Chad Hutchinson's first start in relief of Rex Grossman did not inspire confidence. He was intercepted twice in the first quarter and sacked a total of three times in a little less than one half. He fumbled on one of the sacks, but right guard Terrence Metcalf recovered the ball. Hutchinson completed 5 of 8 passes for 40 yards and a dismal passer rating of 35.4.
Asked to assess his performance, Hutchinson said, "Not good. But I'm going to look at the film for a couple days and get better, learn, and it can only go up from here. That's the positive part. I have two more games to improve."
After completing his first two passes for short gains, he was intercepted by Colts linebacker Gary Brackett. His pass was high to Muhsin Muhammad, who was unable to corral it as he was being hit by Indy cornerback Marlin Jackson, and the ball deflected to Brackett, who returned it seven yards to the Indy 42.
Brackett intercepted Hutchinson again with 2:53 left in the first half, as he threw into triple coverage looking for tight end Desmond Clark.
"If I put the ball a little bit lower on Muhsin, he doesn't get hit," Hutchinson said. "And then I tried to squeeze one in to Desmond. I have to eliminate those two things."
Hutchinson he has always exhibited a tendency to hold the ball too long, dating to his days in Dallas as a rookie starter, but Bears coach Lovie Smith blamed the three sacks more on the offensive line than on the quarterback.
"Most of the time you look at sacks as a combination of both, but I would say there's more (blame) along the line than just on Chad. They were on him pretty quick."
The Bears played without Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz, who was ill, and starting running back Thomas Jones was rested, but the running game still played impressively, which should have made Hutchinson's job easier. Instead, the defense needed to bail him out of interceptions twice in the first quarter.
"We didn't play as well as we need to on theoffensive side of the football," Smith said. "We need to play better, and we will play better. Chad's first time out he ran the offense fairly well, but we need to make a couple plays and he'll play better the next time out."
One poor outing is unlikely to shake the confident Hutchinson, who is anxious to show that he can put up better results than last season, when he was 1-4 after being tossed into Terry Shea's disjointed offense after learning the scheme on the fly. He wasn't picked up by the Bears until Sept. 28 last season.
After the Colts game, Hutchinson seemed unfazed.
"After the first interception, I said, ‘Oh well, let's get back out there,'" he said. "I went after it again and threw another one. Those things are going to happen, but those aren't the kinds of mistakes I'm used to making."
Whether a full off-season in the program allows Hutchinson to lead the offense to the same lofty heights expected with Grossman remains to be seen. But the Bears' brain trust is hoping for the best.
"He's much more prepared," said GM Jerry Angelo. "He's comfortable with the system. He just needs the reps, and we have plenty of time to give him that. We brought him in last year during the season, and that's a tough time to train a player."
Hutchinson exudes the confidence that he says comes from being much more familiar with a system that he believes in - unlike last season.
"Chad wants to compete," center Olin Kreutz said. "He wants to win games. He has everything it takes."
After three preseason games, the Bears don't know yet if the quarterback position will be as troublesome as it was last season, but they've already seen indications that their defense might be talented enough to pick up some of the offense's slack.
The first-team defense permitted its first touchdown of the preseason Saturday night at Indianapolis, but not until the Colts' sixth possession, by which time the Bears had already forced 2 turnovers against the NFL's highest-scoring offense last season.
"I talk about our defense being pretty good," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "To see how good, you have to play against the best. Anytime you can hold Peyton (Manning) down a little bit, that's good. But that's what we expect from our crew. We're a good defensive team, and that's how we're going to play."
That's probably how well the defense will have to play until Chad Hutchinson - or rookie Kyle Orton, or veteran Jeff Blake - proves he can run the offense more efficiently than it was run against the Colts. But that's how well the defense has played in each game so far. It allowed 3 points in five possessions against the Dolphins, no points in four possessions against the Rams and 7 points in six possessions vs. Indy.
The Colts managed just 202 total yards Saturday night, exactly half of what they averaged last season. The Rams totaled just 274 total yards a week earlier, 93 fewer than they averaged in ‘04.
Sure it's the preseason, but the Bears' No. 1 defense has handled two of the top offenses in the NFL in back-to-back weeks.
"You can't get too excited about the preseason, but you have to call a spade a spade," defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said. "We played well, and hats off to everybody on the defensive line. We were able to get after Peyton real good."
