Controlling the line of scrimmage — on both offense and defense — is very important to the Bears, and it shows, given the fact that the front five have experienced the least turnover of any position on offense since these teams met in the Super Bowl following the 2006 season.
Olin Kreutz is the veteran leader of Chicago's offensive line
John Tait has moved from the left side to the right side, but Roberto Garza is still starting at right guard and Olin Kreutz at center, with John St. Clair (on the team in 2006, but not starting) keeping the left tackle spot warm for rookie first-round pick Chris Williams, and Terrance Metcalf taking over at left guard for the retired Reuben Brown.
This is a team that has basically one new starter in the last 18 months, on a unit where continuity is key and difficult to maintain.
The good news is that they have been able to retain their starters. The bad news is that those starters are two years older and, since they are players that generally rely on speed, quickness, and tenacity, two years slower and two years worse for the wear. However, this early in the season, they can still get off the ball and match up well against the smaller, more athletic linemen of the Colts.
The objective for them will be to win battles early on first and second down, opening up holes and sealing off backside pursuit.
If they can jump on the Colts and get the running game into a rhythm, they will be able to sustain long drives, put Kyle Orton in manageable third down situations, and keep Peyton Manning and company off the field.
If the Indianapolis defensive linemen are able to penetrate into the backfield, shoot their gaps, and force Chicago's offensive line to overpower them to be successful, then Orton will face a number of third and long situations, which could prove to be disastrous for the Bears.
Although Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Raheem Brock, and Marcus Howard will come into play in those third and long situations, they have a very important job in the early going: They need to play disciplined run defense, maintain gap integrity, and not allow their up field pursuit of the quarterback to create natural lanes in the running game.
The Bears will look to insulate Orton, especially in the first half, so it is imperative that they not over commit to the pass — this is also true on third downs, where Chicago will run draw plays and screens in order to take advantage of the aggressive ends of the Colts.
As long as they are able to get into the bodies of St. Clair and Tait, but not allow themselves to be absorbed or overwhelmed — this should be easier in this particular situation, since Tait and St. Clair are smaller than other tackles in the NFL — then the Colts can win the early battle of the line of scrimmage.
Since that is what Chicago is looking to control on offense, win the battle of the line of scrimmage and you win the game.
Eric Foster, Keyunta Dawson, and Ed Johnson will actually need to be more aggressive, though, since the Bears have a number of very patient backs with good vision that will eventually find a seam if given enough time.
By collapsing the interior of the line and penetrating into the backfield, the defensive tackles will force the Chicago running backs to make a decision, pick a lane, and plunge forward.
There has, admittedly, been a great deal more turnover in this area since the end of the 2006 season. Starters Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad have left the team and the current depth chart leaves a little to be desired.
Veteran Marty Booker will be a security blanket for Kyle Orton
Marty Booker is entering his 10th season and his second go-round with the Bears. He was never a burner and has certainly lost a step, but has always been a reliable wideout with sure hands and will no doubt serve as a safety blanket for Orton in this game and throughout the season.
Brandon Lloyd has 25 catches since he left the 49ers following the 2005 season and fourth-year man Rashied Davis has 39 career receptions, which is one more than former second-round pick and fellow fourth-year veteran Mark Bradley.
Of these men, Bradley has the most potential, but, either through injury or ineffectiveness, has yet to take advantage of said potential and is facing a critical juncture in his career. It could be that he seizes this opportunity, fulfills his potential, and has a big year, starting with Sunday's game.
It could also be that he continues to fade into obscurity and is gone after the 2008 season. Both outcomes are possible, but the latter seems more likely, given his track record.
In the seam — which is a vulnerable area in the Cover 2 defense — the two players to watch are tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen. Olsen is faster, but Clark has a knack for finding the soft area in the zone and settling in.
Both men are a threat, though, so the best strategy on defense will be to set the linebackers up four yards off the line of scrimmage and have them chuck Clark and Olsen when they come by. Both men are effective in the intermediate middle of the field, but neither is terribly physical.
If their timing can be thrown off and the linebackers can win the psychological side of the battle by continuing to bump their man, the two tight ends will wear down as the game progresses and become less and less of a factor.
By far the most daunting task facing the Colts back seven, though, is containing Devin Hester. Many analysts have questioned whether or not Hester can be effective, since he has very limited experience at the wide receiver position and is more accustomed to returning kicks.
Where this analysis falls short, though, is in considering that Hester is one of the most explosive athletes in the NFL and certainly the most dangerous player on Chicago's roster.
