At long last, it's time for some real football.
The Chicago Bears have undergone two weeks of practice leading up to tonight's game against the Buffalo Bills. Some areas of the team look strong, while others stand on shaky ground. Yet across the board, roster spots will be won and lost based on the performances of the players this preseason. That process begins tonight.
At 7 p.m., the fate of nearly a third of the roster will begin to be decided. It's possible the starters may play a bit longer than they normally would in the first game, a side effect of lost time due to the lockout. We'll all get a glimpse at how the offense has improved in its second year under Mike Martz, whether the defense can continue its dominant play and how the special teams units are gelling.
When the starters depart, the real battles will begin. Tonight will be the first opportunity for many younger players, and some veterans, to truly battle for a place on the 53-man roster. The Bears have 88 players on the current chart, so there will be a lot of shuffling going on in the game's second half. Which is why it's important to know who, and what, to watch for.
Last season, the Bears defense finished fourth in the NFL in points allowed, 20th in pass defense, 2nd against the rush and 24th in total defense. The entire unit has looked strong so far in camp. Some recent additions, and the improved play of a few younger players, should help this team return to its dominant ways.
Let's take a look at the defense and how tonight's play could affect this unit going forward.
DE Corey Wootton
The down linemen could end up being the strongest and deepest unit on the defense. At defensive end, Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije have been forces off the edge, as expected. Yet second-year player Corey Wootton, best known for ending Brett Favre's career, has been outstanding to this point. He has lightning quick feet and gets off the ball in a hurry. He's added an inside spin move to go along with an already strong outside rip. He should get some first-team reps tonight in addition to playing with the second team. Watch to see what type of pressure he can bring.
The fourth defensive end spot is up for grabs, with Vernon Gholston the frontrunner right now. That said, Gholston hasn't shown up at all on the practice field. He doesn't have strong hands and isn't able to fight off blocks. He really needs to pick it up and make some plays tonight if he's going to make final cuts.
Mario Addison and Nick Reed are both in the hunt for the fourth roster spot as well. A standout performance by either player tonight will go a long way toward supplanting Gholston.
The defensive tackle position might be the deepest on the team. Henry Melton has been phenomenal as the under tackle in practice. He put on 15 pounds in the offseason yet still carries the quickness he had as a running back his freshman year at Texas. Pay attention to how disruptive he is in the middle.
On his heels is newcomer Amobi Okoye, whose feet are just as quick as Melton's. He uses a lot of different moves inside to get pressure up front. Matt Toeaina has really impressed the coaches in camp. He'll start alongside Melton at the nose tackle spot. Anthony Adams will not play due to a calf injury.
This will allow Marcus Harrison, Tank Tyler and rookie Stephen Paea to get extra field time. Paea has been consistent but not outstanding. It will be interesting to see how he performs in his first live game action. Tyler has shown flashes of playmaking ability in practice. He's on the cut line right now, so he needs a strong showing. Harrison reported to camp overweight, yet he's been getting a lot of reps since returning to practice. The team isn't ready to give up on him yet.
We all know what Pro Bowlers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher bring to the table. They've shown no reason in practice to expect anything less. Nick Roach will line up as the strong-side starter. He's been solid so far in camp and looks very comfortable in the system.
Beyond the starters, things get interesting. The club re-signed Brian Iwuh, who has been the leader of the second unit. He's great on special teams and he's improving as a linebacker as well. Rookie J.T. Thomas has dealt with some growing pains and injury issues. He left practice on Thursday, so it's unclear whether he'll play tonight. If he does, he'll need to show he's not the liability in coverage he's demonstrated to be so far in practice.
Further down the depth chart are all players who need to stand out tonight if they're to have a shot at making the final 53. Rookies Deron Minor and Tanner Antle have been under-whelming, and Chris Johnson has been hurt. Unless one of them has an amazing game tonight, it's doubtful they'll even sniff the roster.
The biggest battle is between middle linebackers Tressor Baptiste and Dom DeCicco. Both have played well, with DeCicco getting second-team reps and Baptiste running with the third team. That could flip flop though depending on how they perform tonight. Baptiste has had two strong practices in a row. If he stands out tonight, he could be running with the second team come Monday.
S Major Wright
At safety, the Bears look set. Veteran Chris Harris has been a guiding presence both on and off the field. His leadership on the back end has helped second-year player Major Wright adapt to his role as a starter. Wright has looked good in practice and seems to improve every day. We'll see if he can transfer that to the game field.
Backups Craig Steltz and rookie Chris Conte have also been solid. Neither are big time playmakers but they haven't been making too man egregious mistakes. Conte has come a long way in just two weeks. Watch to see how performs when teams take shots against him deep downfield. And pay attention to his run support, as the kid can hit.
At cornerback, Charles Tillman has been his usual, steady self. In Thursday's practice, he picked off three passes. Nothing to see here.
Yet on the other side, a fierce battle is brewing between incumbent starter Tim Jenning and Zack Bowman. As far as pure cover skills go, Bowman has the advantage, but he's poor against the run. Jennings is the complete opposite. He struggles sometimes in man coverage but he isn't afraid to be aggressive in run support. Pay attention to these two. The better player tonight will take the lead in this race.
At nickelback, D.J. Moore has starting but he's also had some issues in run support. His play in the red zone has been spotty as well. He's not having the best camp, which has opened the door for Corey Graham, who is getting occasional reps with the first team. It will be interesting to see which player the team calls on first when the opposing offense goes with a three- or four-receiver set.
There were high hopes for Joshua Moore heading into camp. He's made a few decent plays but he still looks like he's a year or two away from being a consistent contributor. Rookies Ryan Jones and Antereis Bryan have also been subpar. A strong performance by any of these three would go a long way toward possibly earning a spot on the roster.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.