The Bears never sacked Manning, but they hurried him into throwing sooner than he wanted to, and defensive backups dropped Manning's backups four times for 34 yards in losses.
Enis reported 20 days before the season opener. Benson would have had to be signed and at Halas Hall Monday to be in uniform 20 days before the Sept. 11 regular-season opener against the Redskins.
Because the Bears fear the fourth overall selection won't be ready to play by then, incumbent starter Thomas Jones was rested Saturday night and replaced by Adrian Peterson, who rushed for a game-best 60 yards on 14 carries. An injury to Jones would leave Peterson as the only tailback on the roster who has carried the ball in the NFL, and the fourth-year player from Georgia Southern has only 47 carries for 190 yards.
"Every day that Cedric is away it's harder to get him ready to play for the opener," said coach Lovie Smith, who plans a heavy workload for Jones Friday in the fourth preseason game.
Two days after starting quarterback Rex Grossman suffered a fractured ankle that will keep him sidelined at least until mid-November, the 34-year-old free agent was signed to back up inexperienced Chad Hutchinson and rookie Kyle Orton.
"I love to play the game," Blake said. "I've been doing it since I've been 8 years old. My oldest son is 14, and he starts freshman football this year, which I'm apparently going to miss some of it. All my other kids have been seeing me play football all my life, so for me to be home this time of year, it was strange for them."
Blake has more NFL experience than the other five quarterbacks on the roster combined, yet he starts out at No. 3 with no guarantees.
"Whatever they would need for me to do, that's what I'm going to do," Blake said. "I have a lot of knowledge of the game, and I can't take it with me; I have to pass it on. So I'm here to help out and do as much as I can in that aspect and also be ready to play if my time comes."
Linebacker Levar Woods played with Blake in Arizona, when the quarterback spent the 2003 season with the Cardinals.
"He threw well for us when he got his chance, and I'm looking forward to him coming in here," Woods said Monday morning, shortly before Blake arrived. "Jeff's a pro's pro. He's a proven veteran, been to the Pro Bowl (in 1995), played in big games, played a lot of games. "He definitely knows what he's doing."
As training camps go, the Lions had one of their quietest in recent years.
No major controversies. No major breakdowns. No major holdouts, walkouts or blowups.
They had only one major injury — a broken leg to fullback Cory Schlesinger, and he's expected to miss only three or four games at the most.
In the two weeks they spent in two-a-days or variations thereof, however, coach Steve Mariucci saw a lot of things he liked but he did not come up with answers to all of the Lions questions regarding the 2005 NFL season.
The quarterback issue seems to be fairly well settled. Joey Harrington, the starter for the past three seasons, has done nothing to loosen his grip on the No. 1 job; in fact, he has made progress in convincing the Lions he can do the job.
The new offensive line pieces seem to have fallen into place. Rick DeMulling, signed away from Indianapolis, has fit nicely into the left guard position and Kelly Butler, a late-round draft pick who didn't play a down last year as a rookie, has taken over the right tackle job.
All of last year's injuries — wide receiver Charles Rogers' broken collarbone, linebacker Boss Bailey's surgical knee and kick returner Eddie Drummond's broken shoulder blade — have survived the early tests with no negative results.
And the competition among the cornerbacks in a replenished defensive secondary, has been good for all involved, especially the young cornerbacks like Keith Smith and rookie Stanley Wilson. But nagging questions remained after the Lions broke camp and played their first two preseason games.
No. 1 — Can they be any better in the red zone than they were last year, when they were among the NFL's least effective?
Only two teams — Jacksonville and Chicago — had less success scoring touchdowns after getting inside the 20-yard line than the Lions, who converted on only 19 of 43 opportunities, an average of 44.2.
No. 2 — Can they pressure opposing quarterbacks on a consistent and menacing basis?
The Lions had 38 quarterback sacks — including 11.5 by blue-collar DE James Hall — and ranked in the middle of the pack in that area, but they still lack a speed rusher who is a threat to get to the quarterback on every down.
No. 3 — Will the Lions ever be a good tackling team?
For several years they have been subpar in that area and they haven't shown yet this year that they can do anything about it. They overrun plays, they don't get to the play or they fail to wrap up the runner/receiver; frequently at the expense of costly yardage.
