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NFL team preview: Chicago Bears

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INSIDE SLANT

Despite a preseason that had him running for his life or ducking for cover far too often, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler can't wait for the regular season to begin.

That might seem odd, considering the Bears scored just 17 points in the five quarters that Cutler had played going into the final preseason game, during which he was sacked 10 times, threw two interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 62.4.

Questions about the reworked offensive line's ability to protect Cutler have not been answered to anyone's satisfaction, although the quarterback and offensive coordinator Mike Martz both insist there has been improvement. The other huge question was how quickly the offense would fully grasp Martz's thick playbook.

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Cutler, whose football intelligence is almost as impressive as his rocket arm, appears to have it down pat. But, unless all his receivers and blockers are on the same learning curve, there could be problems.
But Cutler says he's ready to play for keeps in Martz's scheme, starting with the season opener against the Lions on Sept. 12.

"I'm good," he said. "I met with Mike a lot since the preseason started, just talking through game plans. We're going to do more and more of that once the season starts getting a little bit closer, just talking Detroit. And from week to week I'm sure we'll have a lot of film sessions and going over the game plan. But I feel good about the system. I understand it, and I know what we're trying to get accomplished out there. So I'm ready for the real games to start."

Really? After getting blanked by the Cardinals on five possessions, plus a kneel-down at the end of the half?

"It's preseason," Cutler said. "We're (running some) plays just to run plays and getting game ready and season ready. We're not calling exactly what we want to call against exactly the right defense we want to get. We're not checking anything (changing plays). We're not making a ton of adjustments on the fly, either.

"Is there reason for concern? I mean, maybe. Maybe not. I'm not concerned. I don't think anybody in that locker room is really concerned (with) where we're at. I think we're happy with where we are. There's room to improve absolutely, but I think we'll be ready Week One."

No one who's seen Martz's offense hitting on all cylinders doubts that it can run like a racecar. Opening up the playbook requires better protection up front, but Cutler's ready to hit the gas pedal.

"We're going to open it up," he said. "Those guys will be expected to make it happen over there. They played a lot better this past game going back and looking at the film. I was a little edgy in the pocket moving around sometimes. I could have helped them out a little bit. That's what we're learning.

"With (guard) Lance (Louis) in there and with (tackle) Chris (Williams) on the left side, they're kind of still jelling together. Some of the calls are a little bit new to them as well with what we're doing protection-wise. So it's all coming together and I think once we get closer to Detroit we'll be OK."

Martz expected to see a better performance than he did last Saturday, but he'd rather deal with problems early and get them corrected before the regular season.

"There's so much information on them, they're so wound up and so tight, they wanted to play well so badly," he said. "We made some mistakes that I was a little bit surprised by, but fortunately you get that done now instead of the opener, and get that out of your system. We've had a real good clean-up week of practice on those things. I think that there's a cohesion now, particularly in the passing game."

Martz and Cutler both said the offensive line showed improvement in the third preseason game and looked better in film review than in the heat of the battle.

"Chris (Williams) did a nice job," Martz said. "Lance (Louis) was a standout. I wish I could show you tape of Lance on (Darnell) Dockett. He did a terrific job. Each week our group grows together and gets better and better. I'm very pleased with the progress, particularly in the protections with that group."

Defensively, the Bears have fewer concerns, although a spate of minor injuries at linebacker and safety throughout training camp and the preseason sometimes made progress fitful.

Safety will remain a concern until two players can be found who are sure tacklers and can make plays on the ball. The Bears seem to have a roster full of players who can do one or the other but not both. Rookie Major Wright was homing in on a starting job until finger surgery knocked him out of the final three preseason games, but he could still wind up starting early in the season.

Free agent Julius Peppers has made the d-line more dangerous and the pass rush more effective, which the Bears hope will mask shortcomings in the secondary.

COACHING: Lovie Smith, 7th year, 7th with Bears (54-46).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 7-9 (3rd in NFC Central).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 9-7 (3rd in NFC Central).

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

All of the Bears' top five safeties have missed time during training camp and/or the preseason, including rookie Major Wright (finger), Craig Steltz (ankle) and Josh Bullocks (quad). Wright and Steltz played in only the preseason opener, while Bullocks played in only the finale.

All are expected back for the regular-season opener, if they're still on the roster, and Wright has been practicing but has not cleared for contact yet.

