Season preview: 2011 Bears

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Offense: At least we know Jay Cutler can win. He not only fashioned his first winning season since high school; he led the Bears to the NFC title game ... where, predictably, he became embroiled in controversy again. One thing about Cutler: There's never a dull moment. Love him, hate him, you can't ignore him. He seemed to thrive under the direction of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, but it was Mike Tice's offensive line that helped with the rescue. After a meltdown vs. the Giants where Cutler was sacked nine times in one half, the line was reconfigured, with Chris Williams taking over at left guard and left guard Roberto Garza moving to the right side. Result: Cutler went through an eight-game period from Nov. 7 through Dec. 28 where he was sacked 19 times, or little more than twice a game. Not bad. During that time he had 16 TD passes, seven interceptions and seven victories, and draw your own conclusions. Still, Cutler was sacked 52 times last season, which is way too much for anyone who wants to look more like a quarterback than a piñata. I guess that's why the Bears drafted tackle Gabe Carimi. Fortunately for Cutler, the Bears have a rushing threat to keep defenses honest. Introducing Matt Forte, who bounced back with 1,616 yards in offense, a performance that had him talking about a new contract. Unfortunately for Forte, those talks have been put on hold. Unfortunately for him and Cutler, the offensive line I mentioned lost veteran center Olin Kreutz, with Chris Spencer starting in his place. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn't. All I know is that it's an adjustment for Cutler, Forte and everyone who thrived here a year ago.

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Defense: Forte isn't the only one disappointed with contract talks. Linebacker Lance Briggs is, too. In fact, he's so disgusted he asked to be traded. Sorry, Lance, that's not happening. But I'll tell you what could: The cracking of a chemistry that kept this team together a year ago. The Bears hired safety Brandon Meriweather after New England tired of his act, and tell me how many guys go on to success after the Patriots bail on them. Briggs and linebacker Brian Urlacher are descending stars who are still better than most at the position, and the front seven is solid -- especially at end, where Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije each produced eight sacks last season. But it's the secondary that concerns me. Cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are OK, but the real heat will be on the safeties -- where the Bears felt so needy they couldn't wait to add Meriweather. If he plays the pass as he did a year ago in New England he's no upgrade. The Bears' defense historically has been the hallmark of its best teams, with Chicago ranked fourth in fewest points allowed last year. If they're to squeeze Green Bay and/or Detroit, they better be able to squeeze the pocket. Otherwise, they suffer the consequences.

Coaching and schemes: Give Lovie Smith credit. He gambled by hiring Martz as offensive coordinator, and Martz responded by doing something nobody else has -- namely, turn Cutler into a winner. Smith has surrounded himself with superior assistants, and I include Rod Marinelli in that group. The defensive coordinator last year turned the Bears into an aggressive, ballhawking unit -- with Chicago's 35 takeaways third in the league, behind only the Giants (39) and New England (38).

Outlook: Not so good. First of all, Briggs and Forte aren't happy. Second, the team took on veteran free agents (wide receiver Roy Williams and running back Marion Barber) whose careers are pointed down. Then there's the schedule. The first three games (Atlanta, New Orleans, Green Bay) are brutal. Then the Bears go to Detroit in Week 5 for a Monday night telecast. Proceed at your own risk.

Projected finish: 8-8, third in NFC North

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