Third preseason games are always the ones teams, coaches and players point to as somewhat meaningful tests rather than the quizzes of Games 1 and 2 when starters play sparingly and scheming is at a minimum. For the 2013 Bears, Game 3 may be as significant as any in recent preseasons.
The looming problem is that with a schedule starting off with playoff teams Cincinnati and Minnesota, the Bears could actually play respectably and be 0-2. For that matter, they draw struggling Pittsburgh and Detroit next but both on the road, get the reinvigorated, re-Sean Payton'd New Orleans Saints at home, and then have the Giants (9-7), Redskins (10-6) and Packers (11-5) to finish out the first half.
The NFL doesn’t allow for grace periods. The Bears need to have a fully functioning offense by opening day or risk being in a deep hole long before they get the non-2012-playoff Rams, Cowboys, Browns and Eagles later in the season.
The Bears opened last season with playoff teams Indianapolis and Green Bay, losing to the Packers and getting the Colts in Andrew Luck’s first game. They finished a game out of the playoffs.
Looking at the state of the Bears mid-preseason:
The greening of rookie middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic is enormously significant still, but Bostic right now isn’t in on nickel situations so he isn’t directly involved in stopping third-down conversions.
James Anderson’s play at SLB has been a little under the radar but Anderson has quietly been a solid positive for an already good defense. If Bostic doesn’t hold onto the No. 1 job, it’ll be because D.J. Williams is back sufficiently from his calf injury and is simply better than Bostic; no negatives here.
The defense is running the same scheme with largely the same cast and the No. 1 unit shut out San Diego and its only TD allowed at Carolina was after a turnover gave the Panthers the ball in the red zone. And this has been without the Pro Bowl half of its line in Henry Melton (concussion) and Julius Peppers (resting a hamstring).
The offense in fact may be effectively ahead of where it was a year ago, based on simple results.
The Bears No. 1’s in Game 3 last preseason had seven possessions vs. the New York Giants. They scored on two: a touchdown and a field goal.
(In a foreshadowing perhaps, Brandon Marshall was targeted on 10 of Jay Cutler’s 21 passes. The Bears went on to open the year 7-1 with the help of six touchdowns from the defense/special teams.)
Against Carolina, the No. 1 offense sans Marshall and Earl Bennett failed to score on its three possessions and sustained no drive longer than 32 yards.
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But against San Diego, the unit scored touchdowns on two of four possessions and likely makes points on a third of the four but for an interception that squandered a takeaway at the Chargers 34. Best guess is that a throw just like that is unlikely to happen again; that’s why Marc Trestman and Matt Cavanaugh were hired.
And Cutler is clearly more comfortable already with Jermon Bushrod having his back, literally, instead of J’Marcus Webb and even with rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills keeping people with ill intent out of his face.
“I’m sure there are corrections to be made,” Cutler said post-San Diego, “but I was at ease having them in, which is nice.”