Friday, August 9, 2013

Bears-Panthers, Preseason Opener: Hey, It's Football

Soldier Field in the summer, when the inevitable 9-7/10-6 season is just an abstract speck on the horizon (Fouad Egbaria)

Bears 17, Panthers 24

I used to care about preseason football very little. None of it matters, and players, coaches and fans are basically hoping and praying to make it through unscathed on the injury front. That would be an especially nice thing for the Bears, who have lost nickel corner Kelvin Hayden for the season, in addition to defensive lineman Turk McBride. 

But, here we are on August 9, and I'm sitting in front of the TV to watch the Bears take on Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers. Perhaps living in the city of Chicago for the last year has augmented that "Bears football is near" ticker in my brain. In any case, this is a good opportunity to keep the football part of the brain working again. So, let's do that. It's been a long time since Dec. 30, when the Bears last took the field against the Lions, and it's always exciting to see what the new guys look like out there on the field. 

Every player and team has something to play for every single season, but for the Bears and their endless list of 1-year contracts and other expiring deals (e.g. Jay Cutler), this one season could determine how the next three or four go in Chicago. Ideally, this wouldn't all be happening during the first year of a new head coach's tenure, but so it goes. 

Anyway, the picture above notwithstanding, the Bears and Panthers took the field in Carolina tonight for the first glorified practice session of the season.

Things started off as you might expect. After giving up a first down, the Bears defense forced a punt on the next set of downs. Naturally, Jay Cutler, operating out of the shotgun, zinged an interception on the first offensive play of the game, intended for Alshon Jeffery. Cutler had time, but there seemed to be some miscommunication there; Cutler expected Jeffery to continue working to the inside. Jeffery stopped, and the throw was thrown well to his right and into the numbers of Panther corner Josh Norman. It's a basic mistake, but better to get these mistakes out now.

With a short field and a defensive pass interference, Cam Newton found Brandon LaFell for a short three-yard touchdown pass, putting the Panthers up 7-0. On the bright side, rookie Khaseem Greene made a nice play on second and goal, cutting through the wash to bring down DeAngelo Williams for a loss of two. On the not so bright side: Henry Melton, currently boasting the Bears' franchise tag, left the game after the first play with a concussion.

On Cutler's second drive, he was able to find Jeffery and Matt Forte for gains of 13 and five yards, respectively, but was forced to throw it away on third and six.

Also as you might expect, the Bears found their first points of the preseason, while, you guessed it, the defense was on the field. Second round pick Jon Bostic snuck in front of a pass intended for our old friend Greg Olsen, returning it 51 yards for a touchdown. Again, preseason caveats, but it's nice to see a high draft pick making plays right away. This has been said over and over again since Brian Urlacher announced his retirement, but the Bears linebacking corps will be a bit more athletic this season with the additions of Bostic (and even D.J. Williams, James Anderson and fellow rookie Khaseem Greene).

Cutler's third drive began auspiciously, with passes of 13 yards on a dump-off to Michael Bush after a nice step up in the pocket and a cool quick slant to Joe Anderson for 11. Unfortunately, J'Marcus Webb got beat to the outside by Charles Johnson on the next play, forcing Cutler to take the sack. The drive fizzled out two plays later. That would be it for Cutler on the night, finishing 6/8 for 58 yards and one interception.

The Bears defense came through once again early in the second quarter. On first and 10 from the Carolina 46, Zack Bowman picked off former Brown/Cardinal Derek Anderson. It was an awful, back-footed throw well short of the intended receiver. However, Isaiah Frey dropped a pick a few plays prior, so you can never take these plays for granted.

The Bears managed just a field goal with the short field, but Josh McCown did link up with Joe Anderson for a gain of 16 in the process.

The two teams then traded fumbles, first by Carolina Kenjon Barner (forced by Sherrick McManis), then from Chicago's Armando Allen. Carolina and Chicago were preseasoning like champions tonight.

Late in the quarter, the Bears defense gave up an 11-play, 81-yard drive, resulting in a Barner touchdown from five yards out. The Bears went into the half down 14-10, with some notable efforts from the rookie linebackers and wide receiver Joe Anderson.

There's not much use discussing the second half, but some miscellaneous points:

  • More Yakety Sax in the second half: Matt Blanchard took a big sack in the first drive of the third quarter, and Jimmy Clausen and Barner failed to execute the hand-off, resulting in yet another fumble on the night (recovered by Chicago's Zach Minter). 
  • On the Bears' next drive, Blanchard tossed an interception, intended for Fendi Onobun, which Josh Norman returned 60 yards for six. Speaking of Onobun, he dropped a sure touchdown in the back corner of the end zone in the second quarter, and Jim Miller indicated that Onobun deserved some blame for this turnover as well. But, at this point who knows what's a miscommunication, what's a bad throw and what's just poor route running. 
  • Blanchard went 4/5 for 32 yards on his next drive, but took a drive-killing sack on third and four. 
  • Early in the fourth, Marquess Wilson turned on the afterburners, taking an intermediate reception and zooming down the left sideline for a 58-yard gain. 
So, there you have it. Pick sixes and fumbles on both sides, mixed in with concentrated flashes of young talent. In other words: welcome to preseason NFL football. Everyone will be talking about Cutler and the offense, but I will look forward to watching Greene and Bostic continue to progress throughout these next three games. 

The Bears hit Soldier Field next Thursday at 7 p.m. CDT for a meeting with the San Diego Chargers. 

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