Rookie quarterback Kyle Orton showed the Bears plenty of positive traits in the preseason - enough to be named the starting quarterback - but his job gets a lot tougher starting Sunday.
There isn't a situation that could be much more challenging for a rookie quarterback than the one Orton will face against the Redskins at noon Sunday in his NFL debut, but the Bears will do all they can to help him succeed.
Last year, Washington's defense was No. 2 in rushing yards allowed and third-down efficiency, No. 3 in total yards and No. 5 in points allowed in the NFL. They are expected to blitz on more than half of the Bears' passing downs, with a capacity crowd of 91,704 cheering them on at FedEx Field, the NFL's largest venue.
"Yeah, it's tough," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "It's a challenge. But I think he's embraced it. He's looked at it and said, ‘Hey, let's go.' That's what life in the NFL is all about. You're going to play good people, so let's go play them."
"They do a lot of stuff, and I'm sure they're going to do more stuff, since it's going to be my first start," Orton said. "But really, it's just like any defense. If you stay out of third-and-longs, they can't do a whole lot. So hopefully we can win first down and win second down and keep ourselves to manageable third downs."
But Orton won't be asked to win the game by himself - not by a long shot. The Bears know what a young quarterback in the NFL is likely to face, and they have been preparing him for it.
"Kyle being a rookie quarterback, he will face (frequent blitzing) most of the time," coach Lovie Smith said. "We have a veteran offensive line. It's Kyle's responsibility to just throw the ball. It's the responsibility of other guys around him to protect him, and they'll do that. We feel good about it. We're a running football team. That run will stop you from blitzing from time to time."
It also means passing when the Redskins are expecting runs and vice versa. The Bears must make the Washington defense respect its ability to run. The Bears were tied for 25th in rushing yards last season (101.5 per game), but they were much more effective in the preseason, rushing for an average of 132 yards in the first four games.
"Hopefully we can run the ball early," Turner said. "We've got to be able to play good defense, run the ball and maybe get a little continuity, get a couple first downs. Hopefully that will help settle him down."
Turner hopes to increase Orton's comfort level by, whenever possible, calling pass plays that the rookie prefers and executes well. That's been a staple of Turner's philosophy from the get-go.
"If there's something I really like, (but) they're not comfortable with it, we're not going to run it," Turner said. "It doesn't matter whether I like it in the press box. He and I talked Tuesday and went over a bunch of plays. There were a couple on the ready list that I liked that he said he wasn't real comfortable with, so I scratched them, took them out of there."
Turner and Orton planned to do the same thing Wednesday after practice, paring any plays from the list that the quarterback didn't care for, although Turner said there haven't been that many.
Orton hasn't given the slightest hint that he's intimidated or awed by anything he'll encounter Sunday. The crowd will be the largest anyone in the NFL will face, but he's played in front of much larger gatherings for Purdue at Michigan, where the "Big House" seats 107,501.
"I'm excited to play," Orton said. "I can't wait to play. It's going to be a great atmosphere, going on the road to a tough stadium. I love playing on the road with the fans all over you. As an offense, you've just got to band together, almost like you're in a war. Everybody just sticks together, and you'll get through it fine. Hopefully we can get off to a hot start and play from there."
SERIES HISTORY - 45th meeting. Bears lead 23-20-1. Bears and Redskins met in four NFL title games from 1937-43, with each team winning twice. The Bears beat the Redskins 73-0 in the 1940 championship game.
The first-round pick is listed third on the depth chart, although he ran some plays with the No. 2 offense at Wednesday's practice. He will be physically able to carry the ball if the Bears want to give starter Thomas Jones a rest.
But Benson may not have enough experience in blitz pickup and pass protection to risk a missed assignment that could get rookie quarterback Kyle Orton pummeled. Benson got a lot of reps at Wednesday's practice, but no decision on his playing time has been made public.
"We know they're going to come after us whether he's in there or not, so we can't put him in there a great deal if we're not sure that he's very sound with his protections," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "We'll wait ‘til later in the week and talk about it, see where he is."
Benson said he expects to play but it might be some time before he gets anything close to the workload he was used to at Texas, where he carried the ball 1,112 times in four years.
"I understand the situation," he said. "There's been a guy (Jones) here, and I have to earn it. That's part of football, and it's not hard (to deal with)."
"It's my huddle, but it's his huddle too," Orton said. "He's going to get the control of everybody."
Kreutz, a four-time Pro Bowler and one of the Bears' enforcers, said the huddle belongs to the quarterback.