"I told them I'm not going to change our practice routine and start tackling Kevin Jones and smacking Roy Williams across the middle just so we can practice tackling those guys," Mariucci said.
"So you're going to have to drill it in practice and you're going to have to tackle better on preseason game day. I want to see improvement from week to week."
As he explained it: "Back in college, I hit some people hard sometimes and they would get headaches. So they kind of started that."
Matthews hasn't delivered a lot of headache-type blows yet in the NFL, but — at 6-feet-3 and 250 pounds — he has the resources to start at any time. And with Schlesinger's absence, he's getting more opportunities.
Coach Steve Mariucci is filling Schlesinger's position by committee during the pre-season with running back Shawn Bryson, fullback/halfback Paul Smith and Matthews sharing the load.
"He's a smart guy, very capable, so you'll see him on the field," Mariucci said of Matthews.
Not bad numbers considering they don't have a premier edge rusher or a dominating defensive end.
The fact the sacks are distributed among five different players is an indication of how coordinator Dick Jauron will probably have to scheme to pressure the quarterback. DEs Kalimba Edwards, Cory Redding and Eric Powell have one each, as do LB Wali Rainer and CB R.W. McQuarters.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
At the urging of general manager Ted Thompson, his onetime mentor and retired Packers GM Ron Wolf paid an extended visit to training camp for three days last week.
Coincidence or not, Wolf had ample time standing on the practice field to look over a team with two rookies running with the starting units - Nick Collins at safety and Will Whitticker at right guard. The last time the Packers opened the season with two rookie starters was 1992, Wolf's first full year overseeing the team.
Head coach Mike Sherman had yet to declare Collins and Whitticker as starters for the regular-season opener at Detroit on Sept. 11. The young, dynamic duo, though, appears to be a good bet to inherit the rare distinction last held by receiver Robert Brooks and linebacker Mark D'Onofrio.
"Yeah, there will be some new faces in the lineup this year for the Green Bay Packers," said Thompson, their first-year GM. "Sometimes, that's a good thing. Sometimes, it's a bit unnerving. But, I think in the long run, it's a good thing — to get a little fresh blood in there."
Thompson, for one, has no qualms putting rookies out on the field, in a prominent position no less, if they've proved in a short time to be NFL ready.
Prior to returning to Green Bay, where he worked under Wolf from 1992 to ‘99, Thompson rebuilt Seattle through his shrewd draft work for five years as vice president of football operations.
"We played rookies in Seattle, and we played rookies here under Ron's tutelage," Thompson said. "It's just the way it works out. In a perfect world, would everybody be able to sit through like a little redshirt year? But, that's not the way (it works) in this day and age of the NFL because (with) these (young) guys, sometimes you might have them only four or five years and then they go somewhere else in free agency.
"It's sort of like college football now today. They play those freshmen right away."
While first-round draft pick Aaron Rodgers likely will sit and learn for at least a season behind quarterback Brett Favre, Collins and Whitticker were put on the accelerated track with the learning curve.
Once thought of as developmental candidates for starting spots down the road, each player has defiantly exceeded those modest expectations and filled a position of need.
Collins could be the first Packers rookie to start at safety in a season opener since Chuck Cecil in 1988.
"We really feel that he's on the right track," defensive coordinator Jim Bates said. "It's been daily progress for him. He's on target."
Collins has started the first two preseason games at free safety, where a big void was left to be filled when All-Pro Darren Sharper was cut in March for financial reasons and subsequently signed with NFC North rival Minnesota.
Similarities abound between Sharper and Collins, not the least of which is the Packers drafted them in the second round out of Division I-AA schools from the East Coast. Eyebrows were raised when Green Bay tabbed Collins out of Bethune-Cookman with the first of their two second-round picks, 51st overall, in April.
Like Sharper in his prime, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Collins is blessed with cornerback-type speed, has good range, is assignment-sure, has a nose for the football and isn't shy about delivering a big hit in coverage.
Moreover, not unlike Sharper or even retired Packers safety LeRoy Butler, whose number 36 Collins wears on his uniform, the rookie carries himself with an unmistakable swagger.
"My talent shows on the field. I don't have to prove anything," said Collins, thinking nothing of his emergence from a small-college program.
Whitticker, in sharp contrast, belies his 6-5, 334-pound frame with a quiet and unassuming personality. He readily admits his meteoric rise from a prospect nearly not drafted to entering the preseason third on the depth chart at right guard to presumptive opening-day starter is beyond belief.
