In keeping with my previous entries, we’ll take a look at some of the things to watch in Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Cleveland Browns. It’s a bit harder to find ten distinct things in a meaningless fourth game, but there’s always something to keep an eye on.
1. Health – The Bears’ top priority is clearly the health of their starters and key reserves. If you remember in last year’s preseason finale against the Browns, rookie tight end Greg Olsen injured his knee and missed the first two and a half games of the regular season because of it.
2. Defensive Intensity – We’re not going to see a whole lot of the starting unit, but the little that we do see of the first string, as well as all we see of the reserves, I want to see a defense that comes out and attacks the Browns. I’m not talking about blitzing and schemes either, because from that standpoint, the Bears will be very vanilla. I’m just referring to the pursuit to the ball.
3. Tackling – Every game, there are missed tackles. It’s to be expected. I just don’t want to see a repeat of last week against San Francisco on the first drive of the game. Navy jerseys slipping and sliding around the field — and it wasn’t even wet outside! Just because the Bears don’t work on tackling during the preseason, it doesn’t mean they don’t practice ball pursuit and “chopping down” to not overrun the ballcarrier.
4. Cut down on missed assignments – You know things have gotten really bad for the defense when, arguably, the leader of that unit, Mike Brown, who is normally in the right place at all times, was caught snoozing to give up a touchdown pass. It’s one thing to give up big plays because the quarterback hits the soft spots of the Cover 2 — or whichever defense the Bears are playing. It’s another thing to give up a big play when someone’s not in the correct position.
5. Special teams coverage – The special teams have been fantastic the past two years but borderline abysmal the last three games. Specifically, I don’t want to see any big returns. I don’t know how much, if at all, Joshua Cribbs will be returning kicks, but he’s a dangerous returner and the Bears’ coverage teams need to stay in their lanes and not give up the big return.
6. Robbie Gould – Gould didn’t play awful last week — he played much better than he did against the Seahawks — but he sent another kickoff out of bounds and that’s just unacceptable for a kicker, especially the highest-paid kicker in the league. We need to see deep kickoffs and a perfect night between the pipes.
7. Return game – Last week, we saw four different players returning kicks. Hopefully, the team is just giving Devin Hester a break and not necessarily looking to replace him full time. If the coaching staff knew what was good for them, they’d only be auditioning players for spot duty and keep Hester as the primary return man when the season begins. In Thursday’s game against the Browns, I’d like to see more of Danieal Manning and less of Garrett Wolfe and Earl Bennett.
8. Quarterback play – When the Bears knew that Kyle Orton won the starting job, they only played him for two series against the Seahawks. Can you imagine how protective they’ll be in a meaningless, fourth preseason game? I want to see two things from the other quarterbacks. First, can Rex Grossman shake off the rust of being demoted and look like a capable, dependable backup? Second, will Caleb Hanie play well enough to secure a roster spot, or will the Bears elect to go with two quarterbacks on the active roster to start the season?
9. Crowded backfield – Because the Bears will likely save a roster spot for Chris Williams, there appears to be a surplus of running backs. The Bears have a contingent of seven backs: running backs Matt Forte, Kevin Jones, Garrett Wolfe, Adrian Peterson, and P.J. Pope as well as fullbacks Jason McKie and Lousaka Polite. We know Pope won’t make the roster, but what about Wolfe or Peterson? Will the Bears carry two fullbacks or will they let Polite go? Let’s see how it plays out against the Browns.
10. Rookies and reserves – Ultimately, the preseason finale is a final — and more extensive — audition for the younger players. The Bears have a good idea of who they’ll be keeping and who will get the axe as they cut their roster down to 53 by Saturday, but this game might give a player or two a last ray of hope. With Ricky Manning Jr. getting cut this week, players like Trumaine McBride and Zackary Bowman may have more life in them. Also, keep an eye on wide receiver where Mark Bradley is fighting for a roster spot.