A one-point victory in a preseason opener against an opponent trying to regroup after a 6-10 season isn't cause for great optimism, but the Bears were more than satisfied with their effort in Houston.
Although the defense performed without its two best players — Brian Urlacher and Tommie Harris — it limited the Texans to field goals four times despite being burdened with lousy field position most of the first half.
The defense came up huge when it stopped fullback Ron Dayne a yard short of the line of scrimmage on a third-and-goal at the one-yard line. One of the keys to that effort was linebacker Lance Briggs, who stayed away from all off-season activity and two days of training camp because he was upset with his designation as the Bears' franchise player. The layoff didn't appear to hurt Briggs, who played well in limited time. He was assisted on the goal-line stand by nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek, who is being counted on to fill the void left by Tank Johnson's unfortunate departure.
The decision to give the starting right end position to last year's rookie sensation, Mark Anderson, was validated when the pass-rush terror showed his amazing speed and athleticism more than once by chasing down running plays from the backside to stop ball carriers for short gains. If the Bears can keep demoted Alex Brown happy, they'll have a quality threesome at the end position along with left end Adewale Ogunleye, who for the second straight training camp says he's rededicated to achieving maximum efficiency through diet and training.
On offense, the Bears showed off their new toys without overdoing it. Rookie tight end Greg Olsen had a pair of catches, and big-play return specialist Devin Hester caught the first of what might only be a modest number of passes, although any one of them could result in a game-changing play.
All three quarterbacks played well, completing a combined 30 of 42 passes for 273 yards and a cumulative passer rating of 94.6.
Starter Rex Grossman's mechanics were solid, his decisions quick and his passes crisp. There were no brain cramps or forced throws into dangerous areas. Backup Brian Griese was picked off on his first play but came back with a flourish, completing 4-of-4 passes for 61 yards to lead a touchdown drive on his next possession and dispelled concerns about his unimpressive early training-camp performances.
Griese joked that the key to overcoming the interception was "probably amnesia."
"And I think I've been hit enough to have a little bit of amnesia," Griese added. "You just have to forget about it and come back the next series and go back to work, trust yourself and remain confident and get back in there."
Third-stringer Kyle Orton led a pair of late field-goal drives that completed the comeback, showing signs of life that weren't evident most of last season, when he didn't take a single snap and seemed to lose interest.
Although the Bears seemed more focused on throwing the ball, Cedric Benson took another step toward establishing himself as the featured ball carrier receiving and delivering some big hits. His effort was solid if unspectacular, just as his team's was, but that's really all a defending NFC champion needs to be at this point.
CAMP CALENDAR: The Bears' camp at Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais concludes after an 11 a.m. practice on Saturday, Aug. 18.
But Benson's the man now, and he hopes to develop the kind of bond with his offensive line that Jones had.
"I've been running behind them the past two years, and I'm very comfortable with them," Benson said. "Hopefully, if not now, then real soon in the future, they'll feel the same way. I think it's a great thing to have those guys."
Benson admits he isn't the same type of player or person as Jones, who was more demonstrative. Benson usually lets his actions speak for him.
"I don't feel any more responsibility to do anything extra or anything like that," the more mellow Benson said. "I'm not a real vocal guy or anything like that."
"Gilly's never lost because Gilly knows what his role is, and we know what Gilly's role is," Clark said of the man considered "the blocking tight end."
But Saturday night, Gilmore led the Bears with 4 catches, and his 43 yards were second to Mark Bradley's 47 among the 17 Bears with receptions.
"Gilly has expanded his role throughout camp," Clark said. "Over the last four years I always led the tight end corps in catches. But Gilly is ahead of me (in training camp catches), and Greg is ahead of both of us. I think (Gilmore) really was able to show that he could be a pass-catching threat also. He's not forgotten at all."
The main man in the running attack has gotten the vast majority of training camp snaps with the first team.
"That should at least put him right on schedule," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He's gone through all the off-season work, getting a chance to go to training camp and now play the football game. He's not ahead of schedule, but just right on schedule, and that's where we want our team."
Benson played a little less than a quarter, along with the rest of the offensive starters, and carried five times for 23 yards and caught 3 passes for 11 yards.
"That's my main goal, I want to carry it over and play well in these preseason games," said Orton, who doesn't expect much regular-season action. "It's a four-game season for me. I know what I need to do to play well, so I just want to play within myself and do the things that I need to do to execute the offense. Going into Year Three in this offense, I feel like I've really mastered it and got a good handle on it so things are coming a little bit easier for me right now."
