When looking at the Chicago Bears 2014 schedule, most fans have already put a mark in the “Win” column for this weeks’ contest against the Buffalo Bills. When you consider Chicago’s first-half schedule – which includes road tilts against San Francisco, New England, Carolina and the New York Jets – it’s easy to overlook the Bills, who have been in a franchise funk since Jim Kelly retired.
Yet for those who think the Bears are going to roll over the Bills at Soldier Field this Sunday, you might be disappointed.
During the preseason, Chicago’s full first-team defense saw very few snaps together. Kyle Fuller and Jared Allen hardly saw the field, Chris Conte lasted just a few quarters and a healthy D.J. Williams played less than 50 total snaps.
To assume a defense that features six new starters will somehow instantly jell in Week 1 is being overly optimistic. In reality, this year’s Bears defense could take weeks, if not months, to build sufficient chemistry.
If the Bills’ two-headed rushing attack of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson get rolling on the ground – in the same fashion as every runner the Bears faced in the second half of the 2013 season – that might open up the play action attack for quarterback E.J. Manuel, or possibly Kyle Orton.
It’s truly anyone’s guess how Chicago’s defense will perform this weekend and there’s no guarantees they’ll be any better than they were last year.
And there are some serious concerns for Chicago’s offense as well, despite the other-worldly expectations most have placed on a Top-10 unit that returns all 11 starters under the same playbook.
The Bears are dealing with injuries up front. Jordan Mills’ foot malady is particularly worrisome. He’s practiced very little the past month and did not play a single snap in the preseason. Mills practiced yesterday and is likely to play but what can we expect from a second-year offensive tackle, one who allowed the most QB hurries in the league last season, who hasn’t played a meaningful snap since last year’s preseason finale?
Yet beyond the front five, Chicago’s biggest challenge will be thwarting a Bills defense that is much better than most realize. Last year, Buffalo ranked 10th in total defense and fourth against the pass. They finished the year with the second most sacks (57) and interceptions (23) in the NFL. They are led by one of the best edge rushers in the game in Mario Williams, a savvy veteran linebacker in Brandon Spikes and a solid pair of cover corners – last year, Buffalo’s starting cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin combined for 29 passes defended. In addition, Bears fans know of Corey Graham's prowess in the slot.
McKelvin is especially hard to throw against. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), opposing receivers caught less than 50 percent (46.1) of balls thrown at McKelvin last year, while opposing quarterbacks had just a 66.3 QB rating.
Buffalo’s secondary took a hit this offseason with the loss of three-time Pro-Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, so the back end will surely be tested, but for Chicago’s high-octane passing attack, the Bills will be no easy challenge.
The Bills were one of the worst run-stopping units in the league last year, so the key for the Bears will be to establish running back Matt Forte early, which should open up passing lanes, and then to again lean on Forte to run out the clock.
If Marc Trestman strays from that and calls 50 pass plays, turnovers will commence and the game will be much closer than most expect.
This is not a cupcake matchup by any means. The Bears have to take care of business to open the year before the run of heavyweights begins. If they take the Bills too lightly and go into San Francisco 0-1, it’s going to be tough to avoid going 0-2, and since 1990 only 12 percent of NFL teams that started 0-2 went to the playoffs.
Historically speaking, the great teams don’t always win matchups against other good teams but they always destroy lesser competition. On paper, the Bills are an inferior opponent in comparison to the rest of Chicago’s 2014 schedule, so if this year’s Bears are as good as many believe, they’ll need to dispose of the Bills quickly.
If they stumble out of the gate and Buffalo’s defense gains confidence, it could be a long afternoon on Sunday, which could lead to a long season.
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.