By Greg Gabriel–
(CBS) — During my entire career working in the NFL, I always looked for the same thing each week during the preseason: improvement. The preseason isn’t about winning or losing (although winning helps) — it’s strictly about getting the team ready for the regular season.
New Bears coach John Fox had his hands full when he took over Chicago last January. He took over a franchise and a group of players that had lost their will to win and were basically going through the motions. He had to turn the attitude of the players around, get them to play aggressive football and get them to believe in themselves as players again. That wasn’t an easy task.
To date, he has done an excellent job. While I’m not ready to say that this season’s version of the Bears is ready to challenge for the division title, they’re in a much better place than they were six months ago.
The Bears are now 2-0 in the preseason after a 23-11 win against the Colts on Saturday night. Just as I saw last week, there was a lot to like about the second preseason game.
Under Fox, the Bears would like to install a strong running game — the theory being that with a strong running game, the team can control the clock and keep the defense off the field. In order to have a strong running game, the offensive line has to be physical and try to dominate the line of scrimmage. For the first two preseason games, the Bears have been able to do that.
On Saturday, the Bears controlled the time of possession, holding on to the ball for 33:16. They were able to outrush the Colts by a margin of 165-112. While there are still some concerns along the offensive line, as a unit they seem to be getting better each week. My main concern right now is right tackle.
Charles Leno got the start over Jordan Mills, and while Leno did some good things, he also had some costly penalties and missed with some cutoff and reach blocks. My feeling is that the best player for right tackle at this time is second-year man Michael Ola. Though Ola doesn’t have the desired height for the position, he’s strong and more athletic than either Leno or Mills. On Saturday, Ola played left tackle after playing on the right side against Miami . For the second straight week, he played well.
My main concern with the starting offensive group Saturday was finishing drives. The group came away with nine points in less than a half of play, settling for field goals on three drives into the red zone.
Quarterback Jay Cutler scored on a scramble in the second quarter, but the play was called back because of a holding call on Kyle Long. Being able to finish drives and score touchdowns is something the Bears offense will need to work on in the next two weeks as they prepare for the Packers in the opener.
For the second consecutive week, Jimmy Clausen performed well in his role as the primary backup quarterback. On his first drive, Clausen threw a costly interception when he and tight end Dante Rosario failed to communicate on a throw to the left side. It was fortunate for the Bears that the interception only cost them three points instead of seven.
Clausen came out in the second half and played well. He finished the night completing six of nine throws for 54 yards and a touchdown. He led the Bears to two touchdown drives in the third period, including a 10-play, 88-yard drive that used up 5:28 of clock.
Based on how he has looked in the first two preseason games, I have much more confidence that Clausen can win some games if he has to play this season.
Except for one drive in the second quarter, the defense’s overall play was very good. While still playing with basic packages, the Bears put pressure on Andrew Luck and force some poor throws.
The Colts went three-and-out on their opening drive and then had a short five-play drive on their second possession. It wasn’t until their third possession that they were able to move the ball, with the key play being a 45-yard pass to T.Y. Hilton, who ran right by Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller on the play. Three plays later, the Colts were in the end zone.
In the second half, we saw Lamarr Houston make his debut as an outside linebacker, and he played well in limited action. The same holds true for Willie Young, who also got his first action of the preseason. Young was able to create some pressure coming off the edge in a pass rush situation.
For the second straight week, outside linebacker Sam Acho came up with some big plays. This time, it was a big sack. He also had three other tackles. One of the big defensive plays of the night was a leaping interception by second-year corner Terrance Mitchell. He got in great position while covering a post pattern and out-leaped the receiver for the pick. Mitchell quietly has been having a strong camp and could end up as a top-four corner.
Other strong efforts by young defensive players were from Eddie Goldman, Will Sutton and Mason Foster. The player who also has to get some acclaim is Shea McClellin. The whipping boy of the last three seasons seems to have found a home at inside linebacker and has had a good camp as well as two strong games. If he can keep up the strong play, the Bears will be much stronger than expected at the inside linebacker position.
Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who is an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.