Here are 10 players, positions, or story lines to watch in the meaningful meaningless preseason game between the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins on Saturday.
Left tackle competition
The single biggest concern entering this exhibition contest — which will probably hound the Bears the remainder of the season unless something drastic and unexpected happens — is the unsettling uncertainty at left tackle. It’s difficult to recall another situation in which one player, who has received multiple opportunities to secure a position that his coaches want him to have, has failed so miserably at securing that job. J’Marcus Webb, who has the proper skill set to play left tackle, with the exception of some footwork issues, cannot seem to rise to the occasion and win the job his coaches have practically put his name on. He continues to struggle in pass protection and he does not play with the mean streak that offensive coordinator Mike Tice would like him to display. Veteran Chris Williams will get an opportunity to run with the first team and he could take the position with a solid performance.
Clarity on the muddled defensive line
The Bears brought in a lot of help at defensive tackle this offseason and right now there is a hot competition for roster spots. With Stephen Paea sidelined because of an ankle injury, we’ll get to see more from some of the other tackles fighting for a position. Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina already will be in the mix, but pay attention to the performance of newcomers Nate Collins, Brian Price, DeMario Pressley and Jordan Miller. Ideally the Bears would like to see Collins continue to produce and they would like their modest investment in Price — whom they acquired from the Buccaneers for a seventh-round pick — pan out. Outside, the Bears have Peppers, Idonije, and McClellin locked in, but Corey Wootton has had a good camp and the team also likes Cheta Ozougwu, Thaddeus Gibson, and veteran Chauncey Davis. Last year, the Bears kept 10 defensive linemen and this crop of players will make it difficult to keep any less than that this year. Now let’s see which of these players on the bubble will step up and stand out.
Gabe Carimi’s development
Curiously, we did not hear the name of last year’s No. 1 pick much during last week’s Broncos game. However, when you’re an offensive lineman, that’s a good thing. Occasionally offensive linemen will be praised for their blocking, but more often than not it’s either a penalty, an injury, or a blown assignment that earns them unwanted attention. It’s worth watching how Carimi continues to develop in his second season and to watch to see if he shows any signs of laboring on his knee. Carimi is best known as a run blocker, so let’s see how he does if the Bears choose to run off his hip.
First action for Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and Julius Peppers?
Bears fans were all set to see their first Cutler-to-Brandon Marshall connection in live action last week before game day rain scratched Cutler from the lineup. Likewise, Forte and Peppers were held out as a precaution so as not to blow out a knee or suffer some other devastating injury in a meaningless preseason game. The trio figures to see action this week and we can see just how much their presence on the field changes the way everybody around them performs. How will Cutler’s arm strength and ball placement look on passes to Marshall, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, and possibly Alshon Jeffery? Will Forte carry over his success from last year, keep the defense honest, and show the vision and patience he’s so good at? Will Peppers command extra attention to free up his defensive linemates?
Shea McClellin’s progress from Game 1 to Game 2
This year’s first-round draft pick showed some good flashes of talent last week against the Broncos, but the real test for a rookie is progress from Game 1 to Game 2. If McClellin regresses and takes a step back, it’s a bit concerning. But if he maintains his focus and poise and continues to show the awareness and athleticism that led the Bears to draft him, it’ll be a sign of good things to come. If Peppers does play, it’ll be interesting to see if the Bears unveil a new nickel package they’ve been working on in training camp, where defensive end Israel Idonije moves to tackle and McClellin comes in to take his place. That gives the Bears three pass rushers to try to put extra pressure on the quarterback.
Comfort level of Campbell and Bush
In their first game action with the Bears last week, the former Oakland Raiders combo seemed to struggle. Campbell was seeing his first live action since the 2011 midseason when he suffered a season-ending collarbone injury. Bush, meanwhile, lost his concentration and botched a pitch from Campbell that the defense recovered and turned into three points. Neither one was fulfilling the role he’ll be asked to play during the regular season, so last week’s performance was not a cause for concern. Campbell will only get more comfortable and get good work against second-stringers. Bush, likewise, will see more action in a role he’ll be used to, coming in to spell Forte.
Increased role for Alshon Jeffery?
The Bears’ second-round draft pick has been turning heads this preseason. The receiver had a solid performance against the Broncos and then has been the talk of camp for the past week. The Bears have been working on a red zone package that features 6-foot-4 Marshall on one side of the field and 6-foot-3 Jeffery on the other with Cutler having the option to pick the better matchup. Jeffery is displaying great hands and he’s improving his route running. He’ll need to use his large frame to gain separation from defenders on a more consistent basis, but he’ll learn the tricks of the trade as he gains more experience. With Jeffery’s steady progress, it’ll be interesting to see if he gets some playing time with the first team and how he’ll look with Cutler throwing to him rather than third-string quarterback Josh McCown.
Can Geno Hayes be reliable if Urlacher misses regular season time?
Should Brian Urlacher’s knee injury be more serious than the Bears are letting on, Nick Roach will see more time at middle linebacker, meaning newcomer Geno Hayes will start at strong-side ‘backer. Hayes didn’t really stand out last week against the Broncos, but, then again, the first team defense had its struggles on the opening drive. Pay careful attention to Hayes, and second-year pro J.T. Thomas for that matter, to see how they fit into Lovie Smith’s defense and whether they can play sound, fundamental football while picking up their responsibilities.
Interior offensive line competition
While much of the talk regarding the offensive line has revolved around the tackle position, the interior of the line is far from settled. The Bears would like Chris Spencer and Lance Louis to secure the two guard positions, but Edwin Williams and veteran free agent pickup Chilo Rachal won’t give in that easily. Both Williams and Spencer have experience playing center, so they have added value to the team. But Tice is concerned with his linemen playing mean and nasty and if we see too much penetration up the middle when the first-string offense is on the field, don’t be surprised to see the leashes getting shorter for the starting guards.
Trio of safety play
There are three players deep in the defensive backfield to keep a watchful eye on for the remainder of the preseason. The first is Major Wright, who could be on his final chance with the team in only his third season in the league. He showed good recognition during last week’s opening drive by picking off a deflected Peyton Manning pass, but he also tweaked a hamstring, which has been an ongoing problem for him in his short professional career. If he gets hurt, or if he has coverage issues or misses too many tackles, the first player the Bears will probably look to is veteran Craig Steltz. Steltz is far from the most gifted safety, but he’d provide a veteran presence in the defensive backfield and he knows his reads and responsibilities. The third player to watch is rookie Brandon Hardin. Hardin, with great size for a safety, looks like he belongs. He has great range and closing ability and — being a former cornerback — has good ball skills and awareness. If he can pick up the NFL game as well as Chris Conte has so far, he could be a player for the Bears.