The embarrassing moments seemed endless for the Bears’ once-respected defense in 2013. Meanwhile, the impressive moments for the offense seemed boundless, regardless of who was at quarterback.
If some balance is restored, the Bears can be a formidable team in 2014.
“You’ve got to move forward,” linebacker Lance Briggs said.
That the Bears do, especially on defense. So it’s you, Mr. Briggs, who tops the Sun-Times’ list of the 10 most important players to the Bears’ success.
1. LB Lance Briggs
The Bears believe a new scheme under coordinator Mel Tucker and several personnel changes will bring dramatic improvement.
“Everything we did was almost all atrocious,” Briggs said of last season.
Making the defense — which was last against the run, last in sacks and second-to-last in scoring — respectable again will require an exceptional season by Briggs.
In the final year of his contract and his first in a new scheme, Briggs has to make the calls for a defense with many new faces.
Staying on the field is priority No. 1 for Briggs. The defense’s demise intensified last season after Briggs was lost with a fractured shoulder.
2. QB Jay Cutler
If Jay Cutler stays healthy, his elite talents finally should turn into elite numbers, surpassing 30 touchdown passes and approaching 5,000 passing yards.
This isn’t crazy Kool-Aid talk, either.
Cutler won over coach Marc Trestman, a renowned quarterback guru, and was rewarded with a seven-year, $126.7 million contract. He has the best receiving tandem in the league, a star running back, a coach and a scheme he believes in and an offensive line that put an end to the self-described “hit parade” he endured.
It’s Pro Bowl or bust (or injury) for Cutler.
3. WR Brandon Marshall
It appears Alshon Jeffery will be nearly unstoppable, making catches in leaps and bounds. But Brandon Marshall still is Cutler’s go-to guy on the field and confidant off it. He’s the elite receiver that Jeffery still has to prove he can be, producing season after season.
At this point last year, Marshall still was feeling out what was expected of him in Trestman’s offense. He turned out to be the top target and the top decoy who allowed Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett to flourish.
In Year 2 with Trestman, Marshall could improve on last season’s numbers (100 catches, 1,295 yards, 12 touchdowns) even if Jeffery continues his rise.
4. DE Jared Allen
Quarterbacks weren’t exactly shaking in their cleats last year against the Bears, who tied the lowly Jaguars with a meager 31 sacks.
A five-time Pro Bowl player, Allen won’t shudder at the mention of replacing Julius Peppers. Allen actually will be an upgrade in sacks. He’s had 56½ to Peppers’ 37½ over the last four seasons, during which the Vikings totaled 166 to the Bears’ 139. His gregarious personality will help, too.
5. DE Lamarr Houston
Houston was the Bears’ marquee free-agent signing before they added Allen. The Bears see a star in the making in Houston, whose strong play got lost in the black hole that is the Raiders these days.
Tucker and line coach Paul Pasqualoni are excited about his potential. Whether it’s at left end or at three-technique tackle, Houston can be used in different ways. He also has a nasty edge that can spur a group that seemed void of emotion at times last season.
6. RB Matt Forte
Quarterbacks weren’t the only ones to benefit from a regime change at Halas Hall. Forte finally was used last season as he should have been for years, putting up star numbers and negating talk about the devaluation of running backs in the game.
Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer unleashed Forte upon the NFL, changing the running scheme and using him in the passing game. Forte fell 67 yards short of 2,000 total yards last year. Can he top it in 2014?
7. CB Charles Tillman
Kyle Fuller might be Tillman’s eventual replacement, but in 2014, Tillman still will be tasked with covering top receivers. Let’s be honest: Fuller isn’t ready for Calvin Johnson.
Tillman was on course for his third consecutive Pro Bowl before injuries derailed him last season. His three interceptions and three forced fumbles in eight games are numbers that other starting corners only can dream of for a full season.
8. WR Alshon Jeffery
Jeffery’s breakout campaign helped keep the Bears’ offense churning when Josh McCown played last season. Jeffery will bear the expectations of repeating, if not besting his success (89 catches, 1,421 yards, seven touchdowns). But everything is pointing up for Jeffery, who continued his offseason work with Marshall.
9. RT Jordan Mills
Any criticism of Mills’ rookie season requires perspective. He went from a late Senior Bowl invite to an unheralded fifth-round pick to a 16-game starter for the second-highest scoring team in the league.
If Mills cuts down on the hurries he allowed and keeps his foot healthy after breaking a bone in it, the Bears’ well-coached offensive line (which allowed the fourth-fewest sacks in the league) will be even better.
10. DT Jeremiah Ratliff
Ratliff last played a full season in 2011, but if he’s anything close to the Pro Bowl tackle he was for the Cowboys, the Bears’ defensive line will gain traction.
The 10-year veteran will tutor the Bears’ rookie tackles, but he also is determined to show that he can be the penetrating, block-eating tackle he was years ago. A productive Ratliff will ease concerns about the linebackers and safeties.