With the fate of the coaching staff, and possibly the front office at stake this season, Bears' general manager Jerry Angelo believes the performance of youthful and somewhat inexperienced players at wide receiver and on the offensive line will be critical.
"What we need to see is the younger players make the step at receiver and at the offensive line positions in particular," Angelo said. "We've got a new scheme on offense that plays into the strengths of our players. But, on offense, the coordination and the continuity is very, very important because there's a string attached to all of them. I've been looking at those positions in particular."
The starting offensive line against the Chargers in Saturday's preseason opener includes right guard Lance Louis (25), who has never played in a regular-season NFL game. Third-year left tackle Chris Williams (24), who will be protecting Jay Cutler's blind side, has played just five NFL games at that position. Right tackle Frank Omiyale started 12 games last season at left guard, but he was benched at one point for ineffectiveness. He has never started an NFL game at right tackle.
But the Bears will also depend on highly paid veteran players to do a lot of the heavy lifting if there is to be a big bounce back from last year's 7-9 disappointment. Comeback seasons from middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and defensive tackle Tommie Harris would be a start.
"That would be huge," Angelo said. "Your core players, and obviously that's Brian, Tommie, Lance (Briggs) and Julius (Peppers) on defense, have to play to their level for us to be the kind of defense we want to be. Charles (Tillman) has come back off the injury (fractured ribs, bruised lung) extremely well, and we're hoping to see (Zack) Bowman take another step, and obviously we've seen some of that (already)."
"That's what makes a very good football team, that the players that you're building (with) have their best years."
Angelo is well aware of the prevailing perception that this season is a win-or-else situation, maybe even for himself. That might be a benefit in creating a sense of urgency, and it might be a distraction, but Angelo believes it might be best ignored.
"A lot is being said about it, and I understand that," Angelo said. "You could use it from a players' standpoint to fuel them to go harder. But I don't like saying it that way because it might sound like, well, they haven't gone hard (in the past). They have gone hard. Our issues have not been that. Our issues have been execution. We need to execute better and then, by executing better, we can become more consistent. We haven't been as consistent as we need to be and certainly as what we can be.
"That (do-or-die scenario) is media creating the perception of that. But our focus is on what we can control and what we believe in. We've looked at the season, we're excited about the goal, and that's winning the championship. That's where our focus is. If you start looking in the rearview mirror, if you start listening to that, it just distracts you from the task at hand, and the task at hand is to be a champion."
—Defensive right end Julius Peppers has spent a good portion of training camp taking young left tackle Chris Williams to school; not just by beating him with a variety of pass-rush moves but by teaching him how to become a better NFL player.
But Peppers doesn't want any accolades for Williams' improvement.
"I can see that he's getting better, but I'm not taking the credit for it," Peppers said. "He's being coached by a great coach (Mike Tice), and I think that's helping him get better. We're competing against each other hard every day, so I owe him, (too). Not only is he getting better, but I'm getting better going against him."
How does a five-time Pro Bowl player benefit from working against a youngster with five NFL starts at left tackle?
"Just having to bring it every day in every drill because I know he's a great player himself," Peppers said. You compete against good tackles in practice and you get better."
—When it comes to offensive coordinator Mike Martz evaluating quarterback Jay Cutler, even something as inconsequential as a preseason opener is more important than anything that occurred last year.
Cutler threw a league-worst 26 interceptions in 2007, along with 27 TDs, but that's ancient history to Martz.
"I haven't discussed at all anything about last year with Jay," Martz said. "Really, it just has no bearing on anything today. We don't talk about it. We don't think about it. It's never really crossed my mind."
Except when he's asked about it, and Cutler's struggles in the red zone, which has been often.
"I feel like I know what Jay is and who he is to where I'm not concerned about (last year) at all. If you ever watch our red zone stuff out here, he's just been lights out. I'm very pleased with his ability in the red zone. I don't worry about that with him at all."
—Even though he hasn't had a kickoff- or punt-return touchdown in two years, Devin Hester's presence on the field in those situations still creates a buzz.
