In preparation for Sunday’s game between the 3-2 Chicago Bears and 4-2 Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, we traded a Q&A session with Brett Solesky, publisher of Midway Illustrated here on the Bloguin network.
We’ll start out with the seven questions I asked Brett about the Bears. Posted below that are my answers to the seven questions Brett asked me about the Bengals.
1. There was a tremendous amount of attention when Jay Cutler was traded to the Bears. Is he living up to expectations?
In the eyes of Bears fans he is living up to expectations and has been everything as advertised. He has also been the second most interceptions thrown in the NFL so he hasn’t been totally consistent on a level that you’d prefer to see. However it has been a one man Cutler show with not even a semblance of a running game from the Bears five games into the season.
2. Is Matt Forte avoiding the “sophomore slump” after his stellar rookie season?
As of right now Matt Forte has been in a sophomore more slump and there is rampant, albeit unconfirmed speculation that Matt Forte is hurt and not up to speed. From my T.V. screen there is no evidence of an injury or an underperforming Forte, rather a piss poor run blocking unit.
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3. How is the offensive line doing this year, including the acquisition of left tackle Orlando Pace as a free agent?
Pace is a bit of a work in progress, he’s improving week to week but isn’t nearly the dominating force he once was. He is holding up well in pass protection, but his run blocking has dropped off a lot.
The one promising thing about him is that he’s getting better week to week as he gets adjusted to playing in Chicago. Will he continue to improve or is he going to level off and not achieve the level of consistency the Bears have been looking for? That’s yet to be determined.
4. How would you describe the Bears’ corps of wide receivers?
All of the receivers right now have been pretty consistently average, there’s not a real number one option among them but they are all capable of stepping up and having a big game.
The nice thing is we are never sure who is going to step up and have the game that’s going to help the Bears win. Any one of the receivers has been capable of being the go to guy for one game or another. The key for the receivers thus far has been they’ve all been better than expected and that’s probably just as much a credit to Cutler’s play as their own ability.
5. How has the defense responded to the loss of Brian Urlacher for the season?
The defense has responded surprisingly well. Hunter Hillenmeyer filled in adequately up until his injury and now Nick Roach has stepped in and been pretty productive for it being his first time manning the MIKE ‘backer position. Roach’s only miscue was getting the defense aligned and set in the Falcons game, essentially running the defense. If he fixes the responsibility of calling out the signals, then his production will be the only thing left to measure him by. Thus far his production has far exceeded the expectations of what is essentially the third string LB.
6. What is the strength of the Bears’ defense?
The linebackers, even with how they have been ravaged by injuries still seem to play at a high level. The Bears get Hunter Hillenmeyer back this week so there is less concern on the injury front, but it is almost as if anyone of the back ups, Jamar Williams and Nick Roach could start for other teams in the NFL.
Nick Roach as I mentioned before has stepped up his game as the new starter in the middle, Jamar Williams has been a special teams player and is now stepping up as the starter on the strong-side.
I think most Bears fans though want to see how much of an impact Gaines Adams has on the defensive line this weekend. Depending how Adams’ play comes along you could very well make an argument that the defensive line is the best unit on the defense.
7. Bears fans probably had this game circled as a win when the year started. What is the mood now going into this game against the somewhat surprising 4-2 Bengals?
Bears fans seem to still to be in full Jay Cutler euphoria mode. Even though there should be an extreme sense of urgency heading into this game the fan base is still just as giddy and optimistic as when the season started.
The only things Bears fans seem to worry about the most is the running game and Frank Omiyale. But even then they all point to the 3-2 record with the win over the Steelers as reasons why the Bears should compete for if not win the NFC North.
From my perspective though the Bears are entering the most crucial part of their schedule, five of the next six are against teams the Bears will be battling for playoff spots.
(And here are Three-Way Chili’s responses to the questions posed by Midway Illustrated.)
1. What has been the biggest aspect of Cedric Benson’s success, an improved Bengal offensive line, or a true dedication to success and realization of his talent by Benson?
Definitely more the latter. I compare it a lot to what happened to another running back Bears fans know well: Thomas Jones.
Jones was also a top 10 overall draft pick and was considered a bust after his first few seasons in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals. He found new life with Tampa Bay for a season, then Chicago wisely snatched him up and his career took off.
Benson has been one of the best things to happen to the Bengals in recent years. He runs hard (something he was critized for not doing in Chicago) and he has good speed for a back his size (5-foot-11, 225 pounds).
He’s a motivated player due to his embarrassing tenure in the Windy City and his first six games of this season have not been a fluke. He was the lone bright spot on the Bengals’ offense last year after they signed him off the street. He is playing like a back that has the entire package and you know he’ll want to put on a good show against his former team. In the same vein, you know the Bears will want to shut him down and not let their former first-round pick have a big day against them.