He was informed last Thursday that his appeal was denied from an earlier violation of the NFL's anti-steroid and related substances, meaning he will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season. Ayanbadejo also had 2 special-teams tackles.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "As a rookie, I haven't done anything. I'm carrying in their pads right now. I think it's a sign of respect. They're the veterans who come before you, they've been doing it for a long time, and they have a lot of good tips that they want to pass along to you. You're a pupil. If they tell you to do something, you should just do it because you have to earn their respect. So, when they say, ‘Carry the pads,' it's no problem. I'm going to carry their pads. If they say, ‘Go get water,' or ‘Beeks, do this,' I'm going to do it." — Rookie guard/center Josh Beekman who, in keeping with tradition, lugs his own pads and those of a veteran, into the locker room after practice
All the optimism surrounding the Lions entering training camp — that they could be the next New Orleans Saints, that they could go from double-digit losses to double-digit wins — came with a big caveat.
Jon Kitna could not get hurt.
Kitna took every snap at quarterback for the Lions last season. But what are the chances he will do that again? And if he does go down, then what? The Lions traded Josh McCown in the off-season, leaving them without an experienced backup to lead a team that will need to win with offense.
The situation looked even worse early in camp, when Drew Stanton, a second-round pick this year, suffered a knee injury during the third day of practice, had surgery and went on injured reserve.
But things are starting to look a little better now — not a lot, but a little. J.T. O'Sullivan has impressed the coaches, and Dan Orlovsky has responded well to the competition.
O'Sullivan is a journeyman. He is on his seventh NFL team, and he has never thrown a pass in an NFL game. But he is coming off a co-MVP performance in NFL Europa, and he has picked up Mike Martz's offense quickly.
Even though O'Sullivan signed July 10, little more than two weeks before camp, he showed good command and decisiveness immediately. Martz wanted to see what he had in O'Sullivan and give O'Sullivan a fair shot to compete with Orlovsky, a 2005 fifth-round pick who has had a year and a half in this system. So Martz gave O'Sullivan a lot of practice reps ahead of Orlovsky.
"I by no means feel 100 percent totally comfortable with every single thing," O'Sullivan said. "It's an ongoing process, but I feel like coming into camp I gave myself as much as I could an opportunity to compete with the situation I was in."
O'Sullivan entered the Lions' exhibition opener against Cincinnati after Kitna. He pressed at times, throwing an interception deep in Detroit territory and sending a floater across the field on another occasion. But he also made some plays, including an 83-yard touchdown to a wide-open Shaun McDonald. He finished 12-for-19 for 225 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Here came Orlovsky. After watching O'Sullivan shine ahead of him in practice and in the game, he threw an awful interception that a 300-pound lineman trucked 81 yards for a score. But he regrouped and — with help from special teams — led the Lions back from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 27-26 victory. He went 15-for-23 for 220 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
"It's tough as a competitor to see your competition go out there and play well," Orlovsky said. "I think that is something that I have been really trying to grow with. ... J.T. is going to make plays and he's going to be good. The better he is, the better he makes me and the better he makes the team."
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 19, camp breaks.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was like, ‘Man, how can that happen?' I kind of talked to coach and really just kind of honestly talked to God and said, ‘OK, just focus in.'" — QB Dan Orlovsky, on the interception returned for a touchdown by Cincinnati's 311-pound rookie defensive tackle, Matt Toeaina.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Lineman Cullen Jenkins said Saturday night the top objective for the defense this season is to be the best in the league.
Given how the starting offense performed in the 13-9 preseason win at Pittsburgh, the Packers might need the defense to be second to none if they're going to realize an improvement from last year's 8-8 record.
The Brett Favre-led No. 1 unit mustered a grand total of three yards in four possessions. All of them were three-and-out.
"We've got a lot of positive things to build off, and we've got plenty of things to work on," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Offensively, I think everything that happened out there from a negative standpoint is fixable."
Favre wasn't able to get in sync with his relatively young cast of skill players. He completed only two of seven passes for seven yards and had a woeful passer rating of 39.6.
In sharp contrast, though, Aaron Rodgers started the preseason with a flurry, which not only ignited the comeback from a 9-0 deficit but could prove to be the steppingstone for a smooth transition when the time finally comes for the 2005 first-round draft pick to take over for Favre.
Rodgers functioned better than he did in his limited opportunities his first two years as Favre's heir apparent. His passer rating was 95.9, as he completed 18 of 27 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown in a little more than two quarters of action.
