Fourth-Quarter Report Card: Chicago Bears falter, miss playoffs
Sitting at 8-4 after twelve games, the Chicago Bears controlled their own playoff destiny and knew they needed to win three of their final four games to guarantee a playoff berth.
Things did not work out according to plan, however, as the Bears began the season’s final quarter by continuing their season-long tradition of losing to good teams. After dropping back-to-back games to the playoff-bound Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, Chicago rebounded to beat up on the cellar-dwelling Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions. That 2-2 mark in the season’s final quarter gave Chicago a final record of 10-6, which left them on the outside looking in at the playoffs when all was said and done.
Let’s take a look at each position group for Chicago and see how they performed in the fourth quarter and throughout the season.
Quarterback: D (4th quarter), C (season)
Quarterback Jay Cutler did not have a very good final four games. He threw four touchdowns, three interceptions, and only had one game with a passer rating better than eighty. Part of the blame can be placed on a poor offensive line, which allowed him to be sacked nine times, and drops (his receivers dropped three or four touchdowns), but Cutler also repeatedly missed open receivers and tried to force the ball down the field instead of taking the short pass.
In a season that began with high hopes for Cutler after the acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall, he failed to live up to the billing. He completed 58.8% of his passes, averaged 6.9 yards per attempt, and threw 19 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. His passer rating of 80.2 is well down from 2011, when he was at 85.7, and his yards per attempt and touchdown/interception ratio both dropped as well. Although excuses remain abundant (poor receivers, poor offensive line, poor play calling), this is a production-based business, and 2012 can be seen as nothing other than a setback for even the staunchest of Cutler apologists.
Running Back: B+ (4th quarter), B (season)
Lead running back Matt Forte had a very solid final quarter of the season, coming through for his team when they needed him the most, especially in the last two games. He did, however, continue to struggle in goal-line situations, which was especially damaging in the loss to Green Bay, when regular goal-line back Michael Bush was out with a rib injury.
The season as a whole has to be considered somewhat of a letdown for Chicago’s running back tandem, which struggled with injuries and were not always given as many touches as they should have been. Even so, the duo combined for over 1,500 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.
Receivers and tight ends: D- (4th quarter), D (season)
One of the biggest holes in Chicago’s offense this year was at the wide receiver and tight end positions. Other than Brandon Marshall, none of Cutler’s targets were able to contribute on a consistent basis. Marshall was very good in the last four games, but no other receiver had a game with more than sixty yards until the final game against Detroit. Drops continued to be an issue as well, especially in the loss to Minnesota, in which two easy touchdowns bounced off the hands of the receivers.
On the season, at least eight touchdowns (by my count) were dropped, and no receiver outside of Brandon Marshall registered more than 30 catches, 400 yards, or three touchdowns. Marshall had an outstanding season (118 catches, 1,508 yards, 11 touchdowns) in his first year in Chicago, but the Bears will certainly take a long look at improving this position group in the offseason.
Offensive Line: D (3rd quarter), D (season)
The other glaring hole in Chicago’s offense came in the form of their (alleged) blockers up front. Chicago’s offensive line did an abysmal job in pass protection this year, giving up 44 sacks. Nine of them came in the final quarter of the season, but that number would have been significantly higher without Jay Cutler’s ability to scramble and avoid pressure. The line was absolutely dominated in the games against Green Bay and Detroit, and only really had one good game (against Arizona) in their last four outings. Fixing Chicago’s offensive line will be priority No. 1 for general manager Phil Emery andthe front office this offseason.
Defensive Line: B+ (4th quarter), B+ (season)
Chicago’s defensive line came up huge for the Bears down the stretch this season, notching nine sacks and forcing several fumbles in the last four games. Defensive end Julius Peppers was particularly solid, recording 4.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss, and batting down three passes. The defensive line also was involved in holding the opposition to less than four yards per carry in three of the final four outings.
On the season, the defensive line was responsible for 38 of Chicago’s 41 sacks, and their ability to consistently get to the quarterback with only four rushers was a big part of the league’s best pass defense as measured by opponent passer rating against.
