The Bears are hoping to rebound following Monday night’s poor performance against the Giants when they take on the Titans Saturday night in Tennessee. The quasi-important dress rehearsal for the regular season will give us our best impression of how the team look in the regular season. But realistically, the team could perform dramatically different in the regular season opener regardless of what happens against the Titans. Here’s a look at 10 things to watch in the Bears’ third preseason game as the team continues to evolve.
1. Protection for Jay Cutler
Last week against the Giants, we caught glimpses of just how good the offense could be if the offensive line protected consistently. The line did not allow a sack in the first quarter, and on the only occasion Jay Cutler was sacked he could have avoided it by throwing the ball away. When Cutler did get protection, we saw just how effective he could be in this offense by completing three passes of at least 30 yards. With more time in the pocket, who knows how often that could happen?
2. The red zone offense
The one aspect of their offense that the Bears have yet to improve from last season is their red zone attack. After two great plays late in the first quarter — a 37-yard pass to Devin Hester and a 42-yard reception by Matt Forte — the offense looked miserable in the red zone and had to settle for a field goal. It’s one thing not to convert a long drive into six points, it’s another thing to appear as if they did not have a plan once they arrived in the red zone. A run up the gut by Forte for two yards and two incomplete passes to the smallish Hester? Where was Williams and his size? What about the imposing figure of Kellen Davis, who has soft hands and has proven to be a reliable red zone target? I would have rather seen a play designed for them in those close quarters than for a guy who is much more effective in open space — as he proved earlier that drive.
3. Matt Forte’s success running the ball
The run game appears to be improved this year with the addition of Marion Barber, but it’s Forte that has yet to flash any signs of strength running the football. Forte carried the ball four times and managed just seven yards against the Giants. Chester Taylor, who also saw time with the starting offensive line, managed seven yards as well on just three carries. It’s unfair to criticize Forte considering it often takes many carries for a running back to find his groove and four attempts is hardly enough to get into a rhythm. But we need to at least see some burst from him and this is as important to see from Forte as it is to watch the offensive line open holes for him.
4. Roy Williams-Johnny Knox competition
The week leading up to the Bills game was consumed with talk about how Roy Williams was out of shape. Following the Giants game, the discussion has centered around Williams’ desire and whether he’s taking his job serious enough. Johnny Knox responded to being demoted by working harder in training camp and making the most of his playing time, which has mostly been as a kick returner. This week, Williams’ former college coach and current Bears receivers coach, Darryl Drake, called out Williams and said he never should have let Giants cornerback Aaron Ross knock the ball out of his hands on Monday, which resulted in a fourth down. Drake also said that it is his job to determine which players are the most prepared to play on game day and if that happens to be Knox, then Knox belongs on the field. Will Williams step up his concentration and effort in this dress rehearsal? Or will Knox outshine him as he fights to win back his starting job?
5. Dane Sanzenbacher’s potential role
Listening to Bears players and coaches speak, it sounds as though rookie receiver Dane Sanzenbacher has already made the team. Nothing is a foregone conclusion, though, and if the undrafted free agent were to make the team it would mean the Bears were keeping six receivers at the expense of another position. Still, Cutler speaks highly of him, labeling him the “mini Wes Welker” and saying he expects a role for him in this offense. Sanzenbacher’s role would be similar to that of Welker’s, catching short passes and trying to make big plays out of them, or at least positive yardage. With the starters expected to play into the third quarter, it’ll be interesting to see if Sanzenbacher is part of the rotation at receiver and if and how the Bears decide to use him.
6. How quickly the defense can get off the field
The Bears defense generally spends a lot of time on the field because they’re willing to concede short passes in order to prevent the big play. Time and time again we’ve seen the defense get chewed up bit by bit for long drives, only to give up a field goal instead of a touchdown. But that’s what happens when they don’t have a pass rush. The purpose of the defense is to try to get the offense into third-and-long situations so that their pass rushers can put pressure on the quarterback and force a turnover. There are two reasons we need to see the Bears get off the field quickly against the Titans. The first is because we want to see it make strides after Monday’s poor performance against the Giants. And the second reason is because we want to evaluate the offense and if the Titans are eating up clock, we won’t get to see much of Cutler and gang.
7. Can the Bears get a consistent pass rush?
The key to getting off the field quickly is being disruptive in the opponent’s backfield. The overwhelming consensus after the Bills game two weeks ago was that the defensive line played the best, was the deepest and was the most consistent. Last week, aside from Julius Peppers, the line didn’t seem to consistently show up in the backfield. With depth problems in the defensive backfield, the Bears will need to rely heavily on their front seven to carry them this season and a consistent pass rush will fuel the engine. Specifically, I’ll have my eyes on defensive tackles Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye and ends Vernon Gholston and Mario Addison.
8. Can Brian Iwuh maintain consistency as the primary backup linebacker?
After being a strength of the team for so many years, the linebacker position looks to be awfully shallow this year. With Lance Briggs likely sidelined the rest of the preseason, it doesn’t make me rest any easier to see what the team would look like if a starter went down during the regular season. The one bright spot among the reserve linebackers is special teamer Brian Iwuh. Iwuh has looked good in both training camp and through the first two preseason games, which shows that his practice habits can translate onto the game field. I don’t feel good about the rest of the depth, though. Dom DeCicco wouldn’t see the field, anyway, unless Brian Urlacher suffered an injury, and you can forget the playoffs if either Urlacher or Briggs miss any significant length of time. But unless we see some immediate progress from the second group, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Bears add a veteran before the regular season begins.
9. Bears safety play, specifically Major Wright
Second-year safety Major Wright had arguably the best game among defensive starters against the Bills, only to struggle mightily in the Giants game. What was most discouraging about his flailing missed tackle attempt against Brandon Jacobs was that open-field tackling is a strength of his. I assume he’ll be fine once he settles down and plays under control, but we have yet to see anybody test him in coverage, which is his weakness. I’m curious to see if Wright can have a bounce-back game. I also want to see more from reserves Craig Steltz and Chris Conte.
10. Special teams
Dave Toub’s unit has been atrocious through two games, but the good news is that they’ve had poor preseasons in the past, specifically last year, only to rebound and have a good regular season. The reason why special teams are never quite right in the preseason is because there are a lot of moving pieces. Those who you see lining up to cover kicks or blocking on returns are often different than the those who do it opening day, and that’s typically because the roster is still taking form and Toub is getting an idea of who can help the team in the best way. I’d like to see better performances from the kickers, though. Robbie Gould may have a new holder, but it should not take him all preseason to get acclimated. Adam Podlesh has been less than wowing as Brad Maynard’s replacement.