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Bears are about where I thought they'd be

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 9:04 p.m. CST

Considering I picked them to go 11-5 and win the Super Bowl, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the Bears are 4-1 heading into their bye week.

It's not the record that is surprising to me. It's the way in which they've compiled that record.

Yes, the defense has been the big story. I expected the unit to be slightly better than average, and it's been nothing short of great through five games. The Bears rank third in the NFL in points allowed (14.2 per game), sixth in yardage allowed (291.2 per game) and second in rush defense (65.8 yards allowed per game). Oh, and they've forced an NFL-high 17 turnovers and have scored five touchdowns.

To me, the most surprising thing isn't what the Bears have done, even though I didn't exactly expect the defense to score at a touchdown-a-game rate. The most surprising thing is that they've won four of their first five games in spite of not doing some things they usually do.

I'm talking about special teams, which is where the Bears have always excelled during the Lovie Smith/Dave Toub era. They rank 16th in the league in punt return average (24.5) and 21st in punt return average (7.8). Devin Hester has yet to find the end zone; he's had some long horizontal runs, but few long vertical returns.

Robbie Gould is perfect on 10 field goals and 17 extra points, but Adam Podlesh has the second-worst gross punting average among qualifying players in the league at 42.7. He's just 26th in the league in net punting average at 36.5, and his six punts inside the 20 are good for just a tie for 22nd in the league.

All of this adds up to a pretty average special teams unit — not a terrible one, but not the kind of dominant unit the Bears typically field. The good news is that those numbers can change over the final 11 weeks. Hester might score a return touchdown or two, which might help offset the fact that Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs probably aren't going to keep scoring on a weekly basis. Podlesh might get stronger as the hip flexor injury he suffered in the preseason continues to heal. Gould should continue to give the Bears an edge over most opposing kickers.

Another thing that surprises me is that the Bears have succeeded without their passing games hitting the heights many of us expected it to reach. Now, it's not been a complete disaster. Jay Cutler ranks 13th in the league in passing yards (1,309). Brandon Marshall has been, for the most part, what he's supposed to be, ranking seventh in the NFL in receptions (35) and fourth in receiving yardage (496).

Then again, Cutler ranks 21st in the league in passer rating (78.7) and has a middle-of-the-pack seven touchdowns. What's more, much of his success has come in garbage time. When the Bears are winning, Cutler is 44-for-62 for 725 yards, with five touchdowns and one interception, and when they're up by 9 to 16 points, he's 14-for-18 for 277 yards with two scores and no picks. When the Bears are trailing, he's 11-for-30 for 141 yards, with just one touchdown and four interceptions. That's probably a sample size thing more than a true inability of Cutler to succeed when the Bears aren't pouring it on, but it shows he's been much stronger in favorable situations for a quarterback than difficult ones.

In any case, the Bears have gone 4-1, and they're there without having the kind of explosive aerial success many of us envisioned. With favorable matchups with Detroit, Carolina and Tennessee coming up, it's very possible that the numbers will get healthy in a hurry. Then again, with Alshon Jeffery expected to be sidelined 4-6 weeks with a hand fracture, and with Houston and San Francisco looming next month, it's possible the Bears will never become the elite unit that was so widely forecast.

The Bears are going to come back to Earth defensively, at least somewhat. The thing is, they could get enough of an increase in production from their special teams and their offense to make up most of the difference. That's all to say that the winning is likely for real, as are the Bears.

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