Following is a scouting report of the Chicago Bears (12-5), based on interviews with several coaches and scouts who have studied them recently. The Bears host the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday.
Nothing much has changed from the team the Packers played three weeks ago, though those Bears surely held back a few calls because they had no seeding to play for that day.
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz has committed more to halfback Matt Forte and the run game as the season has gone on – the Bears averaged 22.3 rushes in their first seven games and 30.3 in the last 10 games, playoffs included. Forte isn’t a premier halfback but is a complete player who rates in the second tier. He finished No. 10 in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage (1,616 yards) and averaged a solid 4.5 yards a carry (1,069 yards rushing). At 6-2 and 218 pounds, he has the same tall, linear build and leg power as the Packers’ Ryan Grant but is more elusive and has better hands.
The Bears’ offensive line is much like Atlanta’s last week –average talent but plays better than average, in part because of the quality coaching by new offensive line coach Mike Tice. Right guard Robert Garza (6-2, 310) is the best of a group that has some road-grading size – the only starter less than 315 pounds is center Olin Kreutz. Left tackle Frank Omiyale can be a liability.
Forte takes much of the pressure off quarterback Jay Cutler, who is improving under Martz but still is prone to the occasional head-scratching decision.
Cutler has big-league arm strength and excellent mobility but isn’t as accurate a thrower as the league’s elite quarterbacks. When Cutler is on, he’s on – he’s 22-0 when his passer rating is more than 100 points.
But as the 27-year-old’s career record of 34-34 in games started suggests, he’s often not on. Even last week in an excellent performance against Seattle in his first-ever playoff (111.3 passer rating), he threw a gimme interception that Seattle’s Jordan Babineaux dropped at the goal line with the Bears leading only 7-0, a play that could have turned the game if returned for a touchdown. Cutler’s 86.3 passer rating (23 touchdowns, 16 interceptions) this season ranked No. 16 in the NFL.
He doesn’t have a great receiver, but he has two fast ones in Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, both of whom ran the 40 in under 4.35 seconds coming out of college. Their deep speed makes it risky for defenses to move up their safeties to play the run. Knox (6-0, 185) has a slight build and caught only 51 passes, but his 18.8-yard average reflects his big-play speed. Hester (40 catches, 11.9-yard average) is more refined as a receiver than earlier in his career, but his production suffers because the Bears sit him regularly so he’s rested for special teams.
Tight end Greg Olsen (41 catches in the regular season) had a huge 58-yard touchdown catch on the Bears’ first possession against Seattle last week but remains an auxiliary part in Martz’s wide receiver-oriented offense.
Chicago doesn’t have the best front seven in the NFL, but it’s among the top five to eight in the league and the main reason the Bears finished No. 2 in the regular season in fewest rushing yards allowed.
The signing of defensive end Julius Peppers in free agency last spring has made everyone on the Bears’ defense better. He makes plays against both the run and pass.
Weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, who's 30, is a little better than middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (32), but both are among the best at their positions.
Short nose tackle Anthony Adams (6-0, 310) is an underrated plugger, and backup tackles Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina are good rotational players that allow the Bears’ line to stay fresh.
The Packers gained only 123 yards rushing (3.2-yard average per carry) in two games against the Bears.
The Bears aren’t especially talented in the secondary but tackle well and are extremely well schooled in coach Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2 scheme. Former Lions coach Rod Marinelli, who worked with Smith under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay, calls plays.
The Bears ranked only No. 20 in the NFL in passing yards allowed, but they don’t give up big gains and force teams on long, ball-control drives, as their No. 8 finish in average yards allowed per catch attests.
Peppers has made all the difference in the world and had a much bigger impact than his eight sacks would suggest. He’ll line up at either end, though he generally plays more on the right side, and has one of the most imposing combinations of size (6-7, 283), power and speed in the league. Israel Idonije (6-6, 270), the other end, isn’t quick but has extremely long arms and good power as a rusher (eight sacks). Tommie Harris, 27, was in the dog house much of the season but has started the last five games and is showing some of the quickness that made him a top defensive tackle a few years ago, before knee injuries diminished him. He had two sacks last week.
Charles Tillman (five interceptions) is their best cover man, but he’s best is playing zone, reading routes and stripping the ball from receivers. The other cornerbacks, starter Tim Jennings (5-8, 185) and nickel man D.J. Moore (5-9, 183), are short and small. Jennings has great timed speed (4.32 seconds in the 40 coming out of college) but doesn’t play quite that fast. Moore (four interceptions) is shockingly slow for a small corner but has good quickness, toughness and smarts. Safety Chris Harris (6-0, 207) hurt his hip last week but is expected to play. He’s slow but has exceptional instincts (five interceptions), whereas the other safety, Danieal Manning (5-11, 202), is fast and athletic but with suspect instincts.
Hester (5-11, 190) tilts the field in the return game probably like no other player in league history. He led the league in average per punt return (17.1 yards) and would have led on kickoff returns (35.6-yard average) if he’d had enough attempts to qualify.
Manning handled the bulk of the kick returning during the regular season (33 returns, 24.7-yard average), but with a Super Bowl bid on the line, look for Hester do it this week.
Unflappable Robbie Gould has made 85.5 percent of his field goal attempts in his five-year career, including 25 of 30 (83.3 percent this season).
Punter Brad Maynard, 36, doesn’t have much oomph – his 40.1-yard gross average ranked No. 32 in the league – but he’s one of the best in placement.