For all the talk during the Bears' early season struggles about the defense being too old and the constant chatter about our lack of young talent (still debatable, for sure), the Bears enter this week's Monday Night game against Philly with a chance to solidify our playoff chances thanks in part to the continuing development of young players stepping up. Jump to look at some of our cubs that need to grow up fast (and no, I'm not talking about Theo). Flip, Flip, Flipadelphia!
It's been an up-and-down year for the Bears so far, in part due to a brutal schedule, but the Bears have struggled to find a consistent identity on both sides of the ball. The Bears offense, i.e. Matt (insert nickname here) Forte, has gone back and forth between Dr. Mike and Mr. Martz - at times Chicago makes the adjustments necessary to have a solid game, other times the entire fanbase groans in unison at another failed end-around or tight end versus defensive end battle. Defensively, this "too old" group has bounced between swiss cheese-like and the stout monsters we've come to know and love. Outside of Martz's synapses short-circuiting and trying to outsmart everyone, the big thing I'll be watching for the second half of the season is the impact (or lack thereof) that our young players have on the field.
We know Angelo's spotty free agent and draft record has left the Bears' roster thinner in talent than the afternoon shift at the Gold Club. However, the ascension of a number of young Bears players into the starting lineup - or management's refusal/inability to bring in talent to push them to the bench while they learn (hello, Webb-ster) - means this season hinges on the game-to-game performances (not year-to-year development) of several young Chicago Bears.
The secondary is obviously the most noticeable, with rookie Chris Conte and second-year Major Wright manning the safety spots. Conte has looked good so far, but his sample size is small, while Wright needs to stop hurting himself and whiffing on tackles. Our cornerbacks are not terrific, and asking these two to step up is a difficult task, but crucial for our season to end in the playoffs.
The offensive line and wide receivers are next, and I'm combining them mainly because each unit only has one rookie contributing on a regular basis. Dane Sanzenbacher's role may decrease with Earl Bennett back in the mix, but he seems to be a reliable receiver that Cutler trusts in certain spots. He doesn't need to be the downfield threat that Knox (who just turned 25 yesterday!) and Hester are, but between him and Earl the Bears should always have a reliable set of hands/routes on the field. Carimi looks like he'll be brought back from injury slowly, meaning more reliance on 26-year-old Lance Louis and 23-year-old J'Marcus Webb to continue contributing to get Forte to MF2k5 status and keep Cutler out of the emergency room. Louis, in his third year, needs to prove he's capable on the field every week, regardless of his position, and Webb, in his second year, has to show he's worth all the chances he's gotten.
Last (but first in J.A.'s mind) is the defensive line, namely the tackle spots occupied by Okoye, Paea, and Melton. While Lovie already acknowledges he needs/wants more from Melton, Okoye (only 24) also needs to step up if he wants to be Tommie Harrispre-fat contract instead of just another first-round bust. Paea has gone from inactive (which shouldn't be a huge deal yet since oftentimes Lovie gets almost zilch from defensive rookies) to a safety sack against McNabb, and hopefully the rook continues to produce in the timeshare that is our tackle positions.
Birdman, Major, Sanzy, Earl, JKnox, Bear Jew, L-squared, J'Mar, AmO, Melts, Paella, and other young guns (Clutts, Moore, etc) don't need to suddenly prove their the best players on our team, because they aren't. They need to be consistently sound in their performances each week this season, though, to maintain the faith that they can get better for next season. Every blown assignment, dropped pass, or ole block isn't going to signify the end of the world for them as players, but enough of them could put a major damper on the Bears' hopes of returning to the playoffs.