The Chicago Bears host the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday afternoon to open the regular season, in a matchup of two teams trying to elevate themselves into elite status. The Bengals are a chic pick to come out of the AFC, while the Bears are adjusting to a new staff and scheme. Here is the biggest key for Chicago:
Keep Jay Cutler Clean:
Sounds simple enough, and frankly this will be a key to almost every game. But the Bears have been terrible at it for Cutler's entire Chicago career. The talent of the offensive line has certainly been upgraded. New left tackle Jermon Bushrod is a huge upgrade over J'Marcus Webb (although it's quite possible a tackling dummy would be a huge upgrade over J'Marcus Webb) and that alone should relieve some pressure on Cutler. But it's the rookies who will determine the fate of the Bears' offense this season.
Both right tackle Jordan Mills and right guard Kyle Long have looked very impressive in the preseason. However, the key word there is, "preseason." Things will look a whole lot different for the dynamic duo Sunday at Soldier Field. Bengals defensive lineman Geno Atkins had plenty of praise for both rookies this week. He also is one of the NFL's most dangerous interior linemen, leading the entire NFL with 12.5 sacks at that position in 2012. So he's coming, and the kids had better be ready for him. Here's what they said this week about facing Atkins, according to ESPNChicago.com:
“You grow up watching Geno Atkins, so to get the opportunity to play against him will be a real test,” Long said. “The whole [offensive] line will be lining up against him a lot. It will be a good opportunity. Luckily we have great guys that we practice against every day and it gets us ready to good for Sundays.”
“Like the veterans tell us all the time, they are great players but you’re here for a reason too,” Mills said. “Just sit back, watch, be patient, let the game come to you and you’ll be fine.”
It's not only Atkins. Carlos Dunlap is also a superior rusher off the edge, and will test the Bears as well. Chicago has looked extremely impressive running the football in each exhibition game, and carrying over that success should do a lot to open up the passing game. But Cutler will need to trust Marc Trestman's new quick-passing system, and get the ball out on time. The better the offensive line can hold pocket integrity, the more Cutler will feel comfortable running the plays as designed.
But it's not only having two rookies on the line that will make things challenging for Chicago. Both Long and Mills will have growing pains, but such drastic turnover on a single position group is rare as well. The Bears have to hope the group gels fast. Veteran Roberto Garza echoed that feeling to ESPNChicago:
“I’ve never been around when there has been a complete change like that before, but fortunately for us we have a lot of great guys that came in: Matt Slauson and (Bushrod) and obviously the young guys,” Garza said. “A lot of guys came in but the offensive line guys work hard and they fit in very well. We’re fortunate we have a lot of good guys who know how to work and prepare for a game. It makes for an easier transition.”
It's not all about allowing sacks, either. Too often in 2012, pressure forced Cutler into bad throws in order to avoid being taken down. In fact, the last time these two teams met in 2009, Cutler was only sacked once, but was pressured into three interceptions. The result: a 45-10 Bengals romp.
If the new-look Bears line can hold up, Chicago will have a very realistic chance to start the 2013 season on a much more positive note.
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