On the NFL
4:44 PM CDT, October 13, 2012
The Bears have been pretty good, probably better than most expected.
But remaining as good as they have been won't be good enough.
As the season moves on and the stakes get higher, the challenges will be steeper, and obstacles are sure to be placed in their path.
So they need to rise above what they have been through five games.
Here are some ways the Bears can get better.
• Get Devin Hester more punt return chances.
If there is a downside to having a league-leading 17 takeaways, it is that Devin Hester has been denied some punt return opportunities. He has only 11 punt returns, and only one of those has gone for 20 yards or more.
Opponents have dropped 10 punts inside the Bears' 20 — only four teams have seen more. If the Bears defense can force more punts before the opponent gets to midfield, Hester should have more viable return chances.
Hester has had a couple of prime return opportunities, in which Bears blockers all were on their men. But Hester has not broken one for a variety of reasons.
His average punt return of 7.8 yards is way below his average of 16.2 last season and his career average of 12.6.
But the longer the Bears look mediocre in the return game, the better the chances opponents will treat Hester like they treat other returners.
That will mean more opportunities.
"If there is an area we need to improve on, it's our return game," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
• Stay the course on the offensive line.
In each of the last two seasons, the line started to come together in the fifth game. This year, the line is already ahead of where it was early in 2010 and 2011. But it has the same kind of potential to take another step.
J'Marcus Webb has settled down after a rough start. Chilo Rachal has been an improvement at left guard, and he and Webb have worked together well. Gabe Carimi clearly is moving better than he was earlier in the year, though he had some technique lapses against the Jaguars.
Now the Bears just need to let the offensive linemen continue to jell, and more improvement should be forthcoming.
• Add an extra offensive dimension with the return of Evan Rodriguez.
The fullback/H-back/tight end was helping the running game with his blocking before injuring his knee in the third game of the season. He is expected to return next Monday against the Lions.
Rodriguez has not been a factor in the passing game. But it was his ability as a receiver that led the Bears to draft him in the fourth round in April.
If he starts catching passes, Rodriguez can make the offense less predictable.
• Don't forget about everyone not wearing No. 15 in the passing game.
I would not suggest that Brandon Marshall has been thrown to too frequently, because throwing to him has almost always been a good thing.
But other Bears — Hester, Earl Bennett and Matt Forte especially — are going to have to do more than they have as receivers at various points of the season.
Forte is on track to catch 20 fewer passes than a year ago and is capable of much more as a receiver than he has been showing because of the mismatches he can create.
"When you bring in Brandon Marshall, everybody's numbers are going to go down a bit," Smith said. "Going into the year, we were saying our offense can't just be what Matt does. We wanted to get more weapons, multiple guys contributing. That's what we're getting. So Matt's numbers going down, that's a good thing."
• Keep Brian Urlacher in the pool on Thursdays.
The middle linebacker needs to keep making progress in his return from a knee injury.
Limiting the 34-year-old's workload during the week definitely is smart.
• Get more out of Shea McClellin.
The first-round pick has some sacks in him that are dying to get out. He keeps showing progress in practice and in games. Sooner or later that should lead to production, possibly when the Bears need it most.
• Diversify defensive coverages.
Up until last week, the Bears relied heavily on Cover-2. They broke out a little bit against the Jaguars in an attempt to get eight men in the box.
For their defense to be all it can be, it will have to be able to play more than Cover-2. It will have to be able to keep offenses off balance by blitzing, mixing in man-to-man, single high, quarters and man free.
Whether the Bears can be more diverse will depend on how cornerbacks Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and D.J. Moore and safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte hold up when given assignments that may be a bit out of their comfort zone.
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