Hoping to put the painful memory of last year’s missed opportunity behind them, the Bears open their 2014 season on Sunday at home against the Buffalo Bills.
Last year, in head coach Marc Trestman‘s first season with the franchise, the Bears looked radically different from seasons past. Gone were the days of dink-and-dunk offenses that relied heavily on running the football and throwing passes shorter than 10 yards. No more were they a team that could win with a stout defense that kept opponents under 17 points and could force turnovers and score points.
The Bears, if only for a season, had become an offensive juggernaut, scoring the second most points in the NFL behind only the record-setting Broncos, and winning games by getting into shootouts.
Can the Bears duplicate their offensive success from a season ago? Is their defense any better than the one that was historically bad in 2013? Can the special teams contribute better than we witnessed last year and throughout this preseason? These are all answers we hope to find out when the Bills come to Soldier Field.
The Bears will be tested early and often by a Bills running attack featuring a two-headed monster in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. The Bills had the second-best rushing total in the NFL last season, averaging 144.2 yards per game on the ground — a scary thought for a Bears defense that allowed a league-worst 161.4 rushing yards per game. Trestman knows that his defense will see a heavy dose of the Bills ground game early, and the Bears must focus on stopping that first and foremost.
If the Bills can’t break open running lanes, they’ll have to rely on quarterback EJ Manuel to move the chains, a game plan that won’t lead to a lot of success for them.
Manuel, now in his second season, completed just 58% of his passes last year, thew just 11 touchdowns to 9 interceptions, finished with a 77.7 passer rating and absorbed 28 sacks in just 10 games played. The Bills added star rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the team, and he has one of the best skill sets I’ve seen for a receiver out of college, but a receiver can only do so much without the football.
Although many teams in the NFL will lick their chops at the opportunity to take shots down the field against the Bears’ safeties, I’m not sure Manuel will have enough time or weapons to do so. He’ll likely resort to checkdown passes to Spiller and Jackson as well as veteran tight end Scott Chandler.
You all may remember former Bear Chris Williams — and no, I’m not talking about the former CFL kick returner who was trying out to be Devin Hester’s replacement this preseason. I’m talking about the former first round offensive lineman who wound up being a bust with the team and had to find greener pastures. Williams spent time with the St. Louis Rams before inking a deal with these Bills this offseason. This is a golden opportunity for the Bears’ revamped defensive line to get its feet wet.
Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, and Willie Young were all added to the Bears’ roster this season with the hopes of shoring up the run defense and getting after the quarterback. Defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, who joined the Bears midseason last year and only played in five games, is finally healthy and ready to wreak havoc in the middle of the line. Between Ratliff and Stephen Paea, the Bears have enough strength to give Williams — and the rest of the Bills’ interior offensive line — fits all game.
The best pass rushers in the league are the ones who have good help from their defensive tackles. For instance, Allen played with Pat and Kevin Williams in Minnesota for many years. The two beefy tackles clogged up the middle of the line and allowed Allen to roam free to the quarterback. That’s not to say that Allen’s relentless motor and his football intelligence didn’t have anything to do with his success. But if a quarterback doesn’t have two large, angry defenders in his lap, he’s free to move about the pocket. The Bears are counting on their defensive tackles to cause more chaos in the backfield this season, and they’ll get a promising first test against the Bills.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears have a tough Bills defensive line to contend with, perhaps the toughest they could face all season. The Bills had the second-most sacks in the NFL last year with 57 — 41 of which came from their defensive line starters. Mario Williams, the former first round pick of the Texans, had 13 sacks, fellow end Jerry Hughes had 10, and tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus finished with 10.5 and 7.5, respectively. In short, this is a terrorizing defensive front that will give the Bears’ offensive line a real challenge to open the season.
The Bears were one of the few teams to start every game with their offensive line intact last year. This preseason, they had a little bit of bad luck with health. Second-year pro Kyle Long missed the start of training camp with a viral infection. Right tackle Jordan Mills missed time with foot soreness, which stemmed from the surgery he had on it in January. The duo of Long and Mills played well together as rookies last year but without any time in the preseason to jell, there could be some sloppy moments on Sunday.
The other side of the Bears line is a veteran one, with tackle Jermon Bushrod, guard Matt Slauson, and center Roberto Garza. But even the experience each of them has had in the league is of little use against opponents with speed and athleticism. The Bears have one of the most potent offenses in the league, but if they can’t protect Jay Cutler in the pocket, the offense won’t go anywhere. Expect to see extra protection for Cutler all afternoon — in the form of an extra tight end, a sixth lineman, or keeping Matt Forte (an exceptional pass blocker for a running back) in the backfield.
The Bears would ideally like to get Forte and the run game involved more, but they’re not going to abandon the pass to do so. With weapons like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett — along with newcomer Santonio Holmes — the Bears are going to use those assets to exploit the Bills defense. I imagine running lanes will open up as the game goes on and the Bills defense is respecting the pass more.
I don’t expect a close game in this one — at least not by the second half — but if the Bills should happen to keep it close, I’m a little nervous about the Bears’ special teams. Long snapper Patrick Mannelly — the longest tenured Bear in history — has retired and moved to sports talk radio. Devin Hester — the greatest kick returner in NFL history — departed in free agency and has landed with the Atlanta Falcons. Adam Podlesh — who struggled with consistency and distance last year — was cut this offseason. The only remaining specialist the Bears have is mouthy kicker Robbie Gould. Mannelly was replaced by Jeremy Cain, Hester by Michael Spurlock and Senorise Perry, and Podlesh by rookie Pat O’Donnell.
What concerns me most about the Bears special teams is their coverage. Spiller will be returning kickoffs and cornerback Leodis McKelvin will handle the punt returns. Both players have great speed and I’m fearful of a big return that changes game momentum. Let’s hope the Bears quell those fears.
As most new seasons go, I expect the Bears to have to shake off some rust. Passes will miss their marks, tackles will be whiffed, turnovers will be likely. Cutler might even get sacked a few more times than we’re comfortable with. But in the end, talent surpasses all else as long as the turnover ratio is about even. And the Bears have far more talent than the Bills do across the board. I expect Allen to make his Bears debut memorable with at least a sack and plenty of quarterback hurries. I think the Bears run defense will be better than last year but will still struggle with the duo of Spiller and Jackson. I predict three Bears takeaways on defense. And I envision the Bears finding the end zone at least four times in this one. Whether or not the Bills can keep up on the scoreboard remains to be seen.
Prediction: Chicago 34, Buffalo 20