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Injuries start early for Bears, a reversal from 2010’s healthy season

Chicago Bears v New Orleans Saints

Chicago Bears v New Orleans Saints

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Updated: November 30, 2011 12:18AM

It seemed inevitable, but now it’s reality.

With rookie offensive tackle Gabe Carimi out for a month after suffering a knee injury in the Bears’ 30-13 loss Sunday to the New Orleans Saints, fate officially has extracted the horseshoe from the Bears’ backside that fueled their drive to the NFC Championship Game last season.

Lovie Smith, you are on your own.

Nobody expected the run of good fortune that put the wind at the Bears’ backs last season to continue. Their uncanny good health. The
Calvin Johnson ‘‘drop.’’ Beating the Carolina Panthers despite Todd
Collins’ 6.2 passer rating. Facing the Buffalo Bills on the road before a pro-Bears crowd in Toronto. Playing the Miami Dolphins and quarterback Tyler Thigpen on short rest. Having nine days to prepare for the Philadelphia Eagles, who were without cornerback Asante Samuel. Playing the Detroit Lions with Drew Stanton at quarterback. And, finally, facing the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs instead of Drew Brees and the Saints.

But things seem to be turning the other way so far this season. Six regulars — safeties Chris Harris (hamstring) and Major Wright (head), wide receivers Roy Williams (groin) and Earl Bennett (chest), guard Lance Louis (ankle) and now Carimi — already have been injured.

Not only are the injuries piling up, but the schedule doesn’t seem to be cooperating like it did last
season. Last season, the Bears faced the Panthers with rookie Jimmy Clausen at quarterback. His passer rating, while nearly double that of Collins, still was only 12.0 in that game. On Oct. 2, they will face the Panthers with rookie Cam Newton at quarterback. He has 854 passing yards and an 89.1 passer rating in his first two NFL starts.

The next week, the Bears will face the rejuvenated Lions, who have scored 75 points in two games with Matthew Stafford throwing seven touchdown passes and only one
interception. His 112.0 rating is fourth in the NFL.

So what should we make of the Bears after they won by 18 and lost by 17? When the conditions are
ideal — playing at home, with all their starters healthy, facing a good opponent that plays better in a dome and has two first-time starters on its offensive line — the Bears are as good as they looked in their 30-12 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on
Sept. 11 at Soldier Field.

But alter that comfort zone, and the Bears suddenly look like a struggling team with issues that turn the arrow straight down. On Sunday, they were without three starters. They were on the road, in a dome, playing against a team with Pro Bowl guards and former Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz anchoring a solid offensive line.

Suddenly, all those Week 1 strengths looked like weaknesses. After Carimi went out, Jay Cutler was sacked five times in the second half. Defensive tackle Henry Melton, who had two sacks and hit the quarterback six times against the Falcons, didn’t even make the stat sheet against the Saints’ fortified offensive line. The Bears’ seven-man rotation on the defensive line hardly made a dent Sunday.

But never was their vulnerability more exposed than when safety Brandon Meriweather missed a
series to get his ankle taped. That left the Bears with second-year man Wright and rookie Chris Conte at safety. Three plays later, Brees and Devery Henderson burned Wright for a 79-yard touchdown on third-and-12.

‘‘We like to get teams in a third-and-long situation and have them max-protect,’’ Smith said Monday. ‘‘We earn a lot of money being in those situations. But we didn’t
execute the way we will in the future in those situations.’’

The question is, how can he be so sure? Smith is a better coach than many Bears fans give him credit for, but he’s much better at maximizing a good hand than turning a losing one into a winner. He overcame the losses of Mike Brown and Tommie Harris in 2006 to reach the Super Bowl (though the Bears’ defense faded without both in the final seven games). But when things got even tougher in 2007, 2008 and 2009, the Bears needed to overachieve to make the playoffs and couldn’t do it.

And you can’t say every NFL coach is like that. The Green Bay Packers had enough key injuries and inexperience in key spots last season to doom Mike Holmgren or Vince Lombardi. But Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers overcame that adversity and won the Super Bowl.

The way things are going for the Bears, it looks like that will be the challenge facing Smith this season.

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