I managed to watch the Chicago Bears' first preseason game when it was re-aired on NFL Network on Sunday afternoon. The game did not look very promising.
Chicago had to skip its planned pre-season opening against the St. Louis Rams in the Hall of Fame game because it was canceled due to the labor dispute that plagued the spring and summer, so the game against the Buffalo Bills was the first chance to see the 2011 Bears team in action.
And it did not look good.
Last year's offensive line was a disaster for the first half of the season. The team gave up a league-leading 56 sacks, including about 10 in one game against the Giants on a Monday night. The line did significantly improve following the week-eight bye, but Cutler was still sacked more often that I'd like to have seen, and the line still had trouble opening holes for the running backs in many situations.
So the offensive line was one of the team's most critical concerns this off season. They picked up tackle Gabe Carimi from Wisconsin in the draft in an attempt to inject some young talent into the offensive line. But that might not be enough considering that the Bears lost their all-pro veteran center Olin Kreutz due to a dumbfounding inability to come up with a new contract despite having over $30 million in cap room.
Chicago signed former Seahawk center Chris Spencer to add depth to the position, but is apparently going to try to replace Kreutz with the only other veteran leader they have left on their offensive line: Roberto Garza. This is probably the best move they could make in this situation, since Garza is most familiar with the Bear's offensive scheme and is a proven veteran player. He's not up to the caliber at Kreutz, but I think he does have some experience at long-snapping and has acted as a backup center, so he may be fairly familiar with the center position.
The offensive line, however, did not look good against the Bills. Cutler and Hanie were stuck running for their lives in the firs few possessions, and Hanie was sacked twice in one drive, forcing the Bears to punt despite having started on the Bills' side of the field after a gorgeous kick return by Johnny Knox. The line allowed nine overall sacks during the course of the game! Cutler and Hanie's best performances seemed to be when they made a run for it, including one goal line touchdown scramble by Hanie.
Marion Barber was the most impressive-looking back with the Bears' 1st-team offensive line.
The Bears didn't look much better running the ball early on either. They got a spark later on in the first half when Marion Barber found a few holes for big gains, which lead to Hanie's scoring run. And Kahlil Bell shined in the second half with the 2nd and 3rd string team. None of the rest of the running backs seemed ble to get anything done. I wasn't particularly excited by the signing of Marion Barber - in fact, I thought it was stupid and unnecessary move by the team. But after watching this first preseason game, I am a little excited by it now. Barber looked very good, picking up positive yards, big gains, and bringing the hurt to whoever was the first to touch him.
Chester Taylor and Matt Forte might have to watch their backs with this guy on the roster!
The offense looked much better in the second half - including the offensive line. But this was the 2nd and 3rd string against the Bills 2nd and 3rd string, so it's really hard to get excited about the play of backups against other backups. But it looks like a lot of offensive players on the team will have to pick up their game or risk losing their jobs.
The other sides of the ball
I wasn't particularly concerned about the Bears' defense going into the pre-season, and I'm not too worried about it after watching this game. The Bears didn't lose any marquee defensive players in the off-season, and the signing of former Jets lineman Vernon Gholston looks like a promising addition. There's a lot of quality veteran leadership, like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, and Julius Peppers, and there is a lot of promising young talent like Henry Melton, Amobi Okoye, and Major Wright. If the veterans manage to keep healthy and continue to play at the same level as they have in previous years, then the 2011 defense should be a solid unit.
The only weak spot in the defense appeared to be the secondary, but this was to be expected. The coverage unit has been the Bears' weakest link on defense for several years, but hopefully it will improve this year with Major Wright and the other young backs now having more experience.
Johnny Knox returns a kickoff 70 yards in a pre-season victory over the Bills - despite the kickoff location being moved up to the 35.
Special teams looked great as usual. Johnny Knox busted out a big kick return in the first half, but (as mentioned above) the offensive line collapsed and the Bears didn't capitalize on the excellent field position. Earl Bennett also made a big punt return near the end of the first half, giving the Bears an opportunity to put some last-minute points on the board. Robbie Gould couldn't quite keep the 56-yard attempt inside the uprights though, but he did show that he has enough leg power to make a kick of that length!
Gould also missed a 4th quarter field goald from inside the 40 that would have given the Bears a two-score lead with less than 1:30 left in the game.
Hopefully, Gould's poor performance was the result of rust that will be shaken off by the time the regular season starts.
At least it's a win
The Bears did win the game, so I guess I can't complain too much. But the starting offensive line looked horrible, and the offense didn't click until the backup running backs and line were in the game. Hanie looked good when he was given some protection, but he always has in the pre-season, so that was no surprise. But considering that their opponent was the Buffalo Bills, a 10-3 pre-season victory is hardly worth getting excited about. But hey, the rest of the NFC North didn't look all that much better either. Except for the Detroit Lions, who absolutely destroyed Cincinnati. The Vikings lost to the Titans 14-3. The defending Super Bowl champion Packers lost to the Browns 27-17.
The Bears have slightly harder contests against the Giants and Titans coming up in the next two weeks, so we'll see if they improve at all. The Bears will end the pre-season against the Browns in the first week of September.