In the team's preseason opener last Thursday, the Chicago Bear stunk up Soldier Field. In total net yards, the Bears were outgained by the Broncos 338 to 132. The offense managed just eight first downs, compared to 25 for Denver. The end result, a 31-3 pounding, accurately portrayed Chicago's play on the field.
Needless to say, the Bears are looking for a much stronger outing tonight against the Washington Redskins. Here are 10 things to watch for during this evening's contest.
Cutler to Marshall
QB Jay Cutler did not play last week but will likely be on the field tonight well into the second quarter. Last year, Cutler played almost the entire first half in the team's second preseason game. Chicago fans have not yet seen Cutler throw to his primary target Brandon Marshall in live action. Tonight will be their first chance to get a look at this duo, the two of whom have absolutely dominated during training camp. Watch for Cutler on every drop back and count how many times Marshall is his first read. If it's less than 80 percent, I'll be amazed.
T J'Marcus Webbl
Webb vs. Williams
Last week, J'Marcus Webb looked very sketchy on the left edge and was left in the game until the fourth quarter, presumably as a punishment by coordinator Mike Tice. Chris Williams was on the right edge in that game but will play left tackle tonight, the first time he's done so since 2009. Webb's leash is getting shorter by the game, which means Williams has a great opportunity to prove himself as the starter. If he can excel tonight, and next week against the Giants, he may be able to assume control over the position. Either way, one of these two needs to start tonight in proving he deserves the starting gig.
Bell vs. Allen vs. Booker
The third and final running back spot has turned into a three-way battle between Kahlil Bell, Armando Allen and Lorenzo Booker. Bell is the frontrunner but a fumble or two could see him drop down the depth chart. Allen has been explosive in camp but needs to carry that over to the game field. Booker has been surprisingly good so far and led the team in rushing last week. A huge game by either Allen or Booker will put more pressure on Bell.
The Bears will for sure be keeping the team's top three tight ends – Kellen Davis, Matt Spaeth and Evan Rodriguez. Yet Kyle Adams has looked great in camp so far and is deserving of a roster spot. He's been used as an F-back, getting first-team reps at fullback and on the edge. If he can stand out the next three weeks, it could compel Tice to keep four tight ends this year.
Sanzenbacher vs. Davis
If the club keeps six wide receivers, the final roster spot will come down to either Dane Sanzenbacher or Rashied Davis. Sanzenbacher has come on strong of late and has looked great as a receiver. Davis has seen minimal time on offense and will have to earn his spot on special teams. Now is the time for one of these two to take the lead in this competition.
The current frontrunner for the team's fourth defensive tackle spot is Nate Collins, who has been explosive and disruptive. He has the quickness and strength to get one-gap penetration and posted the strongest game of any DT last week. Yet the competition is far from over. John McCargo, Jordan Miller and Brian Price all still have a shot. Price especially is in prime position, although his contributions appear more likely at nose tackle. With Stephen Paea nursing an ankle injury, the interior defensive linemen will get plenty of reps tonight.
Calling all linebackers
LB J.T. Thomas
The saga of Brian Urlacher's knee has been well documented. When he plays again, and how effective he'll be, is truly anyone's guess. In addition, Dom DeCicco, who was working as the backup MLB, is also out with a groin injury. As such, depth at linebacker has again become a major issue. J.T. Thomas, Patrick Trahan, Blake Costanzo and Ronnie Thornton all have a shot to prove they are worthy of a roster spot. My eyes will be on Thomas, who has made huge strides in his second season. Last week, this group was pathetic, so it shouldn't be tough for one player to rise up above the rest.
McClellin had a strong first outing against the Broncos but will need to build on that tonight. He's been inconsistent so far but is getting reps with the first team, so he's going to be counted on this year to make an impact. McClellin still has a long way to go as an all-around 4-3 defensive end, so he needs to continue to improve if he's going to eventually turn into an every down player.
Frey vs. McCoy vs. Wilhite
The Bears are set with their top four cornerbacks – Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, D.J. Moore and Kelvin Hayden. Yet the fifth, and possibly sixth, corner spot is still up for grabs. Jonathan Wilhite is the veteran, although he has done almost nothing in camp so far. The two rookies, Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy, have also failed to stand out, although Frey has looked better of late. If Frey can make a couple of plays, he could play his way onto the roster. McCoy will be returning kicks this evening, which is his best way for him to make the team.
I was very disappointed in Hardin last week. He's a converted cornerback playing safety, so the transition is going to take a while. Yet it wasn't his understanding of the position that was so bothersome, it was his lack of aggressiveness. He repeatedly passed on contact and whiffed on a few tackles. He is the team's fourth safety and could be called into action this year if just two guys get injured in front of him. Hardin needs to come out and hit some people tonight and quit being so hesitant. It's time to take off the kid gloves.
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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.