The Chicago Bears are a team in transition, particularly on offense, which has just four carry-over starters from last season: Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal and Kyle Long.
Compared to opening day last year, the Bears have seven new starters on offense, which makes Sunday's contest on the road against the Houston Texans far from ideal. In 2015 Houston's defense finished 3rd overall, 3rd against the pass, 10th agains the run and 7th in points allowed.
"You look at the numbers and they are at the top in a lot of different categories," Cutler said this week. "I think, first of all you look at the pressure they bring. They bring it with four guys, five guys, they don’t have to bring seven or eight guys to get home so J.J. and that crew and then the secondary, they feed off of them. They are able to play man. They are able to play different coverages. So it’s a good defense."
The number of new faces -- which includes former Packers guard Josh Sitton, who signed with the team this week -- creates a difficult scenario for Dowell Loggains in his first game as offensive coordinator for the Bears.
“Obviously, you have to pay attention to [the fact] we have a couple new players, and we have some guys that are competing and playing some different spots. That all goes into account," Loggains said. "We have to think about that way. How much can Sitton handle? Not how much he can handle, because he can handle everything, but how fast can we get him up to speed on the offense, the things we’re doing and especially game plan-specific that where he knows calls? All of a sudden, it’s the first time he’s heard something so there’s no recall for him. Sometimes we have to translate it to ‘Hey, this is what you called in Green Bay’ compared to ‘This is what we’re calling it.’ He has such a foundation of football knowledge. That helps.”
Last year's first-round receiver Kevin White will be playing in his first ever NFL contest, which is another hurdle the offense must overcome. That said, the Bears feel White showed significant progress in the final preseason game against the Browns and is ready to contribute alongside Pro Bowler Alshon Jeffery.
“We thought it was important for Kevin to play because he missed so much time in the past," said Loggains. "We’re excited with how he played against the Browns. He did a nice job. I think that he’s a guy that’s gonna keep getting better and better. We’re excited that way. He hasn’t played football in a long time so every day he goes out, he’s getting better.”
Yet White will be squaring off against one of the best cornerback pairings in the AFC in the Texans' Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, who combined for 28 pass breakups, 3 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles last year.
"Their vision [stands out], their ability to take the ball away, particularly in the pass game," head coach John Fox said. "The front seven generates a lot of pressure that can get people to make errors, whether it's batting the ball at the line of scrimmage or just pressuring the quarterback. They do a good job of capitalizing on that."
Houston's front seven is led by J.J. Watt, arguable the best defensive lineman in the NFL. He has 75.5 sacks his first five years in the NFL, he's annually one of the league leaders in batted balls and he commands a double team against the run.
"[Texans defensive coordinator] Romeo [Crennel] does a great job utilizing J.J.'s talents, which are pretty extreme," said Fox. "He's long, he bats a lot of balls. They'll use him as an inside penetrator, an inside 'backer. He's fast enough to wrap around the edge on stunts and then playing defensive end basic, [he's] arguably the best in the game."
Watt is returning from off-season back surgery and may be on a limited snap count. When on the field, he will put a lot of stress on Kyle Long, who has been limited in practice this week due to a shoulder injury suffered in the second preseason game.
"I think the thing that frustrates a lot of people about JJ is he just doesn't quit," Long said. "Obviously from a physical standpoint, there's not many guys who can do what he can do, if any. His length, his strength, his speed. But the thing that separates him is his will and he's a gritty guy, he's determined and he's going to terrorize you."
The Texans had the fifth most sacks in the NFL last year (45) and can bring pressure from every position. If the Bears focus too much on Watt, Whitney Mercilus or former first-overall selection Jadaveon Clowney will make life miserable for Cutler off the edges.
“They have a really good front seven and it’s not just [Watt]," Loggains said. "There’s four or five players on there that are really good. The guy has an unbelievable, relentless pursuit of the football, and that’s what makes him different than a lot of guys.”
Mercilus, a fifth-year player out of Illinois, had 12.0 sacks last year.
"I think everyone focuses on J.J. and sees that skill set but [Mercilus] is up there with him," Cutler said. "He’s a longer guy, but he is power to speed. He can get around the edge. He can bull rush. They use all those guys in a lot of different sets. They move them around, they keep you guessing."
The Bears struggled mightily on offense throughout the preseason but enter the year relatively healthy, which is a good sign.
"Just the fact that we’re all together for the first time [is exciting]," said Loggains. "I think, since preseason, I don’t know if we’ve had all 11 guys out there at one time, so I'm excited to finally feel like we’re at full speed."
Healthy or not, this is an offensive unit with almost no experience playing together, meaning a Week 1 matchup against one of the league's top defenses could spell disaster.
On the other hand, if Cutler and the offense can hold their own against the Texans' stout defense, it may portend good things for the offense this season.
The litmus test begins this Sunday at noon.