In the NFL, the fourth preseason game typically is the one where the starters play one series, if that, before donning ball caps on the sidelines. The Chicago Bears will likely follow suit tonight against the Cleveland Browns. Don't expect to see much of Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs or Charles Tillman.
The backups and third stringers will play the vast majority of the contest, yet that doesn't make this a meaningless game. Roster spots will be won and lost tonight. Chicago is forced to cut 21 players by tomorrow night, so now is the last chance for a number of bubble players to make their mark.
Here are 10 things to watch for during tonight's preseason finale.
Booker vs. Allen
Waiving Kahlil Bell last week opened the door for either Lorenzo Booker or Armando Allen to claim Chicago's third running back position. Booker has excelled on special teams, while Allen has proved a very capable change-of-pace back. I still contend Booker will win this based on his return ability but a strong showing from Allen could sway the coaches in his favor.
Fifth defensive end
Considering Julius Peppers has plantar fasciitis, the Bears could opt to keep five defensive ends. Peppers, Israel Idonije, Shea McClellin and Corey Wootton have locked up roster spots – assuming Wootton doesn't get hurt tonight – leaving Cheta Ozougwu and Chauncey Davis to battle it out for the final DE gig. Davis is solid against the run, while Ozougwu, an undrafted rookie, has shown great speed off the edge. If Ozougwu can show tonight his ability as a pass rusher, as he's done throughout the preseason so far, he could beat out the veteran.
Is Matt Toeaina expendable? Probably not, especially with Stephen Paea still out with an ankle injury. Yet defensive tackles Nate Collins and Brian Price have both stood out in the preseason. Each has shown outstanding explosion off the ball, something Toeaina lacks. If those two come out and dominate, it may give Chicago's coaches confidence to release Toeaina and free up $1.38 million in cap space.
The battle for the team's fifth cornerback spot has been unspectacular to say the least. Veteran Jonathan Wilhite has been nonexistent, while rookies Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy have failed to impress as well. Frey has shown flashes of potential, including the game-clinching interception last week, but he's still a big question mark. I believe this competition is still ongoing, with the winner ultimately decided by who plays the best tonight.
The release of Dom DeCicco yesterday opens the door for either J.T. Thomas or Patrick Trahan to claim the team's final linebacker spot. Thomas has had a strong preseason and appears to be the frontrunner. But a poor game tonight, coupled by a strong showing from Trahan, could change the minds of the coaches.
The Bears are in a tough spot at safety. Brandon Hardin is on IR and Chris Conte still isn't practicing. Craig Steltz and Major Wright are currently the starters, being backed up by Anthony Walters. Can Walters show enough tonight to give Chicago's coaches enough confidence to insert him into a regular season game if need be?
Brown hasn't gotten a lot of reps in the preseason due to the never-ending battle between Chris Williams and J'Marcus Webb at left tackle. Brown has been playing both tackle spots and provides versatility. He'll get a long look tonight, forcing the coaches decide whether to keep him, a ninth offensive lineman, or to stick with just eight front-line blockers.
Carimi, the team's starting right tackle, is in no danger of losing his roster spot. Yet he's been very inconsistent this preseason, possibly due to lingering soreness in his knee. He showed improvement last week but still didn't appear like the Carimi of last season. A strong performance, although in limited reps, should give him confidence heading into the games that count.
The team released Rashied Davis yesterday, yet that doesn't necessarily mean Sanzenbacher is guaranteed a roster spot. The Bears have not yet run a single four-wide-receiver formation that I've seen – not in practice or the games. If it's four or more receivers out there, only three of them are wideouts, with the other two a TE/RB combination of some sort. So what's the reasoning behind keep Sanz, who has limited value on special teams and who won't see the field unless someone gets injured? He needs to show something tonight.
The biggest Bears roster question of this preseason: will the team keep three or four tight ends. In my opinion, this comes down to blocking. Can Kyle Adams and Evan Rodriguez show they are capable of being lead blockers in the run game, thus making FB Tyler Clutts expendable? They have one more game to prove themselves.
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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.