The 2009 NFL schedule was released April 14, 12 days after the Bears completed their trade with the Denver Broncos to acquire quarterback Jay Cutler, a move that sparked tremendous expectations for the team.
The season opener at Green Bay followed by the home opener this afternoon with the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers looked like a formidable start for all those not sipping the Kool Aid. Now, after a rough loss at Lambeau Field that has the Bears making four changes in the starting lineup on defense, two necessitated by injuries, the Bears know how important it is to avoid an 0-2 start. A loss to the Steelers could put the Bears two behind the Packers and fellow NFC North foe Minnesota. Green Bay hosts Cincinnati (0-1) and the Vikings, which also won their opener, are at Detroit (0-1) where the Lions will try to avoid their 19th straight defeat.
The statistics are daunting as well. Three of the 10 teams that started 0-2 last season--Miami, Minnesota and San Diego--reached the playoffs. But that kind of success is rare. Since 2000, nine of the 78 teams that started 0-2 reached the postseason (11.5 percent). Since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, 30 teams that have started 0-2 made the playoffs, including three Super Bowl winners (1993 Dallas, 2001 New England and 2007 New York Giants). That's one a year. Finally, the Bears, the cornerstone franchise of the league, have never made the playoffs after an 0-2 start. Add in the fact that next week's game is at Seattle where the Bears are 1-4 all-time with their last win coming in 1976, the first year of existence for the expansion Seahawks, and this game takes on an added significance if you believe in looking ahead.
Enough with the numbers. Let's get to it. What are keys for the Bears to be successful?
1. The Steelers have been getting some heat for some time. Why don't they run the football more? What happened to the fullback? The fact is, Bruce Arians runs a passing offense that suits his personnel. But after failing to generate any kind of ground game in the opener, the Steelers are going to try to establish success early vs. the Bears. They flat ran over them the last time the teams played in 2005. That was a different offensive line with a different back running behind it in Jerome Bettis. This line outweighs the Bears' front by an average of 47 pounds. The Bears have to stop the run because if Pittsburgh is two-dimensional, Ben Roethlisberger will be very difficult to stop.
2. Be like Hunter. It will be interesting to see if there are subtle differences in the scheme with Hunter Hillenmeyer replacing Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker. He knows he can't try to be like Brian. He's not that player. I detailed here for the National Football Post how the change could affect the Bears when it comes to the blitz. The good news for the Bears is Hillenmeyer is probably a better middle linebacker than he is a strong-side linebacker, the position he started at for most of four seasons. The blitz will be key because the Steelers use a spread attack that forces the linemen to play in space. There will be opportunities to pressure Roethlisberger.
3. Safety dance. Lovie Smith was itching to get Danieal Manning in at free safety before training camp started. A pulled hamstring delayed that move. Now, Manning is in position. It's the 18th change in starting free safeties since Smith came on board in 2004. There have been 15 changes at strong safety. Hey, the Bears finally found a position to switch more often than starting quarterback. There is a chart of all the turnover during Smith's era here. Manning needs to curtail some of the glaring assignment errors that have marked his time at the position in the past. The wide open touchdown by Andre Johnson in the season finale last year at Houston comes to mind. The issue here is the team didn't use him at safety once during the offseason. He missed significant time in training camp with a pulled hamstring and he'll be going off classroom instruction more than anything else.
4. Give the man a nickname. Nathan Vasher became known as the Interceptor early in his career as he picked off 13 passes in his first 30 games. If Zack Bowman can make plays like he has in practice, he'll need his own name. He gets his first career start and surely will be tested early by Roethlisberger. What will Smith call Bowman? The Playmaker? Surely, there's a better or more original name than that.
5. Pacing himself. Left tackle Orlando Pace faces a challenge from Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, the reigning defensive player of the year. Pace is a massive man but he needs to get his hands on Harrison, who has a potent combination of speed and power moves. The Bears can't fixate on helping just one side though as LaMarr Woodley is nearly as dangerous on the right side. Cutler will need to turn to running back Matt Forte as a check-down target, something he was reluctant to do last week.
6. Balance. I detailed it in my preview in the print/online edition this morning that the Bears have to turn to Forte and the running game early. Cutler was terrible in the first half vs. the Packers and the play calling by offensive coordinator Ron Turner didn't do much to calm him down. When Turner ran the ball in the second half, the Bears put together some drives even if Forte was limited in his success. The same thing will likely hold true here. The Steelers are as good of a run defense as the Bears will encounter this season. They're not likely to have a big day with Forte, but Turner needs to stick with it.
7. Lend a friend a hand. Tight end Greg Olsen has been expected to break out this season and now he will carry an added burden with fellow tight end Desmond Clark sidelined with a fractured rib. Olsen had a drop against the Packers and he needs to deliver against the Steelers, who will not have strong safety Troy Polamalu to shadow him. It's evident in practice that Olsen is Cutler's preferred target. He needs to deliver, especially on third down.
8. Takeaway. Smith preaches turnovers like every other coach at every level of football, but the Bears are difficult to beat when they come out on top in the takeaway department. Consider with Cutler's four interceptions last week, they still had an opportunity to win the game. Under Smith, the Bears are 25-6 in games in which they have a positive turnover ratio. That, as much as anything else, could be the key to not starting 0-2.
I'm headed to Soldier Field in a couple hours. I'll have updates from there, mostly on Twitter where you can follow me at BradBiggs.