2. How is Rey Maualuga fitting into the Bengals’ defense?
He’s doing pretty well, but is not a game-changing type of player at this stage of his career. Eventually, he will be the Bengals’ middle linebacker. However, this year, he’s playing the strong-side spot because Cincinnati still thinks that Dhani Jones is a good middle linebacker. (Never mind the fact that Jones is over-the-hill and near the end of his career. I call him “A Day Late and a Dollar Short Dhani” because he always “almost” makes a play, but doesn’t quite get there fast enough.)
Maualuga should be the man in the middle for the Bengals right now, but he’s not and I think learning a new position is holding him back somewhat. He’s showing flashes of brilliance and every Bengal fan is thrilled that the team got him in the second round. But he’s not exactly challenging for Defensive Rookie of the Year or anything like that. Then again, the season is still young and he still has the chance to put together a big rookie season. He would clearly be having more impact as a MLB though, in my opinion.
3. Have the Bengals found a solid replacement option for the departed TJ Houshmandzadeh?
Not really. Laveranues Coles was signed to replace Houshmandzadeh – and received basically the same contract at $7 million per year – but he’s not as good. Coles has dropped a lot of balls so far this year, he’s not nearly as physical as Houshmandzadeh and he’s not as fast as he was earlier in his career. Coles has picked it up the last two games, but he’s still be a disappointment thus far.
Andre Caldwell is playing well as the No. 3 receiver and is getting a lot of reps in the slot like Houshmandzadeh did. So, one could make the argument that Caldwell has been a solid replacement for Houshmandzadeh, but he’s not a true No. 2 receiver in the NFL yet. He’s pushing Coles for that nod, but he still has some work to do. Caldwell does have a pair of game-winning receptions this season – against division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore. So, he’s been good, but not quite on Houshmandzadeh’s level.
In addition, Chris Henry has been somewhat missing-in-action as the No. 4 receiver. I expected much bigger things from him based on the way he looked during the preseason. Henry is not seeing the field very much because the top three receivers are healthy and the Bengals do not utilize many four-wide sets.
4. Who is the most dangerous playmaker on the Bengals’ defense?
Well, if you would have asked me that last week at this time, the answer would have been easy: Antwan Odom. The defensive end was leading the NFL in sacks with eight heading into last week’s game against Houston, but he ruptured his Achilles tendon and is out for the year. He was playing like the best Bengals’ pass rusher in years and now he’s done for the season. (Being a Bengals fan is great stuff, let me tell you.)
Also, the Bengals’ best defensive tackle – Domata Peko – will miss the Bears game with a sprained knee (also suffered against the Texans).
So, right now, the most-dangerous playmaker on defense would have to be cornerback Johnathan Joseph who already has three interceptions on the season. But losing Odom and Peko is huge for the Bengals going into the contest against Chicago.
5. With the injury to Odom, what player on the defense is most likely to step up and be the guy to apply the pressure?
Robert Geathers is a solid pass-rusher, although he missed most of last season due to micro-fracture surgery on his knee. He is the main guy that will be relied upon to put pressure on quarterbacks like Jay Cutler. Also, rookie Michael Johnson now moves into a much-bigger role (will likely be a starter). Johnson has seen most of his duty on special teams and on third down. But now he will have to be a three-down defensive player.
6. Bears fans were pretty enamored with Michael Johnson before the draft last year how is he fitting in with the Bengals thus far?
He is a player with a very high ceiling and once he gets stronger could be a force at this level. I like his motor (which was one of the question marks about him coming out of Georgia Tech) and of course I love his athletic ability. You don’t see many 6-foot-7 defensive ends that can move the way he does. And the fact that he’s willing to play special teams (and does a good job) tells me he’s an all-around football player.
With the injury to Odom, now we’ll really get to see what Johnson is all about. I think he’s going to be a good player in this league, but is he ready to be a starter as a rookie? I’m not sure. We’ll find out this week against Orlando Pace and crew.
7. What is the most important aspect that needs to succeed for the Bengals to win on Sunday?
Cincinnati’s offense needs to have sustained drives and not a rash of three-and-outs like it did against Houston last week. The Bengals have a lot of talent offensively, but the play-calling of offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has been poor to say the least. He has a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback in Carson Palmer and at the times the offense is very basic and predictable.
You can’t do that against a good Bears defense. Even without Brian Urlacher, they will take advantage of the mistakes and poor decisions that the Bengals are apt to make. The Bengals struggled against the Texans’ porous defense in the second half and they are going to see a much-better defensive unit this week.
So, the key is to get the offense going and develop some rhythm. Get the Bears’ defense on their heels. Too often, defenses seem to know what’s coming and they can pin their ears back and really get after Palmer. The Bengals need to mix things up well in terms of run/pass and they can’t have the three-and-outs that killed them last week.
Defensively, they need to pressure Cutler and prevent him from having a big day. He’s going to get his yards, but the Bengals can’t allow him to go off the way they allowed Matt Schaub to have a field day last week.
This is going to be a close game at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium. I like the Bengals to win, 23-20.