To get ready for Monday's game, I exchanged five questions with Windy City Gridiron, SB Nation's Chicago Bears blog. My answers to their questions can be found over at WCG this weekend, and their answers to my questions are below.
1. A lot of analysts picked the Bears to have a strong season based on their offseason moves. With Chicago now sitting at 4-1 and looking quite dominant at times, would you say that the Bears have met the expectations of fans so far this season, or are you surprised at all by how they've performed?
I think the Bears have met most of the expectations, just not quite in the way that we were expecting them to, if that makes sense. Coming into the season, the addition of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the eventual re-signing of Matt Forte, led Bears fans to think this was the year that our offense could keep up with the Packers and Lions potential points explosions.
While the offense has been slow, the surprising thing has been how dominant the defense is. We've grown used to seeing the defense be pretty decent, but the reinvigorated pass rush, and the career season that Tim Jennings, among others, is having, is a true shock. If the defense can keep up this level of play, the offense will have plenty of time to settle in and find their rhythm.
2. What do you make of all of the criticism Jay Cutler has received for how he acts on the field and sideline? Do you think it's overblown?
I realize that there's a little bit of protecting "my guy" in there, but yes, I do think it's overblown. Many times, it's as simple to write it off as "if you were getting dropped all the time, you'd be mad too." Which is true, to a large degree. If I'd been sacked as many times as he had been in the past couple years, I'd be pretty mad if the guys who were hired to keep that from happening continued to suck.
The thing that I think bothers most Bears fans is the perception of a sort of double-standard. When you see a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning yelling at players on the sideline, it's written off as "he's a fiery competitor and trying to get his team to keep their heads in the game." When Cutler does it, it's because he's a big stupid cry-baby quitter meanie-head. And yes, a big part of that comes with winning, particularly in the postseason. Jay Cutler has been the winning quarterback for a fair number of games in Chicago, but unfortunately not in the ways to buy himself the kind of street cred those guys have.
Also, he really does bring a lot of it on himself. He seems to play football because he really likes playing football, but I'm not sure he doesn't hate everything else related to being a starting quarterback. He's flippant in press conferences, short with questions he doesn't like to talk about and doesn't carry a particularly sunny disposition. I can see why other people don't like him, but as Lovie Smith would say, "Jay is our quarterback."
3. What has been the biggest difference from 2011 to 2012 for the Bears? Is it the coaching changes that were made, simply improving the roster or something else?
A lot of different things. Obviously, having Jay Cutler under center makes a world of difference. The Bears were on a hot streak when he went down with a thumb injury to San Diego last year, and we watched in horror as playoff aspirations turned into a "lose out to draft higher?" conversation.
Additionally, terminating GM Jerry Angelo's contract and bringing in Phil Emery has really helped the player choice ideology. The first thing he did was identify what areas he could reasonably upgrade in one season, and he went from there. That, of course, turned into the acquisitions of Marshall and Jeffery. Giving the team a dynamic they simply never had, he was able to make sections of the field accessible that the Bears couldn't really have used before.
Mike Tice, in addition, is starting to settle into the OC role a bit more and is keeping the attack balanced. When going pass, he's trying to take advantage of the play action more and move Cutler a bit. Tailoring the play calls to the quarterback, instead of forcing the quarterback into a mold, is keeping the Bears on pace to really use their natural talents.
Finally, again, that defense. Just wow.
4. The Bears are tied for first in the NFL in total takeaways, thanks mainly to their 13 interceptions this season. What have the Bears done to be so successful in creating turnovers?
The Bears aren't doing anything particularly special, they're just executing really well. The defensive line looks rejuvenated, and their pressure is driving a lot of what's happening behind them. I shouldn't say nothing special -- Rod Marinelli has been using some more unique looks with his lines, sometimes bringing Julius Peppers inside, sometimes allowing Shea McClellin to roam at the line. With the pressure they're getting from the front four, the back seven have really been able to roam and keep their eyes on the QB.
One thing to note, I recently did a piece looking at the sacks that Matthew Stafford has taken so far this year. A lot of the things that got to him on the sacks are the things the Bears have been doing really well this year. I'm hoping that's a good sign for what I'm going to see, but this year in the NFL has me thinking that I should give up trying to do pick'ems forever.
5. The Bears have given up 14 sacks so far this season, which puts them 23rd in the NFL in sacks allowed. How big of a concern is the offensive line for Bears fans, especially when it comes to pass protection?
There are 12 or 13 teams with 12-15 sacks. The unfortunate thing for the Bears is that they've played one less game than several of those teams.
To be honest, if you had told me before the season started that the Bears wouldn't be in the bottom five, I would've laughed. The offensive line is still a concern, as they have yet to put together what I would call a truly stellar game. Gabe Carimi, after being injured early last season, is basically playing his rookie year now, and it shows with the penalties that he's taking. Lance Louis is doing a pretty decent job at right guard. Roberto Garza is still a guard playing center, but it's not the worst job I've ever seen. Chilo Rachal was brought in because Chris Spencer wasn't getting the job done at LG, and his presence has seemed to stabilize J'Marcus Webb a bit. We haven't been calling Webb's name in games as much as we thought we would, and that's a good thing.
At the end of the day, they're behind the pace they were in the past two years. (Down 33 percent from 2010!) The offense seems to be continuing to gel, and if they keep it up, I can deal with a 2-2.5 sacks per game average. (It's better than the 3.5 or so they were giving up just two years ago.)