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Bears Fri Sep 05 2014
The focus leading into Sunday's season opener has been all about the Bears defense. Can they stop the run like they did at the beginning of last year? Can they get the Bills into third-and-long situations so the revamped defensive line can pin their ears back? Are the linebackers not named Lance Briggs prepared to make plays? Does the team have any starting-caliber safeties?
All great questions, but none of them really matter in Week 1 if the Bears offense does what we expect it to do in the second year under Marc Trestman. All 11 starters return, and though Kyle Long missed the start of camp, and Jordan Mills missed everything, the cohesiveness of the unit and the time they've had to develop and improve the second-highest scoring offense from 2013 should be enough to prevail in Week 1. At the very least, it would buy some time for the defense to come up with answers.
We've heard it again during camp that Trestman and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh have worked with Cutler on his footwork and mechanics and that they've seen improvement. But at 31, it's hard to imagine the old dog is learning physical tricks that coaches have been pounding into him for 15 years. The gains you can truly hope for are Cutler's understanding of the system and his decision-making after the snap. Drives can't get stalled by a minor mistake if the Bears hope to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The defense isn't going to sniff the top 10, so the offense has to carry the load again.
Though Long was voted to the Pro Bowl, it was more hype (and injuries/withdrawals) than performance. He was really solid in his first season, and the hope was with an offseason and training camp of work, he'd be ready to take a giant step forward this year, and possibly be ready to move out to a tackle spot in 2015. But injuries and sickness derailed that plan, and it'll be more learning on the fly again this season. The health along the line was one of the reasons the offensive clicked in 2013, and though it's hard to bet on, they need it again this season.
Mills needs to improve, or he'll have to worry about his spot in the starting lineup. Though the coaching staff gave him a lot of praise, and protecting his inside shoulder might be scheme related, Pro Football Focus rated him as the worst pass protecting tackle in the league last season. He only allowed three sacks, but the 62 hurries given up lapped the competition. Michael Ola was solid in the preseason, and is waiting his turn if Mills falters or the injuries flare up again.
Brandon Marshall will no doubt perform to a Pro Bowl level (despite leading the league in dropped passes again last year), Alshon Jeffery should be right there with him, and Martellus Bennett will hopefully live up to his duel threat hype, but the offense needs one more option not named Matt Forte to be truly dynamic. Marquess Wilson was supposed to be that guy, but we won't find out until November. If Santonio Holmes can stay healthy and follow up what he did in the preseason finale, he should be heavily involved in the offense while they have the chance.
Though player performance is the feature, Trestman improving is of the utmost importance. For being such a cerebral guy, he struggled with game and time management on a few occasions last season. The NFC is brutally difficult, and the room for error is miniscule. Decisiveness is paramount, especially with the Bears playing on the road in six of eight games following the opener against Buffalo. The team is healthy, and they have to take advantage of that early.
Questions on defense still remain, but they won't matter as much if the offense takes another leap forward in 2014.