What to Watch: Bears vs. Bengals

We highlight five things to watch for from the Chicago Bears in the third preseason contest against the Cincinnati Bengals, a game in which the starters will play nearly three quarters.

The Chicago Bears are 2-0 to start the 2015 preseason and there is much to be excited about. Yet a banged-up receiver position is a concern that clouds the overall excitement heading into Saturday’s matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Seventh overall pick Kevin White (PUP), Alshon Jeffery (calf), Eddie Royal (hip) and Marquess Wilson (hamstring) are the team’s top four receivers and none are expected to participate in Saturday’s dress rehearsal.

While the depth at receiver is concerning, there are positives to build on following the first two weeks of the preseason, including the defensive group as a whole and the massive improvement shown from special teams.

Against the Bengals, Bears starters will play nearly three quarters, which will give Chicago’s coaching staff a better feel for their first-team units.

“It’s real important to understand your football team,” head coach John Fox said. “Everybody in the league has to cut down to 75 [players] after this week and then after the final preseason game, cut down to 53. So those are the guys that you’re going into the season with, and it’s important to choose wisely, and you’re evaluating everything.”

After last year’s Week 3 drubbing against the Seahawks, in which Seattle built a 34-0 first half lead, can a good showing by this year’s Bears set the tone for 2015?

“I can’t speak to that. I wasn’t even there. I don’t know whom we played in the third preseason game a year ago,” said Fox. “It doesn’t leave a lasting impression when the games don’t actually count. But they do count in the evaluation process, in instilling what you want in your team, and how they react, because they are games.”

While Saturday’s showdown is important, it will be the last worthwhile assessment of the starting units before the Week 1 matchup at home against the Green Bay Packers.

Here are five things to watch in this weekend’s contest against the Bengals:

Offensive tackle

It has been no secret that the team’s starting offensive tackles are questionable at best. Jordan Mills, who has been the undisputed starter since Week 1 of 2013, has now lost his starting right tackle job to second-year lineman Charles Leno, who also struggled badly in last week’s game.

Starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod has been the team’s worst starting offensive lineman over the first two weeks and has been slowed by reoccurring back issues. This caused Leno to slide back over to the left side for two practices this week, before Bushrod’s full return Thursday.

Leno will get the start this weekend but could be on a short leash if he continues to struggle.

Offensive tackle may be a position targeted through the waiver wire after Tuesday’s first wave of cuts.

Which receiver(s) will stand out with the top four out?

"Nobody comes rescues you. You better man up,” Fox said about his diminished receiving corps. "It's a challenge. We're not the Lone Rangers. You read around the league, people get injured."

So who will be the “next man up” at the receiver position? Josh Bellamy, Marc Mariani, Rashad Lawrence and Cameron Meredith have rotated as the first-team receivers during practice this week and will see the majority of the starter snaps.

Meredith has been the most impressive of the bunch with a total of five catches for 60 yards in the preseason, showing an impressive route tree, in addition to great size (6-3, 207).

Mariani has impressed in camp but has yet to truly shine during the team’s first two preseason games. In the third phase, he provides good value, as he leads the returner battle by a wide margin.

Bellamy, who saw some time on the active roster last year, may be the team’s main target Saturday night, especially after catching the lone passing touchdown in last week’s game.

Lawrence has the best all-around skill set of the bunch and has good after-the-catch ability.

A.J. Cruz, Levi Norwood, John Chiles, Ify Umodu and Jeremy Kelley will be patiently waiting in the background and could also seem some first-team snaps.

Jeffery, Royal and Wilson are all expected to be ready for Week 1 but during White’s extensive shutdown period, which player will emerge as the team’s fourth and fifth receiver moving heading into the regular season?

Defensive Line

The bad news kept coming this week with the announcement of Jeremiah Ratliff’s three-game suspension. Ratliff is one of two defensive linemen on the current roster with 3-4 experience at the NFL level. The team will be without the services of their best defensive lineman for the first three weeks, which opens a door for rookie Eddie Goldman to lock down the nose tackle position.

Goldman has been impressive in his first NFL camp and that has carried over to the preseason, where he looks like a complete linemen. He is a massive human being with surprising athletic ability. This year may be more of a developmental season for him but he’s the youngest player on the team and may have the highest ceiling.

Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, last year’s second- and third-round picks respectively, have also made a surprisingly smooth 3-4 transition. Ferguson has seen the majority of the team’s starting snaps in the two opening games and will continue to see meaningful reps in preparation for his first career start at five-technique defensive end.

Sutton has also impressed with the second team and could push for snaps with the first team on Saturday. Can Sutton keep playing at a high level against first-team talent? That question may be answered this weekend.

One of the more pleasant defensive surprises has been free-agent addition Jarvis Jenkins, who has been impressive as both a run stopper and pass rusher. With Ratliff out, Jenkins needs to fill both production and leadership roles for the Bears.

Cornerback

Do the Bears have one cornerback on the roster that is playing at an average level? Former first-round pick Kyle Fuller has struggled mightily, while Tim Jennings has done very little and is not the same player he was two years ago.

Sherrick McManis saw first-team reps as the nickel corner last week but failed to impress. Playing just 16 total snaps, he did not stand up and make the plays he had been making against the second team.

Alan Ball has been practically non-existent after signing a one-year, $3-million deal this off-season. He’s struggled with injuries and appears to be fully healthy, so he’s going to get on last shot to earn a starting gig.

The biggest bright spot has been former seventh-round cornerback Terrance Mitchell, who had another impressive outing last week. He looked very good on an interception in man coverage deep down the field. Mitchell had an impressive camp and caught the coaching staff’s eye as an up-and-coming youngster.

Will clarity come from the team’s weakest position this week? One thing is for sure: it needs to.

Backup Tight End

Who will separate himself as the team’s second receiving tight-end option? In week one, Rosario saw the majority of the time with the first team but last week Zach Miller took over that role. The problem is that neither stood out and did anything to separate himself from the rest of the pack.

With Bear Pascoe all but locked in as the team’s primary blocking option, who will separate from the pack as the team’s second receiving tight end?

More to watch:

- Can Adrian Amos continue to grow and hold on to the starting free safety position? Last week did not hurt his chances.

- Can Jimmy Clausen continue his impressive preseason? He has taken some of the worry out of the back up quarterback spot, at least for now.

- Will Marc Mariani wrap up the returner job this week? With another strong outing, it will be all but in the bag.

- Are the two starting inside linebackers set in stone? Shea McClellin and Christian Jones have developed great rapport with each other this off-season and preseason. Barring injury or a large setback, they should be starting come Week 1.


Aaron Leming has years of salary cap knowledge and has written for Rant Sports, Bears Draft On Tap, and Cover 32. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report.

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