"He did a lot of good things with his feet," McCarthy said. "I thought he was composed in the pocket. I thought his ball accuracy and his decision making, for the most part, were good."
Of the 11 Packers who had catches in the game, only Donald Driver wasn't on the receiving end of a Rodgers throw.
Just nine months removed from a broken foot he sustained in relief of Favre last season, Rodgers has made a marked improvement in his ability to operate outside the pocket. He often evaded pursuit on the run and managed to set his feet and complete throws.
The 6-foot-2 Rodgers reported to training camp in the best shape since he was a sophomore in college. He weighs 217 and has his body fat down in the single digits at 9 percent, thanks to intensive offseason conditioning that included jumping rope.
"The one worry I had coming in (Saturday) was (the Steelers') pressure," Rodgers said. "I felt like we handled it really well. The second (unit offensive line) gave me time, and the receivers made some plays. I had some bad throws I'd like to have back."
Rodgers ranked a would-be 15-yard touchdown strike to Ruvell Martin late in the first half — the completion was nullified by a penalty — near the top of his list in his brief pro career. Rodgers freelanced on the run and threaded the pass between two defenders.
Rodgers, who led the Packers on three straight scoring drives, eventually hit Carlyle Holiday on a fade for a 3-yard touchdown.
Rookie James Jones was Rodgers' primary target. Jones had six catches for 58 yards to further his cause for winning the No. 3 job, behind Driver and Greg Jennings.
CAMP CALENDAR: Ends Aug. 28. The team has the last of three straight no-practice Wednesdays on Aug. 15. It has three of eight scheduled night practices remaining: Aug. 14, 16 and 20.
Both had attempted more than 60 field goals in team periods after only 10 days of training camp but weren't any worse for the wear in the first preseason game Aug. 11 at Pittsburgh.
Rayner, last year's kicker, put the Packers on the scoreboard with a 32-yard field goal to end the first half.
Crosby, a rookie drafted in the sixth round, answered with a 52-yard conversion late in the third quarter to complete Green Bay's 13-9 comeback victory.
Two weeks into the preseason, the competition was considered a dead heat.
"We're probably wearing them out a little bit, kicking them too much," head coach Mike McCarthy conceded. "We want to make sure we give them both a chance to win the job. They're both talented. They're both strong-legged. I'm glad they're both here."
Rayner was the front-runner in the battle early in camp but trailed Crosby slightly in the practice environment entering the preseason opener.
The Green Bay Press-Gazette has charted the kickers' field-goal attempts since the outset of camp. Crosby made 61 of his first 73 kicks for a conversion rate of 83.6 percent. Rayner was 60-of-75 for 80 percent.
The two combatants also are neck-and-neck with their kickoffs. Rayner reached the end zone twice in the game and had one touchback, while Crosby's only kickoff resulted in a touchback.
Driver had about $11 million and an extra year added to his existing contract. He is signed through 2010, all but ensuring that the 32-year-old will play his entire pro career with Green Bay.
Driver is coming off a career-best season, in which he had 92 receptions for 1,295 yards and earned a second Pro Bowl selection.
His new deal includes an unusual provision. Driver will reportedly receive a roster bonus of $50,000 for every game he's on the active 45-man roster from this season to 2009, bringing the extra potential earnings to $2.4 million in the three years.
"There's some mechanisms that we've used with most, if not all, of our veteran-type contracts recently," general manager Ted Thompson said. "We feel like sometimes it enables us to address some things that we think are important. Plus, we'd like for Donald to be here for a long time."
The occasion marked the first time McCarthy returned to Pittsburgh as an NFL coach. He previously faced the Steelers six times as an assistant coach, all when his team was at home.
McCarthy enjoyed a pizza-and-pasta dinner the night before the game at his parents' house near downtown Pittsburgh.
The last blocked point-after kick by a Packer in a regular-season game was Cullen Jenkins against Carolina's John Kasay on Oct. 3, 2005.
They won 10-7 over San Diego at Lambeau Field to start the 2005 exhibition slate.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've talked from the get-go that both the offensive and defensive lines are the engines that run the thing. You can have as good a secondary as you can possibly have. But, if you don't have a defensive line that can control the run and put pressure on the passer and things like that, in this day and age, it makes it unbelievably difficult to be successful. So, we put a lot of weight in that. And, there is a lot of weight in our defensive line." — General manager Ted Thompson on the importance of the team's defensive line, which rates as its deepest position group.