"We've been in this situation before," said coach Lovie Smith, who has made a total of 40 lineup changes at free and strong safety in the previous six seasons. "It seems like the secondary in general there are a lot of injuries. They run a lot, it's a physical football game, too. "We just look at it as an opportunity to see some more guys. We came in with a lot of guys that we like at the safety position and we've needed every one. This week we may have to work different combinations, but during the course of the season you have to work those combinations."

Chris Harris started at free safety Saturday night with Danieal Manning at strong safety, same as last week. Manning led the Bears with 7 tackles, and he forced a fumble in the red zone that killed a Cardinals drive seven yards short of the end zone. Harris' missed tackle on Tim Hightower just past the line of scrimmage allowed the Arizona running back to make a 29-yard run in the third quarter. Harris called his performance, which also included another missed tackle, one of the worst of his career.

PLAYER NOTES

--CB D.J. Moore was the No. 1 nickel back in the third preseason game, but the Bears' pass defense was suspect, allowing four third-down conversions of seven yards or longer, and Moore was credited with just two tackles.

--CB Corey Graham is still in the running for the No. 1 nickel back job, even though D.J. Moore played there in the third preseason game. Graham has played corner, nickel and safety for the Bears.

--LB Nick Roach had arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 24 and hopes to be back for the regular-season opener, but his current absence from practice ends the competition between him and Pisa Tinoisamoa for the starting spot on the strong side.

--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa will be the starter on the strong side opening day, barring injury. He was battling Nick Roach for the spot, but Roach had arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 24 and is not expected back until the season opener at the earliest.

--LB Lance Briggs (ankle) is expected to start the season opener, but he did not play in the final preseason game and did not practice in the week after suffering the injury in the third preseason game.

--QB Caleb Hanie (sprained shoulder) practiced on a limited basis in the week leading up to the final preseason game but did not play. He is hoping to be ready for the season opener but is no better than questionable at this point.

--QB Todd Collins, who did not take a snap until the final preseason game, could be the No. 2 behind Jay Cutler for the season opener if Caleb Hanie has not recovered fully from a sprained shoulder.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 3/75, S Major Wright, Florida -- On pace to challenge for starting job until finger surgery after preseason opener. Back at practice and still could be starting by early in the season. Has shown willingness to hit and ability to make plays on the ball.

Rd. 4/109, DE Corey Wootton, Northwestern -- Has flashed some pass-rush skills but is in danger of getting lost in the shuffle at a crowded position.

Rd. 5/141, CB Joshua Moore, Kansas State -- For now, only chance to make an impact will be on special teams.

Rd. 6/181, QB Dan LeFevour, Central Michigan -- Showed amazing improvement in third preseason game after poor outings in first two contests but looks like practice squad for him.

Rd. 7/218, OT J'Marcus Webb, West Texas A&M -- Raw talent who is worth developing but remains a project for now.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Jay Cutler. Backups -- Caleb Hanie, Todd Collins.

Early indications are that Mike Martz-Cutler is a match made in heaven. The quarterback loves the system and the offensive coordinator loves the talent of the quarterback. Cutler has every physical skill necessary to excel, the rocket arm, the size, the intelligence and the athleticism to move in the pocket but not the urge to bolt down the field at the first sign of trouble. Hanie missed most of the preseason with a sprained shoulder, which necessitated the signing of 38-year-old veteran Collins on Aug. 23. Hanie has flashed promise in previous preseasons, and he's mobile and athletic, but he's thrown just seven passes in games that count. Collins is a career backup who came up huge the last time he was called upon to start, but that was back in 2007.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Matt Forte. Backups -- Chester Taylor, Kahlil Bell, FB Eddie Williams, Garrett Wolfe.

Forte played hurt all last season with a strained hamstring and then a sprained knee, which probably had a lot to do with his poor sophomore season, when his average per carry dipped from 3.9 yards as a rookie to 3.6., and his rushing yardage fell from 1,238 to 929. Now he's healthy again, and has shown the burst and long speed that were lacking last year. For the first time the Bears have a proven backup behind Forte. Taylor has the same versatility as Forte with maybe a bit more power but not as much speed. Both players catch the ball extremely well and are effective blockers. Not that there will be many carries left, but Bell has a good combination of power and quickness, while Wolfe is a change-of-pace type with the speed the other three lack. Martz doesn't use fullbacks much, but Williams has the big body to be an effective lead blocker.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Devin Hester, Johnny Knox. Backups -- Devin Aromashodu, Rashied Davis, Earl Bennett, Juaquin Iglesias.

