It’s opening game, and what can be more exciting? The Bears begin the 2013 season against the Cincinnati Bengals, a formidable first opponent for new head coach Marc Trestman. No one knows what to expect out of this offense and whether Trestman has the pieces in the right place to make it a success.
Jay Cutler couldn’t possibly be under more pressure than he is in this season. He’s in a contract year while trying to learn a fourth new offense since joining the Bears. At the same time, he couldn’t ask for anymore at his disposal to be a productive quarterback. He has some dynamic playmakers at wide receiver in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. They’ve upgraded the tight end position by bringing in Martellus Bennett. Matt Forte is a force out of the backfield as both a runner and receiver. And Cutler has an improved line in front of him — how improved remains to be seen — with only one starter, center Roberto Garza, returning from last year.
The offensive line play could ultimately determine the outcome of this game. The Bengals feature one of the best young defensive lines in football, led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins — whom some consider the best tackle in football. On the ends are Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. Dunlap has 20 sacks in three seasons as a reserve. He only has two career starts, but he’s ready to step in as a full-time starter after inking a big contract this offseason. Johnson, meanwhile, had 11.5 sacks last season in a full-time role.
The Bears will have to avoid third-and-long situations as this Bengals defensive line is built to attack the quarterback. The Bengals defense finished third in the NFL last season with 51 sacks. The defense as a whole allowed just 212.5 passing yards per game, seventh-best in the league.
This game provides the perfect opportunity to test how valuable Forte is. The Bears need to establish the run game to wear down the defense early and limit the pass rush from the Bengals defensive line. Utilizing Forte as a pass catcher and gaining small chunks of yardage on first and second down will keep Cutler upright and shorten the clock for defenders to get to him.
When the Bengals have the ball, quarterback Andy Dalton likes to look downfield to Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. Green caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards last season and 11 touchdowns. He also caught a 73-yard touchdown pass, effectively proving his ability to get behind the defense. As I noted in my Four Downs, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings will have to keep him funneled to the inside of the field where there’s extra help. Safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright will have to keep Green in front of them and protect against the deep ball.
Opposite Green is Mohamed Sanu, a second-year player who caught just 16 passes last year in only nine games played with three starts before his season ended prematurely following foot surgery. It’ll be interesting to see how the Bengals use him as he was most effective out of the slot last year. If they bring him inside on Sunday, he could be a big test for second-year nickel back Isaiah Frey.
The Bengals feature a pair of tight ends to reckon with in Jermaine Gresham — who caught 64 passes for 737 yards and 5 touchdowns last year — and rookie Tyler Eifert. Bears fans are surely familiar with Eifert, if not for his close proximity to Chicago while playing at Notre Dame, but for his high draft stock leading many fans craving for GM Phil Emery to select him. Emery chose guard Kyle Long instead — and as a side note, that decision is looking good so far. Eifert is a playmaker, though, and could give the middle of the Bears’ defense fits.
Out of the backfield, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is listed as the starter for the Bengals at running back, but it won’t be long before rookie Giovani Bernard breaks into the starting lineup — or at least garners more carries. Bernard, drafted in the second round by the Bengals, is one of those “never quit” backs that fights for every inch of extra yardage. His draft profile on NFL.com said he protects the ball, so will that limit chances for Peanut’s Ball Bunch to force a turnover from him? The Bears defense could very well bottle up Green-Ellis, so I’m more concerned about when Bernard is in the game as well as the passing game and Green.
Special teams should be an interesting watch in this game, mostly out of curiosity to see what kind of impact Devin Hester will have in the return game now that he doesn’t have to worry about offense anymore. I think he can set up the Bears offense with good field position either with good returns or by fear factor. As long as he doesn’t make foolish decisions with the ball — running backwards on punt returns or taking the ball 9 yards deep in the end zone on kickoffs — then I think he’ll have a strong, positive impact on the game.
Hester’s counterparts are kick returner Brandon Tate and punt returner Adam Jones. Tate finished last year with 24.8 yards per return with a long of 45 yards and just two returns over 40 yards. Jones was a force returning punts in 2012, finishing 9th in the league (among those with at least 10 returns) with an 11.6 average, an 81-yard touchdown, three returns over 20 yards and two returns over 40 yards. The Bears’ coverage units will have to stay disciplined against Tate and Jones.
Mike Nugent handles the kicking duties for the Bengals and Kevin Huber does the punting. Nugent is a career-81.1% field goal kicker in a nine-year career with four teams. Robbie Gould, of course, is one of the most accurate kickers of all time with a career 85.6% mark. Huber finished fourth in the league last year with a net average of 42 yards per punt compared with Adam Podlesh’s 39.4 (ranked 19th). Podlesh’s 34 punts downed inside the 20 and Huber’s 33 ranked them Nos. 4 and 5, respectively. It should be an interesting battle in the third phase.
Lovie Smith is gone, but his “Fourth Phase” will live on. The Bears crowd can make a difference in this ultra-competitive game. It’s difficult to ask a team to play near-flawless football in a season-opener, let alone under a new coaching staff, but the Bears will need to be as mistake-free as possible. The Bengals feast on takeaways and they have the talent on offense to make the Bears pay, should the Bears get careless with the ball. The Bengals are this year’s media darlings. They’re the team everybody is picking to take the biggest leap and make noise in the AFC. Personally, I don’t buy it. I see a more disciplined version of the Detroit Lions: a team with talented players that underachieves. Sure, the Bengals may make the playoffs. They may win the AFC North. And they may even beat the Bears Sunday at Soldier Field. But I like the way the Bears have come out of the gates on opening day the past handful of years. They have the veteran talent and now a much better offense in place to nab a big victory.
Prediction: Chicago 27, Cincinnati 24