It turns out Lovie Smith wasn’t bluffing when he said the starters could play longer than usual in the preseason opener against the Chargers. For the most part, anyway. Jay Cutler and Olin Kreutz departed after the first series, a 9-play, 51-yard drive that resulted in a Robbie Gould 38-yard field goal. But the receivers and, more importantly, the offensive line saw action up to the half.
It would have been nice to see Cutler get more time with the first team offense but it didn’t appear he needed much more work as the offense looked fairly crisp. Cutler connected with Johnny Knox for two first downs, one for 33 yards and another for 14 yards. Cutler was sacked on one play after Matt Forte whiffed on a blitz pickup and then was hit hard at the end of a 3-yard scramble to end the drive. With that kind of punishment after 8 plays on the field, the Bears wisely ended Cutler’s day.
The offensive line did a lot better than I expected, at least from a pass protection standpoint. Forte was responsible for the sack, but the offensive line gave Cutler adequate protection and later blocked well for Caleb Hanie. It’s the line’s run blocking that has me concerned as Forte ran for just 7 yards on 4 carries, Chester Taylor notched 10 yards on 6 carries, and Kahlil Bell finished with a team-leading 12 yards on 6 carries.
When Hanie entered on the Bears’ second offensive series, he was about as erratic as most young players are. He fumbled his first snap from new center Josh Beekman, misfired on multiple passes, and made an ill-advised throw that resulted in an interception. However, Hanie also showed a great presence in the pocket and was able to avoid pressure on a handful of plays, including one in which he rolled out of the pocket and found Devin Aromashodu in the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown pass, the Bears’ only touchdown of the game.
Hanie had to leave the game with an apparent shoulder injury, although he looked like he was able to move his arms in all directions on the sideline. Other players to suffer injuries were rookie safety Major Wright, safety Craig Steltz, and linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer.
The starting defense had its ups and downs in their few series on the field. It may have only been a preseason game, but the Chargers’ starting offense knew what it wanted to do with the ball and that was to get rid of it before the Bears’ pass rush could get to Philip Rivers. As a result of their quick-pass offense, new Bear Julius Peppers and the rest of the defense couldn’t apply much pressure on Rivers and they gave up a 28-yard touchdown pass on the Chargers’ second offensive series of the game. That, of course, followed a three-and-out on the opening drive. The Bears’ starters played one more series against Chargers backup quarterback Billy Volek and were able to get off the field in 5 plays, although they allowed rookie running back Ryan Matthews to run for an 18-yard gain on one of those plays.
When the backups finally took the field for both teams it began to get sloppy, as most preseason games have the tendency to do. Both teams had their fair share of penalties (seven for the Bears, 10 for the Chargers). The Bears, however, showed that their depth needed more work. Rookie quarterback Dan LeFevour completed just two of 10 passes for 21 yards and, as mentioned previously, the run game couldn’t get any momentum. The defense struggled against the Chargers’ reserves as they gave up drives up 10, 8, and 7 plays late in the second half. Safety Al Afalava had the lone takeaway of the game, an interception that was thrown right to him.
Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the game for the Bears was their special teams coverage, which allowed returns of 51 and 35 yards. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub certainly couldn’t have been happy, but his units always seem to struggle in the preseason as he shuffles players around only to excel once the regular season comes around.
Overall, it’s difficult to gauge how the starting offense and defense performed given their relative lack of work. But it’s clear that both units need improvement and the team will have three more games to work on it.