Now that he's a full-time receiver, Hester is limited to returning only punts, and coach Lovie Smith doesn't like to court disaster by using him in that role in the preseason. Hester got just 1 opportunity last year and took it back for 54 yards.
"If I'm back there, they just want me to fair catch," Hester said. "I don't know what the plan is for this preseason, but I always try to sneak one or two in."
—The Bears will be back at Olivet Nazarene University for a 10th training camp next year but after that, the future is hazy.
— Some fairly high recent draft picks are among the more well-known Bears players on the bubble, especially at wide receiver and defensive back, and for them time is running out. Wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias knows that as well as anyone.
A third-round pick in 2009, Iglesias was facing a battle even before he suffered a quad injury on Aug. 1 that kept him out of action until Sunday, although he did dress for Friday night's practice at Soldier Field.
There is little question, even this early in training camp, about second-year quarterback Matthew Stafford's ability to lead the offense. His command of the system, his confidence and poise, as well as his efficiency carried over from the practice field to the first exhibition game last Saturday.
"When you are in command and dictating what you're doing to a defense, you are going to be throwing higher percentage passes," coach Jim Schwartz said. "When your shots are calculated and on your terms, they are going to be higher-percentage passes."
Stafford showed that command in the Lions' 23-7 loss at Pittsburgh. In his three series of work, he completed 8 of 11 passes for 61 yards, with one touchdown (2 yards to Calvin Johnson) and one interception, on a pass that caromed off the hands of rookie tailback Jahvid Best.
"It felt good," Stafford said. "It was the first time I've been on the field since Cincinnati (last season) and I felt like I was in the flow of the game."
He was at his best in the Lions' scoring drive. He completed passes to five receivers — two to Nate Burleson for 19 yards, two to Johnson for 10, one to Best for nine, one to Tony Scheffler for six and one, on a third-and-4, to Bryant Johnson for 10.
Last year Stafford threw 20 interceptions. He spent a part of the summer going over each and every one and came to the conclusion that the vast majority came on forced or desperation throws — plays on which the defense was dictating his play.
A similar situation occurred Saturday and Stafford showed his growth. On the Lions' lone scoring drive, they had first and goal at the 2 and Stafford made probably his worst throw of the night on a well-covered fade route to Johnson.
"That first one, I didn't throw him a good ball, but they were just overplaying the fade on him, big-time," Stafford said. "If they're going to keep playing him like that, I am just going to throw it to his back shoulder."
He did exactly that on second down. The play was supposed to be a run. But Stafford noticed that the safeties were blitzing, so he went back to Johnson on another fade route. This time, he threw it to the back shoulder and Johnson made the adjustment for the score.
"That was impressive," Schwartz said. "He came right back and noticed they were playing the same technique so he threw him a fade-stop. It shows what kind of command he's starting to have."
The one stinging remnant from the preseason opener was a return to last year's sore spots — penalties and turnovers. The Lions were flagged 11 times for 88 yards and had a turnover close to their own end zone and another deep in Steelers' territory.
"We did some good things early in the game, but we had some penalties that took some of that away, which was disappointing to see," Schwartz said. "You want to see players reinforce the good things they are doing in practice. Unfortunately, for some of our guys, they reinforced some of the negatives and they need to pick it up because they are running out of time."
—The Lions have serious issues at the linebacker spot. That was the case before camp started and it's even more acute now. Middle linebacker Jordon Dizon, who was starting in place of injured starter DeAndre Levy (back), sustained a season-ending knee injury on Saturday.
The Lions have one proven starter, outside linebacker Julian Peterson, who is having a strong camp. On the other side is first-year starter Zach Follett, an aggressive, big-hitting player prone to missed assignments and over-zealousness.
—Pretty good exchange between rookie DT Ndamukong Suh and coach Jim Schwartz on the topic of Suh's four-day holdout at the start of camp.
Said Suh: "In my opinion, I haven't missed anything."
Said Schwartz, with a wry smile: "The player's perspective is a lot different than the coach's perspective. He missed some stuff. He caught up pretty quick. When he looks back 20 years from now is he going to look back and say, 'I missed those four days,' — probably not. But every bit of work you can get as a young player is important. Every bit of this atmosphere is important."
