A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Colts on Sept. 9, 2012.
Bears offense vs. Colts defense
For months now, ever since the Bears pulled off a surprising trade for wide receiver Brandon Marshall, we’ve been aching to see what it’s like for the Bears to have a legitimate No. 1 receiver and a modernized NFL offense. The preseason was but a tease as we got a glimpse of what this offense could look like in basic sets and plays. The wait is now over, and anything that happens on the field is for real. I wouldn’t expect the Bears to come out and resemble an Arena Football team with all passing and no rushing, but I do envision the Bears following the adage, “throw to score, run to win.” This is an offense that has the firepower to move the ball down the field in a hurry, picking up sizable chunks of yards on consecutive plays. It features a formidable quarterback-running back-receiver trio with Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and Marshall that rivals just about any other in the league. Three potential Pro Bowlers — two last year — who are all playmakers who are surrounded by some strong role players in the young and talented rookie receiver, Alshon Jeffery, the speedy Devin Hester, and the reliable Earl Bennett. Michael Bush is a perfect complement to Forte to come in and pick up the tough yardage while giving Forte a breather. For once, the Bears can be an unpredictable offense and make defenses pick their poison. On the other side of the ball, the Colts defense will be bringing a new look to the field that NFL fans are not used to seeing from them. Joining many other teams making the switch, the Colts will be putting on display their new hybrid 3-4 defense, a far cry from their more relaxed Cover-2 defense from the days of Tony Dungy. Usually when teams make a switch to a new scheme there is a bit of an adjustment period — with an obvious exception being the Green Bay Packers in 2009 who finished second in the league after making the switch to the 3-4. I expect there to be glitches and mistakes made by the defense and it’s up to the Bears to exploit them. The Colts still bring some familiar pass rushers off the edge in Dwight Freeney — who is making the switch to outside linebacker after playing with his hand on the ground throughout his career — and Robert Mathis. Cory Redding — who comes over from the Baltimore Ravens and had 4.5 sacks last year — Antonio Johnson and Fili Moala are the three down linemen. Youngsters Kavell Connor and Jerrell Freeman roam the middle as inside ‘backers. The Colts feature a few new faces in the secondary with cornerback Vontae Davis, who comes over from Miami and was a former teammate of Marshall’s, and strong safety Tom Zbikowski — a local product from Buffalo Grove who played with the Ravens the past four years. Free safety Antoine Bethea, who was second on the team with 139 total tackles last year, also returns.
Bears defense vs. Colts offense
I don’t think anyone knows what to expect from the Bears defense given the uncertainty at so many positions due to either injury or questionable talent. This unit is literally a car running on its last leg. And although the Bears brought in rookie Shea McClellin to help the pass rush and infuse some youth into the defense, the unit will only go as its four Pro Bowlers go. Lance Briggs is the one constant in the defense. He is healthy and as solid as ever. Brian Urlacher was held out of practice Thursday for precautionary reasons but he returned on Friday and is still listed as probable on the injury report. Participating in practice is one thing, but going full-go in a game is another and who knows how his knee will handle the rigorousness of live NFL action and whether he can recover quickly enough for Thursday’s battle against the Packers — let alone whether he can play effectively in this game. Julius Peppers is essentially healthy but is battling plantar fasciitis, a painful foot condition that will plague him all season but shouldn’t really have a huge impact on his performance. The Bears will need him and the rest of the defensive line to amp up the pressure on quarterbacks this season, starting with Colts rookie Andrew Luck. It’s becoming repetitive saying this, but Luck is no typical rookie quarterback. He has a rich football pedigree and has developed into the most NFL-ready prospect in over a dozen years. A lot is expected of Henry Melton this season as the team wants its three-technique tackle to continue to improve from last year’s performance. Stephen Paea, returning from an ankle injury, will be asked to step up and contribute more in his second season with the team. He’ll be called upon to use his brute strength to take on multiple blockers and collapse the pocket, creating openings for Melton, Peppers, and Israel Idonije. When Luck goes to the air, he’ll be testing a Bears secondary with question marks. Charles Tillman is coming off a Pro Bowl season but struggled in the preseason. Tim Jennings has been solid and D.J. Moore was an opportunistic ball hawk last year. Free safety Chris Conte returned to practice this week and is listed as probable. Luck has veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne to help ease his transition into the pro game. Receivers Austin Collie and T.Y. Hilton are listed as questionable on the injury report. Look for tight end Coby Fleener to test the middle of the field on Urlacher. Although Luck may be ready for the pro game, the Colts will certainly want to ease the burden on him and will mix in the run game with Donald Brown.
Good news came from practice this week that punter Adam Podlesh appears to be mostly recovered from the hip flexor injury he sustained during the preseason and is listed as probable for the game. The fear is that he re-injures it during the game chasing down another punt returner, so here’s hoping the Bears coverage unit is on top of its game. Robbie Gould was nearly perfect in the preseason and is Mr. Reliable. With the additions of Blake Costanzo and Eric Weems and the healthy return of Corey Wootton, the Bears should have strong special teams once again. Hester reportedly has a goal of four return touchdowns this season between both punt and kick returns. He’ll split time with Weems as the kickoff returner but with the increase in touchbacks last year due to the ball placement at the 35-yard-line, Hester will get his best chances fielding punts. The Colts list rookie wide receiver LaVon Brazill as their No. 1 kickoff and punt returner but he did not see much action returning kicks in the preseason. Veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri returns for his 17th season and Pat McAfee is entering his fourth.
If this year’s season opener is anything like last year’s first game on the lake front, Bears fans should be in for a nice treat. In 2011, against a Falcons team coming off a 13-3 season the year before, the Bears defense got after quarterback Matt Ryan and roughed him up for four quarters. Melton had two sacks in a game that looked like it could be his coming-out party. At one point in the game, with his helmet and chin strap in places they probably shouldn’t be on his face, Ryan staggered over to the sideline and was greeted by Falcons head coach Mike Smith with a look on his face that seemed to say, “don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon.” That is the kind of vision I hold in my head and that I hope the Bears repeat this Sunday. It’s important that the Bears set the tone early on both sides of the ball. On defense, let Luck know exactly what he’s getting himself into with heavy pressure and quarterback hits, even if they don’t lead to sacks. With Peppers breathing down his neck, he won’t feel comfortable in the pocket and will be more prone to making the kinds of mistakes rookies make. What the Bears need to do is play a lot better run defense than they showed in the preseason, but, then again, the absence of Urlacher made a huge difference. Not only does the defense need to set the tone but the offense does as well. They need to strike quickly and put the Colts on their heels early, forcing them to try to play catchup all game. The last thing the Bears need is a slow first quarter or half giving Indianapolis some confidence. With the three phases working in the Bears favor, they should be able to wrap up a comfortable win at home.
Final Score: Chicago 27, Indianapolis 13