By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Yes, they keep score in the preseason and yes, after defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars, 20-19, the Bears are now 2-0. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the value of the preseason lies in player evaluation. Buried beneath the pile of yellow laundry that littered Soldier Field on Thursday night, some impressions were made in all three phases of the game.
Despite only running five plays for eight yards in the first quarter, the Bears’ first team offense — specifically the passing game — took shape in the second quarter. Quarterback Jay Cutler turned in another solid performance, finishing 7-of-9 for 75 yards with a touchdown and a 138.4 quarterback rating.
Much of Cutler’s success stems from the play of his offensive line. All night, Cutler operated from clean pockets, allowing him to patiently progress through his reads. On his touchdown pass, Cutler scanned the defense twice before finding Brandon Marshall settled in a soft spot in the Jaguars zone defense.
With tight end Martellus Bennett back in the lineup, the Bears showed a preference for 11 and 21 personnel groupings, which puts three wide receivers on the field. The third wide receiver position remains a wide-open battle, as through two games, no player has asserted himself.
One area of concern is the running game, which has yet to get on track. Through two games, running back Matt Forte has seven carries for minus-seven yards. The Bears’ zone blocking scheme is predicated on getting movement on the defensive line and through two games, that’s proved to be a challenge, and coach Marc Trestman has taken notice.
“We haven’t been productive,” Trestman said. “We’re playing against a good front during practice. But we haven’t shown that productivity. We hope that’s not an indication. We feel strongly that we’re going to be able to run the ball effectively, but we haven’t done that in the first two editions of the preseason.”
Jimmy Clausen’s strong performance against the Eagles earned him nearly two quarters worth of work Thursday night. Clausen wasn’t as sharp, throwing an interception in the third quarter, but he was dealing with headset issues throughout the game.
Trestman took those circumstances into consideration and concluded that will make the evaluation of that unit challenging.
“It was a very difficult night because the headset went down,” Trestman said. “So there were three to five plays where it just became confusion, and he really didn’t get us in the best plays. He was trying to make something good out of a bad situation, and there wasn’t any way I could help him.”
As far as the backup running back situation, Shaun Draughn distinguished himself, showing burst to the outside and vision in the hole on picking up two first downs on back-to-back carries in the second quarter.
Defensively, the Bears still have more questions than answers at the second and third levels.
The pieces acquired via free agency have gelled quickly. The defensive line has been able to collapse the pocket with four, which theoretically should help cover up any deficiencies in the back seven. However, through two games, teams have had success exploiting overaggressive linebackers and have found soft spots between the linebackers and safeties.
The Jaguars’ up-tempo attack got the Bears defense on its heels and reeling early. The Jaguars had success running stretch plays to the perimeter, beating Bears linebackers to the edge. This set up a series of quarterback bootlegs, and easy pitch-and-catch completions to receivers dragging across the defense.
The Bears gave an extended set of snaps to their young linebacking trio of Jon Bostic, Shea McClellin and Khaseem Greene. Both Bostic and McClellin improved from their performances the previous week, but how much they can be trusted as regular starters is still up for debate.
At the safety position, only Ryan Mundy looks to have secured a position as a starter. While Danny McCray started the game at free safety, it’s hard to envision that being the case when the regular season arrives.
A story to follow this week is the availability of Chris Conte. Like him or not, Conte is still the most talented free safety on the roster.
The special teams coverage units were better against the Jaguars. The Bears did get a scare on the opening kickoff when rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller turned an ankle, but the early indications were the X-rays were negative and he should be fine.
The Bears have yet to find a solution in the return game. Both Eric Weems and Michael Ford fumbled kickoffs, with Weems’ gaffe recovered by the Jaguars. Chris Williams was the logical choice for the role, but his hamstring injury kept him on the sidelines. After the game, Trestman said Williams was “day-to-day” in his rehab schedule.
The Bears face a stiff challenge both physically and mentally next week when they travel to CenturyLink Field to face the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in the ever important third preseason game.
Dubbed “the Clink,” the noise level generated by the raucous crowd will be a great test for the Bears’ offense’s ability to communicate with hand signals and silent counts. Cutler is certainly looking forward to the trip out west.
“It’ll be huge,” Cutler said. “Going through the game plan week and semi-preparing for an opponent, working on our silent counts against a really good defense. It’ll be a good test to see where we’re at offensively, defensively and special teams.”
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin