Hoge: Bears’ Starters Shine, But Depth Still An Issue
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By Adam Hoge-
SOLDIER FIELD (CBS) You can breathe Bears fans.
After last week’s dismal preseason debut against the Broncos, Jay Cutler knew exactly how to alleviate the over-hyped concern that lingered the last 10 days.
He hit Brandon Marshall for a 41-yard pass on the first offensive play from scrimmage.
After all, Cutler didn’t even play in the first game. Neither did Matt Forte. And Marshall barely got on the field too.
Now, if you want to be picky, Cutler could have hit Marshall in stride and it probably would have been a touchdown. But he went back to Marshall three plays later for 20 more yards and then hit rookie Alshon Jeffery for 16 on the next play. In just six snaps, the Bears marched down the field and scored a touchdown on Michael Bush’s one-yard run at the goal line, proving that despite the offensive line concerns, points are going to be scored this season.
In fact, the Bears scored on three of Cutler’s four drives and got out to a 17-0 lead before he left the game. The quarterback wasn’t completely sharp — Josh Wilson dropped an easy interception at one point — but Cutler was playing in his first game since injuring his hand against the Chargers last season. He finished the game 7-of-13 for 122 yards. Bush scored both touchdowns for the No. 1 offense, adding an 8-yard scamper later in the first quarter.
“We have a lot of guys. We have a lot of guys who can play football,” Cutler said. “You bring in the second-team running back and he’s making guys miss in the hole and scoring touchdowns. We have rookie wide receivers out here playing and we have our regular guys, so we have some guys who can play. The offensive line knows it starts with them and if they play well we’ll take care of the rest.”
While there’s still room for improvement, Saturday’s game was an important step because it showed off the depth the Bears gained at wide receiver in the offseason and it showed that Bush can be the effective No. 2 running back they have lacked in recent years.
That said, the Bears only had two offensive touchdowns in their 33-31 win over the Redskins Saturday — one of which came when they got the ball at Washington’s 8-yard line — and the backup defense blew a 30-10 lead.
Better, But Shaky
The offensive line was much better while Cutler was in the game, but by no means perfect. It allowed three sacks when Jason Campbell entered, but the backup quarterback also has a habit of holding onto the ball longer than Cutler.
J’Marcus Webb and Chris Williams rotated at left tackle every two series, with Williams’ game not ending until early in the fourth quarter. Webb was better, but he still has a ways to go. Williams probably had the better performance, although not by much.
A larger development occurred at left guard where Chris Spencer — who really struggled in the first game — also found himself in a rotation. Chilo Rachal came in with the No. 1 offensive line every two series and look considerably better than Spencer. Both were guilty of false starts, although Rachal’s was wiped out by a timeout.
The right side of the line didn’t seem to have many problems and right tackle Gabe Carimi looked more comfortable in just his second game in 11 months.
“We have some good players on the offensive side,” head coach Lovie Smith said. “If we give Jay Cutler time to throw the ball, he’s got a lot of guys to throw it to.”
It should be pointed out that the Bears tight ends are not exactly stout at blocking either. Matt Spaeth has been getting beat a lot and Kellen Davis and Kyle Adams are better pass catchers than they are blockers. It’s compounding the protection issue.
Defense Shuts Down RGIII
While the offense got the majority of the criticism last week against the Broncos, the defense didn’t play all that great either. And the pass rush was non-existent.
That changed Saturday night against the Redskins and the defensive line not only contained electric rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, but they took him down and turned him over.
Defensive end Israel Idonije had a great night with 2.5 sacks and a TFL. He made a huge play to strip Griffin and Julius Peppers recovered the fumble to set up Bush’s second touchdown of the game.
“We did some things right and we did something things that we’ve got to work on,” Idonije said. “We had some opportunities to really put them in tough spots and we let them get away. We played tough. The intensity was definitely better.”
Griffin finished the game 5-for-8 with just 49 yards.
Up-and-down special teams
Kahlil Bell is still in good shape to be the Bears’ third running back, but Lorenzo Booker has given the coaching staff something to think about. Bell is valuable because of his play on special teams, but Booker can be an impact player in the third phase too — as a returner. Booker returned the opening kickoff of the second half 105 yards for a touchdown, giving the Bears a 27-10 lead.
Dave Toub likes to have other options besides Devin Hester in the return game and Booker is definitely one of those guys. Of course, the Bears also have Eric Weems, who looked good in his first game action with the Bears. Weems had one punt return for 14 yards, but also caught two passes for 38 yards, including a 33-yard strike.
Meanwhile, Toub won’t be happy with his kick coverage unit, which allowed Brandon Banks to return a punt 81 yards for a touchdown.
“We didn’t like what we saw out there, but you want to put guys in situations to see if they can make plays,” Lovie Smith said about the return touchdown his team allowed. “We’re finding out things about our team.”
Depth A Problem?
A lack of depth is what derailed the Bears 2011 season and got Jerry Angelo fired. While new general manager Phil Emery has upgraded the depth at many key positions — most notably quarterback, running back and wide receiver — it still appears to be somewhat of an issue.
While the Bears got out to a 30-10 lead in the third quarter, the offense failed to score a touchdown after Jay Cutler and the No. 1 offense left the field. Meanwhile, the backups on defense couldn’t hold the lead and allowed rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins to rally the Redskins by going 18-for-23 for 264 yards and three touchdowns. That’s a pretty good game, let alone a single half of play.
Cousins gave the Redskins a 31-30 lead with 2:09 remaining when he hit Dezmon Briscoe for a 20-yard touchdown pass. The drive was marred by two personal foul penalties by Thaddeus Gibson and Cheta Ozougwu. Lovie Smith wasn’t happy with those penalties, singling out Gibson, as well as Alshon Jeffery who committed a personal foul in the first half.
“You can’t do things like that in critical situations,” Smith said. “But we will coach them up. They are young players, especially Alshon. We will coach them up and they will see how that can really hurt our football team. But I am going to talk to (Jeffery) first about all of those good plays he made. He has done a lot of great things in training camp and he is taking that over to the games too.”
Fortunately for the Bears, fourth-string quarterback Matt Blanchard hit tight end Evan Rodriguez for two 15-plus yard passes and got Robbie Gould in position to hit a game-winning 57-yard field goal.
Overall, while the No. 1 offense and defense was good Saturday night, the rest of the team has plenty of room to improve.
Bears Dodge Serious Injuries
The No. 1 goal of any preseason game is to come out healthy and the Bears appear to have dodged a few bullets.
Rookie safety Brandon Hardin was carted off the field and taken to the hospital after a scary neck injury, but all indications are that he’ll be OK. Fellow safety Chris Conte suffered a right-shoulder injury and while the extent of the damage is unknown, Lovie Smith does not think it is serious. The same can be said about punter Adam Podlesh, who left the game with a hip flexor injury.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.