Jay Cutler . . . Brandon Marshall . . . Jeremy Bates . . . all former Broncos with ties to tonight’s competition. Caleb Hanie’s triumphant return to Chicago as leader of the Denver second- or third-team offense. Peyton Manning’s first game in more than 19 months.
These are all seemingly great storylines. But not a one of them is really worth a second thought.
The Bears’ preseason opener is not much more than a glorified practice, really. Try to think of it as such. Don’t get caught up in whether or not they win or lose; whether or not Brandon Marshall has any receptions before pulling up a chair on the sidelines; or whether or not Caleb Hanie is sacked into oblivion.
It’s all meaningless to the big picture. But the game itself is not meaningless for players on the bubble, play execution and player evaluation. Coaches tend to put a lot of stock in what their second- and third-stringers can do against another opponent, at game speed, and when the lights are on.
And so, here’s who and what I’ll be watching for tonight:
J’Marcus Webb – I don’t expect Webb to get the same treatment many of the other starters will see tonight. Offensive coordinator and pseudo offensive line coach, Mike Tice, has not been happy with Webb’s performance during camp, or his immaturity for that matter. Webb has won the starting LT position for now, but it has more to do with no one else stepping up and beating him than it does him rising to the occasion.
Webb’s footwork and speed off the snap has killed him against even the rookie Shea McClellin during practice, and the minute his confidence waivers, he seems not mentally up to the task. He has to show that he can be technically sound, not draw any penalties, and keep the quarterback safe.
I expect Tice to try and help Webb in his scheming during the regular season, but tonight won’t be about schemes; it will be about execution, technique, and finding out whether or not players can pass the test on a bigger stage. Webb has yet to prove he can.
Corey Wootton – At 6-6, 270, Wootton looks the part. But he’s struggled to live up to the hype machine that rocketed him to fan-favorite status after he ended Brett Favre’s career in December of 2010. He’s struggled to perform consistently and stay healthy.
Wootton is signed with the Bears through 2013, but with the addition of rookie Shea McClellin, he has to prove that he’s worth hanging on to as a former fourth-round Draft selection. He’s been having a great camp, and that’s why I’m so excited to see what he can do tonight.
Evan Rodriguez – The Bears’ offense this season will line up in a lot of base “Single Set Back” or “Ace” formation—or so it would seem from what we’ve seen during training camp—putting two receivers out wide, two tight ends inside and one tailback about five yards behind the QB. At times they will substitute a tight end for a slot receiver.
What Mike Tice likes about this particular formation is the versatility. If you have the kind of tight ends the Bears do (big/athletic/physical) you can use them as additional lineman along the edge (which we’ve seen a lot of in camp) or in the receiving game, creating match-up issues for opposing defenses. The concept puts pressure on opposing safeties, who often have to come up and assist in coverage, and it opens up big-play potential provided the protection is there along the line.
This is where rookie TE Evan Rodriguez comes into the picture. Rodriguez will be the Bears’ “Move” TE and will have to have a good understanding of the playbook in order to be successful. Discipline and technique will be key for him. He’s had an impressive camp, but I’m waiting to see just how comfortable he looks when the pressure and the cameras are on.
If he really turns out to be as good as he’s looked so far, the Bears got one hell of a steal by nabbing him in the fourth-round.
The defensive line – The quandary with this defensive line for me is the potential. And potential sucks. Julius Peppers doesn’t have potential, he’s a monster. The Bears need this unit to be vastly improved this season, and they have a lot of players who have the capability of stepping up. In the preseason, you start to look for who is turning potential into production.
Obviously, you’d like to see rookie DE Shea McClellin have some success early on. He’s taken steps in the right direction throughout camp, and his speed is definitely going to be too much for some tackles off the edge, but doing it consistently will be the challenge.
On the inside of the line, Stephen Paea has looked solid in camp and definitely needs to step up this season. Other players to watch will be DT Brian Price and DE Chauncey Davis—both have shown potential, but Price is out of shape and Davis isn’t likely to turn the corner on production his eighth season in the League.
Overall, watch for these guys to get pressure, while keeping everything in perspective tonight.
Dane Sanzenbacher – Sanzenbacher is fighting for his life (job) this offseason amid a suddenly talented receiving core. The Bears like him. Jay Cutler likes him. But they won’t keep him if he starts to struggle in exhibition. I don’t expect him to, but keep your eyes peeled anyway.
Nick Roach – With the uncertainty surrounding Brian Urlacher’s existing knee injury, Roach hopes to instill some confidence in the coaching staff that in the very likely scenario that Brian Urlahcer misses a game or two this season, he will be able to hold down the middle of the field. Roach, who starts for the Bears at strong-side linebacker, will fill in for Brian in tonight’s preseason opener.
Brian may be fine after all, mind you. He may not miss a beat. But for my own sanity, I need to hope Roach shows us that he can help the Bears wins games if good ol’ #54 has to redshirt a few.
Is that all I’ll be watching tonight? No. Are there other things to take away from this game? Yes. Like nobody getting hurt for example. There’s the rookie WR Alshon Jeffery. There’s the uncertainty at the safety position. There’s the battle at running back between Kahlil Bell and Armando Allen. Or how about the rookie offensive tackle James Brown? There’s one to watch. Oh, and there’s that guy—what’s his name?—Rashied Davis. Will he really push Sanzenbacher at WR, or is he just a motivational tool for Dane to butch up on special teams?
All fun topics, none of which will be answered tonight.
The number one priority for the Bears is don’t get hurt. The number one priority for the fans—in my not so humble opinion—is to not draw any wild conclusions from what you see tonight. Don’t be bummed if they lose, and don’t start chanting Super Bowl at a win. It’s just another practice.