With Hester and Knox the Bears have a ton of big-play potential since both have excellent speed and can stretch the field. Aromashodu provides the big target (6-foot-2, 201 pounds) that is missing with Hester and Knox, and he is also a down-the-field threat. Aromashodu could be on the field as much as anyone given the amount of three-WR sets the Bears will use. Those three will be Cutler's favorite targets among the wideouts, but it's anyone's guess where each will rank in terms of catches and yards. The next tier of wide receivers includes Davis, Bennett and Iglesias. Iglesias is a possession type with good size and strength, who was basically red-shirted last season after being drafted in the third round. The same thing happened to Bennett after he was a third-round pick in 2008, but he caught 54 passes for 717 yards last season. But Bennett fell behind the others when he missed extensive time in camp and all of the preseason with a hamstring injury. Davis is an undersized veteran with good speed and quickness who is a valuable special-teams member. He's the most meticulous route-runner of the bunch but also the smallest.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Greg Olsen, Brandon Manumaleuna. Backups -- Desmond Clark, Kellen Davis.

Olsen has the skill set of a big wide receiver and, if he continues to work on his blocking, he will have a major role in the offense, even though Martz has usually not utilized the tight end as a major weapon in the past. Olsen has the speed to stretch the middle of the field and the size to be a factor in the red zone. The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Manumaleuna is strictly a sixth offensive lineman. He failed to impress in camp, but he was not 100 percent following off-season arthroscopic knee surgery. The Bears plan to play a lot of two-TE formations this season and frequently used three in the preseason. Clark was thought to be the odd man out entering his 12th season, but he had an excellent camp and is the best mix of blocker-receiver in the group. The Bears have listed him as an H-back on the depth chart, sometimes lining him up in the backfield. Davis is too big and too athletic to let go.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Chris Williams, LG Roberto Garza, C Olin Kreutz, RG Lance Louis, RT Frank Omiyale. Backups -- G/C Josh Beekman, T Kevin Shaffer, G Johan Asiata, T James Marten.

Williams, the first-round pick in 2008 was expected to take over at left tackle and lock down that side for the next decade. But he was beaten for three sacks by Kamerion Wimbley -- in the just the first half -- during the second preseason game. Garza, a four-year starter at right guard, was moved to the left side to allow Louis to play on the left side. Louis, a seventh-round pick in 2009 is strong and athletic but inexperienced. Kreutz is back in the middle for his 13th season, and he is no longer the player who went to six Pro Bowls, but he is expected to bounce back from a down season after off-season Achilles surgery. Omiyale had the left guard position handed to him last year but didn't play well enough to keep it. He looks more comfortable at right tackle. Beekman has started 20 games at left guard but may be better cast as the center of the future. Shaffer is a tenacious, veteran tackle who is much better on the right side. Asiata showed promise last season but did not progress in training camp. Marten could get a shot if Omiyale falters.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Israel Idonije, DT Tommie Harris, NT Anthony Adams, RE Julius Peppers. Backups -- DE Mark Anderson, DT Marcus Harrison, DT Matt Toeaina, DL Henry Melton, DL Jarron Gilbert.

Under Lovie Smith the Bears have always favored a rotation on the D-line, but Peppers will be on the field as much as possible. Idonije and Anderson competed for the other DE spot throughout the preseason. Idonije is bigger and more physical, while Anderson has occasionally flashed pass-rush talent. Inside, Harris is healthier than he's been in years at the three technique, and if he regains his Pro Bowl form, he and Peppers will be a powerful force. Harrison has been penciled in at nose in the past, but Adams always winds up playing better than players with supposedly more talent. Harrison can also play the three technique, which he seems to prefer. Gilbert and Melton have yet to make an impact but Melton could figure as a situational pass rusher.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Pisa Tinoisamoa. Backups -- Nick Roach, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Brian Iwuh.

