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“The all-important third preseason game… .”
Or is it?
The short answer is yes, because “it'll be the most extended play of the starters we have available will play,” said coach John Fox.
In fact, it has been said that before training camps ever begin, upwards of 45 roster spots are pretty well decided. And the combination of camp time and first two preseason games have taken care of perhaps all but the finest of tunings of roster decisions.
“You know we've got some guys that we've evaluated on a lot of football plays before the third preseason game,” Fox said, “so albeit it is important, we have a pretty good idea about some of our players.”
So while individual players are tasked with taking steps up in their development – wide receiver Kevin White with just two catches so far, for instance – the focus now shifts from predominantly player evaluation to broader questions of how well whole units are performing together. Each unit has its own challenges in a preseason that is still waiting for the Bears’ first win:
Next step for offense
The shutout at the hands of the Denver Broncos in Game 1 was jolting, preseason or not. The 11 points by the offense in New England was promising.
The offensive production last season was disappointing but yet respectable because of the unmatched parts Cutler needed to work with because of injuries at receiver besides losing No. 1 tailback Matt Forte for three full games and most of a fourth. Scoring: 23rd. Rushing yards: 11th. Plus Cutler’s career-best passer composite: 92.3.
That won’t be good enough in 2016. Regardless of the myriad changes ranging from coordinator on through running back, tight end and the offensive line, Cutler himself set the bar by pre-emptively ruling out possible excuses.
“Solely just Year 1 to Year 2,” Cutler said. “I think there’s going to be less thinking. I think we have a better idea of what we like in the offense; what we don’t like in the offense; where we need to improve; what we need to add. I think personnel-wise we’re getting better and better.”
The offense won’t put its entire playbook on display against the Chiefs. But “need to improve” is the mantra, and that extends through the running-back “committee,” the offensive line regardless of who’s on the field, and the receivers from White in his biggest dose of playing time to tight ends tasked with replacing Martellus Bennett as well as contributing to a run game that forms the foundation of the offense.
Defensive dominance, if you please
Upgrading the defense was the foremost priority of the 2016 offseason, beginning with inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan and lineman Akiem Hicks, and on into the draft when the Bears invested seven of their nine draft picks, including two of the first three, on that side of the football.
“I think we have a chance to be a better defense than we were last year, but the proof will be in the pudding,” coordinator Vic Fangio is on record saying. “Practice is the quiz; the games are the final exam. So until we start playing and see exactly what we’ve got, that will determine the true answer to that question. But I think we have a chance to be better.”
The first two preseason games involved the No. 1 defense but not to the degree that Game 3 will. And as of now, no starting quarterback has been sacked by a Bear, and no defensive starter has a sack through two games, although rotation’ers Sam Acho, Jonathan Bullard, Leonard Floyd and Cornelius Washington have at least a partial sack.
The Kansas City offense was No. 3 in rushing average, sixth in rushing yards per game and ninth in points per game last season. The Bears have yet to make a definitive statement that they are close to an elite defense, which is a prerequisite to moving significantly past the 6-10 record in 2015.
[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
How “special” are ‘teams?
The Bears were a respectable 12th in the special-teams ranking of Dallas Morning News legend Rick Gosselin, a mix of 22 categories that produces a meaningful evaluation of special teams. But the Broncos’ average starting position was their 32, vs. the Bears’ at the Chicago 21. Based on 12 possessions, that loosely translates into 132 field-position yards the Broncos had on the Bears.
The Patriots’ average start was the New England 32; the Bears’ was their own 24, meaning eight yards average on 10 possessions. However, one New England possession started at the Chicago 15 because of a Brian Hoyer interception, skewing the overall.
Meaning: The Bears improved from Week 1 to Week 2 in gaining field position. That needs to develop into a trend that benefits both the offensive and defensive units.
The overall goal is clear: “Improve from Week 2 to Week 3,” Fox said. “We’re here. It’s not a season; they call it preseason for reasons; it’s to evaluate, put your players in positions, take a look at players.”
The White Sox acquired minor-league pitcher Colton Turner from the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday in exchange for catcher Dioner Navarro.
Turner, 25, has a 1.33 ERA in 44 games this season across three levels with 70 strikeouts in 54 innings. The White Sox assigned Turner, who missed all of 2014 after he had reconstructive elbow surgery, to Double-A Birmingham.
“Ever since he got back (from pitching in Australia), he seems to have hit his stride well,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “Fastball/slider mix, good command.
“You can obviously see from the numbers he has done impressive work against righties for a left-handed reliever, which is nice to see.
“We’re going to wait to get to know him better. He’s had a real nice year and we like the stuff, we like the command and we’ll see if he’s able to continue to build on what he has done this year and try to figure out that more in 2017, the role he’ll play going forward.”
Zack Burdi hasn't been in the White Sox organization for long, but he's certainly showing why the club drafted him with the 26th pick in this year's draft.
The 21-year-old pitcher is thriving in the minors with a little over two months in to his professional career. Burdi worked his way through four affiliates and is currently in Triple-A Charlotte.
In 22 games and 31.1 innings pitched over four levels, Burdi has a 2.90 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 13 walks. In addition, the Illinois native hasn't allowed a run in the last 18.1 innings pitched with Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte.
"One of the things we want Zack to work on is his consistency with his delivery out of the stretch," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said on Thursday. "The only problem is he’s not allowing any baserunners on, so he’s not really having a lot of opportunity to work on that. We are going to tell him to put more guys on.
"But no, in all seriousness a lot has already been thrown at this kid and he’s responded essentially to every outing, with the exception of the first one at Birmingham was rough. It’s been a lot about the consistency of his delivery and fastball command and fairly simplistic stuff that he’s taken to very quickly and he’s got a world of ability."
[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]
Burdi was rated as the No. 21 best prospect in Baseball America's top 500 prospects prior to the draft.
Before joining the White Sox in June, Burdi finished off his collegiate career at Louisville. He was named to the All-ACC First Team, USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and Third Team Louisville Slugger All-America.