Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Behind Enemy Lines: McCown, Marshall, run defense, more

Posted by: Mark Craig under Bears Updated: November 29, 2013 - 10:49 AM

For this week's Behind Enemy Lines, we turned to some guy named Dan Wiederer. Name rings a bell. Used to cover the Vikings for the Star Tribune until joining the Chicago Tribune to help cover the Bears:

1, Quarterback Jay Cutler won't play, but is that even a bad thing anymore considering how well backup Josh McCown has played while posting a 2-1 record? What has McCown done best of all in his role and do you think there's any chance the Bears let Cutler walk after the season?

DW: "The Bears would prefer that Cutler start. But they’ve certainly developed an impressive rhythm and an undeniable confidence in McCown. This is something very new and very refreshing for an organization that has experienced major falloffs when forced to turn to their back-up quarterbacks in years past. Simply put: McCown is better than Jason Campbell, better than Caleb Hanie, certainly better than the 2004 carousel that featured Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel and surfer Chad Hutchinson.

"I think best of all is that McCown is a detailed worker and has put himself in position to succeed when needed. He knows Trestman’s offense inside and out and best of all he understands that he doesn’t have to be the star of the offense, that if he makes good reads and spreads the ball around, success will come. The Bears have two big-time receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, a versatile run-catch threat in running back Matt Forte and, finally, a reliable tight end in Martellus Bennett. McCown has said many times in the past month that recognizing and understanding the help he has around him has made his transition so much easier. He’s also been very, very good at protecting the ball. In his first two starts plus his two relief appearances, he never turned the ball over. Last week against St. Louis, he had his first two turnovers of the season within 40 seconds of each other late in the fourth quarter with the Bears trying to rally. The first was a strip sack by Robert Quinn that could easily be blamed on left tackle Jermon Bushrod; the other was an interception on a play that Trestman wishes he hadn’t called.

"Bottom line: McCown came in when Cutler tore his groin in Week 7 and led the Bears to 313 yards and 24 points after halftime, including a go-ahead TD pass to Bennett with 3:57 left of a 45-41 loss to the Redskins. It was clear he had enough in the tank to keep the offense humming. And he’s done nothing in November to diminish that confidence he built up for himself and from his teammates.

As for Cutler’s long-term future in Chicago: the best bet is that he’s back in 2014. He has made it very clear that he doesn’t want to move on from an offense and a coaching staff that he’s incredibly comfortable with. And the Bears have made it clear that they like what he brings to the table to run that offense and be productive. His health is an obvious issue. He’s started 16 games for the Bears only once in five seasons. And there will be some definite struggles from both sides on the negotiations of a new deal. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bears slapped Cutler with the franchise tag in March then spent the spring and summer pounding out the details of a longer-term deal".

2,  What is the primary reason for the Bears' 32nd-place ranking in run defense and do you sense that Adrian Peterson will have a big day on Sunday?

DW: "Week 3: Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton is lost for the season with a torn ACL. Week 4: Melton’s back-up Nate Collins is lost for the season with a torn ACL. Week 6: Starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams is lost for season with a torn pec. Week 7: Linebacker Lance Briggs fractures his shoulder and hasn’t played since. Week 10: Cornerback Charles Tillman suffers a season-ending triceps injury. Defensive end Shea McClellin has also missed two games with a hamstring issue. Defensive tackle Stephen Paea has missed three games with a toe problem.

"Translation: the Bears have had little opportunity to develop any sort of continuity or chemistry and are now playing a defense that requires 11 guys to play in synch with 11 guys who haven’t played together enough to develop a trust and a feel for one another. They’re currently starting two rookies (Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene) at linebacker alongside James Anderson, who’s in his first year with the team. The run fits have been horrible. The d-line has been handled up front far too often. And safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright always seem to take poor angles and miss tackles on the big runs. There’s no fix in sight. Last week, an undrafted rookie back-up went up over 100 yards in just more than two quarters of action. The Bears are allowing an average of 197 rushing yards in their past five games. So as long as the Vikings don’t fall behind early and abandon the run, there’s no reason Peterson can’t chase 200 yards on Sunday."