"Kyle's just saying that to be respectful to the veterans," Kreutz said. "It's his huddle. It's his team now. When you're the quarterback, you're the leader of the team. It's more his huddle than anybody else's huddle."
"Last year we made a lot of mistakes," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "First, (Portis) is a good football player, I want to give him his due, but we didn't play as well as we need to. We've cleaned up a lot of that as far as us being able to stop the run and play the run. We're another year into the system, and we've played the run well in the preseason. We feel good about our run defense."
Azumah could be used just in passing situations as the nickel corner. But he would like to do more, including returning kickoffs, which got him a Pro Bowl trip after the 2003 season.
"As far as I'm concerned, I should be doing it all," Azumah said. "I want to be on the football field as much as possible. They just have to give me the go-ahead. I know I'm going to be ready."
If Azumah doesn't play at all on defense Sunday, inexperienced Rashied Davis would be the Bears nickel corner and Nathan Vasher would start across from Charles Tillman. Rookie Mark Bradley will return kicks if Azumah doesn't handle that chore in his first game back.
"We're definitely comfortable putting him out there (for) some action," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We don't know exactly how much. We won't rush him back. We don't know yet whether he will return kickoffs, how much he'll play at the nickel position or his cornerback position, but we feel like he'll play, and kind of take it from there."
BY THE NUMBERS: The Bears also had a net of 34 passing yards in last year's 13-10 loss to the Redskins, as Jonathan Quinn completed 10 of 22 passes for 65 yards and was sacked four times for 31 yards.
The Bears have used five starting quarterbacks in the past 12 months - in order, Rex Grossman, Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson and Kyle Orton.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He played well, and if I play well, then we should win a lot of games and everybody will start comparing me and Ben. If I play poorly, then it'll be a rookie quarterback playing poorly and there won't be too many comparisons. I just have to go out and play well." - Bears rookie QB Kyle Orton on comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger
It's only appropriate that the Lions open the season Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
It was in Green Bay, as the quarterbacks coach under Mike Holmgren from 1992-1995, that Lions coach Steve Mariucci got his first taste of the NFL and the traditional black-and-blue division.
It is the Packers who - despite warnings of pending doom - have won the NFC North the past three seasons.
It is the Lions, after winning just 16 games in the past four years, who have set their sights on a division title and/or a playoff berth, and if they're going to get there, they will have to get past the Packers.
So what better time to test themselves than the opening game? They even have the benefit of playing the Packers at home in Ford Field.
There is no underestimating the significance of the season opener against Green Bay, as quarterback Joey Harrington acknowledged.
"I don't know if it is because of the success that Green Bay has had," Harrington said, "but because of what we want to do as a team, the kind of talent we think we have and us wanting to get off on the right foot in this division, with two division games right off the bat, that is what makes it one of the biggest openers we have had."
Neither team was overly impressive in the preseason. The Lions lost their first three games before knocking off Buffalo in the fourth; the Packers were 2-2 in the preseason, including losses to New England and Buffalo.
Both Mariucci and Packers coach Mike Sherman obviously held much of their offense and defense back for the regular season, but the Lions cannot afford to let that - or anything else - get in their way.
"We need to be hitting on all cylinders quick," tackle Jeff Backus said. "We've got two big games right away. We need to go out there and perform well, we need to perform at a high level. There's no excuses if we don't; we've just got to go out there and get it done."
Tight end Marcus Pollard, a newcomer to the Lions after playing 10 years at Indianapolis, says he sees indications the Lions can get off to the kind of start they crave.
"Guys come to work every day," he said. "Guys are willing to listen, eager to learn, eager to get better. And when you've got those kind of things with good character and great coaches, the sky's the limit."
SERIES HISTORY: 144th meeting. The Packers hold a substantial lead in the series with 76 wins, 61 losses and six ties. Their lead is 79-63-7 including games dating back an additional four seasons when the Lions were still the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans. The Packers have won the last two games and are 2-1 against the Lions in Ford Field.
Woody, a former New England Pro Bowl center who came to the Lions in free agency a year ago, distributed a flyer to the locker of each teammate recently, listing the team's records since the 2000 season:
2-14 in 2001.
3-13 in 2002.
5-11 in 2003.
6-10 in 2004.
Their cumulative mark of 16-48 is by far the worst record of any NFL team during that time period, which is the point Woody wanted to make.
"People need to see that," Woody said. "You can't run from it. In order to change, you have to face the facts, because sometimes the truth hurts.
"It's not to demean anybody but it's just to state a simple fact that it is what it is, because in the end, all people care about is wins and losses.
