It's finally here.
The Chicago Bears will square off against the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday at Soldier Field in the 2013 regular season opener. This will be the 10th meeting between the two franchises, with Cincinnati owning a 6-3 all-time advantage. The nine previous regular-season matchups mark the fewest games played in any series with the Bears involving tams that joined the NFL prior to 1995. Cincinnati has won four of five contests played in Chicago.
The Bears do not have a single player listed on the injury report.
For the Bengals, CB Brandon Ghee (concussion) and G Mike Pollak (knee) are out; OT Andrew Whitworth is doubtful; DE Carlos Dunlap (concussion), TE Tyler Eifert (forearm), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), OT Andre Smith (knee) and DT Devon Still (knee) are all probable.
Bears on Offense
-The Year of Jay Cutler begins in earnest tomorrow. Heading into his contract season, there is more pressure on Cutler to produce this year than there has been at any other point in his career. If he shines, like Joe Flacco did last year, then he'll earn a monster contract. If he stumbles, his future in Chicago, as well as the team's future, becomes nebulous.
In this first test, the Bears face one of the toughest defensive lines in the NFL, led by Geno Atkins, who had more sacks (12.5) than any other defensive tackle in the league last year. Cutler will not be able to guide this offense if Atkins and the rest of Cincinnati's pass rushers are able to tee off.
The team is starting four new offensive linemen this year, with two rookies on the right side. It's a talented group but one that's not likely to jell right away. Down the line they could develop into a formidable front five but expecting it to happen in Week 1, against the Bengals of all teams, is being overly optimistic.
Cincinnati is capable of applying serious pressure. As a result the Bears have preached all week, and all offseason, about the importance of getting the ball out of Cutler's hands quickly. In Marc Trestman's West Coast scheme, three-step drops are expected to be the norm, as anything else could get Cutler killed. We'll find out two things tomorrow: whether the Bears were just paying lip service to the quick-pass philosophy, and if Cutler is suited for such a style. If his accuracy, which has been sketchy since he came to Chicago, is off, this developing offense could be in for a long afternoon.
-Rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills were solid in the preseason, albeit against lesser competition than they'll face tomorrow. Each has shown flashes of potential, particularly Long, but we have to remember they are still inexperienced first-year players performing in their first ever NFL contest. And the Bengals know this as well.
Specifically, the two kids must get better against the blitz. At times both rookies have looked flat-out lost against even the simplest blitzes. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is surely going to put Chicago's rookie right side to the test and will be dialing up numerous exotic blitz packages, many of which will feature five-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison. Even the quickest passing schemes can get blown up when defenders have a free run, so Long and Mills must show good awareness, recognition and reaction skills in this game.
-One of the most underrated Bengals defenders is NT Domata Peko. He's a huge human being (6-3, 322) who is immovable at times against the run. The onus will fall on C Roberto Garza and LG Matt Sluason to keep Peko under wraps. If the big defensive lineman is able to hold his ground and clog interior running lanes, Matt Forte will struggle to gain yards on the ground.
-Speaking of Forte, we'll get our first opportunity tomorrow to see exactly how Trestman plans on using his most versatile offensive player. Forte's one-cut ability appears a great fit for coordinator Aaron Kromer's zone-blocking system. If he can find running lanes and be effective on the ground, the Bengals will be forced to slide an extra man in the box, which would open up passing lanes down the field.
But even more intriguing will be Forte's use as a pass catcher. We all know what Charlie Garner did under Trestman when the two were together in Oakland in the early 2000s. Forte has the hands and open-field ability to be just as effective in the passing game, assuming he's used correctly.
Forte will face a Cincinnati linebacker corps that is with out its best coverage player, Emmanuel Lamur, who was lost for the year after suffering a separated shoulder in the preseason finale. None of the Bengals three starters –Harrison, Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga – are very adept in coverage. This could force Cincinnati to insert undrafted rookie Jayson DiManche on passing downs. Either way, if Forte can get 1-on-1 matchups with linebackers in this game, he could have a career day.
-The same goes for TE Martellus Bennett, who has the athleticism to take advantage of Cincinnati's backers. If he can make a few plays early, the Bengals won't be as quick to flare their safeties out wide, which will open up the sidelines for Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Bears on Defense
-It's cliché but if the Bears can get pressure on Andy Dalton, everything else will fall into place. Chicago enters this season with a pass-rush arsenal that carries serious potential. We know what Pro Bowlers Henry Melton and Julius Peppers can do, but guys like Corey Wootton, Shea McClellin and Nate Collins could all take a big step forward this year. It starts this week.
Bengals Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth is doubtful, so career backup Anthony Collins will likely start on the left edge. This is a matchup the Bears can exploit, particularly with Peppers. Cincinnati has a solid pass-blocking front five, one of the best in the league, so coordinator Mel Tucker is going to have to get creative with his pressure packages. If he can find ways to get players in the gaps and into the pocket, Dalton could fold in a hostile environment.
-A.J. Green is one of the best young receivers in the game and has been as consistent and dominant as any NFL wideout of the past two years. Yet the Bengals lack an accomplished No. 2 pass catcher and will be relying on second-year player Mohamed Sanu to fill that role. Sanu is a physical receiver who is good after the catch but he's not a big-play threat. As such, coverage has to continually roll in Green's direction. Charles Tillman can stay in Green's hip pocket but there has to be safety help over the top. If Sanu catches a few balls, it's not going to kill the Bears. But if Green snatches a couple of deep ones, it could be the difference in the game. Shut Green down and you can shut down the Bengals' passing attack.
-Cincinnati will be relying on a pair of young tight ends to balance the field and take pressure off Green. Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert are a formidable due down the seams and the Bengals will be using plenty of two-tight-end sets on Sunday. This is going to put pressure on the Bears' linebacker corps, as well as the safeties. It would behoove the team to shade toward the seams in the areas where Green is not located. That way they flood the insides zones and limit what Gresham and Eifert can accomplish in the middle of the field.
-The Bengals will lean on running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis early to try and establish the run. Green-Ellis is a pounder who can grind out yards, the type of player the Bears have typically been able to keep under wraps. Yet it's rookie Giovani Bernard who can beat you on any given play. Bernard is a speedy back who will serve as a change of pace to the Law Firm. If Bernard gets matched up with a linebacker and gets a step, he can be deadly in the open field. Chicago must keep tabs on Bernard when he's on the turf.
-The Bears can't sleep on H-back Orson Charles. He'll serve as the Bengals' fullback and lead blocker, but he's a former collegiate tight end who has some skill as a pass catcher. If Chicago forgets about him and he finds space out of the backfield, he could be a back-breaker on third downs.
-Outside of Green, the only Bengals receiver who is a true deep threat is second-year player Marvin Jones. He'll see limited reps out of the slot but safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte must be aware of him when he steps on the field.
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.