10 things to keep an eye on in the Bears' preseason opener vs. Broncos

Posted by Matt Clapp | 8/09/2012 05:38:00 AM


Well, here we are. 2012 Bears football finally on the air (kickoff at 7:30 PM CT).

That means the first game (although the first real game isn't for another month) of Jay Cutler (UPDATE: Cutler will not play tonight) and Brandon Marshall together in a Bears uniform. They of course played together on the Broncos from 2006-2008 (see highlights of their dominance together by clicking here), and guess what? It's the Broncos that the Bears face tonight at Soldier Field.

What's that? You need more storylines for this game? Okay, let's see... some quarterback named Peyton Manning makes his Broncos debut. Oh, and former Bear (groans) Caleb Hanie also makes his Broncos debut. I doubt he gets a very nice welcome back to Soldier Field from Bears fans tonight.

So, you'll surely have your eyes focused on all that tonight, but what else should you pay attention to in the Bears' preseason opener? Here's 10 things to keep an eye on:

1. The offensive play-calling from new offensive coordinator Mike Tice

While getting Brandon Marshall was awesome, it was nearly as awesome to finally get rid of Mike Martz and his seven-step drops, especially with an offensive line that struggles in pass protection.

Mike Tice, the Bears' 2010-2011 offensive line coach, takes over the play-calling, and we're going to see a lot more three and five-step drops to prevent Cutler from getting killed. Tice is expected to call a lot of plays to get Cutler moving out of the pocket, something Cutler did a lot of in Denver with success. They're trying to go back to a lot of what Cutler did well in Denver, and they brought in Jeremy Bates as quarterbacks coach (as well as a passing coordinator of sorts; he'll also be the one relaying the offensive play-calls to Cutler) to help make that happen.

The Bears finally have a very good receiving corps to go with a great running game (which even added Michael Bush over the offseason), and Tice's play-calling will likely be very balanced between pass plays and run plays. Additionally, unlike Martz, Tice greatly values the use of tight ends in the passing game.

So, keep an eye on the play-calls and formations Tice uses tonight, as well as what receivers are targeted in the passing game. They're obviously not going to show off everything in a preseason game, but we should still be able to get a pretty good idea of how Tice is going to call a game this year.

2. The offensive line

As if I really needed to tell you that the Bears' offensive line is worth monitoring; it's been the case for years now. The Bears chose to pretty much ignore the line over the offseason (they did add guard Chilo Rachal for depth), and a big part of that was because of Gabe Carimi's return from a knee injury suffered in week two of the 2011 season. Carimi's knee appears to be in good shape, and he'll be the starting right tackle tonight. Still, he only played one full game in 2011, and while he's a very talented, we haven't seen enough game evidence from him to be all that confident yet.

And then there's the left tackle position. If anybody tells you they're confident that the Bears are just fine there, well, they're either lying, or J'Marcus Webb. Webb is currently the starter there, but it's far from a guarantee that he still has the job when week one comes along. If he struggles and Chris Williams (currently the swing tackle) performs well in the preseason, Williams could certainly take the job. And Webb will certainly have his hands full tonight, as the Broncos feature a couple of tremendous pass-rushers in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.

Undrafted free agent James Brown is definitely worth keeping an eye on as well. He's getting many of the "he looks like he belongs" reviews from people around camp, and was a third or fourth-round talent that fell out of the draft due to off-the-field issues.

3. The tight ends

As I said earlier, Tice is going to make the tight end position a factor in the passing game. So, it will be interesting to see how much the tight ends are targeted tonight, and how they line up each play, as all four tight ends (Kellen Davis, Matt Spaeth, Evan Rodriguez, and Kyle Adams) have their different talents.

Specifically, Rodriguez, a rookie fourth-round pick, should be watched closely tonight. After struggling in minicamp, the rookie has impressed with his hands and speed in training camp. It's expected that Rodriguez will be used in a variety of ways, and we'll probably see that he's lined up in different spots a lot tonight.

Tight end Kyle Adams is fighting for a roster spot, and he's impressed in camp. A good showing preseason could cement his roster spot, and it's possible the Bears don't even carry a traditional fullback on the roster.

4. Alshon Jeffery & Dane Sanzenbacher

Rookie second-round pick Alshon Jeffery is the Bear I'm most excited to watch tonight. Jeffery has shown all camp why he was expected to be a first-round pick in 2012, before weight issues and a disappointing 2011 season (thanks in large part to crappy South Carolina quarterback play) dropped his stock. He's currently in great shape, and using his 6'3" frame to catch everything in sight.

