The Chicago Bears will square off against the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend in the third preseason contest for both clubs. After decisive overall victories in the first two games, including a 23-11 win over the Colts last week, the Bears look to remain undefeated in the preseason heading into Paul Brown Stadium.
This third contest is arguably the most important and most revealing of the preseason, as Bears starters will play well into the third quarter. Next week most of the big name first-team players will rest, meaning this is our last shot to get a feel of the club’s starting offense and defense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
WR A.J. Green vs. CB Kyle Fuller
Fuller’s struggles continued last week and he’s now allowed a completion every time he’s been thrown at during the preseason. The Bears experimented with a number of different starting cornerback groups in practice this week, so Fuller’s job isn’t airtight. Still, he’s expected to play a big role in the defense this year, so he must get a good game under his belt before the start of the regular season. Green is one of the most talented receivers in the league, particularly on deep balls, so Fuller will be tested again. A strong outing would do him well.
RT Charles Leno vs. DE Carlos Dunlap
Leno gets his second straight shot to secure the starting right tackle gig. Jordan Mills worked exclusively with the second team this week, so it’s Leno’s job to lose. He struggled in his first start last week – two penalties, a sack allowed and poor run blocking – and gets a tough test with Dunlap, one of the most underrated pass rushers in the game. If Leno can lock up Dunlap, it’ll be a ray of hope for the offensive line and should help Leno secure the starting role.
C Hroniss Grasu vs. NT Pat Sims
Grasu, the club’s third-round pick, has been the worst player on the field for the Bears this preseason. He’s been routinely pushed backward in both the run and pass games, and looks wholly unprepared for the strength of NFL defensive linemen. Sims is another powerful nose tackle (6-2, 310) who will line up across from Grasu with Cincinnati’s second team. If Sims has his way, the Bears may need to find a convenient injury that will allow them to place Grasu on IR.
-With Chicago’s top four receivers on the shelf, the door is wide open for at least two, if not three, backups to claim spots on the final 53-man roster. The leading candidate is Marc Mariani, due in large part to his role as the team’s top kick and punt returner.
Along with Mariani, receivers Rashad Lawrence, Cameron Meredith and Josh Bellamy will get plenty of reps with the first team. If one of these players explodes and makes multiple plays against the Bengals, he could secure that final WR roster spot.
-Ryan Mundy is on the shelf with a hip injury and, even when he was healthy, he couldn’t crack the starting lineup. There’s a chance that, despite him leading the team in tackles and interceptions last year, Mundy’s job could be on the line.
That said, Mundy’s experience makes him a likely candidate for the fourth safety spot, unless Sherrod Martin or Anthony Jefferson can make a splash the next two games. Martin is five-year veteran who performed well in training camp, while Jefferson is an undrafted free agent from UCLA with good size (6-1, 198) and quickness.
-Cornerbacks Demontre Hurst and Terrance Mitchell are on the very cusp of the roster and, depending on how the club feels about Tracy Porter, these two youngsters may end up battling each other for the sixth and final cornerback spot.
Hurst, last year’s starter at nickelback, has played both corner and safety in the preseason. His experience and positional versatility has plenty of value. Mitchell has been the best playmaking cornerback on the roster to this point. He has the only interception of the preseason amongst cornerbacks and yesterday was elevated to first-team kickoff, which is a great sign.
-The Bears have a log jam at outside linebacker and it appears Willie Young is healthy enough to justify a roster spot. That leaves David Bass as the odd man out. Bass is a talented pass rusher with good athleticism and will need to play like a beast the next two games to somehow sneak onto the final 53. If not, he’ll surely be picked up by another NFL club following second cuts.
-Undrafted inside linebacker John Timu has been impressive this offseason. He’s made some mistakes in his reads but he’s quick and has good awareness in coverage – he had three tackles and an interception in the preseason opener. At the same time, Jon Bostic does not look healthy and appears bothered by his hip and back injuries. He’s been slow and hesitant on the field. If the Bears want to get younger at inside linebacker, they might give Timu a roster nod over the ineffective Bostic.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
-Inside linebackers Shea McClellin and Christian Jones have played well together, showing good chemistry and athleticism against the run and in coverage. Meanwhile, backups Bostic and Mason Foster have done little to stand out. One more good performance from McClellin and Jones will solidify their roles with the first team.
-CB Sherrick McManis got his first look at nickelback last week but did not look comfortable – he was part of a blown coverage that left a Colts receiver wide open down the right seam. McManis was back in the slot during practice this week and will get his second chance tonight to show he deserves to be the club’s starting nickel.
-Jeremiah Ratliff is suspended the first three games of the regular season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. With their best defensive lineman on the shelf to open the season, the Bears need depth players to fill the void.
Will Sutton was a pleasant surprise in training camp and picked up a sack last week. If he can emerge as a third-down pass rusher in sub packages, that would be a big boost to the interior of the defensive line. Rookie nose tackle Eddie Goldman should also get plenty of first-team reps, as he’ll fill the run-stopping role during Ratliff’s absence.
The Bears play the Packers, Seahawks and Cardinals to begin the regular season, so it’s imperative the defensive line plays at a high level. Facing the Bengals, one of the best rushing offenses in the league, will be a good test for Chicago’s front seven.
The absence of Ratliff also opens the door for DE Cornelius Washington, who has been a core special-teams player all off-season, and DL Brandon Dunn, who could work his way onto the final 53 with a strong outing tonight.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.