The Monsters of the Midway have grown tired of beating the hell out of each other for two weeks in Bourbonnais, but Saturday they finally have a chance to knock heads with another team when the preseason commences in San Diego.
The Chargers present a few unique challenges for the Bears on both sides of the football. Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers leads an explosive passing game, and first-round pick Ryan Mathews has the unenviable job of trying to replace probably the greatest player in that franchise's history, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who is now in the Big Apple with the Jets. As for the defense, San Diego's 3-4 scheme is run by ex-Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.
Since there won't be any specific game-planning going into this weekend's exhibition opener, coach Lovie Smith started and ended preparations for the Chargers during Thursday's training camp workout.
"Today was San Diego prep day for us," Smith said after practice at Olivet Nazarene University, "the first time to work on them. A challenging offense with the power game. Defensively, we're going to play a lot of 3-4 teams this coming season, so it's good. It's a perfect preseason game to open up the preseason against."
For the Bears, quarterback Jay Cutler is charged with mastering offensive coordinator Mike Martz's complicated system, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's going to be on the field any longer than he usually would at this point in the preseason.
"As far as playing time," said Smith, "I know [the media] always want to know play time. We're going to get into the first quarter and kind of see how many plays we have. We could let some of the guys go a little bit longer than we normally do, maybe to the half or something like that. Different positions will do different things. I'm not going to go into all of the details with it."
Of course, if Cutler doesn't get better protection in the pocket than he did a year ago, when a porous offensive line allowed him to be sacked a career-high 35 times, Martz's scheme is bound to fall flat.
"We have a legitimate competition going on at least one of the positions," Smith said of his offensive line, "and everybody has to earn their spot. But one of the positions, we could end up having a new player at the position. We're going to let everybody play, though. That's the beauty of the preseason games. You want to get a good look, so we'll work a lot of different combinations. I wouldn't say that anyone will win a job this coming weekend, but at least we can start legitimately getting together a depth chart."
Another interesting subplot Saturday evening in California will be all the familiar faces across the field, including Rivera, D-tackles Alfonso Boone and Antonio Garay and cornerback Nathan Vasher, who are all former Bears now with the Chargers.
"He did a lot of good things for us here," said Smith of Vasher, when asked about reports that the one-time Pro Bowler is doing well with his new organization. "I'd say Nate will always be a lifetime friend. It doesn't surprise me. Sometimes a change of scenery is good. Nate left here excited about having the opportunity to play there with some guys that he knew about it. We'll be pulling for Nate every game this year, except for this weekend."
As many as 12 players have been held out of training camp the last few practices for various combinations of minor injuries and scheduled days off, but only four Bears on the current 80-man roster failed to participate Thursday.
Wide receiver Earl Bennett is dealing with a hamstring injury, and Smith has already announced that the third-year pass catcher will not play against the Chargers. Both linebacker Brian Iwuh and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna are nursing knee issues, and even though each of them did some light running on the side Thursday, neither is expected to suit up Saturday. Running back Harvey Unga has been placed on injured reserve with a hamstring problem and will, therefore, miss the balance of his rookie campaign.
The Bears linebackers are obviously ready for the season to begin, as they all showed up to Thursday's practice sporting fresh mohawks, and while Smith appreciates their sense of solidarity, he doesn't plan to sit in their barber's chair any time soon.
"You have to have your hair up to get a mohawk, right?" the smooth-scalped Smith rhetorically asked. "I'm long past mohawk. I'll stay the bald look for now."
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John Crist is the Publisher of BearReport.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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