Look at what Peanut Tillman had to tell the Chicago Sun-Times' Sean Jensen yesterday about Jeffery:

“The best way to say it is, he’s a Brandon Marshall in the making,” Tillman told the Sun-Times. “He has that capability to be as good as Brandon if he continues to have the work ethic and work on ball skills and work to be a better player.
Very high praise coming from a Pro Bowl cornerback. Jeffery should be a big part of the offense this year, especially in the red zone.

Another wide receiver to pay attention to in the preseason opener is Dane Sanzenbacher. Coming into camp, it seemed unlikely that Sanzenbacher would make the team, with Marshall, Jeffery, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Eric Weems, and Devin Thomas also on the roster. But, Thomas unexpectedly retired, and Sanzenbacher's gotten rave reviews from everybody around camp. In addition to needing to play well at wide receiver in the preseason games, he'll likely need to show that he can play special teams effectively as well in order to make the team.

5. Kahlil Bell vs. Armando Allen

While Kahlil Bell has shown that he's a very capable back at the NFL level, he simply can't keep fumbling at the rate he has been. In 79 carries with the Bears in 2011, he fumbled three times. Compare that to Matt Forte, who fumbled just twice in 203 carries (and only 7 times in 1,014 career carries). And the Bears have made it clear that he needs to show that he can protect the ball if he wants to make the team.

Meanwhile, 5'10", 190-pound running back Armando Allen has looked great in camp, and if he can keep it up in the preseason games, has a chance to beat out Bell for the third running back spot.

But, let's be honest: if either of these guys have to play much in 2012, that means Forte or Bush got injured. So let's hope that doesn't happen.

6. Shea McClellin & Corey Wootton

The Bears used their first-round pick in the 2012 draft to take defensive end Shea McClellin, with the hopes he could be the impact pass-rusher they desperately need opposite Julius Peppers. And he's shown flashes of his talent as a pass rusher in camp, but has also been man-handled at times by the Bears' offensive tackles. It's the ups and downs of being a rookie, and there's reason to make any judgments on McClellin, or Emery's decision to draft him, quite yet. But, if he doesn't have at least a solid showing in the preseason games, he may not be out there for quite as many 2012 regular season plays as the Bears envisioned when they drafted him, especially because...

Corey Wootton (that guy who ended Brett Favre's career) looks outstanding in camp. At 6'6", 270, Wootton has the perfect size to be a great defensive end, and really, talent hasn't ever been the issue with the Northwestern product that is entering his third year: it's staying healthy. If he can stay healthy, and keeps playing well, he could definitely find himself ahead of McClellin (and perhaps even Idonije eventually) in the defensive end rotation.

7. Defensive tackle

Henry Melton is guaranteed a starting spot, but Stephen Paea and Matt Toeaina are fighting for the other defensive tackle spot. Paea's been terrific in camp, and continued success in the preseason would likely win him the job.

After those three, several defensive tackles (Brian Price, Nate Collins, etc.) are fighting for roster spots, so definitely pay attention to what defensive tackles are making plays to stand out when the second half comes along.

8. Nick Roach at middle linebacker

Nobody outside the organization seems to have any idea what's going on with Brian Urlacher. He missed four straight practices due to a sore left knee, and then missed the next two (which just so happened to be the last two) practices due to "personal reasons". So, he's missed six straight practices, and there's reason to be concerned that his knee is doing worse than the Bears led on.

And if Urlacher's knee is indeed an issue, well, that's a big, big problem. He's the leader of the defense and a perfect fit in the Bears' cover-2 scheme. Nick Roach has moved over to fill in for Urlacher at middle linebacker for the time being, and will start there tonight. I'll definitely have my eye on him during the Broncos' first drive.

9. Impact special teams players

With Corey Graham leaving in free agency, and Devin Thomas retiring, (AWESOME) special teams coach Dave Toub will be looking for another player or two to step up and show they are worthy of being a part of the special teams unit. The Bears value special teams more than any team in the league, and usually, their last few roster spots come down to which players show that they can be contributors in that phase of the game.

Pay attention to who is making the tackles, blocks, or other key plays on special teams.

10. The rookies

The Bears have a pretty good idea about the talents of each of the rookies by now, but there's plenty of things you don't really know until they get out there and play an actual game. Some players dominate in practice and can't do it in the game. Some players don't really stand out in practice, but their adrenaline and drive as a competitor kick in during a game. Lovie Smith and Phil Emery are sure to have a different view on at least a few of the rookies after these preseason games.

Oh, and it's just fun for us as fans to see these draft picks and potential stars of the future, in their first game action.

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