Here are 10 players, positions, or story lines to watch in the meaningful meaningless preseason game between the Chicago Bears and New York Giants on Friday.
Which team will “take out” Jay Cutler?
As previously noted, the NFL schedule makers must have a vendetta against the Bears to have scheduled the third preseason game against the team with the most ferocious pass rush in the league. Fortunately for the Bears — unless you’re a glutton for punishment who wants to see just how bad the offensive line is — word out of New York this week is that defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, he of the 16.5 sacks a year ago, is unlikely to play Friday night. With that said, the Giants have a great pass rush because of their depth, and they’ll still be bringing heat on Cutler. With the understanding that this is a dress rehearsal for the regular season with a game plan in place, I still feel the most important thing to come from this game is that Cutler is able to walk away healthy. In other words, let Lovie Smith and Mike Tice take Cutler out of the game before the Giants do.
Can strong passing game exist against solid pass rush?
We saw last week against the Redskins what a full Bears offense could do with new weapons Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Michael Bush joining Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Devin Hester, and Earl Bennett. The offense opened the game airing it out and they methodically worked their way down the field with the passing game. The question now becomes, can this possibly potent passing offense still operate with a weak offensive line against a great pass rush? It’s still just a preseason game, but if the Bears can move the chains by slinging the ball all over the field against these Giants, there’s even more reason to be encouraged about the offense in 2012.
Will Forte have a bigger role than previous indications?
Feeding off the last question, I expect we’ll see more of Forte in this preseason game to help stymie the Giants’ pass rush, keep the defense honest, and ensure that the Bears receivers get the matchups that are ideally suited for them. With all the talk over the acquisition of Marshall and the development of Jeffery, Bears fans seem to have forgotten about Forte’s versatility and how much fear he can impose on defenses. The Bears figure to be primarily a passing offense this season but Tice will definitely get Forte involved in the game plan. If Tice senses any kind of trouble for Cutler early in the game, he’ll be sure to call Forte’s number more often.
How will the left side of the line shake out?
I just want to say (or write) these names for you: Roberto Garza, Lance Louis, Gabe Carimi. Who are these guys? Are they new to the team? What’s going on with them? All kidding aside, it’s good when you don’t hear names of offensive linemen because it usually means they’re playing well enough to avoid criticism. The only time we really hear any of the aforementioned right side of the Bears’ offensive line is when fans wonder if Carimi could switch to left tackle and/or if he can stay healthy this season. The real focus this training camp and preseason has been on the left side of the line, starting with the tackle competition between J’Marcus Webb and Chris Williams, and now at guard between Chris Spencer and Chilo Rachal. All four players will get their chances to play with the starting unit against the Giants as Tice tries to settle on his five starters.
Tight end use in meaningful play
The Bears have raved about tight end Kellen Davis since last year and have repeatedly said they intend to use the tight end more than they did under the leadership of former offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Thus far through two preseason games, we haven’t see much from the position, outside the use of rookie Evan Rodriguez. It’ll be interesting to see if there are more plays called for the tight ends when a game plan is formed and how much Cutler elects to utilize them. When Cutler was with the Broncos, he had a pretty good tight end in Tony Scheffler, whom he completed 40 passes to for 645 yards and 3 scores during his 2008 Pro Bowl season. That was with two good receivers in Marshall and Eddie Royal, so the idea that the Bears have “too many mouths to feed,” so to speak, shouldn’t really hinder any plays to the tight end.
Third-string running back competition
The Bears released Kahlil Bell on Thursday because they wanted him to take a pay cut, which he refused. And they asked him to take a pay cut because his salary was too much for a third-string back who fumbled too much. With so much money invested in Forte and Bush, the Bears will take a long, hard look at Armando Allen and Lorenzo Booker for that third running back spot. Booker, of course, wowed fans last week with his second-half kickoff return for a touchdown. The veteran back has had his fair share of fumbling issues as well, but he can offer more on special teams, something that the third running back will be required to do. Allen is a scatback who showed some nice glimpses in spot duty last year after Forte went down with a knee injury. Smith has talked specifically about Allen and wanting to see more of what he can do.
Defensive line pressure
And by defensive line pressure, I’m talking specifically about the Bears’ front four. Lord knows we’ll see enough pressure from the G-Men. The line was a disaster in the first preseason game against the Broncos sans Julius Peppers, and we saw just how much a difference Peppers can make for the entire line last week against the Redskins. Facing a pretty good offense this week, the Bears will need to get after Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and not let the offense get into a rhythm. This is a big opportunity for rookie Shea McClellin as he continues to get better each week. I’m excited to see more of the Bears’ nickel package when McClellin joins Peppers at end and Israel Idonije moves inside to tackle. Defensive tackles Nate Collins and Brian Price will also get an opportunity to shine and to try to solidify a roster spot. Collins has been a bright spot, blowing up the opposing offensive line on occasion and being a disruption in the backfield. Veteran Corey Wootton injured his groin on special teams last week and his chances are running out. And lastly, whenever Henry Melton decides to show up, that’d be great.
Run support and zone coverage
When people talk about Brian Urlacher, they usually describe his rare athleticism and how he plays the zone better than just about any middle linebacker. But without Urlacher in the lineup, the concern hasn’t been about how his lack of presence will affect the pass defense, it’s actually been about how poor the run defense has been without him. There has been an emerging debate lately about whether Nick Roach should have been moved into the middle at all. By doing so, and inserting veteran Geno Hayes at strong-side linebacker, the Bears have seemingly weakened two positions. Some wonder if Blake Costanzo, primarily a special teamer, should fill in for Urlacher in the middle and leave Roach on the outside. I think the idea is to get the best three players on the field at the same time, which is what the Bears currently are trying to do. But before the Bears can even worry about playing Cover 2, or any zone coverage that asks Roach to drop deep in coverage, the Bears first have to shore up the run support.
A position that was a cause for concern before training camp even began — when everybody was healthy — due to question marks about talent has now become an even more alarming problem with injuries to Chris Conte and rookie Brandon Hardin. Craig Steltz and Major Wright will get the nod against the Giants with backup Anthony Walters coming in to spell them later. Steltz is known for his leadership and veteran savvy at this point in his career, but he’s certainly not known for his athleticism and coverage abilities. If he has to see prolonged time in the secondary, we can only hope he puts himself in the right place at the right time. That’s been a problem for Wright in the past and Urlacher’s absence from the field will be the least of the defense’s concerns if its safeties are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Wright also needs to shore up his tackling if the team elects to continue blitzing him. He missed two tackles on blitzes last week against the Redskins.
How will Quigley fair in relief of Adam Podlesh?
With punter Adam Podlesh suffering a hip flexor injury last week against the Redskins, the Bears will get a good look at rookie Ryan Quigley this week. If Podlesh misses extended action, the Bears need to know if Quigley can fill in adequately enough for a short period of time. Depending on how long Podlesh is out, the Bears might need to sign a veteran from the street, but it’s impossible to know how badly they need a replacement without first seeing what Quigley can do against the Giants. He also will need to replace Podlesh as Robbie Gould’s holder on field goals and he did manage to get the hold down on Gould’s game-winning 57-yard field goal last week.