Bears’ unproven depth in the spotlight vs. Colts

With Justin Fields not playing and other starters unlikely to play, Bears reserves will get an opportunity to prove themselves — with back-up quarterback PJ Walker and offensive linemen who could end up in key roles at the top of the list.

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Bears back-up quarterback PJ Walker (15) completed 4-of-8 passes for 19 yards and an interception for a 16.7 passer rating against the Titans last week.

Charles Rex Arbogast, AP Photos

INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL preseason schedule has been dying a slow death in the last decade, and Bears coach Matt Eberflus pushed it a little closer to flat-lining with a hearty endorsement of joint practices as the best and safest way to prepare for the regular season.

“It’s invaluable,” he said of watching film of two joint practices with the Colts this week. “Shane [Steichen, the Colts’ head coach] and I were talking about it the other day — it’s really like playing two preseason games. It really is. With your guys. In a safe environment.

“You think about that: two extra preseason games. If they let me do it again, I’d do it again next week. I really like it. It’s very valuable to the coaches and the scouts in terms of evaluation.”

That’s the way the league is headed. In 2014, when Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett, Alshon Jeffery and an offensive line that had started all 16 games together the previous season were in their second year of a new offense under Marc Trestman, the starters played more snaps in one preseason game (26 or more) than this year’s Bears starters might play the entire preseason. Cutler played in three preseason games that year, with 61 snaps. Marshall (57), Jeffery (55), Bennett (53) and Forte (42) also played more than token snaps. And four-fifths of the line — Jermon Bushrod (71), Matt Slauson (71), Roberto Garza (71) and Kyle Long (53) — played 53 snaps or more together. That’s nine starters from an offense that had finished second in the NFL in scoring the previous season.

Fast-forward to this week, and you can see how much things have changed. The second-to-last (or third) preseason game used to be the “dress rehearsal,” where the starters would play into the second half in preparation for the season opener. Now, as Eberflus’ enthusiasm indicated, the joint practices against the Colts likely were the dress rehearsal. Quarterback Justin Fields and “select starters” will not play against the Colts on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s unlikely any Bears starter will get more than token snaps.

And Eberflus wasn’t making any promises for next week’s preseason finale against the Bills. Last year, Fields and the starters played through most of the first half — 30 snaps. But Eberflus said he would wait until after practices next week to determine if Fields and the starters will play.

It’s not because the Bears don’t need the work. On the contrary, while Eberflus said he felt Fields was on pace for the regular season, he also indicated that all three phases of his team need work, with the all-important “attention to detail.”

But the focus is on offense, where Fields & Co. arguably have the most room for improvement but also the highest ceiling.

“Yeah, A to Z, I just think it’s really everybody,” Eberflus said. “It needs to be tighter. It needs to be more efficient. The detail needs to be there. Precision and detail matters. Because then you know what to do, how to do it, and you can play with speed. That’s how you win a down. That’s how you win football games. Until we get that, we’re not in the spot we need to be.”

Be that as it may, these backups and others players likely will be the focus against the Colts. On a team with virtually no established depth, that’s not inconsequential:

PJ Walker

Relative to his role, Walker might need the work even more than Fields. The Bears signed him to a two-year, $4.15 million deal ($2 million guaranteed) to be Fields’ backup, but he has been unimpressive in camp and would be in a battle with Nathan Peterman and Tyson Bagent in an open competition.

Against the Titans last week, he completed 4 of 8 passes for 19 yards and an interception for a 16.7 passer rating.

A backup quarterback has started at least one game for the Bears in every season since 2009.

Tyson Bagent

The unheralded, undrafted rookie from Division II Shepherd University hasn’t looked out of place in an NFL camp. In fact, he arguably has shown the greatest grasp of coordinator Luke Getsy’s offense among the backup QBs. He’s still a long shot but has earned the better look.

The offensive line

The Bears entered camp with a set lineup — and a promising one. But with injuries to right guard Nate Davis, left guard Teven Jenkins, veteran backup center/guard Lucas Patrick and now center Cody Whitehair, the line hasn’t played together much in camp, and things could get messy in a hurry if they can’t shake the injury bug.

Alex Leatherwood (who replaced Jenkins), Ja’Tyre Carter (who replaced Davis) and now Doug Kramer (who replaced Whitehair) could be key depth pieces.

The rookies

It remains to be seen how careful Eberflus will be with his starters or potential starters, but he likes to give his rookies experience. Cornerback Tyrique Stevenson got an extended look last week against the Titans.

Cornerback Terell Smith, competing with Stevenson for a starting job, returned to practice this week after missing the Titans game with an injury. Defensive tackles Gervon Dexter, Zacch Pickens and Travis Bell, running back Roschon Johnson and linebacker Noah Sewell also bear watching.

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