Rookie RT Gabe Carimi; WR Roy Williams; C Roberto Garza; New Punter Adam Podlesh
So, after all the posturing, negotiations, and threats of no football on 2011…the owners and players FINALLY agreed on a deal to keep the NFl going for the next ten years. After a flurry of draft pick signings, free agent signings,and salary cap cash dumping; after two weeks of hearing all the lip service of how hard everyone worked in the offseason and how GREAT everyone looks in camp—we get our first look at the 2011-2012 Chicago Bears, tonight at home against Buffalo. We return with our entire coaching staff in tact; and 18 or 19 of a possible 22 starters in the same spots they finished the season. A season that most are quick to forget ended with us hosting the NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME. In my opinion, we are not as far off from the Saints, Falcons, Eagles, and Packers as everyone seems to think we are. With the shortened offseason and training camp, we all know that there have really only been a handful of practices, and starters’ time and in-game strategy should be pretty limited, But here are some key things I will be looking for tonight:
1) Roberto Garza’s play at Center: He is playing his first game taking over for Olin Kreutz. I will be watching how he handles the other four linemen; how smoothly the center-to-quarterback exchanges are; and if Garza can get out to the second level on running plays and screens as well as Kreutz did all of those years. His size will be a huge plus, especially in short yardage situations; but he needs to prove he can handle all of the other things that made Olin Kreutz so great all of those years.
2) Pass Protection: This was undoubtedly our team’s Achilles Heel last season—it cost us the Giants game (where we lost Cutler for two weeks); and the NFC Championship Game versus the Packers (where Cutler also left due to injury). Gabe Carimi was drafted in the first round, and is expected to handle the the right side for the next decade, which starts tonight. Last year’s 7th-round pick, J’Marcus Webb, is moving moved from RT to LT. Overall, Webb payed okay for a rookie; but he seemed to really struggle against speed rushers, like Cameron Wake of the Dolphins and Ray Edwards of the Vikings. Keeping Cutler upright and on the field will be critical to our efforts to repeat as NFC North Champions. The good thing about the preseason is that there is not too much blitzing—we will get to see those guys go one-on-one with some guys and see how they handle themselves.
3) Wide Receiver Separation: The only receivers who could get open on a consistent basis last season were Earl Bennett and Rashied Davis. Davis is gone. Devin Hester and Johnny Knox allegedly spent the whole summer getting bigger and stronger. Then, we added Roy Williams from the Cowboys. If our WRs can provide the target, we know Cutler can make the throws. This really hurt us in the all three Packers’ games last year, and you KNOW every team we play will watch that film. So our Wideouts have to be better at beating the jams, creating space, and getting to the correct spots.
4) Interior Run Defense: Specifically, our DTs (Anthony Adams, Matt Toeina, Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, and Amobi Okoye) need to be able to collapse the pcket and keep blockers off of LBS Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. In the first seven weeks of the season, we will face Michael Turner (Falcons), Mark Ingram (Saints), Ryan Grant (Packers), Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams (Panthers), Adrian Peterson (Vikings), and LaGarrette Blount (Bucs). We have to prove we can be stout inside for the Cover-2 scheme to work.
5) Special Teams: Gone are Punter Brad Maynard (Replaced by Adam Podlesh from the Jaguars), and special teams stalwarts Garrett Wolfe and Rashied Davis, among others. There will be alot of new pieces out there on special teams this season, so Dave Toub has to find his guys and get them up to speed quickly.
Here are some competitions I will be watching:
1) Marion Barber versus Chester Taylor: I find it REALLY, REALLY hard to believe that the Bears will keep TWO backup running backs , neither of which play on special teams. I think they will drop one or the other by the beginning of the season, making space for Kahlil Bell or Harvey Unga.
2) Tim Jennings versus Zack Bowman versus Joshua Moore: Someone is going to have to shore up the spot opposite Charles Tillman; DJ Moore is entrenched at the nickel spot; Corey Graham gets one of the reserve spots simply for his play on special teams. A SLEEPER TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Ryan Jones, from Northwest Missouri State.
3) Wide Receiver: You have to figure the Bears will keep six WRs this season. Hester, Bennett, Knox, and Roy Williams seem like locks; and it is hard to imagine them not keeping Sam Hurd after they signed him from the Cowboys. That leaves one spot open for guys like Dane Sanzenbacher, Jimmy Young, Andy Fantuz, Onrea Jones, and Travis Cobb. Those guys should see alot of time tonight, so it will be interesting to watch who stands out.