Bears at 49ers: What to Watch for Tonight

The Bears open the preseason tonight in San Francisco against the rebuilding 49ers. Although most of the starting unit will only play a quarter or so, there are still plenty of stories that will play out before the evening is over. Here are 10 questions that need to be answered this year, and if all goes well, we should have have a better idea after the game.

1. Can Adrian Peterson carry the load?
With Thomas Jones out of action with a bum hamstring and Cedric Benson still nursing a sprained shoulder, Peterson will start at tailback tonight in San Francisco. The fifth-year runner out of Georgia Southern has always been a capable backup and a demon on special teams, but so far in his NFL career, he hasn't had an opportunity to be the featured ball-carrier. He'll probably only play the first quarter or so considering this is just the first preseason game, but he must perform well in case the injuries to Jones and Benson linger throughout the regular season.

2. Has Muhsin Muhammad finally dropped the dropsies?
Moose dropped his share of catchable balls last season, including a few crucial mistakes in the playoff loss to his former team, the Carolina Panthers. With the amount of money the Bears are paying him and the relative inexperience of the other receivers on the roster, he simply has to re-emerge as one of the preeminent targets in the league if this passing game is going to take a step forward. Nobody's asking him to put up 1,405 receiving yards like he did in 2004, but he needs a whole lot more than the 750 he managed in 2005.

3. How much will Brian Griese push Rex Grossman?
For the third consecutive season, Grossman was the unquestioned starter heading into training camp. But for the first time, he has a guy behind him with a legitimate NFL resume, and Griese will be expected to win right away should he be needed. Grossman will be given a long leash because he is a former 1st round draft pick and has been dubbed the quarterback of the future for quite some time, but the hook will come much quicker now with expectations so high this season and the Craig Krenzels of the world no longer carrying clipboards.

4. Can Hunter Hillenmeyer keep his starting job?
Very quietly in Bourbonnais, Hillenmeyer started seeing extended action with the second team defense while Brendon Ayanbadejo got plenty of reps with the first unit. Hillenmeyer has always been a complementary player, and with a pair of All Pros in Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs alongside him at linebacker, that's all he was asked to be. However, head coach Lovie Smith has been praising Ayanbadejo in camp lately, so Hillenmeyer might be auditioning for his own job this preseason.

5. Is P.J. Pope capable of making the opening day roster?
With Jones and Benson sidelined and Peterson bound to be out of the game after just a few series, Pope will get an extended look in the Bears backfield against the 49ers. The undrafted rookie out of Bowling Green wasn't even on the radar when camp opened two weeks ago, but given a chance to show his stuff, he has looked pretty good. Pope is almost certain to get double-digit carries tonight, so even if the talent in front of him on the depth chart comes back healthy and squeezes him out of Chicago, there are plenty of other teams out there that would like to have another running back.

6. Will the Bears finally involve the tight end in the offense?
Many fans were hoping to see the Bears draft a potential impact tight end like Marcedes Lewis or Leonard Pope this past April, but Desmond Clark has been one of the unquestioned stars of camp. It wasn't too long ago when he set the all-time ACC record for receptions, so he's been a primary target in the passing game before. Clark will only play about a quarter like the rest of the starters, but if Griese hits John Gilmore once or twice and Kyle Orton keeps looking in Cooper Wallace's direction, then offensive coordinator Ron Turner is serious about getting the big fellas involved.

7. How much better can the defensive backfield be?
If there was a chink in the Bears defensive armor last year, it was in the secondary. The injury to Mike Brown took away the unit's leader, and although Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman combined for 13 interceptions last year, Tillman in particular was exposed by Steve Smith in last year's playoff loss to Carolina. Reserve corners Ricky Manning Jr. and Dante Wesley have both been very consistent in camp so far, and rookie Danieal Manning will be ready should Brown come up lame again and could push Chris Harris out of the starting lineup before too long.

8. Will Robbie Gould have the leg strength to be an elite kicker?
Gould eventually won the kicking job last season and was just about automatic from 40 yards and in (18 of 19), but he struggled from beyond that distance (just 3 of 8). With weather playing a factor at Soldier Field more often that not, increased leg strength will only help him convert on longer attempts and can be crucial in terms of field position with his kickoffs. Gould has been tremendous and has blown Josh Huston out of the water in camp so far, but he needs a few 50-yarders in live action under his belt before he can become one of the best.

9. Who will emerge at receiver after Muhammad, Bradley, and Berrian?
We all know what Moose can do, and the combination of Bradley and Berrian has the potential to do some damage on the other side of the field. But with Moose still battling a nagging wrist injury and the other two largely unproven at the NFL level, the Bears need one of the wideouts deep down on the depth chart to step up and make a contribution. Justin Gage has been great in Bourbonnais ever since Airese Currie had his knee scoped, but he has largely been a disappointment in his career to date.

10. Are the Bears a Super Bowl team?
No matter what happens in the City by the Bay tonight, we're not going to get an answer to that question. But one thing every Super Bowl winner has is depth, so if the Bears reserves are making plays on the 49ers reserves, that's a very good sign.

Football is back, Bears fans. Get excited. And be sure to visit Bear Report for all the post-game analysis.


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