Preseason games are not for the casual fans, especially not the first one on the schedule. The starters play maybe a series — some not at all — and before long the announcers are reading the names of players you may have never heard before, and might not ever hear again. Still, there are many players and story lines to watch in the preseason and here are 10 of the most compelling ones.
1. Jay Cutler’s footwork and mobility
Make no mistake about it: the Bears will go as Cutler goes. And as such, the team needs to do a better job of protecting him than they did last year. Cutler reported to training camp this season in much better shape than he’s been in for maybe his entire career. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz was impressed with how much work Cutler put into his mechanics this offseason, saying he was “giddy” about Cutler’s footwork. And although it is clear to those who have seen Cutler in training camp thus far that his footwork has improved, Saturday night’s exhibition opener against the Buffalo Bills will give Cutler his first real test against a defense that’s looking to hit him.
2. The battle between Chester Taylor and Marion Barber
The Bears clearly were not happy with the return on the investment they made in Taylor last season. They gave him a big contract to possibly compete with Matt Forte for the starting job, with which Forte ran away with ease. There were rumors circulating shortly after the season that Taylor may get released by the Bears. The organization quickly shot those down, but they added to that speculation with the signing of Barber. Although Taylor remains ahead of Barber on the first unofficial depth chart, you know Barber will be breathing down his neck for playing time. One thing to watch in Saturday’s game is whether Taylor appears to be running with more motivation. Will he have enough desire to keep his job to put forth a better effort than last season? You can expect to see a few collisions when Barber is running with the ball.
3. The strengths and weaknesses of the offensive line
It’s indisputable that the offensive line is one of the two biggest weak spots on the team. To make matters worse, the only two moves the Bears made to the unit were the addition of center Chris Spencer — who will start the season on the bench — and the selection of right tackle Gabe Carimi in the first round of the draft. Ironically, the line could be much improved this season. For one thing, they can’t possibly be any worse than the unit that let up a league-high 52 sacks last year and opened tiny holes for the league’s 22nd-ranked rushing offense. Carimi should upgrade the run game immediately and the Bears got bigger along the line with the subtraction of Olin Kreutz. Pay attention to how each starter fares because there are questions for all of them. Can J’Marcus Webb — whose skill set makes him better suited to be a pass-blocking left tackle — adjust to the other side of the line? Or will we see opposing defensive ends blow by him with the same regularity that Julius Peppers has shown in camp? Can Chris Williams show improvement in his second season at left guard or will he take one more step toward being labeled a bust? How will Roberto Garza do in his first game action at center in a decade? Will there be any botched snaps between him and Cutler? Can he organize the line anywhere near as well as Kreutz did? At right guard, is Lance Louis really an “elite” pass-blocker like offensive line coach Mike Tice said he is? Has he improved at all from last year in his consistency and work ethic? And finally, even though he probably has the least amount of question marks at this point, can Carimi translate his college success to the pro game? Can his pass blocking catch up to his run blocking?
4. The difference in the role of the tight ends from last year
Greg Olsen was a square peg trying to be jammed into a round hole last year. It was painfully obvious from the moment Martz accepted the offensive coordinator job. And yet the Bears still made use of Olsen’s gifts the best way they could. Feeling that Martz’s offense failed to live up to expectations due to personnel issues along the line, the Bears traded Olsen while they could still get value in return for him. They’re now turning to Kellen Davis and new tight end Matt Spaeth to fill the role of blocking tight ends. While both of these players have adequate hands, they’ll mostly be used as Martz has always intended to use his tight ends: as an extension of the offensive line. With these two players’ abilities to block opposing defensive ends, it frees up other linemen — and the running backs — to fulfill other duties. Pay attention to how they’re used and if they’re truly as good as advertised, you’ll see much better protection for Cutler.
5. The competition at wide receiver
Much has been made about Johnny Knox and his disappointment about being demoted from the starting job opposite Devin Hester. And while many fans are eager to see if newcomer Roy Williams can have a resurrection with Martz, his former coach when he had great success in Detroit, it’d be a mistake to expect much less from Knox. His overall playing time — which topped 80% of the snaps last season — will certainly dip, but his production should remain fairly high. He now can create matchup problems for nickelbacks or linebackers if the Bears choose to go with a three-receiver formation. And if nothing else, he’ll at least work harder to try to regain his starting job and that can only make him a better player. In addition to the Williams-Knox battle, Hester is worth keeping an eye on. His coaches, as well as Cutler, all are praising him for being keenly aware of where he should be on any given play. If he and Cutler are truly on the same page, Hester’s speed to get where he wants to go could enable him to have a big season. The depth chart behind those three is worth a look. What kind of role will Earl Bennett have this season? Will he be a situational possession receiver on third downs? Will he fade from the offense completely? How much offense will newcomer Sam Hurd see? Will he strictly be a special teams player? Finally, much has been made about rookie free agent Dane Sanzenbacher as he’s drawn rave reviews from veterans and coaches. But every year there are training camp superstars that never pan out when it comes to preseason game action. Something tells me Sanzenbacher is a little different and he could make the coaching staff’s decision on whether to keep six receivers a little more difficult.
