The litmus test for the Chicago Bears this preseason comes in tonight’s contest against the Seattle Seahawks. Facing the defending champions on the road in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL will give us a much clearer picture of the Bears’ potential this season.
The starters will play well into the second quarter, after which jobs will be won and lost. Against the stiffest competition in the NFC, some players are going to stand out, while other will falter. When the dust clears, we should have a great idea of where the Bears’ team and roster stands heading into the regular season.
With that in mind, here are 10 things to watch for in this evening’s matchup.
Returner in question
After cutting Eric Weems this week, the Bears are in a desperate spot in the return game. No returner has stepped up, while the blocking on both punts and kickoffs has been sub-par. Chris Williams returns from a hamstring injury and will get plenty of opportunities to show he’s worthy of the returner role. Michael Ford, Micheal Spurlock and Armanti Edwards will also get their looks as return men. If any of these four can stand out, he’ll likely emerge as the club’s starting returner in Week 1.
Backup ball carrier
The competition to be Matt Forte’s backup has come down to veteran Shaun Draughn and rookie Ka’Deem Carey. Both running backs have played well this preseason, while Draughn was outstanding in training camp. Forte won’t be on the field for more than two or three series, so Carey and Draughn are going to get plenty of carries. A breakthrough performance by either ball carrier could land them the coveted No. 2 role.
Progress at backer
Both Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin made substantial improvement between the first and second preseason contest. Last week, they were decisive and physical against the run. Both linebackers still have plenty of room for improvement, particularly McClellin, yet positive steps forward each game will give Bears fans confidence these two youngsters can grow into their roles on defense.
Shopping for Holmes
It’s unclear whether newcomer Santonio Holmes will play tonight but if he does, he’ll be expected to make immediate contributions as the team’s potential No. 3 wide receiver. Yet temper your expectations. Holmes is not yet in game shape and has had less than a week to digest a brand new playbook. If he plays, it will probably be limited snaps and it’s unlikely he’ll light up the stadium. That doesn’t mean he can’t have an impact this year, it just means it’s going to take time for him to get acclimated to the offense. And if he goes off, Bears fans will sleep like babies tonight.
Conte and Steltz return
Chris Conte and Craig Steltz will make their preseason debuts tonight. Conte has two games to prove he still deserves to be one of the two starting safeties, while Steltz needs to prove he still deserves a roster spot. Conte needs to show that his shoulder is healthy and that he’s put the struggles of last season behind him. If he can be solid in protection and sound in tackling, it will go a long way toward getting his job back. If he falters, expect Danny McCray to line up next to Ryan Mundy in Week 1.
Battle to backup Cutler
The competition for the club’s No. 2 quarterback job between Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer will likely be decided tonight. Palmer will come in after Jay Cutler, with Clausen up after that. Both passers played well last week, although it’s plain as day Clausen has a much stronger arm. If Clausen shines, the job is his no matter how well Palmer plays. If Clausen struggles, particularly against Seattle’s third stringers, Palmer may sneak onto the roster. It’s up to Jimmy at this point.
Run block woes
Matt Forte has carried the ball seven times the first two preseason games for -7 total rushing yards. That’s as bad as it gets. Rushing attacks often take a while to find their groove, so it’s not time to panic yet, but the offensive line needs to get some push tonight. If they get knocked around by the Seahawks for two quarters, the run game will limp into the regular season. Pounding the rock successfully against a tough run defense will give the front five confidence heading into Week 1.
Ola on the edge
Offensive lineman Michael Ola has been the surprise of the offseason. With Jordan Mills and Eben Britton on the shelf, Ola has been the club’s starting right tackle the past two weeks. He hasn’t been perfect but he’s definitely held his own and doesn’t look out of place with the first team. A strong performance against Seattle’s never-ending pass rush and Ola could not only solidify his roster spot but he may even leapfrog Britton as the club’s sixth offensive lineman.
Rounding out the defensive line
With the versatility of Lamarr Houston to play both DE and DT, I believe it’s unlikely the Bears will keep five defensive tackles. Instead, they’ll like keep five edge rushers to make up for Houston’s use at DT. That being the case, one defensive end spot is up for grabs between Austen Lane, David Bass and Cornelius Washington. Lane is the frontrunner but neither he nor Bass have done much in the preseason. On the other hand, Washington was dominant against third-string competition last week. If he gets on the field against Seattle’s second team and has another standout performance, Washington could sneak onto the roster.
Here are the bubble players who are on the outside looking in, those who must convince the coaching staff tonight they are worth one of the final spots on Chicago’s 53-man roster: CB Al Louis-Jean, CB Demontre Hurst, TE Matthew Mulligan, WR Micheal Spurlock, OL James Brown, DT Nate Collins, DE Austen Lane, LB Christian Jones, DE David Bass, DE Cornelius Washington, WR Josh Bellamy, OL Taylor Boggs.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.