Ten things to watch in Bears-Bills preseason game

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The Bears will take the field for the first time in 2009 under the leadership of new quarterback Jay Cutler Saturday night against the Buffalo Bills. While it may just be a preseason game, there will still be plenty to monitor throughout the contest.

Skeptics will claim that preseason games are meaningless and that all they do is provide an opportunity for star players to get hurt and miss some — and possibly all — of the regular season. While I agree that the primary objective is to come out healthy and with no major injuries, I assure you that these first four games are anything but meaningless.

While most casual Bears fans will be tempted to turn off the TV when guys like Jay Cutler, Devin Hester, and Brian Urlacher are replaced with Brett Basanez, Eric Peterman, and Mike Rivera, I implore you to resist the urge to turn off the tube and instead watch until the final horn. Sure, you may see some bad football and you’re going to be watching players that won’t make the final cutdown, but you’re also going to learn a lot more about the players that will make the regular season roster. These are players that are on the bubble and will be working hard to provide the Bears with good depth in the regular season, so that in the event someone gets hurt — God forbid — the season won’t be a lost cause.

Here’s a list of ten things worth watching in Saturday’s Bears-Bills game:

1. Jay Cutler’s first live action as a Bear

This may be one of the most watched Bears preseason games… ever, I guess you can say. Sure, fans flocked by the thousands to Bourbonnais to see the new Bears quarterback, but that was while he was donning an orange practice jersey. Saturday’s game against the Bills will be Bears fans’ first opportunity to see Cutler in live action while wearing the navy and orange. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ron Turner call a play-action pass on the Bears’ first play from scrimmage. Turner was not afraid to call pass plays on first down with Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman, so imagine his giddiness about doing so with Cutler. What you can expect to see out of Cutler in his few plays in the first quarter is a bona fide leader who takes charge and moves the offense. You’re going to see passes like you’ve never seen from a Bears quarterback before. The Bears’ offense is so confident in Cutler’s ability that if they have to trot out the punting unit following a Cutler-led drive, it’ll be considered a disappointment.

2. How Kevin Jones performs as the backup running back

Jones re-upped with the Bears in the off-season because he liked the city and the organization and he was promised a bigger role in the offense this year. Jones reported to training camp leaner and in much better condition than he was last year following surgery on his knee. Jones has looked good so far in training camp while giving Matt Forte some extra time off. Now, I want to see how he does in live action and see what happens when he takes a couple hits on running plays. If the Bears truly want to get back to the playoffs and beyond, they’ll need to have a more balanced running attack instead of placing the burden on Forte.

3. How the uncertainty at wide receiver will play out

Complete this regular season wide receiver depth chart: Devin Hester, Earl Bennett… yep. In my opinion, Hester is not a No. 1 receiver and Bennett is not a No. 2. But that, as Jerry Angelo says, is the hand they’ve been dealt. The depth chart is completely up in the air as of right now and we’re going to see an intense competition for the remaining three — possibly four — roster spots. The smart money is on Brandon Rideau and Juaquin Iglesias with Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu a notch below them. The odd man out seems to be Rashied Davis, who had a terrible case of the drops last year and has had a very quiet training camp. In my opinion, unless he turns some heads during the preseason games, Davis will be shown the door. There’s an awful lot of players to watch at this position.

4. The Josh Beekman-Frank Omiyale competition

Of all the training camp battles taking place, the one for the starting left guard spot is probably the one to keep an eye on the most. Beekman is the incumbent who played all of last season and did an admirable job. The Bears felt they could use an upgrade along the line so they brought in Omiyale, who has yet to pry the job away from Beekman. Is it because Beekman has played so well in training camp, or because Omiyale hasn’t lived up to the expectations the Bears had for him? Whatever the case may be, pay attention to the left side of the line and see how these two players do. I would imagine that they’d both get first team reps, if not on Saturday, at some point during the preseason.

