’08 Preview: Bears feeling bullish?

For a team that’s adamant about not being in a rebuilding phase, Chicago sure is going about business as if it’s in the midst of an extreme makeover.

The Bears are plotting a move out of the NFC North cellar with a retooled roster, particularly on offense, where things have been downright lousy. There will be new faces in a huddle led by a quarterback to be determined in camp – Rex Grossman or Kyle Orton – and the hope is the previously dominant defense will rebound.

A sturdy defense paired with all-world return man Devin Hester will produce a playoff contender if the ground game is efficient enough to sustain a play-action passing game. Hester is the only given in that equation right now.

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

“We’re definitely not rebuilding,” coach Lovie Smith said. “As far as a Super Bowl window, it seems like a long time ago that we played in the Super Bowl. But we like the core of our team still. I feel like we’re close. It’s a fine line between winning and losing.”

Offense

Four starters are gone, including the top playmaker at wide receiver, Bernard Berrian. That’s considerable turnover before you get to production issues at quarterback and running back, where former No. 4 overall pick Cedric Benson has been a bust.

Chicago is set at tight end and center. Everything else is up for grabs in training camp, and the pressure is on coordinator Ron Turner.

Defense

The Bears went from being a top-five defense to a bottom-five unit last season as problems arose through the middle. Depth issues persisted at tackle, and another serious injury to free safety Mike Brown hampered coordinator Bob Babich’s bunch.

With an arthritic back, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher has health concerns of his own. He’s coming off neck surgery but remained on top of his game at the end of last season and is central to an outfit that wants to return to prominence.

The book on: Lance Briggs

A rival sizes up the Bears’ weakside linebacker:

“I like his quickness when he has determined (whether it’s a) run or pass. His reads are on point, and there’s no guessing. When it’s pass, he gets back into his zone drop; he gets on his man when it’s run.

“He’s quick enough to make the plays in front and behind, to get off of blocks, and he’s physical when he gets there. He has a very good sense of his presence relating to routes underneath. He still runs hard to the ball.

“His body looks a little sloppier – not a lot – but he still performs at a very high level. He can be a little stiff in his hips. The one problem he has is he struggles when getting cut. He never uses his hands when people come to cut him, and he lands flat on his face. That, to me, is the only thing he has trouble with.

“He’s been durable as all hell and, as long as he stays healthy, he’s going to be a top player.”

Bottom line

For the first time in the Lovie Smith era, the Bears do not have roster continuity. Chicago has not been able to develop much in the way of offensive players and will now need to do so in a hurry, putting pressure on the winner of the Grossman-Orton QB duel.

The team found out what the funk is like for Super Bowl losers and is desperately seeking to get back in contention. Bad karma and gaping lineup holes, however, will make a third division title in four years a reach.

SN prediction: 10-6, second in NFC North.

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Sun-Times and Sporting News.


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008