"I never would have thought of this," Whitticker said. "You have to realize that being a seventh-round draft pick and even being close to being (an un-drafted) free agent, I'm just fortunate what I've been doing so far. Now, I just have to continue and just rise up to everybody's playing level now.
"This is a good group of offensive linemen. They're looking for somebody to come in and step in and help this team out."
Whitticker's exceptional showing in camp thus far has tempered concerns about how the team would replace three-time Pro Bowler Marco Rivera, who bolted for Dallas as a free agent. The team also lost standout Mike Wahle at left guard to Carolina in free agency.
The imposing Whitticker, a backup center to NBA standout Zach Randolph in high school in Marion, Ind., has wowed observers by utilizing strong hands and quick feet to properly position himself to engulf defenders. He held his ground against mammoth tackle Sam Adams in the Packers' 27-7 loss to Buffalo on Saturday.
"Nothing fazes him," said offensive coordinator Tom Rossley. "He doesn't get nervous. He doesn't panic. He's strong, athletic. He works well with (right tackle Mark) Tauscher; he works well with ‘Flanny' (Pro Bowl center Mike Flanagan) and all the linemen in there."
Whitticker, who has outperformed veteran free-agent signee Matt O'Dwyer, could be first Packers rookie guard to start a season opener since Bill Bain in 1975.
The preseason injury bug has stung the unit across the board but no position more than cornerback. Al Harris, the veteran leader of an inexperienced group, has been nagged by a bruised thigh. Joey Thomas, who entered training camp as the starter opposite Harris, has been a frequent sideline observer the first three weeks with calf and hip problems.
So, the Packers were compelled to start Ahmad Carroll, last year's starter at left cornerback, and rookie Mike Hawkins against the Bills.
Though Harris and Thomas are expected to get back on the field at some point this week, head coach Mike Sherman acknowledged that any further setbacks could be detrimental for the start of the regular season.
"Certainly, if we did lose a guy like Al Harris — he's a veteran player; he's our shutdown corner; he's a premier guy over there — you have concern," Sherman said. "But, we have depth at cornerback, I feel. We have some young players who obviously are going to have to grow up on the run, but we have some young players who can play. How soon they're going to be at the level we want them to be remains to be seen."
The status of Thomas is a confounding mystery. A strained calf sidelined him for most of the first two weeks of camp. He returned but for a day early last week, injuring his hip flexor as he tried to compensate for the calf injury.
A solid off-season moved Thomas ahead of fellow second-year player Carroll on the depth chart.
"We need to get him on the field, and we haven't been able to do that," Sherman said. "When he's been out here, he's done a very good job. But, staying on the field is part of being able to play this game. So, we have to keep him on the field."
Carroll nearly joined Thomas on the injured list. He had a foot stepped on while covering a punt return in practice Aug. 18 and had to be taken off the field on a cart. However, initial fears that he may have torn his Achilles' tendon dissipated when Carroll returned to the field a few minutes later.
Sherman is in the final year of his contract. Thompson, hired in January to replace Sherman as GM, has put off making a decision on whether or not to extend Sherman's contract.
If Thompson had sought advice, Wolf would have told him: "To me, the key is how well those guys get along with each other. And, they have to do that. That's the whole key. If they can do that ... each person has to be comfortable with the other one. If he asked me about Mike Sherman, I would tell him what I think of Mike Sherman."
And, that opinion would be?
"Very positive. Very, very positive," Wolf said.
Lee and Washington worked in a rotation that included Colin Cole and Cullen Jenkins in the first half. The results out of the foursome were next to nothing - a scant four tackles combined. Jenkins, whose versatility of also playing end is indispensable, had three of the tackles, with Lee recording the other.
It's not out of the question he could push veteran Ray Thompson, signed as a free agent from Arizona, for the starting spot on the weak side before the end of the preseason. Manning had a sack as part of three tackles against Buffalo.
"Manning is making a move. He's making progress," said defensive coordinator Jim Bates, noting the quickness and change-of-direction ability possessed by the Michigan product.
"I'm confident that both parties are anxious to get something done," head coach Mike Sherman said. "When that's the case, usually something does happen. So, we don't have one party with their head in the sand. There's communication. When there's communication, usually results occur. Hopefully, that will happen. Soon."