Bears' depth to be tested against New Orleans


Bears' depth to be tested against New Orleans

Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011Posted: 12:24 a.m.

By John Mullin Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
For much of the 2010 season, the Bears were lucky. Once their offensive line got past its early season injuries (five different lines in the first seven games), only a few positions changed hands because of injury.

But after just one week of 2011, the quality of the Bears reserves could well determine whether this team is close is a playoff berth three months from now, when a game or two can be the difference between just 16 games and continuing on into the lightning round.

Starters are starters for a reason. But the Bears lose little if anything with the reserves being plugged into unfortunate openings.

Four positions come sharply into focus heading into New Orleans:

Wide receiver

Roy Williams caught all four of the passes thrown to him in the Atlanta game before straining a groin the fourth quarter. He did not practice Wednesday or Thursday, was limited on Friday and is officially listed as questionable.

Johnny Knox took the starters share of reps all week with the No. 1 offense.

This is the same Johnny Knox whose job was given to Williams. Then again, it is not the same Johnny Knox in the ways that matter. Knoxs mistakes have been cut back. Sometimes tough love is the best kind.

Hes made tremendous improvement each and every day, worked to get better, and thats what you look for in a young guy every time you go out there, said receivers coach Darryl Drake. Hes got to continue to do that. The thing were looking for now is consistency, being where hes supposed to be and doing things right.

Knox led the Bears in receiving yards (960), TDs (five), average yards per catch (18.8 yards) and tied for team high with 51 receptions more production than Williams has had in any season since 2006, the year after his Pro Bowl year.

Veteran Chris Harris was unable to practice all week on an injured hamstring and is listed as doubtful; he wont play.

But the Bears invested a high draft choice (third round) in Chris Conte and followed that in the days before the first game by signing Brandon Meriweather after his release by New England. Meriweather is a prototypical free safety, is expected start at that spot.

Lovie Smith and his staff routinely describe their safety positions as interchangeable. Not necessarily true, literally.

They teach you both safety spots and I think thats what hes talking about, Meriweather said. If you know one, you have to know the other. Since day one, Ive been trying to learn both.

The 2010 third-round pick, Major Wright, will work at strong safety, where his tackling ability is a plus.

The depth behind the depth Conte has had coaches excited since training camp.

Hes everything youre looking for in a safety, said Smith, a defensive back himself at Tulsa. Theres a reason why we drafted him as high as we did. He has excellent hands, has picked up the defense fairly quick, weve played him on special teams and hes made plays on it. Everything you look for in a guy before he breaks out, he has.

Right guard

Chris Spencer stepped in when Lance Louis went down last Sunday with an ankle injury and has worked with the No. 1 unit this week. His better position is perhaps center, but for loose comparisons sake, the Bears averaged 1.7 yards per carry in the first half vs. Atlanta and 4.7 in the second, which was played entirely with Spencer at guard.

If there is a falloff, it is difficult to see. Edwin Williams is the other alternative at right guard and took reps with the 1s this week. He was deemed good enough to leave there last season when Louis was healthy enough after a minor leg injury.
Running back
The most concerning problem created by injury is at No. 2 running back, where Marion Barber practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, then not at all the rest of the week. Kahlil Bell gave the Bears 10 carries last Sunday to spell Matt Forte and averaged 2.4 yards a carry (Chester Taylors average for 2010), and is an upgrade from Taylor, if a falloff from hard-running Barber and obviously from Forte.

John "Moon" Mullin is's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Bears In-Foe: Vikings defense is Purple People Eaters, Part II

Bears In-Foe: Vikings defense is Purple People Eaters, Part II

It's bad enough that Jay Cutler will be rusty and he may not have Kyle Long and Josh Sitton protecting him. But even if all the Bears' offensive hands were on deck, Monday night's challenge would've been formidable anyway.

The Vikings' defense leads the league in fewest yards allowed (279.5 per game), is tied for the league-lead in allowing fewest points (14.0), third in rushing defense (81.7), fourth in pass defense (197.8), and sixth in third-down defense (34.2 percent). And oh yeah, they lead the league in turnover ratio (plus-11), courtesy of their nine interceptions (tied for second), seven fumble recoveries and 19 sacks (seventh-most in the NFL).

It's nice to have quality and depth up front. That's where that push comes from, especially off the edges, with ends Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and sophomore Danielle Hunter supplying four sacks apiece. That trio combined for 21.5 sacks a year ago (when the Bears totaled 35 as a team). And while injury-prone Sharrif Floyd finds himself sidelined again since the opener, tackle Linval Joseph (three sacks) is back playing at the All-Pro level he was at a year ago before an ankle injury slowed him. And Tom Johnson contributed 6.5 sacks a year ago rotating in with Floyd at three-technique.

[RELATED: Bears In-Foe: Purple a fitting color for Vikings' battered, bruised offense]

Reunited UCLA linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are in their second year together in a run the Bears will likely have to deal with for another decade. This is the 11th and final year they'll see Chad Greenway, who's more leader than playmaker now in the middle of that defense.

