the field has been a luxury for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. After being lost for the year in Week 1 last season, Urlacher is back to his old self, and recorded 19 tackles in the Bears' 24-20 victory over the Detroit Lions. Urlacher may be on the wrong side of 30, but when healthy, he remains one of the top middle linebackers in the league.
4. The Peppers effect: The prized free agent defensive end has lived up to the hype, even though his sack numbers (7) may not be off the charts. Peppers' mere presence on the field has opened things up for fellow end Israel Idonije to have a career year (7 sacks), because with Peppers facing constant double-teams, Idonije is taking advantage of one-on-one matchups on nearly every down. The constant pressure provided by Peppers allows the Bears to sit back in their preferred defense -- the Cover 2 -- which only works if the front four is able to harass the opposing quarterback. It was that lack of a pass rush which led to the Bears defensive downfall from 2007-09.
5. The return of Devin Hester: After a two-year hiatus, Hester is back to being one of the most feared return men in the NFL, scoring on two punt returns earlier in the season. The dynamic two-time Pro Bowler is also being used on kickoff return, where the Bears have a surplus of talent in Hester, Danieal Manning and Johnny Knox. Many teams elect not to kick to Hester, which by default, usually helps the Bears win the field position battle. The Bears are also blessed with talented kickers Robbie Gould and Brad Maynard, plus the most consistent long-snapper in the league, Patrick Mannelly. Year after year, the Bears boast one of the top special teams units in the league, and 2010 is no different.