WEEK 2: vs. CHICAGO BEARS
Date: Thursday, Sept. 13. Time: 7:20 p.m. TV: NFL Network.
2011 record: 8-8. Points scored: 353 (17th). Points against: 341 (14th).
Noteworthy: A couple years ago, the Bears hitched their wagon to Jay Cutler. Now, he has some weapons. Chicago had arguably the worst receiver corps in the league — especially after Johnny Knox's injury — but upgraded by sending two third-round picks to Miami for Brandon Marshall. Plus, they have a dynamic backfield one-two punch with Matt Forte and Michael Bush. The series: The Packers have won four straight over Chicago at Lambeau.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
1. Better protection for quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears have jacked up and fortified their offense at the skill positions, but they must decide on their best five offensive linemen, or at least the five who work most cohesively. Offensive line is clearly the biggest concern for a team that believes it was playoff caliber last season (7-3 before Cutler was lost for the season with a thumb injury) and is better in 2012. The return of 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi is expected to make the line better at right tackle, where the former Badger showed great promise before a knee injury ended his rookie season after two games. But left tackle remains a major concern with last year's disappointing starter, J'Marcus Webb, and 2009 first-round pick Chris Williams expected to battle for the starting job.
2. Continuity in the secondary. The revolving door at both safety positions has rarely paused during coach Lovie Smith's eight-year tenure and there is again uncertainty in the secondary this year. Eight safety combinations were utilized last season, none of which worked well enough to make coaches abandon their never-ending search for the optimum mix. Third-round pick Chris Conte started nine games at free safety as a rookie in 2011 before finishing the season on injured reserve with a foot/ankle injury. Major Wright, a third-round pick in 2010, has been unable to lock down a starting spot because of minor injuries and inconsistent play. As usual, the Bears used a third-round pick on a safety this year; big, athletic Brandon Hardin; and veteran Craig Steltz remains in the mix after getting four late-season starts in 2011.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall. He is the big (6-4, 230-pound), dominant wide receiver that the Bears have never had and Cutler hasn't had since the two played together in Denver, where Marshall put up back-to-back 100-catch seasons in 2007 and 2008. Because of Marshall's many off-the-field episodes, the Bears had to spend just a pair of third-round picks to acquire a difference-maker who is in his prime. He should be the key to transforming a mundane offense into a state-of-the-art attack. Still, it's assumed that Marshall's next transgression will result in a league suspension, which would disrupt an offense that figures to depend on him to do most of the heavy lifting in the passing game. Oh, by the way, he's also dealing with a diagnosed case of borderline personality disorder, and it remains to be seen how he will continue to handle that situation.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears traded away a good chunk of their future for Cutler prior to the 2009 season (two first-round picks, a third-rounder and quarterback Kyle Orton), and they are paying him as a franchise quarterback. But Cutler has yet to approach the elite level of play the Bears envisioned. His cumulative touchdown-interception ratio of 63-49 and yearly passer ratings of 76.8, 86.3 and 85.7 are good but far from great. Now, Cutler has an impressive array of weapons to work with, including receivers Marshall, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and second-round pick Alshon Jeffery; and running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Much more will be expected from the leader.
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