CHICAGO (AP) — It was far from a quiet offseason for the Chicago Bears, and now they really hope to make some noise.
They committed long term to quarterback Jay Cutler. They brought in five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen to ignite their dormant defense. And they set their sights on a playoff run after missing out for the sixth time in seven years.
Anything less would be a letdown for the Bears. With training camp set to start in Bourbonnais, Illinois, they envision bigger things after going 8-8 in their first season under coach Marc Trestman. If they’re going to improve, a rebuilt defense has to step up.
Allen, 32, is the centerpiece of the makeover, the prized signing in free agency. The Bears lured him out of Minnesota to replace Julius Peppers with a four-year contract, hoping he can boost a defense that ranked 30th overall, had trouble stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback.
No question, he was the biggest addition. The biggest move, though, was locking in Cutler. The Bears kept him off the market with a seven-year deal. In doing so, they made it clear they are committed to Cutler, that they believe he can reach his potential under Trestman and lead them to a Super Bowl.
Having two elite receivers in Brandon Marshall, who signed a three-year extension while on ABC’s “The View,” and Alshon Jeffery along with a top running back in Matt Forte doesn’t hurt, either.
With the offensive line holding its ground after getting a major overhaul, the Bears’ offense ranked among the league’s best in Trestman’s first season.
Now, Chicago needs more from the defense. Here are some things to look for as the Bears open training camp:
• PRESSURE POINT: The Bears replaced one accomplished pass rusher with another when they brought in Allen. But unlike Peppers, he has shown no signs of slowing down. And if the defense can at least make the jump to respectability, the Bears could wind up in the playoffs for just the second time since the 2006 team’s Super Bowl run. With seven straight double-digit sack seasons, Chicago is counting on Allen to ignite what was a nonexistent pass rush. The Bears tied Jacksonville with a league-low 31 sacks and ranked last against the run, another area where he can help.
• ON SECOND(ARY) THOUGHT: The Bears believe the improvements they made up front will take the load off the secondary, specifically the beleaguered safety spots. Major Wright and Chris Conte both struggled last season. Wright is reunited with Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay. Conte remains, but the Bears brought in some competition, drafting cornerback Kyle Fuller in the first round and adding safeties Adrian Wilson, Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings to the mix.
• OFFENSIVE ENCORE: How much better can the offense be? The Bears were second behind Denver in points last season, and with all their starters back, big things are expected again. Of course, it would help if Cutler stayed healthy. He has missed at least one game in each of the past four seasons; he appeared in only 11 last year. And the Bears don’t have backup Josh McCown if Cutler gets injured again. They do, however, have a year in the system and a familiarity with their coach that they lacked when camp opened a year ago.
• BACKUP ARMS RACE: With McCown now the starter in Tampa Bay after filling in admirably when Cutler was injured, the backup quarterback spot is a question mark. The Bears brought in former Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen to compete with the returning Jordan Palmer. With no proven backup, Bears fans are holding their breath, hoping Cutler remains on the field. Then again, they were doing that a year ago.
• NEW POSITION, NEW LEASE?: A gamble when they drafted Shea McClellin in the first round in 2012, the Bears are hoping a move from defensive end to linebacker leads to a bigger payoff from him. That’s because the returns were minimal the first two years. McClellin had just four sacks last season. Question is: Will the move to linebacker bring out his potential?