Understudies could take center stage in ‘dress rehearsal’
The scrutiny of the preseason seems to be souring John Fox’s mood as the Bears turn for home heading into Saturday’s exhibition game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Soldier Field (noon, Fox-32).
While the third preseason game is generally viewed as an all-important “dress rehearsal” — a regular-season preview with at least some game-planning, halftime adjustments and perhaps decisions on some key position battles — to Fox it’s just another week he’d like to prepare in a hermetically sealed bubble away from prying eyes.
What is Fox hoping to accomplish in this final tune-up for the starters? To find some capable reserves with so many regulars banged up? To establish a running game and protect Jay Cutler with an offensive line missing Kyle Long? To keep Jay Cutler clean? To win the special teams battle against the Dave Toub-led Chiefs? To see Brian Hoyer eliminate the doubt that the Bears have a capable back-up to Cutler. To play a clean game — with no penalties or negative plays?
“Improve from Week 2 to Week 3,” Fox said. “We’re here. It’s not a season. They call it preseason for a reason. It’s to evaluate, put your players in positions, take a look at players — because at the end of the day we have to select 53 guys out of the 90.”
In Fox’s coaching career, the third game as been a mixed bag as an indicator of regular-season performance. In 2013, the Broncos were down 20-10 in the first half against the Rams while Peyton Manning was in the game. That team went to the Super Bowl. In 2003 at Carolina, the offense was a mess with Rodney Peete at quarterback against the Packers. But the defense stifled Brett Favre and the Packers offense — three takeaways, including two interceptions — that turned into a harbinger of a Super Bowl season.
And the Bears’ history is any more exact as a predictor. In their 12 playoff seasons since the beginning of the Ditka era (1982), the Bears are 2-10 in the third preseason game.
Still, there will be plenty of intrigue in this one, right from the start — who will play and who won’t? The Bears were without 13 players on their 90-man roster in Thursday’s practice. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee (knee), cornerback Kyle Fuller) and wide receiver Marquess Wilson (broken foot) will not play. Long, cornerback Bryce Callahan and safety Deon Bush are not expected to play. Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan was limited in Thursday’s practice after missing the previous three practices. Cornerback Tracy Porter missed Thursday’s practice with an illness. Wide receiver Eddie Royal (concussion) and tight end Zach Miller (concussion) played in non-contact red jerseys.
About the only certainty is that the Bears will be a work-in-progress no matter what happens against the Chiefs, with the Bears still trying to establish starters on offense and defense while building roster depth. Here are some of the many focal points against the Chiefs:
After the offensive line showed improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, Kyle Long’s shoulder injury has thrown a wrench into the Bears’ plans. With center Ted Larsen replacing Long, Cornelius Edison is expected to start against the Chiefs — an audition for a possible Week 1 starting role if Long does not heal in time.
Edison played just 12 games at center in college — though he was the I-AA Rimington Award winner as a senior Portland State — and has not played in a game since suffering a torn ACL while preparing for the 2015 draft. It’s not impossible that Edison could develop into a starting center in the NFL. But being part of a currently unsettled interior line increases the degree of difficulty. He’ll be playing next to rookie left guard Cody Whitehair, who in turn is playing next to left tackle Charles Leno, Jr., who has started 13 career NFL games. On the other side is veteran Ted Larsen, who has started 60 games in the NFL, but only six at right guard.
Unless Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White turn the offense into an NFL revelation, the Bears figure to have little margin-for-error on offense. Penalties and sacks have stunted the Bears’ offense throughout the Cutler era. In a current state of flux, the Bears need to stay clean to give themselves the best chance for growth.
Second-year safeties Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey have a lot to prove, but the bigger question mark is at cornerback. With Fuller and Callahan out, the Bears will be looking for an inexperienced cornerback to take advantage of an opportunity to start: Jacoby Glenn, rookie Deiondre Hall and De’Vante Bausby are at the top of that list.
The Chiefs have had excellent special teams units in three years under former Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub, so this could be a prime test for the Bears to show something in the return game. Their long punt retrn is 12 yards. (2.1-yard average). Their long kickoff return is 25 yards (20.5-yard average). Deonte Thompason and rookie Kieren Duncan on kickoffs and Marc Mariani, Daniel Braverman and Duncan have gotten the best looks in practice.
Being the No. 2 quarterback in the preseason is not an easy job, but even considering that, Hoyer has yet to provide a lot of confidence the Bears have a viable option if Cutler can’t play. Hoyer has thrown an interception in each of the first two games and is 11-of-24 for 166 yards with no touchdowns for a 34.4 passer rating in the preseason. If the Bears are curious about an option to Hoyer as the No. 2, former Browns cast-off Connor Shaw seems to have the edge over former sixth-round draft pick David Fales for that opportunity.