6. How the depth at defensive tackle plays out
I feel the Bears have great depth at defensive tackle this season and I’m curious to see how the rotation will play out. Maybe Anthony Adams’ injury is a blessing in disguise as his absence will afford other players more opportunity to showcase their skills. Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina figure to start with Toeaina getting plenty of reps. Big things are expected from Melton this season and I’m sure everyone — fans, ownership, coaches and teammates — all are curious as to whether Melton’s athleticism can translate into the production they were hoping to see from Tommie Harris for the past five years. Free agent addition Amobi Okoye has impressed in camp and will push hard for playing time — and a roster spot, of course. Bears fans can get their first real look at rookie tackle Stephen Paea, who possesses brute strength and is being counted on to collapse the pocket. And, of course, all eyes will be on tubby Marcus Harrison to see if he’ll play with any kind of passion to retain a spot on the roster.
7. The play of the reserve linebackers and if upgrades are needed
What once was a position of strength on the team has quickly become a concern. Behind starters Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Nick Roach are a lot of young, inexperienced players. Special teams star Brian Iwuh, rookie sixth-round pick J.T. Thomas, Dom DeCicco, Tressor Baptiste, Chris Johnson, Patrick Trahan and Deron Minor don’t exactly inspire confidence. The Bears could be biding their time and waiting to sign a veteran free agent to a cheap contract — and let’s hope that’s the case — or they could genuinely feel one of the aforementioned unknowns will step up and prove a worthy backup. We should see plenty of action from these guys as Urlacher and Briggs will probably be out after a series.
8. The battle between Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman at cornerback
Bowman had a precipitous fall from grace last season. After being anointed the No. 1 cornerback prior to training camp — forcing Charles Tillman out of his familiar left cornerback role to the right side — Bowman lost favor with the coaching staff due to his poor run support. Jennings entered the game against the Packers in Week 3 and played well enough to retain the starting job the rest of the season. It’s been said many times before, but the hope is that Bowman’s competitive fire ignites because he has the ideal size, athleticism, and nose for the football — the main reason he was inserted on the left side of the field in the first place, where he could see more opportunities to intercept passes from right-handed quarterbacks. Despite Jennings’ diminutive frame, he plays physically and will help in run support. I’ll be curious to see how D.J. Moore progresses in his nickelback role, where he flourished last season. He has a way of being around the football and creating opportunities for himself and his teammates. Second-year pro Josh Moore will see a lot of playing time and he has the opportunity to push himself into the Jennings-Bowman battle if he makes the most of it.
9. How Major Wright looks at free safety and whether the Bears have enough depth there
The Bears chose to let Danieal Manning walk in free agency — and rightfully so — despite his solid season at strong safety in 2010. He just wanted too much money and the Bears feel good about their young safeties. Wright will assume the starting job at free safety in his second season in the league. For the Bears to have a successful year on defense, Wright will not only have to stay healthy — which he failed to do in his rookie campaign — but he’ll need to show great poise and awareness especially as the last line of defense. Behind Wright and strong safety Chris Harris, there’s not a whole lot to feel good about. Craig Steltz has been a marginal player at best and is better suited to play special teams, and rookie Chris Conte may be a playmaker, but he’s raw and does not have a lot of experience playing the position. I’d feel a lot better if we see these two backups play with consistent fundamentals throughout the preseason.
10. The playing surface
The last thing to watch is the playing surface at Soldier Field. I could have listed new punter Adam Podlesh here but, frankly, I find the field conditions to be more compelling. After being forced to cancel Family Night at Soldier Field a week ago due to cracks in the sod from the failure to properly water the surface, the Park District and the Bears promised the field would be in playable condition for Saturday’s game against the Bills. That remains to be seen. If anything happens that prohibits the game from being played, or in a more likely scenario, if a player were to get hurt because of the lousy surface, the rhetoric for switching to FieldTurf would amp up and the league might become involved at that point. Suffering an injury in a meaningless preseason game is about the worst result that could happen on Saturday, so let’s hope the field is safe and the starters exit the game as quickly as possible.