It goes without saying that he cannot be allowed to get behind the defense, so the Indianapolis secondary needs to go as deep as need be in order to defend him and keep him in front of them.
Also, as a return man, Hester is used to working in space. The best way to defend a player like that is to make them feel claustrophobic. Hester should never get a clean release off the line, always have a crowd of angry tacklers surrounding him, and should always be knocked soundly to the turf, with the defender taking a little extra time to jump off of him and help him up.
Above all, the defenders must remember that, even if they take these steps and do everything right, Hester can still break a big play. If he does, they must not allow themselves to become frustrated and must continue to stick with the plan. Focus and intensity will contain Hester and wear him out.
As mentioned previously, the Bears have a number of skilled and patient running backs. What they do not have is one player that has fully established himself as "the guy."
The early leader for that honor is Matt Forte, who Colts fans are very familiar with from the coverage leading up to the draft.
Forte has the best combination of size, power, hands, and durability of the backs on the roster, so he appears to be the one that will carry the bulk of the load on Sunday night.
Garrett Wolfe, Kevin Jones, and Adrian Peterson are all well qualified to be the third-down back, but all of them have something that is holding them back from the featured role. Wolfe is too small to be an every down back at this level, Jones takes too long getting to the hole — which would be particularly costly against this defense, and Peterson has yet to show that he's more than a situational player.
The common thread that unites all of these players, though, is patience and vision. Forte probably has the least patience and the worst vision out of all of them, but he is also the most decisive. Jones has a tendency to run parallel to the line, trying to find just the right spot, Wolfe has been known to dance in the hole, and the bulk of Peterson's experience has been on draw plays and delays, so he is obviously very patient.
Since the Colts defense has a tendency to attack the line of scrimmage, the most decisive runner will be able to do the most damage. They have frequently been victimized by the likes of Maurice Jones-Drew, Fred Taylor, and the Denver rushing attack — players who see a hole, cut once, and commit.
Forte has just enough burst to make those decisions count and runs very well after contact. Look for him to get the bulk of carries early and often.
If the Indianapolis defensive linemen can temper their aggressiveness with gap discipline, breaking through the line, but also sealing off the back side, then they will put the game in the hands of Kyle Orton, which is a strategic advantage for them. If Forte is allowed to decide, cut, and go, then the front seven could be in for a long night.
If the front seven does its job and is able to limit the running game and put the Bears in third and long situations, then the Colts have the Bears right where they want them, but they are not necessarily assured victory.
Orton's role as a "game manager" has been referenced at least as many times and as negatively as his neckbeard, but the truth of the matter is that Orton won the starting job over Rex Grossman, it was not simply handed to him.
The Bears are hoping Kyle Orton can bring them more consistency than Rex Grossman
Although opinions vary widely on Grossman, he is still a former first-round pick, has had regular season success in the NFL, and was once the undisputed leader of this team. To simply say that Orton is the starter because he minimizes risk and does not turn the ball over does not tell the whole story.
Aside from minimizing risk and not turning the ball over, Orton generally makes the right decision. His skills in this area are far more advanced than are Grossman's and there were a few situations in Super Bowl XLI that, had Grossman checked the ball down to a running back or tight end or just thrown it away, disaster would have been avoided for Chicago and they would have made the game closer, at the very least.
Orton will check down or throw the ball away at the appropriate times, but will also go for the big play if the Colts leave it open to him and can make all the throws.
The Bears are a team that is getting back to its fundamentals — play strong defense, force turnovers, overwhelm the opponent in the kicking game, and make enough plays on offense to win. The difference in this game will be whether or not Indianapolis allows the Bears to make those plays on offense.
They are focused on controlling the clock and the line of scrimmage, but, with a rookie running back, a receiver that has barely played the position, and a fairly green quarterback, they do not have the experience, discipline, or talent to sustain long drives and win the battle of attrition against the Colts defense.
If Indianapolis can take away the big plays and force Orton and his inexperienced offense to beat them by staging long, methodical drives by converting numerous third downs and being efficient in the passing game, then Chicago will not be able to hold up and the game will belong to the Colts.
If the defense wears down, gives up too many big plays, or allows the Bears to operate with confidence and authority, Chicago will prevail.
Opening up a new stadium on a Sunday night in front of a sold-out crowd, momentum will already be on the Colts' side before the game starts. If the Bears are forced into difficult situations early, the crowd and the defensive line will eventually take over the game and turn out the lights on the Bears in the second half.
The key will be getting on them in the first quarter and allowing the pass rush, the electric crowd, and their own inexperience suffocate them.