Anderson had 12 sacks in part-time duty; imagine the terror he'll sow as a starter.
at San Diego
at Green Bay
at Washington (T)
at Minnesota (M)
The King 500
75Charles Tillman, Cornerback
After signing long-term extensions in the off-season, Tillman and bookend corner Nathan Vasher could become the NFL's best tandem at the position for years to come. This will be their third year together as projected full-season starters, and no NFC corner combo has as many interceptions (a combined 21) in the last two years as the physical, 6' 1" Tillman and his quick and clinging partner.
The reigning NFC champs think they've made the tweaks they needed to take that last step -- but it really all falls to Rex
There aren't many teams -- San Diego, maybe -- with a more talented roster, one
through 53. This already was the NFC's highest-scoring offense (26.7 points
per game) and stingiest defense (15.9), and three personnel decisions might make
the difference between a Super Bowl loser in 2006 and a winner this year. First,
Mark Anderson moves from nickel pass rusher, where he played just 47% of the
defensive snaps last year and still had 12 sacks, to starting defensive end.
Could he be a 16-sack guy with his playing time increasing to 65% or 70%?
Second, tight end Greg Olsen, the team's first-round pick, is the big, athletic
presence in the middle of the field that could be the key to Rex Grossman's
quarterback development. Third, Devin Hester, a return specialist and dimeback
last year, moves into the fourth receiver slot, assuming he can master offensive
coordinator Ron Turner's schemes. He'll still be the Bears' return man, but with
the added touches on offense he could hit double digits in touchdowns.
The Bears allowed 50 fewer points than any other team in the conference last
year, and if anything, the defense could be better. The free-agent signing of
strong safety Adam Archuleta from the Redskins allows the rangy Mike Brown to move
to free safety, where he's a better fit, and linebacker Lance Briggs returns for
at least one more year after threatening to sit out the season in a contract
dispute. At right defensive tackle, the Bears replaced troubled Tank Johnson
with Darwin Walker, who's not as good a run-stopper but doesn't have character
issues. Alongside Walker is the superb Tommie Harris, who's back from the torn
left hamstring that sidelined him for last year's final four games and the
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
The defense certainly is good enough to win a Super Bowl. But from
December on, defense wasn't the Bears' concern; Grossman was. General manager
Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith did plenty to help their quarterback in the
off-season. Most significant, Angelo didn't bring in a free agent to compete
with Grossman. Smith told everyone who'd listen that Grossman was his guy and
disdained calls for his replacement. The quarterback was grateful for their
confidence. Says Turner, "One day this off-season, right out of the blue,
[Grossman] said, 'I really appreciate you guys sticking with me.' He knows what
we think of him -- he's a great player who had a few bad games last year, which
happens to every young quarterback."
At camp there was a palpable feel-good atmosphere. REX IS OUR QUARTERBACK,
read one T-shirt in the Olivet Nazarene College bleachers. After Grossman
completed a 70-yard touchdown bomb to wideout Bernard Berrian in a two-minute
drill, tackle John Tait lifted the quarterback off the ground and pirouetted in
celebration, to the delight of teammates.
What emerged from camp is the Bears' potential improvement on offense. On
three consecutive plays during a scrimmage one evening, Chicago gave glimpses of
what might become the sexiest offense in the league. First play: Olsen, from the
left slot, ran downfield with Brian Urlacher covering him. The rookie had half a
step on the star linebacker for what would have been a nice gain, but the ball
was underthrown slightly, and Urlacher knocked it away. Second play: Hester went
in motion behind the quarterback, and the fans in attendance began shrieking
like girls swooning over the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show . Even
though Grossman dumped the ball to a back, the reaction showed the excitement
that's being generated on offense by Hester, who had an NFL single-season-record
six returns for touchdowns last year (and another in the Super Bowl). Third
play: Berrian, an emerging speedy wideout, got two steps behind cornerback
Nathan Vasher (who's no slouch; the Bears signed him to a five-year,
$28.6 million extension in June), and Grossman hit him perfectly in stride
for a 75-yard touchdown.
Among the contenders this year, no team needs its quarterback to cut down on
his gaffes more than the Bears. Every QB is going to have a bad game or two.
Super Bowl champions cannot tolerate one who has six. The good feelings from
training camp are fine -- and Grossman had a terrific off-season, improving his
footwork and his mechanics with new position coach Pep Hamilton and building
chemistry and accuracy with Hester, Olsen and impressive rookie back Garrett
Wolfe -- but this quarterback has to show his team he's right in December, not
"I know what I need to do," Grossman said, thoughtfully, after one scorching
summer practice. "I need to eliminate the bad games. It sounds simple, and
that's exactly what it is. I want to become a great quarterback, and to do that,
you have to be more consistent. I think I'll be better this year. Part of that
is having great weapons, which we have."
Sounds good. Now one man has to take this offense on his shoulders and make
it happen. -- Peter King