Last week, the NFL released the 2014 schedule, providing us all a brief respite from draft coverage overload to ponder some of the unique challenges looming for the Bears.
Chicago’s non-divisional slate – the AFC East, NFC South, Cowboys and 49ers – naturally includes teams the Bears will be less familiar with than their NFC North foes. But keep in mind that two-thirds of the Bears’ divisional counterparts will also be somewhat unfamiliar.
The NFC North is one of two divisions in football – the AFC South the other– that had 50 percent turnover in its head coaching ranks this offseason. Every team in the NFL churns its roster annually – and in early April we previewed some of the biggest additions and subtractions made by the Packers, Lions and Vikings – but only a handful, albeit more and more each offseason, hand the keys over to new leadership.
The task of dealing with Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson twice apiece each year is hard enough. At least there’s a strong familiarity there, though. Attempting to get inside the heads of Mike Zimmer and Jim Caldwell is a different challenge altogether.
In a division with three exceptionally bright offensive minds, the Vikings went against the grain in their hiring of Zimmer. He’s certainly an impressive guy, and one that most feel is ready for the challenge, but also a rookie head coach whose modus operandi is still a mystery.
What differences from Leslie Frazier and his staff can the Bears expect to see with Zimmer at the helm? Added aggressiveness on both sides of the ball, for starters.
Frazier’s Tampa-2 scheme called for primarily zone coverage and pressure almost exclusively from the Vikings’ front four. Zimmer will likely prefer more press-man coverage against Chicago’s supersized receiving tandem. Unlike Frazier, the Vikings’ new, hard-nosed leader won’t wait so long to get talented rookies on the field. After all, not taking advantage of Cordarrelle Patterson and Xavier Rhodes early last season was an indictment of Frazier.
On offense, the still-green Zimmer showed his wisdom by tabbing Norv Turner, a veteran play-caller with a proven track record of building prolific offenses and developing successful young quarterbacks. Obviously, Frazier and Bill Musgrave weren’t up to those tasks.
The perception is that Turner will have the Vikings consistently threatening Chicago downfield in the passing game. Sure, Turner will ensure the deep ball is more of a staple than it was for Bill Musgrave, but history tells us that the biggest workload of Adrian Peterson’s career could come in 2014.
The Lions swept the Bears in 2013, the only such occurrence in five seasons under the “leadership” of Jim Schwartz. But the Bears felt if they could keep things close until late against Schwartz’s Lions, his talented team would take after its immature coach, resulting in self-inflicted wounds. And the Lions shot themselves in the foot, repeatedly. Even Detroit completing the sweep last November was nearly spoiled by a ridiculous personal foul by new Bear Willie Young.
Chicago won’t – and shouldn’t – expect the same type of generosity from the Lions under Caldwell. They will – and should – expect the measured Caldwell to run a much tighter ship. Matt Stafford and Reggie Bush will quickly learn the value of ball security. Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh won’t regularly go off the rails like their former coach.
Caldwell and Joe Lombardi will recognize the importance of running the football when the situation calls for it – not putting too much on Stafford’s shoulders. First-time defensive play-caller Teryl Austin will create ways to heat up the pass rush – not solely rely on his talented front four, annually winding up near the bottom of the league in blitzing.
Chicago’s remarkable offensive improvement in 2013 and subsequent defensive overhaul this offseason should bode well for its chances of unseating the Packers in the NFC North. The Lions and Vikings may or may not be ready to compete, but fans shouldn’t overlook them – especially with all of the unfamiliar challenges the staffs of Zimmer and Caldwell will create for the Bears.