5. How the tackles will perform

Remember at one point in the off-season when Cody Balogh was one of the only two tackles under contract? Things looked awfully bleak then, didn’t they? The Bears went out and signed Kevin Shaffer to replace John St. Clair and also signed future Hall of Fame left tackle Orlando Pace. The reason why this is an interesting position to watch in the preseason is because the Bears now have a lot of flexibility at the position. Questions needed to be answered include how will Pace hold up after a couple serious injuries? Is Chris Williams as good as advertised and can he avoid injuring himself for the second straight season? Is Shaffer capable of stepping in and contributing in the event that Pace or Williams were to suffer an injury? Pay attention to the bookends on the line.

6. How different the front four will perform under Rod Marinelli

Football analysts and former players have been raving about the immortal defensive line coach, Rod Marinelli. Current Bears coaches and players are singing his praises and telling the media how much he’s already helped the front four. Now, let’s see all of Marinelli’s words of wisdom put to use. Let’s be honest, though. Marinelli is not a magician. He’s a coach and an instructor. So, if the Bears’ pass rush does not show immediate signs of improvement from last season, don’t get flustered and take out your anger on Marinelli. Instead, point the finger at the players on the line and secondly at Jerry Angelo. However, that’s a worst-case scenario. I expect to see a much different attitude from the front four and we will see them be disruptive in the backfield in the preseason.

7. The level of play from the entire linebacking corps

It’ll be interesting to see how dominant the Bears’ deepest position will play on Saturday. The likely starting trio for the regular season will be Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Pisa Tinoisamoa. That leaves Jamar Williams, Nick Roach, Hunter Hillenmeyer, and rookie Marcus Freeman all vying for playing time behind them. Williams, Roach, and Hillenmeyer could all be competent starters, which is great to have on your second unit. I have a feeling we’re going to see a very physical linebacking corps, not just on Saturday, but throughout the preseason and into the regular campaign. I’m awfully anxious to see Tinoisamoa in action as well.

8. How Corey Graham and Nathan Vasher play

Graham did a good enough job filling in last year that the team wanted to move him to free safety in an attempt to get their best players on the field at the same time. Graham has been moved from cornerback to safety to nickelback, and it’ll be interesting to see if all that moving around might have messed with his confidence in a similar manner to what the same thing did to Danieal Manning the past few years. We know Graham’s a physical guy who can come up and lay the wood on a ball carrier. Now I want to see how his pass defense has evolved in the different positions he’s undertaken. As for Vasher, I have no expectations for him. I’m ready to move on without him. Of course, if he can somehow resemble what he looked like in 2005 and 2006, then the Bears will be much better off. But something tells me that this guy is developing a Mike Brown-like injury problem and I don’t want to get my hopes up if he’s going to toy with our emotions once again. I’d like to see how he performs this preseason.

9. The competition among the young safeties

Since the end of last season — technically, since the Bears showed Mike Brown the door — I’ve had fears about starting Craig Steltz in the secondary. Apparently, the Bears — who were talking him up during the off-season — also lost some confidence in the one-time supposed starting free safety. Danieal Manning got the starting nod ahead of Steltz to open training camp. In what amounts to a slap in the face, rookie Al Afalava is going to get a look at safety in front of Steltz while Manning sits out with a hamstring injury. In fact, Steltz is listed as third on the depth chart at free safety. Both safety positions are certainly two of the most important positions to keep an eye on this preseason. How will Kevin Payne, Manning, Afalava, Steltz, and Josh Bullocks all play? Let’s pay close attention to the battle.

10. Special teams play

We know Robbie Gould and Brad Maynard are solid, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put any stock into what they do or don’t do during the preseason. I want to see how the coverage teams will perform. Special teams will play as big a role in getting this team back into the playoffs as the offense or defense will. The Bears will need good field position all season long, even with a good quarterback and what should be an improved defense. I’d like to see which players are fighting hard to earn a roster spot by giving it their all on special teams. Let’s face it, if you don’t go 100% on special teams, you’re liable to get hurt. So I don’t want to hear from skeptics who say these guys won’t be trying hard. I’m also going to keep an eye on the kickoff return team because of the new rule change that outlawed three- and four-man wedges. Let’s see how the special teams whiz, Dave Toub, combats that rule.

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