After another long off-season, the 2016 NFL regular season kickoff is just days away. The Chicago Bears are going into Year 2 of the Ryan Pace and John Fox era and even if the national media has low expectations, the Bears organization is expecting sizable improvements.
In the season opener, the Bears will head to Houston to face the Texans, who are coming off an AFC South division title and look to be further improved. This is not an ideal matchup for a team like the Bears, which has so many new parts, to open the year but a win would make a big statement and set the tone for the rest of the season.
Here are five things to watch for in the team’s season opener.
The Offensive Line
The offensive line has been a focal point this off-season for the front office and has seen a massive makeover. With the recent addition of left guard Josh Sitton the Bears have one of the stronger guard duos in the league, with Kyle Long back inside at right guard.
Second rounder Cody Whitehair will be the team’s starting center, which could lead to massive growing pains against a well-above-average front seven of the Texans.
Charles Leno will get the nod at left tackle and has been the team’s steadiest linemen for the majority of the off-season and preseason. On the other side, Bobby Massie will have his hands full trying to keep Houston OLBs Whitney Mercilus and Jadaveon Clowney out of the backfield.
For a group that has not played a single snap together, All-World DE J.J. Watt will provide a vigorous Week 1 test. The biggest key will be establishing a strong and consistent run game, which will take pressure off the passing attack.
On Wednesday, just days before the first game of the year, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio didn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence in first-round rookie OLB Leonard Floyd.
“Overall his camp was kind of choppy,” said Fangio, speaking on Floyd’s intermittent lack of availability due to injury and a sickness throughout training camp and the preseason.
As a result, it appears the Bears will be limiting Floyd's reps early in the year.
“Because of those things I mentioned in training camp, I don’t think he’s in the greatest condition right now," said Fangio. "And I think for a young guy like himself, playing 60 to 70 plays in an NFL game, he’s going to find it vastly different than the 80 plays he might have played in college.”
While Fangio’s comments are somewhat troubling, it’s worth noting that in Aldon Smith’s rookie year, he only played around 50 percent of the defensive snaps.
When Floyd was drafted, his role was not expected to be a big one but now that Pernell McPhee is starting the year on PUP, Floyd’s importance for a front seven that needs to keep the pressure off of a weak secondary just became much more important.
In a surprising turn of events late Sunday evening, the Bears parted ways with long-time place kicker Robbie Gould. He was the longest tenured player on the team and was the only rostered player left from the 2006 Super Bowl team.
Gould leaves the Bears as the 9th most accurate kicker in the history of the league and the franchise's all-time leader in scoring. Even though Gould has struggled the past two years, newcomer Connor Barth has big shoes to fill.
Outside of Gould’s recent field goal issues, he also struggled to get the ball deep enough on kickoffs, which is also a weak area in Barth's game.
Barth’s strength is kicking inside the 40-yard line but the Bears struggled to move the ball the majority of preseason, which could result in some kicks outside his ideal range. The fact he's never before kicked in Soldier Field is also concerning.
Barth may have been the team’s first pick on the list of available kickers but Sunday’s game will be the first of many tests for him to stay on the roster throughout the year.
After failing to sign or draft clear-cut upgrades in the secondary, the Bears will go into Week 1 with the same five starters from the end of the 2015 season.
The good news: It looks like all three starting corners -- Tracy Porter (concussion), Kyle Fuller (knee scope) and Bryce Callahan (groin) -- will be healthy and ready to play on Sunday.
The bad news: All three corners saw limited action in the preseason and will be thrown into the fire against DeAndre Hopkins, one of the league's premiere pass catchers, and a cast of speedy receivers.
The improved health of the secondary is a positive but this won’t be an easy opening test.
Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey will start at safety. Both will need to be stout on the back end to keep the Houston receivers from beating the defense over the top.
The Running Backs
Sunday will mark the team’s first official regular season game without Matt Forte since 2007.
In his place, Jeremy Langford will attempt to fill some big shoes and, while he may not match Forte's all-around production, they both have similar skill sets.
Behind Langford are Ka’Deem Carey and fifth-round pick Jordan Howard, who was impressive in the team’s preseason finale.
The Bears have repeatedly expressed their desire to feed the hot hand in the backfield this year. While Langford won the starting job out of camp, expect Carey and Howard to spell him on occasion, or replace Langford if he's not effective.
Other Battles to Watch
- Punt Returner: Eddie Royal is listed as the team’s No. 1 punt returner but don’t be surprised if Bryce Callahan or recently claimed CB Cre’Von LeBlanc gets a shot as well. This spot could prove to be a work in progress throughout the season.
- Kevin White: After sitting out his rookie year with a shin injury, White will appear in his first NFL regular season game Sunday. Although he did not look good in the early part of preseason, he finished with a strong performance against the Browns first-team defense.
- Dowell Loggains' Play Calling: It’s Year 1 of the Loggains era as offensive coordinator and while the Bears claim this will be a seamless transition with the same philosophies, Loggains has a lot to prove after a rough preseason.