If Urlacher can stay healthy for 16 games, instead of the one-half of a game that he played last season, the defense will be better across the board, even if he isn't at quite the Pro Bowl level he played at for six seasons. Briggs is still playing as well as he has the past four years, when he was voted to the Pro Bowl each season. Tinoisamoa and Roach were again battling for the No. 1 job until minor knee surgery temporarily sidelined Roach. But he provides excellent depth along with Hillenmeyer, who filled in for Urlacher for 15 games last season. Iwuh battled nagging injuries throughout camp and the preseason but proved he belonged when he was on the field.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Zack Bowman, RCB Charles Tillman, SS Danieal Manning, FS Chris Harris. Backups -- CB Corey Graham, S Major Wright, S Craig Steltz, S Josh Bullocks, CB Tim Jennings, CB D.J. Moore.

Bowman and Tillman have been flip-flopped, with the younger, faster Bowman working on the left side, which is usually considered the tougher assignment. Tillman remains solid and physical, though, and he excels at stripping the ball from receivers and running backs. Graham has played cornerback, safety and nickel, but he spent most of the preseason at nickel. Veteran free agent Jennings could see time there, too, along with the equally undersized Moore. Safety is up for grabs, although Harris will start at one spot. Wright was on pace for a starting gig until finger surgery knocked him out for two weeks. That gave Manning the job, but Wright could challenge him for the job before long. Steltz and Bullocks provide depth, but both missed most of the preseason with injuries.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Robbie Gould, P Brad Maynard, LS Patrick Mannelly, KR Danieal Manning/Johnny Knox, PR Devin Hester.

Gould is the third-most-accurate FG kicker in NFL history at 85.9 percent, exceptional considering the sometimes-difficult conditions at Soldier Field. Maynard, one of the league's most effective directional kickers, had off-season hip surgery to relieve a chronic condition that made practice painful, and he is feeling better than he has in years. Mannelly is still automatic in his 13th season. Hester will continue to return punts, and he's overdue to break one. Knox was second in the league with a 29.0-yard kickoff-return average. Manning led the NFL with a 29.7-yard average in '08.
 

Tagged: Bears, Bengals, Cowboys, Dolphins, Vikings, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Keith Brooking, Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield, Brian Urlacher, Jon Kitna, Brett Favre, Ryan Longwell, Todd Collins, Jim Kleinsasser, Leonard Davis, Steve Hutchinson, Sage Rosenfels, Kyle Kosier, Lito Sheppard, Javon Walker, Bryant McKinnie, Julius Peppers, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Ben Leber, Lance Briggs, Jason Witten, Terence Newman, Kevin Williams, Jimmy Kennedy, Charles Tillman, E.J. Henderson, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Montrae Holland, Bradie James, Greg Lewis, Tony Romo, Igor Olshansky, Madieu Williams, Roy Williams, Tommie Harris, Bernard Berrian, Jeff Dugan, Jared Allen, Mat McBriar, Israel Idonije, Benny Sapp, Anthony Herrera, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Josh Bullocks, Jeremiah Ratliff, Marion Barber, Frank Omiyale, Chris Harris, Rashied Davis, Chris Kluwe, Greg Camarillo, Tarvaris Jackson, Brandon Williams, Jason Hatcher, Jay Cutler, Chad Greenway, Danieal Manning, Cedric Griffin, Ryan Cook, Devin Hester, Tim Jennings, Mark Anderson, Devin Aromashodu, Ray Edwards, Miles Austin, Stephen Bowen, Brian Iwuh, Alan Ball, Corey Graham, Doug Free, Josh Beekman, Adrian Peterson, Anthony Spencer, Greg Olsen, Sidney Rice, Nick Roach, Chris Williams, Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Tyrell Johnson, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett, Craig Steltz, Tashard Choice, Tim Hightower, Kellen Davis, John Sullivan, Earl Bennett, Marcus Harrison, Erin Henderson, Caleb Hanie, Darius Reynaud, Lance Louis, Jasper Brinkley, John Phillips, Eddie Williams, Jason Williams, Asher Allen, Juaquin Iglesias, Stephen McGee, Henry Melton, Victor Butler, D.J. Moore, Johnny Knox, Percy Harvin, Phil Loadholt, Kevin Ogletree, Dan LeFevour, Major Wright, Dez Bryant, Everson Griffen, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Chris DeGeare, Corey Wootton, Joe Webb, Chris Cook, Sean Lee, Toby Gerhart, Joshua Moore, Sam Young, Danny McCray, Bryan McCann, Barry Church

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