With less than two weeks remaining until their 2012 campaign kicks off on Chicago's lakefront, optimism abounds for the Chicago Bears and their fans.
However, while the offseason was filled with key acquisitions and increasing optimism for this season, recent injuries and lackluster play by some players in the preseason has left some cause for concern.
It's no secret that the Bears offensive line has been under scrutiny dating all the way back to the 2010 season.
And for good reason.
After all, during the last two seasons no team has allowed more sacks than the 105 the Bears have surrendered.
Add to that the countless number of hurries and pressures and it's almost unbelievable that quarterback Jay Cutler is not only still among the living, but has put up pretty respectable numbers.
The Bears front office has been taking a beating from just about everyone for not doing more this offseason to address their issues on the offensive line, instead opting to focus more on improving their depth at wide receiver and their aging defense—which may be more of a concern than fans want to acknowledge.
While there's no doubt that the Bears still have concerns on the offensive line, I think it's fair to say that the defense has it's share of question marks—and arguably more than the offense does.
The real issue on the offensive line—albeit a big one—is finding someone who can protect Cutler's blind side at left tackle. Right now it's a battle between J'Marcus Webb and former first-rounder Chris Williams and the Bears are obviously hoping that one of these guys figures things out quickly.
However, the rest of the line isn't in terrible shape. Roberto Garza is back at center and is about as steady as they come, not to mention being a solid leader on the field.
At guard, it looks like it will be Chris Spencer on the left and Lance Louis on the right. Spencer has done a decent job in preseason, but if he fails, it's possible that Chris Williams could slide in to that position—assuming he's not the left tackle—as he did a pretty good job there in 2011 before getting injured. Lance Louis is back at his natural guard position after spending time at right tackle last season to help fill in for the injured Gabe Carimi and he should thrive in that spot.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, it appears that 2011 first-round pick Carimi is healthy and ready to once again take over his spot at right tackle. If the line can stay healthy, they may not be as bad as people think. They will also more than likely have Edwin Williams, Chilo Rachal and either Chris Williams or J'Marcus Webb off the bench.
The truth is that while this offensive line may not exactly instill confidence in Bears fans, the usually stingy defense that they have grown accustomed to in the past may actually be more of a problem.
At this point, we have all heard way more than we ever needed to about Brian Urlacher and his knee. He got injured at the end of last season and the knee is obviously not fully recovered at this point, which is really the only thing that needs to be discussed.
What happened between then and now is really irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what happens from this point forward. Hopefully he is able to be on the field for most of this season because there is no doubt that the defense is better with him out there.
The problem is, the Bears have a whole set of other issues on defense.
The defensive line, arguably, has as many question marks as the offensive line. The one constant they have is Julius Peppers and it appears that he will be battling plantar fasciitis all season, although he claims that it won't affect his play—let's hope not.
At the other end, Israel Idonije returns and while he has always been solid against the run, he hasn't done much for the pass rush, which is what the Bears really need.
However, the Bears addressed that issue by drafting Shea McClellin in the first round.
Or did they?
While we all know that preseason play doesn't necessarily mean all that much, it does appear that McClellin will need some time to develop into the pass rusher they think he can be. It's possible that they could get something from Corey Wootton if he is finally healthy, but that remains to be seen.
Inside at the tackle position the Bears appeared to be in good shape with the return of the surprising Henry Melton and second-year man Stephen Paea, but Paea sustained an ankle injury and has missed a few weeks of camp. They do have Matt Toeaina who will probably now start ahead of Paea for the time being, but outside of that they're not quite sure what they have in Bryan Price and Nate Collins.
The Urlacher situation has certainly muddled things up at the linebacker position. It appears that if he's not ready to go on September 9th, then Nick Roach will slide over from his strong side position to the middle and more than likely the newly-acquired Geno Hayes will step into the vacant strong side spot.
On the weak side, Lance Briggs returns once again and there are certainly no worries there.
The Bears claim that Roach can handle the job if Urlacher isn't ready to go, which he probably can, but he's certainly no Urlacher.
In addition, the Bears don't really have much depth and experience at the linebacker position so any more injuries could pose a big problem.
Then there's the defensive backfield.
Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings return at the corners, which is a pretty solid tandem. Although Tillman has looked at times like he's lost a step this preseason.
The Bears did add former Illini standout Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite during the offseason to help with depth and of course they will return nickel specialist D.J. Moore.
However, the safety position is yet again a cause for concern.
It appeared as if Major Wright and Chris Conte were going to form a nice duo coming into this season, but Conte suffered a shoulder injury in the second preseason game and they're unsure if he'll be ready to start the season.
Add to that the season-ending neck injury of third-round pick Brandon Hardin and the Bears again find themselves in a rather precarious position at safety.
They do return Craig Steltz who can play both safety positions and was decent last year when called upon, but after that, it's a question mark. Second-year man Anthony Walters looks like he has a good shot to stick with the team and may be a nice surprise, but again it's no certainty.
So while the offensive line certainly has room for improvement, it appears at least heading into the season, that the defense may have more questions to answer.
As a Bears fan, all you can hope for is that guys get healthy and everything falls into place as the season rolls on.
The bar has been set and expectations are high for this team.
It all begins September 9th and it should be fun to watch. Let's hope so anyway.
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