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Extra Points: Defense could hold Chicago back

Aug. 15, 2014 at 1:39 PM   |   Comments

In a division that houses three presumptive offensive powerhouses, it's probably going to be the other side of the ball which determines who rises to the top.

The perceived contenders in the NFC North -- Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit -- all possess extremely talented quarterbacks who lead explosive units when everything is clicking.

Obviously Packers signal caller Aaron Rodgers has the edge over his rivals with the Bears (Jay Cutler) and Lions (Matthew Stafford) -- along with just about every other QB for that matter -- which is why most observers default to Green Bay as the favorites in the division.

Rodgers, though, has masked quite a few deficiencies in Titletown over the previous few years as evidenced by just how poorly the Pack played in 2013 the franchise went down with a broken clavicle.

You can make a strong argument that from two through 53 both the Lions and Bears are more talented than their Badger State counterparts, meaning the NFC North should be in play for both, especially if Cutler and or Stafford have big years.

In Chicago's case, if things don't go the Bears way, you will probably be able to look straight past the enigmatic Cutler and focus in on the team's defense.

The Bears, of course, rebooted things before the 2013 season, firing veteran defensive-minded head coach Lovie Smith and bringing in an offense-first mentor, Marc Trestman, to build a 21st century scoring unit around Cutler.

It worked like a charm or was a disaster depending on what brand of Kool- Aid you enjoy.

Trestman did indeed build a tremendous offense which succeeded whether Cutler or veteran backup Josh McCown, who is now in Tampa Bay with Smith, was on the field thanks in large part to a revamped offensive line, along with one of the best all-around running back in the game, Matt Forte, and the dynamic receiving duo of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.

The defense, however, tanked without Smith and retired middle linebacker Brian Urlacher running things, turning on a dime from the most opportunistic group in the NFL to a unit incapable of stopping just about anyone.

The Bears ranked 30th in the NFL in total defense (394.6) last season, 32nd in rushing defense (161.4) and allowed 28 points a game.

This time around rebuilding the defensive side of things was paramount in the Windy City and general manager Phil Emery spent most of his spring trying to upgrade things on that side of the football with a particular emphasis on the front four.

Chicago bid adieu to veterans Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and Corey Wootton and used free agency to bolster the defensive end position, bringing in veteran pass-rushing star Jared Allen, along with Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Emery then carpet-bombed defensive tackle in the draft with a pair of early selections, second-rounder Ego Ferguson and third-rounder Will Sutton.

Not much was done at linebacker with the team counting on the return of veterans Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams, who both missed large swatches of last season with significant injuries.

That, however, could be specious logic since Briggs is 33 with a ton of mileage on his legs and at 32, Williams is far closer to the end than the beginning.

Expecting Shea McClellin to pull off the move from the defensive line to the strong side without a hiccup is also questionable logic, as is assuming a full NFL season under their belts means second-year pros Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene are ready to help in any significant way.

"I think we're a humbled group," Briggs said. "We're working real hard right now. We'll keep taking steps in the right direction You're never going to know (in the preseason). It's good to get tested against an opponent but you're never really going to know until Week 1."

Briggs' tepid enthusiasm could be a warning sign.

Even potential strengths are shaky in Chicago. Playmakers Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings return on the outside of the defensive backfield and are joined by first-round pick Kyle Fuller, a Virginia Tech product with significant upside.

Tillman, though, is now 33 years old and coming off a torn right triceps while Jennings is also now on the wrong side of 30, certainly a line of demarcation between ascending and descending players in today's NFL.

Safety, meanwhile, remains the biggest issue and none of the bodies Emery has assembled spark much enthusiasm among the team's fan base.

Ex-Giant Ryan Mundy looks like the starter at strong safety unless 34-year-old Adrian Wilson has anything left in the tank to make a push, while rookie speedster Brock Vereen, a fourth-round pick, is trying to make things tough for pedestrian options like M.D. Jennings and Chris Conte at free safety.

If you think all of that smacks of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, you're not alone. The Bears defense has a rapidly aging core with plenty of holes.

The early returns have not been particularly promising. On Thursday, Jacksonville's first-team offense, which is not exactly Peyton Manning and the Broncos, was able to get off 26 plays against the Bears' defensive starters in the first quarter alone, and Jacksonville scored 13 points against the Bears' best.

By halftime, Chad Henne and rookie Blake Bortles combined to connect on 19- of-27 passes for 244 yards and TD, with the Jaguars up, 16-7.

"Penalties and third downs," a disappointed Mundy explained.

The Bears eventually went on to win, 20-19, thanks to two late rushing scores. and Allen took the positive approach at least for now.

"There's probably 10 times more good stuff than there is bad stuff to take away from it," the veteran pass rusher, who was making his Chicago debut, said. "And that's what we'll build on."

Perhaps but what good stuff can be formulated from making a team which scored just 15.4 points per game -- the worst in the NFL last year -- look down right competent?

Much like last season the Bears will go only as far as its high-powered offense can take it.

[SportsNetwork.com]

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