Friends, the time has come.
Chicago Bears fans have waited long enough. It’s been more than eight months since the Green Bay Packers knocked the Bears out of the playoff race in last year’s season finale. Through free agency, the draft, offseason activities, training camp and the preseason, you’ve waited patiently – most of you at least – for this Sunday to come.
Shortly before noon tomorrow, the Bears will emerge from the tunnel at Soldier Field with an entire season of promise ahead of them. Like every NFL team, there are holes and question marks on Chicago’s roster. Yet after three straight seasons at .500 or better, with no playoff appearances to show for it, this is a team with high expectations. In fact, this is a group of players and coaches that truly believe a championship is within reach.
That journey starts tomorrow when the Bears take on the Buffalo Bills. Get plenty of rest tonight; tomorrow’s a big day.
The Bears own 54 opening-day victories (54-35-5), the most by any NFL franchise. The team has won five of its last six opening-day contests, including four straight. The four consecutive Week-1 wins is the longest active streak amongst NFC teams and second most in the NFL, trailing New England’s 10 straight opening-week victories.
This will be the fifth straight year the Bears open the regular season at home. Of the Bears’ last 21 season openers at home, dating back to 1984, they are 18-3. This will be the third straight year the club opens against an AFC opponent.
The Bears have never before opened a campaign against the Bills. The two teams have met 11 times in their history, with Chicago holding a 7-4 advantage, which includes the last two contests – the last meeting came in 2010, a 22-19 Bears victory at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. Chicago has won all five meetings between the two clubs at home.
HEAD-TO-HEAD COMPARISON (2013 RANKINGS)
|BEARS (NFL Rank)||BILLS (NFL Rank)|
|27.8 (2nd)||Points Scored||21.2 (22nd)|
|381.8 (8th)||Total Offense||338.1 (19th)|
|114.3 (16th)||Rushing Offense||144.2 (2nd)|
|267.6 (5th)||Passing Offense||193.9 (28th)|
|29.9 (T-30th)||Points Allowed||24.3 (20th)|
|394.6 (30th)||Total Defense||333.4 (10th)|
|161.4 (32nd)||Rushing Defense||128.9 (28th)|
|233.1 (15th)||Passing Defense||204.4 (4th)|
|+5 (11th)||Turnover Ratio||+3 (12th)|
The Bears are relatively healthy coming into the season opener. Only third-string QB David Fales (shoulder) has been ruled out.
FB Tony Fiammetta (hamstring) was limited in practice this week and is listed as questionable. There’s a good chance he’ll sit this one out, although coach Marc Trestman has a backup plan.
“We have those opportunities with [tight end] Matt [Mulligan]. Really, Matt, Dante [Rosario] and Marty [Martellus Bennett]. Really all three of them know that role as well. There’s certain things we do with Tony that are limited to just Tony but they don’t take us away from everything that we’re doing and what we’d call a two-back running back.”
C Brian de la Puente (knee) and S Chris Conte (concussion) practiced this week and are listed as probable. Both are expected to play.
The only Bills starter whose status is in question is third-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore (groin). Gilmore also had offseason hip surgery and has been slow to recover. Even if he plays, he won’t be 100 percent.
Buffalo LG Chris Williams, Chicago’s former 2008 first-round draft pick, missed the final two preseason games due to an ankle injury but is not listed on the official injury report. Still, it’s worth noting.
|2013 vs. Cincinnati||1/1||33||21||242||2||1||93.2|
Trestman talked this week about the growth of Jay Cutler from a fundamental standpoint, as well as in his understanding of the offense in Year 2.
“I think that’s all part of it. Jay’s worked very hard on fundamentals and techniques and drops,” Trestman said. “Part of this offense is really bringing clarity and definition to drops and the rhythm of these throws and how they play out, not only under center, but in the gun because there’s differences in drops and the rhythm and the types of drops we take because we’re taking the snap at four-and-a-half yards instead of under center. So these are all things that, with a year under our belts, we feel like we’ve been able to have a little more expertise in those areas. That should help us in our productivity.”
Assuming he stays healthy, there’s no reason Cutler can’t have a career year this season, and it starts tomorrow. The Bills boasted the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing defense last year but that included a secondary led by Jairus Byrd, one of the league’s top safeties who bolted for New Orleans in the offseason. In addition, both starting cornerbacks, Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore, have struggled to regain full form after offseason hip surgery, while Gilmore is also dealing with a groin injury.
Cutler led the fifth-ranked passing attack last year. All 11 starters return on offense, so the expectations for this unit are through the roof.
“There’s definitely a calmness, I think, in our huddle, knowing we’ve been through a lot of situations,” Cutler said this week. “We’ve worked together. Everyone has a good feel.”