"They're going to ask at the end of the year, ‘How many games did you win?' Well, if you didn't win any games, they don't care. That's what it all comes down to."
Orlovsky, a fifth-round draft pick from Connecticut, got a battlefield promotion to No. 2 quarterback when veteran Jeff Garcia suffered a broken left fibula and sprained left ankle while scrambling on the final play of the first quarter in the Lions' final preseason game at Buffalo.
Because Garcia will not require surgery, the Lions will keep him on the active roster and they will not - immediately, at least - sign another veteran quarterback. That means that Orlovsky will be thrown into the job if Harrington can't play.
Coach Steve Mariucci doesn't like the prospect of playing a rookie against Green Bay, Chicago or any other team on the schedule, but said he feels good about Orlovsky.
"He wants to start," Mariucci said, joking. "You heard him say that before. He's a guy who's up-and-coming. If there's a surprise in our draft class - in our rookie class - maybe it's Dan Orlovsky.
"He's been very good, improving every week. It doesn't seem too big and fast for him. He loves playing. He's a confident guy, so he wants it. He's not afraid of it, he welcomes the opportunity if it presents itself."
Orlovsky isn't taking the situation lightly but, in reducing it to the basics, he sees no reason to be intimidated by the prospect of playing in the NFL.
"It's football," Orlovsky said. "It's not like I just started Playing. I've been playing it my whole life.
"Granted, it is the NFL, it's the best athletes in the world, but if you are in awe of it you are never going to get comfortable. You have to have confidence in yourself. It's football and I've been playing it for a long time.
"I just don't think I would go in there saying, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?' You just have to go out there and play."
"Can't nobody get in there," said defensive tackle Marcus Bell, the occupant of the locker next door. "They can't move nobody in. They might have taken the name down but they ain't movin' nobody in. I'm holding it down for Kelvin Pritchett."
As teammates last season, Bell and Pritchett became friends. And, when members of the media started kidding Bell about guarding the locker until Pritchett returned to the team, he went along with the idea.
Until the end of camp, some players actually felt that Pritchett, a 14-year veteran, might rejoin the team if there was an injury on the defensive line. There have been no injuries, however, and it appears now that Pritchett, who will be 36 on Oct. 24, will make his retirement official.
Meanwhile, Bell said he will continue to guard Pritchett's old locker, which he now uses for the overflow of his own equipment and clothes.
"Can kill two birds with one stone," Bell said, grinning. "I need it."
Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the nameplate off Pritchett's locker is something of a mystery, according to assistant equipment manager John Brown. Brown said none of the equipment men removed the nameplate. Pritchett's shoulder pads and helmet also remain in the locker.
"No one's told us," Brown said, "so we just leave it alone. Until we officially hear that he's (retired) ... we held the number, held the locker. That's it."
It didn't hurt that Pritchett was one of the best-liked players in the locker room.
Garcia was acquired to provide a veteran backup to starting QB Joey Harrington and a change of pace if Harrington struggled during the regular season. But Garcia suffered a broken fibula and sprained ankle in the final preseason game, leaving the Lions with rookie Dan Orlovsky as the No. 2 and wide receiver Kevin Johnson as the emergency QB.
Lehman, who started all 16 games last season at the strongside linebacker while Boss Bailey recovered from knee surgery, suffered a sprained knee in the final practice before the final preseason game and is not likely to play in the season opener against Green Bay.
The Lions were in the process of moving Lehman to the weak side, where he would be able to compete with veteran James Davis for playing Time, but they are uncertain when he will be back.
BY THE NUMBERS: 0 - rookies expected to start in the Lions' season opener against Green Bay. It is the first time since the 2000 season they have opened a season without a rookie in the starting lineup.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've broken my nose a couple time and that really didn't matter whether it healed or not; I was back out on the field." - Quarterback Jeff Garcia, who is expected to miss 6-8 weeks with a broken left fibula and sprained ankle, on his previous good luck in avoiding broken bones while playing in the NFL.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
With his team off to an unimaginable 1-4 start last season, Mike Sherman was compelled to do something out of character.
The normally mild-mannered coach delivered a fiery, passionate speech that hit home with a lot of the players during a team meeting at a Detroit hotel on the eve of the Packers' game against the Lions at Ford Field. The team responded the following afternoon with a 38-10 victory, the first of six straight wins that propelled the Packers to a third consecutive NFC North title.
