The Chicago Bears stroll into the O.co Coliseum tonight to take on the Oakland Raiders in the third preseason contest of 2013. It's a game that will feature a heavy dose of the starters, who will be on the field throughout the first two quarters, and possibly into the second half.
Needless to say, we'll be getting our best look yet of the team Marc Trestman will be fielding once the regular season begins. So without further ado, here are the 10 most-pertinent things we'll be watching in tonight's game.
Rookie Right Side, Round IIKyle Long and Jordan Mills looked very good as starters on the right side of the offensive line last week. In 31 snaps, I graded Long at +12, which is pretty phenomenal for a player making his first start. He was a wall in protection and mauled in the run game. Mills looked good as a run blocker but he struggled some in pass protection, particularly in blitz pickup. If these two can follow up on their strong performances last week, they will solidify the starting offensive line heading into the regular season.
Balancing ActAll five of Jay Cutler's passes last week were thrown at Brandon Marshall, which included an ugly interception into double coverage. It was scarily reminiscent of last year, when Marshall was the second most targeted player in the league. That resulted in a 29th-ranked passing offense, which has folks up in arms. Yet five passes is a small sample size. Tonight, Cutler will have two full quarters to spread the ball around and show he has developed under Trestman's tutelage. If that doesn't happen, the next two weeks will be fraught with panic by fans and media alike.
Martysaurus Rex extinct?Martellus Bennett has yet to be targeted through two preseason game. Granted, the first-team offense has played only 30 snaps, but at some point, the club's brand new tight end needs to get some live game action. During training camp, Bennett was a huge part of the offense and served as a reliable option for Cutler on both underneath passes and down the seams. Getting him a few touches in the passing game will surely help his confidence heading into his first season with the Bears.
Swing ShiftDespite having his knee drained, Jonathan Scott still hasn't practiced since the first weekend of training camp. At this point, it's going to be hard for the Bears to trust an aging player with recurring knee problems as the club's 16-game swing tackle. That's likely part of the reason the team slashed J'Marcus Webb's salary in half, to make him affordable as the swing. Yet Webb still must beat out Eben Britton to make the final 53-man roster. Both players will be working with the second team tonight. The tackle who performs better on his respective edge will likely win that competition.
Last Push for WilsonEarl Bennett is still recovering from a concussion – his second in the past nine months – and there is no timetable for his return. In his absence, Joe Anderson and Devin Aromashodu have taken control of the fourth and fifth receiver spots. Yet, if Bennett continues his slow recovery, the coaching staff may be forced to keep a sixth receiver on the opening-day roster. For rookie Marquess Wilson, the next two weeks will be his chance to take advantage of that opportunity. He was very good in the preseason opener yet didn't receive a single target in last week's game, which pretty much sums up his inconsistency throughout this offseason. Terrence Toliver also has a chance to claim that spot, so Wilson is going to need to shine tonight in order to convince Trestman he deserves a place on the final roster.
Bostic AftershockJon Bostic has made his presence felt during the preseason. He had a pick-six in the opener and laid a vicious hit on Chargers receiver Mike Willie last week. Yet the league fined him $21,000 for lowering his head on the tackle, which is a pretty hefty sum for a rookie who has yet to receive a game check. Bostic has made plays but he has struggled in some fundamental areas, particularly in reading his keys in coverage. Now you throw a fine on top of those issues and it's easy to see the potential for setback in his development. Bostic will again work as the starting MIKE tonight, so he'll have plenty of snaps to show how the past week has affected him, if at all.
Up the GutLast week, the Chargers averaged 4.9 yards per carry en route to 141 rushing yards as a team. San Diego's mediocre offensive line was able to routinely overpower Chicago's defense up the middle. It's nothing to panic about but the club's front seven definitely need to be stouter against the run. Too many defensive tackles are getting beat at the point of attack, too many defensive ends are losing track of ballcarriers, and too many linebackers are taking bad angles and misreading plays. Next week the starting unit won't play much, if at all, so tonight is their last chance to prove to themselves they can stop the run.
Rover, RoverThis is the final dress rehearsal for the starting units. Defensively, Mel Tucker has used a lot of exotic blitz packages in practice, which often utilize 3-4 fronts, yet he hasn't shown much of that in the games. If he waits until the regular season to find out if those blitzes can work, it could lead to some costly mistakes. Tucker obviously doesn't want to show too much of his hand but it makes sense for him to dial up a few of his "rover" blitzes, just to get a feel for their effectiveness in live action. If at any point in the game you see a defensive tackle roaming as a linebacker, you'll know Tucker is feeling creative.
Last Man StandingWhen finalizing a roster, those last few spots are typically earmarked for linebackers, who often make the best special teams players. Chicago's top six linebackers are set – Lance Briggs, James Anderson, D.J. Williams, Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene and Blake Costanzo – but the club could keep a seventh linebacker for depth on special teams, particularly if Williams (calf) stays on the shelf. That opens the door for players like J.T. Thomas, Jerry Franklin, Lawrence Wilson and Patrick Trahan. If any of those four linebackers stands out, he could end up being Mr. Irrelevant on Chicago's 2013 roster.
Peppers SightingJulius Peppers has yet to play this preseason. He was ready to suit up last week yet felt tightness in his hamstring and sat out the contest. In addition, he has practiced intermittently the past month, which raises some concern about the health of a 34-year-old pass rusher. Even if he does play against Oakland, it will likely be for just a handful of snaps, but seeing him back on the field will be a good sign that he'll be ready to go in two weeks against the Cincinnati Bengals. And if he sits out again, then let the speculation continue.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.