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Chicago Bears v TampBay Buccaneers

Chicago Bears v Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:19AM

The more time you spend watching the NFL, the more difficult it becomes to know where the Bears will end up in the wide-open NFC.

Are the Buccaneers a lousy team? They sure looked like it during a blowout loss to the 49ers two weeks ago and during much of the Bears 24-18 victory in London on Sunday. Was this a quality win for the Bears? Those two Tampa Bay losses were sandwiched around an impressive triumph over a two-loss New Orleans Saints team that took the undefeated Green Bay Packers to the wire.

The NFL is such a week-to-week proposition that looking too far down the road becomes futile. The Bears looked to be on the brink of collapse in losses to the Saints, Packers and Lions. We’ve also seen signs of them developing into a legitimate playoff team in wins over the Falcons, Panthers and Vikings.

Against the Bucs, they looked like a Super Bowl contender for three quarters before collapsing in the fourth.

At this time last year, offensive coordinator Mike Martz and offensive line coach Mike Tice had to re-invent the offense. Nothing so drastic needs to occur this year. The offensive line must continue to develop, of course. The Bears have allowed 21 sacks in the first seven games, which is 10 fewer than they had at this point last season.

The defense needs more pressure from the front four. It needs to eliminate big plays. Julius Peppers recovering from a knee injury should help the former and more stability at safety the latter.

Here are three other developing trends that must continue if the Bears are to be playoff bound:

◆ When Adrian Clayborn sacked Jay Cutler in the third quarter it wasn’t alarming or worrisome. The rookie from Iowa beat J’Marcus Webb to the inside. No big deal. It happens. The second-year offensive tackle is settling in at one of the most important positions on the field. There is no better sign for the Bears offense.

More impressive than solid pass protection was the way linemen covered up defenders in the running game. Roberto Garza, Chris Spencer and Chris Williams got out in front of Matt Forte and paved the way. Webb and fill-in right tackle Lance Louis are reliable. Tight ends Matt Spaeth and Kellen Davis helped seal the edges. Most impressive were the blocks downfield. Roy Williams, Devin Hester and fullback Tyler Clutts were hustling and throwing their bodies around. Even diminutive Dane Sanzenbacher knocked over a defender on Matt Forte’s 36-yard reception in the fourth quarter.

A selflessness seems to be developing that the offense will need to maximize its limited potential in the second half.

◆ Roy Williams had four catches for 59 yards, which sounds about right. Williams is never going to be the No. 1 receiver Martz predicted he would be when he was signed during training camp. The return of Earl Bennett from a chest injury and Williams developing into a consistent presence will help Cutler.

Martz downplays size. It’s separation he’s looking for in a receiver. That’s fine, but quarterbacks don’t have to be as accurate when throwing to bigger receivers such as Williams and Bennett. Spaeth and Davis will catch balls occasionally because defenders forget they are eligible. Johnny Knox and Devin Hester are effective deep threats. With Greg Olsen gone, Cutler needs consistent mid-range targets. Williams isn’t the dynamic player Martz envisioned but he can fill a crucial role if he can keep doing what he did Sunday, minus the drop and the bobble.

◆ Josh Freeman is a young quarterback and is often described as a budding star, and that may well be true, but he was awful Sunday. He was intercepted four times. On three other occasions a Bears defender had two hands on one of his passes and dropped it.

Smith’s defense relies on turnovers and the Bears need more days like they had Sunday. The defense had forced 17 turnovers through seven games last season. They have 13 this year. More pressure on opposing quarterbacks means more fumbles and more errant throws.

Even though the schedule gets more manageable in the second half, the Bears aren’t good enough to let turnovers slip through their fingers if they want to go to the playoffs again.

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