"We were kind of in shock," kicker Ryan Longwell recalled Wednesday. "It was the first time that (Sherman) wasn't a businessman in front of us. He was kind of a proud-papa-type thing, just talking about the guys he had to go to battle with the next day. It was the first time he's ever talked that way to us. So that's why I think we reacted the way we did (with the convincing win).
"There was a place and a time for that speech, and I don't know if you can do that every single week and have it be effective. Man, it was effective last year."
Longwell is certain a repeat sermon by Sherman isn't in the cards this weekend, when the Packers will be back in Detroit to open the 2005 season against the Lions on Sunday.
As much as the Packers may need a fire lit under them to ensure they won't start in the same slow fashion of each of the previous two years, the makeup of this year's team probably will keep Sherman from raising his voice initially.
The 53-man opening-day roster assembled by first-year general manager Ted Thompson is dotted with 11 rookies, enough new blood to comprise an entire unit on the field.
All but two of the Packers' 11 draft picks this year made the final roster cut last weekend, as did the undrafted duo of linebacker Roy Manning and center Chris White.
The Packers have a total of 21 first- and second-year players.
"My first year, when we won the Super Bowl (in the 1996 season), these young guys were not even in high school yet," Pro Bowl center Mike Flanagan said almost incredulously. "But, once you get between the hashes, those numbers don't matter anymore."
The 31-year-old Flanagan is one of only nine Packers who are 30 or older. By comparison, there are 27 players aged 25 or younger.
At 35 going on 36 next month, quarterback Brett Favre is the second oldest of the bunch this season, with long snapper Rob Davis the oldest by 10 months.
Favre decided in March to return for a 15th NFL season, and 14th as the Packers starter, in part because he felt the team coming back was talented enough to remain a championship contender.
However, the Packers could be starting three rookies in a season opener for the first time in 17 years. Second-round draft pick Nick Collins is entrenched at free safety, and seventh-round draftee Will Whitticker is penciled in at right guard. Manning, meanwhile, could get the call at weakside linebacker Sunday.
Of the second-year players, either Joey Thomas or Ahmad Carroll will start at left cornerback, and Corey Williams is a possibility to replace the deposed Cletidus Hunt at defensive tackle.
At least for now, Favre is willing to roll with the decidedly younger cast around him.
"I'm not sure who all the guys are. I'm still learning," Favre conceded Wednesday. "I don't know if we're too young, not old enough or if we're not in the middle. But just from an outside-looking-in perspective, if you just walk into our locker room, you go, ‘Who's that?' It seems like you're saying that a little bit more this year than in years past. Is that good or bad or indifferent? We will find out.
"I don't think there's any substitute for experience because experience sometimes is better than talent. But if you're unsure what guys can do, there's only one way to find out. That's to play for real."
SERIES HISTORY: 150th regular-season meeting in NFL's longest uninterrupted series, which dates to 1932 when the Lions were based in Portsmouth, Ohio, and known as the Spartans. Packers lead the series 79-63-7. They are 2-0 against Detroit in the postseason. Packers have won eight of past nine meetings and three of past four on the road, including a 2-1 mark at Ford Field since its opening in 2002.
Luchey, who was signed to a six-year, $6.6 million contract as a free agent from Cincinnati in 2003, was partly deemed expendable because the team had assurances punishing Vonta Leach had recovered from a torn MCL sustained in the first preseason game. Leach, signed as an undrafted free agent last year, was promoted from the practice squad. He will spell William Henderson on Sunday and will be utilized on special teams.
Weight issues dogged Luchey, 28, during his two-plus years in Green Bay. The Packers gained an instant salary-cap savings of $750,000, Luchey's scheduled base salary this season, by cutting him. They still will have to count his prorated signing bonus of $183,333 and then will incur an accelerated cap charge of about $550,000 next year for the remaining signing-bonus money spread out over the last three years of the contract.
Steele, meanwhile, didn't always endear himself to coach Mike Sherman during off-season workouts and in training camp with an inordinate number of dropped passes. Steele had received increased playing time with starter Bubba Franks out most of camp because of a contract dispute and top backup David Martin sidelined an extended period with a groin injury.
In the process of cutting Steele, the Packers signed third-year tight end Donald Lee, who was cut by Miami. Lee started 15 games with the Dolphins and had 20 catches for an average of 11 yards with two touchdowns.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 — loss by the Packers under coach Mike Sherman since 2000 in seven meetings against Steve Mariucci-coached teams in San Francisco and Detroit. Mariucci's lone win during the span occurred on Nov. 27, 2003, when the Lions spoiled the Packers' Thanksgiving with a 22-14 verdict in Detroit.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's just so big. He can move. He's just so big!"