Ryan Pace, Vic Fangio and position coach Ed Donatell must also be jealous of the Vikings' deep defensive backfield. Top cover man Xavier Rhodes, last year's top pick Trae Waynes and Andrew Sendejo have two picks each. Waynes still hasn't taken a job away from ageless 37-year-old Terence Newman. The Vikes were trying to upgrade on Sendejo, who answered the challenge and should be able to play Monday after departing the Eagles game with an ankle injury he suffered almost taking an interception to the house. It's almost unfair that second-round rookie Mackensie Alexander can't even surpass fourth cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for playing time.

But we must not forget Harrison Smith. The humble Golden Domer, humorously nicknamed "Gangsta White Boy" by Adrian Peterson, became the NFL's richest safety by inking a five-year, $51 million deal this summer, is coming off a first Pro Bowl that probably would've come sooner if not for a couple injuries. Two of his four career pick-sixes have come against the Bears, and Pro Football Focus has him as the only safety to grade positively in coverage, run support, and pass rush over each of the last two seasons.

Special teams

Just as Robbie Gould fell under the microscope of the current Bears brass with last season's rough finish, the strong-legged Blair Walsh probably feels a few more eyes on him after missing the 27-yard game-winning attempt in the frigid playoff loss to Seattle. He's 10-of-13 on field goals this season, 11-of-13 on extra points.

But while the Vikings' kickoff coverage was burned by Josh Huff's return Sunday in Philadelphia, the Bears coverage units have to be disciplined and smart against Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels. Both have burned the Bears more than once before. With more than his seven kick returns, Patterson's 29.9 average would lead the league. Sherels' 14.6-yard return average on punts ranks third in the NFL. He's already returned two for touchdowns this season after burning the Bears at Soldier Field a year to the day short of Monday's contest.

Bears In-Foe: Purple a fitting color for Vikings' battered, bruised offense

Bears In-Foe: Purple a fitting color for Vikings' battered, bruised offense

Mike Zimmer couldn't hold back his frustration after Sunday's 21-10 loss in Philadelphia.

Realistically, big picture-wise, he should feel fortunate. Not that his team isn't any good. We've seen these Vikings coming for awhile. But his offense, minus so many pieces that have been subtracted due to injuries, hadn't turned the ball over once in its 5-0 start.

That's when Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who'd seen Sam Bradford for all of training camp before he was traded a week before the opener, dialed things up. The result? Four turnovers, including Bradford's first interception of the season, coupled with a pair of fumbles. Schwartz doesn't have as many pieces as the Vikings' defense, but he had enough to sack Bradford six times, deliver 19 hits and 14 knockdowns.

Bradford's managed to step in for Teddy Bridgewater more easily than starting tackles Matt Kalil (hip) and Andre Smith (triceps) have been replaced. T.J. Clemmings is capable after starting all of his rookie season a year ago, but the hope that former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long had anything left took a serious hit Sunday. He'd gone unclaimed for quite a while (even reportedly going through a workout with the Bears), and we saw some of the reasons against the Eagles. He was replaced by journeyman Jeremiah Sirles. The middle of that line seems OK, thanks in part to the free agent signing of guard Alex Boone to anchor the interior with Brandon Fusco and center Joe Berger.

[RELATED: Bears In-Foe: Vikings defense is Purple People Eaters, Part II]

The great Adrian Peterson's torn meniscus in week two has him on injured reserve, with little hope he'll make it back. And while Jerrick McKinnon (3.2 yards per carry) and Matt Asiata (3.3) are serviceable, the line hasn't been able to help those replacements rush for an average of even 75 yards per game (31st in the NFL).

And think about this: Yes, the Bears have played one more game than the Vikings, but they have four receivers who've matched or surpassed the dangerous Stefon Diggs' team-leading total of 27 receptions. Three of Bradford's seven touchdown passes have gone to tight end Kyle Rudolph. Former Illinois High School Player of the Year Laquon Treadwell was targeted to be the big target Bridgewater/Bradford needed, but had just two snaps the first three games and has yet to catch his first NFL pass. It's part of the Zimmer Way to bring along draft picks slowly (think Trae Waynes last year, albeit at a much deeper position on this team). Zimmer's indicated the 23rd overall pick's still too mechanical, still thinking too much at this level to earn snaps over Adam Thielen, Charles Johnson and now, even the once-exiled Cordarrelle Patterson, who scored the Vikings' lone touchdown Sunday on a pass from Bradford.

Like the Bears, this banged-up unit has trouble in the red zone (touchdowns on just 47 percent of their trips inside), and their 21.5 points per game average is boosted by four touchdowns combined from its defense and special teams. It'll be interesting to see if Leonard Floyd, Willie Young and perhaps Pernell McPhee can have themselves a good night next Monday against that susceptible line, and who's able to go among the Bears' defensive backs versus a passing offense that's averaged only 225 yards a game.