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Four Downs: Bears in better shape after bye

Matt Forte has 194 rushing yards in three career contest against the Eagles. Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire

As the Bears come off their bye week to take on the Philadelphia Eagles, our Four Downs panel weighs in on this week's contest and the season outlook:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears' 2011 4-3 start to the season is better than the 2010 version.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The 2010 Bears limped into the bye week after consecutive home defeats to Seattle and Washington, which marked the low point of the season. This year the annual bye weekend came following wins against Minnesota and Tampa. Compared to last fall at this time, the Bears appear to be in better shape. Whether or not they can rip off five consecutive post-bye wins like in 2010 remains to be seen, but the vibe around Halas Hall is much different than last year. The only real negative is the Bears 1-2 record in the NFC North, compared to 2-0 after seven games the previous season.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. The Bears limped into the bye week in 2010, losing three of four; while this year’s team is on a two-game winning streak. Last season, there were questions about the run-pass ratio, and Jay Cutler’s protection (he’d been sacked 19 times in three games going into the bye). Running back Matt Forte had gained 100 yards in just one of the first seven contests, and rushed for more than 50 yards just once. But none of those are concerns coming out of this year’s bye. Certainly the defense hasn’t performed at its normal high level, but given the group’s experience and some of the adjustments made by the coaching staff, better days are on the horizon. It’s also important to note that the entire roster -- for the first time all season -- is now fully healthy, which should pay dividends down the stretch.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Better in every major offensive category statistically, certainly that side of the football is better this season. The offensive line a little more stable (which isn’t saying much); Forte exceeding the high expectations everyone had for him; and Cutler has overcome some weak protection and is generally running the offense more efficiently. Defensively, the 2010 team carried the Bears most of the season. But the Bears went into the bye this season with more momentum (two wins vs. two losses) and seemingly just as much to build upon.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. In 2010, we still didn’t know what to make of the Bears. At the bye, their future was unknown. Yes, unlike this edition, the 2010 Bears started 4-1 before a two-game skid, but their offensive problems were beguiling. Those Bears straightened things out, but at the time, we just weren’t sure how it would happen after the bye. These Bears, well, we don’t know what to make of them either, but at least they’ve proved that they can beat the bad teams and the ones at their level. It’s the great teams that have been the problem, a sure sign of a wild-card hopeful. We know what works with the offense, and we've already seen the worst of the offensive line. I feel more sure of what this team is capable of doing.


Second Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears' game plan should center around stopping LeSean McCoy, not Michael Vick.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Vick is a tremendous player, but the Bears historically have kept him in check. If McCoy goes off on Monday night, the Bears will have a tough time improving to 5-3. The key to stopping Vick is to keep him in the pocket and pressure him with the front four, while the safeties drop deep to eliminate the deep pass plays down the field. That strategy won't work if McCoy begins to hurt the Bears for big chunks of yards on the ground. If that happens, the safeties will be forced to pinch up, which could lead to disaster. If the Bears stop McCoy, and protect the ball on offense, they should be able to knock off Philadelphia.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. The main objective for Chicago’s defense -- regardless of the opponent -- is to snuff out the run first, and force a team to win the game through the air. By shutting down the run, the Bears know they can easily make teams one dimensional/predictable. Once that happens, defensive play calling is no longer a chess match for Rod Marinelli. At the same time, the defense can play faster because it’s not burdened by run responsibilities because the front four is rushing the passer, while the back seven drop back in coverage.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. It’s always a good start -- run effectively and stop the run. And considering the fact that McCoy, coming off an 185-yard rushing game, has carried the ball 58 times in the Eagles’ last two games for a combined 311 yards, not to mention his 107.7 yards on the ground per game and 5.6-yard average per carry, stopping him would go a long way toward stopping the Eagles. If you can contain Vick on the ground, he is capable of the bad game and the Bears have proven that.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Controlling Vick is the key, and the Bears know this, which is why they’ve had success against him. Now, especially with these starting safeties, the Bears really need to worry about Vick throwing the ball deep to Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, and down the middle to Cover-2 breaker Brent Celek. They also need to keep Vick from piling up yards. It’s not an all-or-nothing with Vick and McCoy. The Bears need to gameplan for both, but it’s a lot easier to stop a great running back when you’ve flustered the game-breaking quarterback.


Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler would be a much better quarterback in the Eagles' offense.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Not only would Cutler have weapons like Jackson, Maclin, Celek and McCoy, he would also get to work with Reid. Say what you want about Reid's inability to win a Super Bowl, he knows offense and how to work with quarterbacks. Cutler would be in much better hands with Reid and Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweig, than he is here in Chicago.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. This isn’t a fair hypothetical situation for Cutler, but I’ll play along. If you look at the first seven games, Vick hasn’t even performed at a perennial Pro Bowler’s level in the Eagles’ offense. So how/why would Cutler? Undoubtedly the most mobile quarterback in the NFL, Vick has been sacked 12 times, thrown eight interceptions and has fumbled eight times, losing three. Vick works with more weapons than Cutler, for sure. But if Philadelphia’s offensive line can’t prevent the game’s most elusive quarterback from taking 12 sacks, what would it do for Cutler, who isn’t as mobile? Philadelphia’s scheme is better suited for Cutler’s skill set than Chicago’s. But several factors come into play here such as the market, team chemistry (would teammates embrace the standoffish Cutler?), potential relationship with the coaching staff (would Reid put up with Cutler cursing at a coach?) that really make this unfair to try to gauge.

Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Why? Because the Eagles have Brent Celek at tight end, and Jackson, Maclin and Jason Avant as their receiving corps? They’re a strong group, no question, but Philly’s o-line has been slow to click and Michael Vick hasn’t had the easiest time of it. Andy Reid has been accused of not running a balanced offense. Regardless of Cutler’s talent, being a Pro Bowl quarterback isn’t exactly an easy feat to pull off.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. The Eagles are the kind of team a quarterback dreams about, with Jackson and Maclin, Celek and McCoy. The offensive line has only given up 10 sacks this season, though Vick might have something to do with that. Maybe it's just age catching up with him, or bad teams, but Donovan McNabb's post-Eagles career has been a train wreck. For all his faults, Reid put McNabb into a good situation to succeed. Cutler would look great in Eagles green.


Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: I'd rather have Matt Forte than LeSean McCoy as my running back.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. You really can't go wrong with either guy. Forte gets the nod because he's shown the ability to carry the load on offense almost entirely by himself. McCoy has the luxury of being part of an offense with proven playmakers Vick, Jackson, Maclin and Celek. That's not meant to diminish what McCoy has accomplished over two and a half seasons in Philadelphia, he's a special player, but opposing defenses are forced to worry about stopping several things when they face the Eagles. When teams play the Bears, it's about stopping Forte, which nobody has really done besides Mike Martz.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. This is another difficult one to gauge. McCoy averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2010 and 4.1 as a rookie, and has caught 68 fewer passes than Forte -- who has never averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry through an entire season -- despite playing one year less. The difference in my mind is that Forte has put forth the majority of his production without the benefit of: A). A decent run-blocking offensive line most of his career; and B). A strong supporting cast of offensive weapons. Forte has pretty much done most of his damage to defenses alone. McCoy, meanwhile, is surrounded by a bevy of dangerous weapons (Maclin, Jackson, Celek -- even Vick is falls into the “weapons” category) that take off some of the pressure and make Philadelphia’s offense unpredictable. When teams face the Bears, the first two objectives are to stop Forte in the rushing game and to stop him as a receiver. But nobody has enjoyed consistent success at either, which makes Forte my running back in this debate.

Melissa Isaacson Fact. Tough one, but hard to ever argue against having Forte. Though he’s a bit older than McCoy (25 to 23), he is a more polished back just coming into his prime and at this point is a better receiver. You know what you’ve got with Forte. McCoy does have 10 touchdowns this season to Forte’s three and is no doubt an incredible talent. McCoy is also very durable and like Forte, has sure hands (neither have a fumble this season). But again, Forte has shown he is capable of carrying an offense and tough to bet against him.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction, but not by much. McCoy has more rushing yards per game (107.7-96) and grades slightly above Forte by the Football Outsiders’ statistical estimations -- always a good tiebreaker when the eye tests fails to discern a true separation (they both average around 5.5 yards per game). But really, both are great. Perhaps the greatest defining factor in choosing between the two is age. McCoy is a couple years younger, which in the NFL, means a lot.