3, You've seen Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. You've seen the Vikings secondary. How do you assess this matchup? And is Marshall still the primary target or do both of them sort of share the stage now?

"If I were the Vikings, I’d be panic-stricken. Marshall and Jeffery really believe they’re the most dangerous receiving duo in the NFL. And they’re putting up the numbers to back it up (132 catches, 1,805 yards, 12 TDs). They’re both big, physical guys who can make big plays even when closely covered. And if a defense pays them too much attention, the Bears’ offense has Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett to stress an opponent out underneath. Marshall is still the top dog. No questions asked. And he’s on pace toward delivering the third-most productive receiving season in team history. (He set the single-season yards record last year). But when defenses roll coverage his way and bracket him and make him the focal point, Jeffery can kill you. The Saints took Marshall away completely in Week 5 and Jeffery delivered a team record 218 yards. It’s a shared stage. Marshall still wants to be the headliner and is. But he also takes great pride and comfort in the continued progress of Jeffery."

4, Will Matt Forte (knee) play and, if not, what kind of impact would that have on McCown and the offense? Who would step into that role?

"I’d expect Forte to play. The Bears didn’t think his knee hyperextension was going to be a problem. He actually returned to finish the game against the Rams and seemed to be walking without a limp on Monday. He’s a big deal to the offense. I’d actually dispute the idea that he’s overrated. I think, around here anyway, he’s underrated. Sure he has only one 100-yard rushing outing this season. But at his current pace, he’s headed for more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage and has scored eight touchdowns in 11 games. If he were out, the Bears would be in trouble. Michael Bush is more of a short-yardage guy and he’s struggled with that this season as evidenced by his seven carry, minus-4 yard day in St. Louis. Bush is averaging 1.6 yards per attempt for the season. The only other option is Michael Ford, an undrafted rookie out of LSU. But that’d be a significant dropoff from Forte."

5, Overall, how has Marc Trestman's first year gone? Better than expected, worse, about the same? Is the pulse that he's done a really good job with the offense and was a good hire or that he's struggled with the defense, which was Lovie Smith's strength, and therefore was a bad hire?

"Trestman’s an interesting question around here. The folks of Chicago have longed for a better offense for years. The sad part is it may have arrived a year or two too late with the defense in dramatic decline. I think overall, fans are thrilled with the hire because they see the potency of the offense and its potential to evolve into something even greater as time goes on and guys get used to the system and playing with one another. They did a great job in the offseason of refurbishing the offensive line, getting two free agents (Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson) to start on the left side and drafting two rookies (Kyle Long and Jordan Mills) to flank Roberto Garza on the right. The line is better. Much better. The game-planning and play-calling has been solid. The production has been there all year offensively. Trestman deserves credit for getting it all to work together.

"Defensively, there are some questions on how good of a coordinator Mel Tucker really is. But to me, it’s hard to judge a guy missing so many key players, including Pro Bowlers on all three levels of the defense. Not sure who could withstand those blows and still have a top-notch defense.

"Trestman earned plenty of praise in a 3-0 start and seems to have that ability to level a team through the highs and lows of the season. To me, that’s an underrated skill of a great coach. He also has a proclivity for being gutsy, for rolling the dice on fourth downs. The Bears are 6-for-10 on fourth downs this season. The most notable conversion was a fourth-and-1 from their own 32 with a four-point lead and 7:50 to play at Lambeau Field. You blow that one and people go crazy. But they converted, held the ball until the final minute and sealed a drive of nearly 9 minutes with a field goal to finish off a 27-20 upset.

"In the last two losses however, Trestman passed up field goals (45 yards against Detroit, 19 yards against St. Louis) to go on fourth-and-1 and the Bears were stuffed. Now Trestman is taking criticism for not taking the points. But he makes these decisions with great thought and calculation and also understands he’s playing with a porous D that can’t always get stops when they’re needed."

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