Linebackers: C+ (4th quarter), C+ (season)
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who has been the heart and soul of Chicago’s defense for over a decade, missed the final four games with a hamstring injury. Outside linebacker Nick Roach slid over into his spot, and Geno Hayes started at outside linebacker. After a rough start in Urlacher’s first game out against Minnesota (they gave up over 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns to running back Adrian Peterson in the first quarter), Chicago’s linebackers adjusted nicely and played solid if unspectacular football for the last games.
Looking toward next year, Urlacher’s contract has expired, and it is unknown whether he will be back in a Bears uniform in 2013. Briggs and Roach are sure to remain, while a young player will undoubtedly be brought in during the offseason either to replace Urlacher or be groomed as his eventual successor.
Secondary: B (4th quarter), B+ (season)
Chicago’s secondary had one bad game in their last four, giving up three touchdowns to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. They were solid if unspectacular against Detroit, giving up three touchdowns while also grabbing an interception and limiting Matthew Stafford to a 57% completion rate and 6.5 yards per attempt. Against Minnesota and Arizona they were excellent, holding both opponents to a passer rating of less than 60.
All in all, it was a banner year for Chicago’s secondary. Starting cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman will both be starting in the Pro Bowl. Jennings led the NFL with nine interceptions, while Tillman led the league with 10 forced fumbles. Safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright provided adequate play at the back of Chicago’s defense. Chicago could look to improve their depth at cornerback this offseason, however, as both D.J. Moore and Kelvin Hayden struggled.
Special Teams: B- (4th quarter), B- (season)
After losing kicker Robbie “good as” Gould to a calf injury, Chicago signed Olindo Mare off the street. He was solid in his three games, missing only one field goal. Chicago’s coverage units continued to be excellent, giving up only 20.4 yards per kickoff return and 3.5 yards per punt return on the season.
Return man Devin Hester was up and down this season and in the final four games. He was very good against Minnesota but struggled mightily against Arizona and Detroit. He seemed to be pressing too hard to make a big play at times, resulting in poor returns after running backwards and fumbles after failing to call a fair catch or wave off the blocker. After struggling a bit this year as a returner and failing to perform as a wide receiver, Hester could find himself a cap casualty this offseason.
Coaching: C- (4th quarter), C- (season)
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli did good work this season, as evidenced by the outstanding production from the defense, which finished in the top five in the NFL in sacks, turnovers, yards allowed, and points allowed. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub did a good job as usual, especially with the coverage units.
Offensive coordinator Mike Tice had a tough first year on the job. He just never seemed to understand how to call an effective offense, a fact that we here at WCSN pointed out early and often. Chicago’s offensive personnel certainly were not perfect, but they had better pieces in place than their production would suggest. Tice struggled with getting play calls in on time, and struggled with calling plays that fit the situation. He routinely started games with deep play-action passes, before the run had been established. He routinely went to spread sets in short-yardage situations, leaving no blocking help for the abysmal offensive line. He routinely sent all of his receivers deep when only 2-3 yards were needed to pick up the first down.
Head coach Lovie Smith, the man responsible for promoting Tice to offensive coordinator last offseason, did an admirable job keeping the team together after a midseason swoon. After losing five of six games, Lovie rallied his troops, getting them to win two road games in the last two weeks in order to have a chance at the playoffs. Unfortunately, those two wins were not enough, and consequently Lovie’s team has now missed the playoffs five of the last six seasons. As a result, Chicago general manager Phil Emery sent Lovie packing this offseason, and much of the coaching staff will likely go with him. Personally, I hope they keep Marinelli and Toub, but a new coach may want to clean house completely.
Overall: D (4th quarter), C (season)
10-6 is not a bad record for an NFL team, but it was not good enough for Chicago to get in to the playoffs this year, and is unacceptable for a team that started 7-1 and looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders halfway through the season. A lack of offensive consistency ultimately ended up being the undoing for the Bears and their (former) head coach.
General manager Phil Emery was told when he was hired last offseason that he had to leave Lovie and the coaching staff intact for one season. Now that one season is over and Chicago underachieved, look for a busy offseason of change in which Emery puts his stamp on the franchise.
In Emery you trust, Bears fans. It’s time to see just how good your new general manager is.
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