— You can't help but be intrigued by the Lions' possibilities in the red zone. They will deploy two 6-5 tight ends (Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew) and a 6-5 receiver (Calvin Johnson), as well as a sturdy back (Jahvid Best) and a fearless slot receiver (Nate Burleson).
"We've got some trees," coach Jim Schwartz said. "Those guys are tall and when you get down there it becomes a matchup game. When you can elevate the ball and take it over somebody's head, that's a plus."
—The Lions are glad to be playing two teams in the preseason (Pittsburgh and Buffalo) who play a 3-4 defense. The Lions, a 4-3 team, play have their regular schedule against 3-4 defenses — worked against a 3-4 defensive look for the first time Thursday, which will help in preparation for the exhibition opener Saturday in Pittsburgh and for half their regular season schedule — twice against Green Bay, as well as against the Eagles, Redskins, Jets, Bills, Cowboys and Patriots.
How important is training camp for an offense to re-establish its continuity and build upon previous success?
The Vikings better hope the answer is "not very" based on the first two weeks of practices in Mankato, Minn. Minnesota spent that portion of camp — the team returned to its headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minn., last week — without several key components.
Quarterback Brett Favre is continuing to try to decide whether to play a 20th NFL season. Wide receiver Sidney Rice was on the physically unable to perform list because of a hip injury. Fellow receiver Percy Harvin left Mankato after only three practices following the death of his grandmother and never returned, in part because the team said he was dealing with migraine headaches.
Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe missed a few practices because of a shoulder injury, center John Sullivan was in out and because of an issue with his calf and right guard Anthony Herrera missed a few days because of back spasms.
For good measure, Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson spent the first week of camp dealing with tightness in his left hamstring.
The Vikings' first-team wide receivers throughout their time in Mankato were Bernard Berrian, Greg Lewis and Jaymar Johnson. The latter two were considered to be battling for roster spots when the Vikings reported to Mankato.
This certainly wasn't how coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell envisioned things when camp started. Sure, they knew Favre wasn't going to go to the Mankato portion of the workouts — meaning that Tarvaris Jackson would serve as the top quarterback — but that didn't mean they expected so many starters to either miss all or some of the time.
"As a coach you want every guy to take every turn," Childress said. "That's the way we're wired. Reps are the best thing. No substitute for 'em."
The lack of practice time for key offensive starters early is far from a certain death knell for the Vikings' offense. Favre proved that singlehandedly last year when he arrived in the middle of August and ended up playing as if he had spent his past five seasons in Minnesota.
The Vikings finished fifth in the NFL in total offense — eighth in passing and 13th in rushing — and scored 470 points, finishing second to the New Orleans Saints in that category.
Favre threw for 4,202 yards with 33 touchdown passes and seven interceptions and his 107.2 passer rating was the best of his career. Those numbers did not serve as a ringing endorsement for getting to training camp on time.
—Rookie RB Toby Gerhart took plenty of abuse from veterans in training camp drills before apparently deciding he had had enough. The breaking point came in the heat of the Vikings' final morning workout on Aug. 12 in Mankato after Gerhart made a catch in the two-minute drill and was pushed by Ray Edwards. The two exchanged words as right tackle Phil Loadholt attempted to play peacemaker. Edwards became so enraged as defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier tried to hold him back that Edwards and the mild-mannered Frazier had to be restrained from each other by Jared Allen. "(Frazier) gets mad at me and Jared a lot," Edwards said afterward. "That's not the first time I've seen him that mad."
—Safety Husain Abdullah began a 30-day fast from sun up to sun down on Wednesday with the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer. Abdullah does not eat or even drink water when the sun is up.
— WR Percy Harvin is likely to return to the team this week — and as early as Sunday night, sources told The Sports Xchange's Len Pasquarelli.
The team's first-round draft choice in 2009, Harvin has missed virtually all of training camp, grieving for his recently deceased grandmother and also battling the debilitating migraine headaches that plagued him as a rookie. Harvin left camp July 31 and hasn't participated in practice since then.
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