We had the opportunity to ask five questions of Dane Noble, the head honcho at Windy City Gridiron. Our exchange follows.
Dave Choate: Do you think this is the year that Jay Cutler turns a corner and becomes an elite quarterback in the NFL?
Dane Noble: Cutler has the talent and intelligence to become one of the elite QBs in the league, but it probably won't be this season. The OL will have some changes from last year, most notably by adding OT Gabe Carimi via 2011's NFL Draft, and that's a good thing. We should see his sack numbers drop this season from the 52 he endured last year, but I don't think the OL is where it needs to be yet to really elevate Cutler into top-5 QB lists.
DC: What young Bear should we be looking out for come this weekend? Any receivers worth keeping an eye on?
DN: The previously mentioned Carimi, and potentially rookie DT Stephen Paea would be a couple of young guys to keep an eye on. As for WRs, the competition between Johnny Knox and Roy Williams got most of the attention this offseason, but I suspect Earl Bennett will make the biggest impact versus Atlanta. Cutler and Bennett have a nice chemistry, and Bennett's sure hand will help convert down the field passes into first downs.
DC: What should the Falcons expect from the Bears' defense? We're pretty familiar with Julius Peppers, but that's about it.
DN: The defense is who you think it is. Peppers, Urlacher, Briggs, Idonije... most all of the crew is back this season, so expect trouble moving the ball. Here's how Atlanta can find success: Stop the pass rush. I know that sounds cliche, but the Bears having success on the defensive side of the ball is predicated on forcing the QB to throw the ball early. If that happens, the LBs will be able to make plays underneath on dump-off passes, and the WRs won't have time for their routes to develop. If the Falcons OL can sustain the pass rush, it could be a long day for the Bears DBs.
DC: With the new kickoff rules, will Devin Hester be neutralized as a special teams threat?
DN: I've heard arguments on both sides of the fence on this one, including one from WCG's Lester Wiltfong, Jr., but here's my stance: At the end of the day, regardless of where people line up and how deep a kickoff is kicked, if Devin Hester finds a seam, he's gone. Not to over-simplify the process, but what we've seen year after year is that Hester's shiftiness and vision are just as important as his speed, and he will exploit a kickoff coverage unit if they don't shed their blocks quickly and/or if they don't stay in their lanes.
DC: What are your expectations for the season, in terms of wins and losses and playoff fortunes?
DN: Honestly, I could see 2011 being almost a mirror-image of 2010. The biggest potential difference maker is obviously the Bears OL. Our defense will be good, the ST unit will be good, and Cutler/Bennett/Forte will all produce. The biggest question remains: How will the OL perform? If they could even be considered an "average" OL, the Bears could surprise some folks this year.
Weigh in our Q & A in the comments, gentle readers.