By Chris Emma–
(CBS) Finally, football is upon us.
Week 1 is here, with the Bears headed down to Houston for the season opener against the Texans on Sunday.
John Fox’s second season as coach of the Bears begins with a tough challenge — not only in a formidable opponent but one with plenty of new personnel. Preparing for the Texans will be a test for the Bears’ veteran coaches.
The Texans feature two of the league’s premier players in receiver DeAndre Hopkins and defensive end J.J. Watt. Both must be marked each snap. Meanwhile, the Bears believe they’re a better team in 2016 but still have a ways to go in order to become an annual contender.
Can the Bears get their season off to a good start? Let’s look at the matchup at NRG Stadium.
1.) New-look O-line
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler smirked Thursday when a reporter commented that he’s had a new center each week of the preseason.
First it was Hroniss Grasu, then Ted Larsen, who was followed by Cornelius Edison. Now it appears that Cody Whitehair will be the guy.
While Fox presented some misdirection by putting Larsen as the starter at center on his depth chart, all indications suggest it will be Whitehair for the first snap of Sunday’s game. Even Cutler has acknowledged the rookie out of Kansas State as the starter.
With Whitehair sliding over from left guard, making room for former Pro Bowl Packer Josh Sitton there, it’s another look up front for Cutler. Protection could be a question come Sunday, especially with the Texans’ talented pass rush of Watt and Whitney Mercilus.
Tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie must hold their own on the edge and hope that the rebuilt interior can sustain. The health of Kyle Long’s shoulder is no certainty, even if he does play.
Cutler has struggled in the past once the pass rush comes, losing his poise in the pocket and making mistakes. If the Bears can’t keep Cutler comfortable, it could be a long day in Houston.
2.) Bringing the heat in Houston?
The Bears spent this offseason restructuring their defense, creating a more talented front seven that now features Akiem Hicks alongside Eddie Goldman and adding Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman at inside linebacker.
General manager Ryan Pace believes that a stronger pass rush will create more turnovers for the Bears’ defense, which forced just 17 all of last season. Will their fortunes be reversed Sunday?
New Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler is far from a proven commodity, despite the four-year, $72-million endorsement given by the Houston organization. He isn’t good under pressure (the same can be said for most quarterbacks), and the Bears will be looking to bring the heat.
Look for Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to bring the blitz on Osweiler and a Texans offense that has many new parts added to the fold.
The Bears don’t have a matchup to counter Hopkins — and Will Fuller is a threat in the passing game, too — but if Fangio keeps edge rushers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young after Osweiler, it could be a rough debut for the young quarterback.
Fangio could play a key part in this game.
3.) Putting up points?
When the Bears broke the huddle Monday for their first workout of Week 1, there was a refreshing site — a healthy offense. Each of their 11 starters were in place.
After an injury-plagued 2015 season, health is one of the Bears’ foremost concerns entering the new campaign.
Sunday should bring the same clean bill of health for the Bears, though Kevin White’s hamstring ailment is a new concern to arise. If the Bears can work with some semblance of continuity offensively, it’s possible that this unit can make a big difference.
The receivers, White and Alshon Jeffery, are the keys. They’re the focal points of this offense, two talented targets who make Cutler a better player. Additionally, a dynamic passing game would be a nice complement to second-year running back Jeremy Langford, who’s looking to establish himself as the starter.
Cutler could be in store for his best season in a Bears uniform if his receivers can stay healthy and produce as they’re expected.
Facing the Texans’ tenacious defense present a challenge for the Bears, but this unit could hold its own.