If Cutler can have a clean, productive game without red-zone turnovers, there’s no reason the Bears can’t win this one going away.
“There’s excitement to start the season, definitely, especially the home opener. But we’ve got to try to treat it like every other game,” said Cutler. “We’ve got to stay calm and just stick to the game plan.”
Now is his platform to show he’s the player many believe him to be. The pieces are all in place for Cutler and getting off to a fast start against one of the NFL’s better pass defenses could propel the offense into the next dimension sooner than later.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Bears on Offense
Williams, the former 2006 No. 1 overall pick, is one of the most-feared pass rushers in the game. The three-time Pro Bowler finished 4th in the NFL last year with 13.0 sacks.
“In the pass game he's a physical presence that has a bull rush as well as speed,” coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “So anybody with his size and his athleticism you have to account for every down.”
Right tackle Jordan Mills will be tasked with blocking Williams for most of the game. Mills missed all of the preseason due to scar tissue in his surgically repaired foot but he practiced this week and said he’s ready to go.
“I’m very ready,” Mills said. “For the past four or five days I’ve been getting good work. Even when I was out I was getting good work with Mike Clark and the training and conditioning staff and in the training room. So I’m very prepared.”
Despite Mills’ optimism, expect the Bears to chip heavily with backs and tight ends to give him support against Williams. Remember, Mills allowed a league-high 62 hurries last year, per Pro Football Focus (PFF), so putting him on an island against one of the league’s premiere pass rushers is a recipe for disaster. Don’t be surprised if Michael Ola gets a number of reps alongside Mills on the right edge as well.
WR Brandon Marshall vs. CB Leodis McKelvin
McKelvin is no pushover. He’s a physical defender who had 19 pass breakups last season, fourth most in the league. He’ll likely shadow Marshall throughout the game. The key will be Marshall’s play early in the game. If he can out-muscle McKelvin for a few passes, that may force the Bills to rotate safety help over the top. If that happens, WR Alshon Jeffery will be licking his chops on the other side of the field, especially if Gilmore is limited.
Bears on Defense
For those that don’t know, Henderson has issues with motivation. One of the most decorated high school players in recent history, Henderson continually underachieved at Miami while dealing with numerous off-field and practice issues, which not only got him demoted from the starting lineup but resulted in a one-game suspension last year. Then, at his pro day, Henderson quit halfway through his workout and walked off the field. As a result, a supremely talented and physically imposing left tackle (6-7, 331) dropped to the seventh round in this year’s draft.
That said, Henderson did beat out Cyrus Kouandjio, the club’s second-round pick, for the starting left tackle gig, so he obviously hasn’t lost his ability to play. Yet faced against Jared Allen, the league’s active leader in career sacks, in his first ever NFL game is not ideal. If Allen gets some pressures early and picks up a sack, the serially un-motivated Henderson could quickly unravel, which would be horrible news for Bills QB E.J. Manuel.
LB Jon Bostic vs. TE Scott Chandler
Chandler led the Bills last year in receptions (53) and receiving yards (655). He’s one of the more underrated pass-catching tight ends in the league and presents a tough test down the seam. The plan is to play Bostic in nickel sets, meaning he’ll often be tasked with shadowing Chandler 1-on-1. Buffalo is inexperienced at wide receiver, so Chandler will surely be Manuel’s outlet target all game. If Bostic can limit Chandler, it will go a long way toward shutting down the Bills’ middling passing attack.
Matchup No One is Talking About
Graham - who played for the Bears from 2007-2011 - will serve as Buffalo’s nickel corner, assuming Gilmore plays, and will get a heavy dose of Holmes and Josh Morgan out of the slot. The Bills are going to focus their safeties on Marshall and Jeffery, meaning Graham is going to get little support in man coverage. If Holmes – who showed in the preseason he still has some gas left in the tank – can get the best of Graham, particularly on 3rd down, he could have an immediate impact for the Bears.
“I’ve been able to work with Josh and Santonio a lot more these last couple weeks and get a feel for them of how they like to run routes and what they like to do against press and just getting a feel for our verbiage, so we’re coming along,” Cutler said.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Bears on Offense
-Folks talk constantly about the Detroit Lions’ defensive-tackle duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, but if you want to see the best DT combination in the NFL, look no further than Buffalo’s pairing of Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. They combined for 139 total tackles, 18.0 sacks and two forced fumbles last season, earning both trips to the Pro Bowl.
They each have the quickness to beat you off the snap and collapse the pocket in the quarterback’s face, while also the power to fend off double teams in the run game. According to PFF, Dareus graded the third highest of any DT in the league last year stopping the run.
“Kyle Williams is a relentless player and he never stops,” Kromer said. “He's very physical, he's quick off the ball, he makes sure that he gets as much penetration as he can and tries to wreak havoc that way. Marcell Dareus is a very physical presence inside where he gets his hands on you and he's able to shed and make tackles.”
When you throw in the edge-rush combination of Williams and Jerry Hughes, who themselves combined for 23.0 sacks last year, you see why Buffalo’s defensive line is one of the most feared in the league.
“Buffalo brings a good defense in. They had a lot of success last year,” said Kromer. “The two defensive tackles had 68 and 71 tackles themselves last year, that’s a big number. I believe they led the NFL in defensive-tackle tandem for tackles. That's something to deal with, and then when you talk about Mario Williams on the edge and Jerry Hughes is a very good pass rusher against our left tackle, that's where their strength lies is up front.”
Chicago’s offensive line allowed the fourth fewest sacks in the league last year but the starting front five didn’t get a single rep as a full unit during the preseason, so it could take some time to knock off the rust. If that happens, the Bills are going to be in the Bears’ backfield all day.
-The key to stopping Buffalo’s pass rush has less to do with the offensive line – although they’ll need to have one of their best games of the season, collectively – and more to do with Cutler’s ability to get the ball out quickly.
The Bears have solid pieces up front, including two Pro Bowlers, Jermon Bushrod and Kyle Long, but the reason they were so successful protecting the quarterback last year had much to do with Trestman’s short-passing attack. If the ball is consistently out of Cutler’s hands in three second or less, that will severely limit the effectiveness of the Bills’ front four.
That doesn’t just fall on Cutler though, as the receivers must also be able to get open quickly to give their quarterback an immediate target. Gilmore is a big-bodied corner (6-1, 190) who is physical in man coverage. If he plays, Gilmore presents a challenge for Jeffery and Marshall at the line of scrimmage.
-The Bills will roll out the starting-linebacker trio of Brandon Spikes, rookie Preston Brown and Keith Rivers, none of whom were on the team last year. They’ve never played a regular-season snap together and all three struggle in coverage.
As such, TE Martellus Bennett should have a field day against the Bills linebackers, particularly in the red zone. Bennett has had a rough offseason, one in which he was suspended for a week of training camp after multiple on-field fights with his teammates.
Yet all that will be forgotten if he throws up a 7-90-1 stat line, which is entirely possible against Buffalo’s less-than-formidable linebacker corps.
Bears on Defense
Buffalo ranked second in the NFL in rushing last year and will attempt to pound the rock right down Chicago’s throat from the get-go.
Discipline in both gap control and tackling will be key. Spiller is especially elusive in the open field, so sound second-level tackling is a must. Luckily for the Bears, both Ryan Mundy and Chris Conte, the expected starters at safety, both looked very good as tacklers during the preseason. The same goes for safety Danny McCray, who will likely get a lot of field time if Conte’s conditioning level becomes an issue.
The Bills will also run some read-option with Manuel, which will put even further emphasis on all 11 defensive players working as one.
-The interior of the Bears’ defensive line – in particular defensive tackle Stephen Paea – must hold their ground at the point of attack. Paea will get a lot of reps lined up across from RG Erik Pears, who has never before played guard, and LG Chris Williams, a near-annual disappointment in Chicago. Paea must take advantage of those matchups, using his strength and quickness to penetrate and be disruptive in the backfield.
-WR Sammy Watkins must be accounted for on every play. Buffalo’s first-round draft pick has big-play potential every time he touches the ball and will break the back of Chicago’s defense if he gets loose over the top.
Yet Watkins is a rookie who is dealing with a rib injury. He might be a big-time weapon down the line but first-year receivers don’t typically burst out of the gates.
In reality, WR Robert Woods is the bigger threat. Woods finished 2013, his rookie year, with 40 catches for 587 yards and 3 TDs. He’s a quality possession receiver who has a year’s worth of chemistry with Manuel. Expect Bears rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller to spend a lot of time in Woods’ hip. If Fuller can limit Woods, the Bills are going to have a tough time converting those crucial 3rd downs.
Offense: TE Matthew Mulligan
Bears FB Tony Fiammetta will likely sit out the season opener. As such, the lead-blocking duties will fall mainly on Mulligan, the club’s blocking tight end. In power-run sets, it’s going to be Mulligan’s job to clear paths for Matt Forte.
Defense: LB Shea McClellin
The experiment begins in earnest this week with McClellin making his first-ever NFL start at linebacker. The plan is to play him in base sets only and for him to come off the field on passing downs. It will be very interesting to see how he’s used as a blitzer, as well as what happens the first time he attempts to fill the A gap against a lead blocker.
BEARS 23, Bills 13
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.