Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011Posted: 12:24 a.m.
By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com 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:
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.
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.
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 CSNChicago.com'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.