The Chicago Bears were once the team to beat in the NFC North. That's hardly the case now, having won just one division title since 2007. In fact, in the past nine seasons, the Bears have finished last in the NFC North (three times) more than they've won it (once).
Instead, it's been a division dominated by the Green Bay Packers, with the Minnesota Vikings even winning the crown in 2015. As a result, the Bears are no longer the second-best team in the North, and are probably closer to being the worst among the four. But where did Chicago go wrong?
Well, for starters, Jay Cutler hasn't exactly been an elite quarterback with the Bears. Sure, he's a serviceable starter and among the 16 best, but he's not in the top tier of signal callers despite having a great deal of talent around him. Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White have the potential to be an outstanding wideout duo, which makes Cutler's play even more paramount.
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He's hardly the team's only issue, though. He's not even the biggest problem. Chicago needs some serious re-tooling, and it begins on defense. Here are five ways to fix the Bears.
Find a consistent pass rush
Last season, the Bears were 22nd in the NFL with 35 sacks. In 2014, they were 16th, and the year before that, they ranked 31st. In short: Their pass rush is abysmal. Lamarr Houston led the team with eight sacks in 2015, the most in his career. The Bears are in dire need of an elite pass rusher, and they hope to have found one in Leonard Floyd, their first-round pick in the 2016 draft. He'll likely start at outside linebacker right away for the Bears, though they shouldn't expect him to rack up double-digit sacks in his first season. Rookies can't be relied on to erupt for 10-plus sacks right out of the gate. It takes time. But in turn, he should help the rest of the pass rush.
With his speed off the edge, Floyd will take pressure off of guys like Eddie Goldman in the middle and Houston on the outside, provided they're on the field together. There's a fine line between a pass rush making the secondary better, and vice versa. The Bears don't have a great defensive backfield, which means the front seven will have to make up for it by pressuring quarterbacks into poor decisions. If Floyd and Co. can do that, the Bears will immediately improve their 20th-ranked defense as far as points allowed.
Win close games
The Bears lost 10 games in 2015, which isn't good. To make matters worse, seven were by eight points or fewer. That's both good and bad, though. On the bright side, the Bears could very well have won more than six games. On the other hand, Cutler and the rest of the offense struggled down the stretch and couldn't win tight contests. Of course, some of the issues hinge on coach John Fox's clock management troubles, which were well documented last season. Needless to say, he needs to do a better job in that regard going forward.
If the Bears can take care of their late-game deficiencies, they'll be in good shape next season. Cutler didn't have a single touchdown pass when trailing with less than two minutes to play a year ago, which is clearly an issue. And when the Bears held a lead, Cutler's passer rating dropped to 72.2, and he had just one touchdown to two interceptions. He's not the only problem late in games, but he's certainly one of them.
Make the offensive line a priority
The Bears' starting left tackle in 2016 is expected to be Charles Leno -- a seventh-round pick in 2014. Joining him as offseason additions are Bobby Massie, Manny Ramirez, Ted Larsen and rookie Cody Whitehair. Kyle Long will be the team's right guard again, but the rest of the line will need to gel quickly given their inexperience and unfamiliarity with each other. It's clear the Bears tried to improve the offensive line this offseason, but it still wasn't enough. They need to make it a bigger priority.
Cutler needs better protection in the pocket, particularly along the edges of the line. Chicago missed out on signing a guy like Russell Okung, and instead showed a great deal of confidence and faith in Leno. His performance next season will determine whether he's the long-term solution at left tackle. Regardless, the Bears are taking a risk by relying on him after starting an up-and-down 13 games in 2015. If Leno struggles as the full-time starter this season, the Bears will absolutely need to address the left tackle position in next year's draft.
Take pressure off of Cutler with a strong run game
Matt Forte is gone, leaving a hole at running back the Bears haven't had to fill since he came into the league in 2008. Jeremy Langford, a second-year player, is expected to take over the void left by Forte, and he showed flashes of potential in spot-starting duty last season. He played all 16 games, making two starts, rushing for 537 yards and adding 279 receiving. While those numbers are certainly promising, his rushing average was not. Langford notched only 3.6 yards per carry as a rookie and didn't show the big-play explosiveness Forte provided.
Langford's longest run of the season was 23 yards, and only 11 of his rushes went for more than 10 yards. The Bears will need Langford to spring bigger plays in the run game to take pressure off of Cutler. And more important, they'll need him to handle a heavy workload so that Cutler doesn't have to throw it 40 times a game. Ka'Deem Carey is still vying for the starting job, too, but it's most likely Langford's job to lose. The Bears would be wise to use both backs as a tandem, allowing them to stay fresh throughout a game and during the season.
Draft a shutdown cornerback in 2017
Since the days of Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, the Bears have struggled to find a true playmaker at cornerback. Kyle Fuller is the most likely candidate to take over as the team's stud cornerback, but his play has been far too inconsistent to be deemed that thus far. And as a result, Chicago lacks a true shutdown cornerback. Until the Bears find one, teams will continue to take advantage of the secondary. Yes, they were fourth in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, but they gave up 31 touchdowns through the air, and that is far too many. Additionally, the Bears allowed the third-most passing yards in 2014 and gave up 34 touchdown passes, as well. And that's as a team that rarely held a lead, meaning opponents were typically running the ball to drain the clock.
The 2017 draft class isn't necessarily loaded at the top with cornerbacks, but guys like Jalen Tabor, Desmond King, Adoree' Jackson and Tre'Davious White are players that the Bears could potentially scoop up in the draft. More so than tackle, drafting a playmaking cornerback is a massive priority for the Bears going forward. Or at least it should be.