Chargers-Bears Primer

The Chargers and Bears finished last season with the best records in their respective conferences. They also earned the most Pro Bowl invites, with San Diego earning 11 and Chicago eight. These two talent-laden squads will fight for the right to a quick start when the square off in prime time.

OFFENSE

No team was able to stop LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006, when the MVP scored 31 touchdowns and set 13 records. The Chicago Bears are confident they can prevent that streak from extending into the new season. The Bears have a fast, active defense that appears well suited for defending the shifty Tomlinson.

Since Lovie Smith arrived on the scene in 2004, the Bears defense has led the league in tackles for a loss with 177. Much of that is due to the über-quick front seven, which features Tommie Harris, Adewale Ogunleye, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Each of those elite defenders is capable of meeting a patient runner like Tomlinson in the backfield.

Michael Turner is more suited to attack an undersized defense like the Bears, although it remains to be seen if he is ready to go full speed after suffering an ankle injury in the third preseason game. Turner practiced on a limited basis on Wednesday before going full-bore on Thursday and Friday.

The Chargers will use some misdirection plays to slow down a Bears pass rush predicated on getting up-field in a hurry. One favorite of the Cam Cameron/Norv Turner offense involves a fake pitch left followed by a bootleg right. This is especially effective with a tight end like Antonio Gates, who is a great target out in the flat.

Coach Turner will also call one or more reverses, which will force the dangerous Bears defensive ends to stay at home. Craig Davis is the first choice to handle reverses, although he fumbled his only preseason attempt. Vincent Jackson handled a few reverses last season and may get the call again on Sunday.

When the Chargers go to the air, they will move the pocket or use quick drops to keep Philip Rivers upright. Rivers will also line up in the shotgun formation, giving him space to survey the field before those quick Bears linemen can get on him. The key for Rivers will be to make his reads quickly and utilize his check-downs liberally. The Bears thrive on sacking the quarterback and forcing teams into third-and-long situations. Last season, the Bears allowed opponents to convert just 31 percent of third-down opportunities.

Things will get interesting when the Chargers enter the red zone (known as the gold zone during the Marty Schottenheimer era). Over the last three seasons, the Bears have allowed opponents to score on just 75.4 percent of red zone opportunities, the best percentage in the league. The Chargers were the league's most efficient red zone (or was that gold zone?) offense last season.

DEFENSE

The Chargers led the league in sacks last season with 61, and Bears quarterback Rex Grossman can be rattled by a strong breeze. Clearly, the top priority for new defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell will be to get after Grossman and shake his confidence early. San Diego is counting on Shaun Phillips and Luis Castillo joining All Pro Shawne Merriman in the backfield, pressuring Grossman into some poor decisions.

If Grossman has time in the pocket, he will look to go deep. Since entering the league in 2003, Grossman ranks sixth in the league in yards per completion (12.25). He will look to expose a San Diego secondary that suffered numerous busted coverages during the preseason as the defensive backs adjust to new coaches Bill Bradley and Kevin Ross.

The Bears have some underrated weapons at the receiver position. In addition to cagey veteran Muhsin Muhammad, there are big-play receivers Bernard Berrian and Mark Bradley. Over the last three years, Berrian has averaged an impressive 15.8 yards per catch. Bradley, on the other hand, authored the longest play for his team in each of the last two seasons. This explosive group helped the Bears score the second-most points in the league last season.

The Bears will also look to incorporate their tight ends more than ever before. Desmond Clark set a career-high last season with 626 receiving yards while finishing second among tight ends with 13.91 yards per catch. First-round pick Greg Olsen has been practicing on a limited basis after enduring a left knee sprain in the preseason.

Other battles are taking place up the middle. Nose tackle Jamal Williams will lock horns with Olin Kreutz in a battle of two of the league's best players. Kreutz will work to open lanes for first-time starting running back Cedric Benson. Williams' mission is to keep blockers off first-time starters Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper.

Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner, Norv's younger brother, uses the run to set up the rest of the offense. The Bears averaged 119.9 rushing yards per game last season and will look to put a similar number on the Chargers. San Diego allowed just 100.8 rushing yards per game and will look to keep Chicago under the century mark.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Objective No. 1 is as clear as a San Diego summer day: stop Devin Hester. The explosive Miami product set the league on fire as a rookie and looks to continue his hot streak in the season opener. Hester returned seven kicks for scores last season, including the opening kick of the Super Bowl. He will also see some time at receiver against the Chargers as the Bears look for new ways to get him the ball in space.

The Chargers have plenty of kick-covering headhunters eager to take their shots at Hester. Kassim Osgood is coming off a Pro Bowl season because of his kick covering efforts and Carlos Polk is a two-time special teams player of the year.

San Diego is looking for some big returns of its own. Darren Sproles is back and will return punts, while Michael Turner will handle kickoffs, if healthy. Sproles is coming off a phenomenal preseason and would like nothing more than to outshine Hester in a nationally televised game.

The contest will also showcase some of the league's elite kickers. Punters Brad Maynard and Mike Scifres are both masters of directional kicking. Additionally, Robbie Gould and Nate Kaeding represented their respective conferences in the Pro Bowl last season. The difference there is that Gould excelled under pressure, drilling three game-winning kicks, including a 49-yarder in overtime in the divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. Kaeding ended the Chargers season with a missed field goal for the second time in three years.


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