5 things we learned vs. Packers

CHICAGO -- Here are five things we learned in the Chicago Bears’ season-ending, 33-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers:

1. Bears took a step backward in 2013: The offense made strides in both personnel (Phil Emery) and scheme (Marc Trestman), but when Aaron Rodgers misses almost half the season due to injury and Green Bay still wins the division, that is a massive disappointment. Not only that, the Bears had two straight chances to clinch the NFC North and failed to do so. Lovie Smith won 10 games in 2012 before he was fired; Trestman won eight games in 2013. In doing so, the Bears lose out on the playoffs for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. Week 17 was a harsh reminder the road to the NFC North crown still goes though Green Bay, Rodgers or no Rodgers. Josh McCown kept the Bears afloat when Jay Cutler missed five games himself because of injuries, and the Bears still failed to seal the deal. On every level, 2013 is full of disappointments for Trestman & Co.

2. Massive efforts are needed to rebuild the defense: Julius Peppers’ failure to corral Rodgers on the Randall Cobb game-winning touchdown, and the Bears’ busted coverage in the secondary that allowed Cobb to get wide open in the first place, were symbolic of the team’s struggles on defense this season. The Bears badly need to find a defensive line that can pressure the quarterback and smart, ball-hawking safeties who can protect the back end of the defense. Expect a minimum of four new starters on defense in 2014, maybe more. The NFL is a league based on offense, but the Bears can’t go through another season in which the defense gives up 160 rushing yards and close to 30 points per game. There is no excuse for those types of numbers, even with all the injuries the Bears suffered on the defensive side of the ball.

3. Cutler enters the offseason on relative high note: Cutler and the offense accomplished little in the first half versus the Packers, but the second half proved to be another story. With the season on the line, Cutler finished 15-of-24 for 226 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception (on the Bears’ final desperation play) and a quarterback rating of 103.8. Kind of hard to pin that loss on Cutler, in my estimation. Expect the Bears to try to sign Cutler to a multiyear deal in the offseason, but it’s doubtful the team breaks the bank to do so. Still, the odds of Cutler returning in 2014 are favorable. At least the Bears can sell the public on Cutler’s efficient game against Green Bay when/if they announce the quarterback has been locked up for the foreseeable future. Put it this way: If Cutler plays the way he did in Week 17 for the bulk of next season, the Bears should be in position to win quite a few games.

4. Matt Forte has career season: Lost in the agony of defeat is the fact Forte rushed for a career-best 1,339 yards and nine touchdowns this season. That is the ninth-highest total in franchise history and more than any Bears player other than the great Walter Payton. How important is Forte to the Bears? The club is 17-3 overall when the two-time Pro Bowl selection runs for at least 100 yards. Forte also had a career-high 1,933 yards from scrimmage, the fifth most in franchise history, and ends the season with 100 yards or more rushing in four of the final five games.

5. Shea McClellin to linebacker, please: With all due respect to former Bears defensive lineman Chris Zorich, there has to be a better spot on the defense for McClellin than with his hand on the ground at defensive end. To blame McClellin for the Bears’ failures on defense is silly. He had plenty of company and at least McClellin delivered the shot that knocked Rodgers out for seven weeks in the Nov. 4 game at Lambeau Field, in which he won NFC Defensive Player of the Week. But it’s hard to watch McClellin try to defend the run. He just cannot keep containment or set the edge, and he often gets stonewalled at the line of scrimmage while attempting to rush the quarterback. Sometimes, McClellin is able to use his quickness and be disruptive, but asking him to play defensive end in this defense is the equivalent of asking a right-handed pitcher to throw left handed. McClellin is not meant to be a 4-3 defensive end, but I do believe he has value. The Bears need to figure out how McClellin fits in their defense moving forward. Otherwise, the team might have to eventually chalk him up as a busted pick.