By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) As injuries mount around the league, star players are openly calling for a reduction in the total number of preseason games played. Judging by the Bears’ performance in their 21-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday night, they might want to petition the league for an extension to the preseason schedule.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Heavy Rain, Possible Flood Watch
Traditionally, the third preseason game serves as the closest precursor to regular-season action. Limited game plans are installed, and starters play more snaps. As the Bears enter the roster cut-down week, there are far more questions than answers about this team.
Against the Bengals, the starting offense couldn’t stay on the field on third down, while the defense couldn’t get off of it. In the trenches, they were physically beaten at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
The Bears played without their top four options at wide receiver. Undoubtedly, the presence of someone like Alshon Jeffery will change how an opposing defensive coordinator uses his safety on that side of the field.
But whether No. 17 is active for a game is independent of the fact that the Bears offensive line can’t get movement in the run game or provide clean pockets for quarterback Jay Cutler to throw from.
From the very first time we saw the Bears in the preseason, the play at both offensive tackle positions was an issue. It was worse against the Bengals, showing signs of regression instead of progress. Their best offensive tackle prospect, Kyle Long, is currently playing right guard, and they simply don’t have enough talent on the roster to line up five trustworthy players.
The majority of the focus has centered on the competition (in name only) at right tackle. Charles Leno has started the last two weeks and struggled in every aspect. His pass protection sets have been unbalanced, leading to him bending at the waist and lunging and grasping at rushers. In the run game, he missed assignments on back-to-back possessions against Cincinnati, which led to unblocked linebackers waiting in run gaps.
When Jordan Mills entered the game after Leno, he somehow lowered the bar. Mills is playing with no confidence, and his footwork — an issue I’ve pointed out since his rookie season — hasn’t improved.
With 1,184 players set to hit the streets in the next week, it’s fair to assume the Bears’ opening day right tackle — if it isn’t Long — is playing for another team right now.
To his credit, amid the sieve-like protection, Cutler played a clean game. He was under duress on drop-back passes, yet he maneuvered the pocket laterally while keeping his eyes fixed down the field instead of dropping them to the incoming rush. He made plays with his feet and kept the ball out of harm’s way.
Cutler’s risk-averse play throughout the preseason hasn’t led to a single touchdown, but it’s an indication that the coaching he’s receiving is helping his decision-making when the bullets are flying.READ MORE: Ed's Tech Notes: Walgreens New Drone Delivery, Amazon New Pay Option, Facebook Rumored Rebrand
Who lines up at receiver in the Bears’ preferred 11 personnel grouping against the Packers in the season opener remains to be seen. But it’s safe to assume that the offensive line play will significantly alter the number of and types of plays offensive coordinator Adam Gase can comfortably call and trust to be blocked. Moving forward, look for a heavy dose of shotgun and pistol sets, bubble/tunnel screens and packaged reads that will get the ball out quickly, knowing that the protection won’t likely hold up for five- and seven-step drops.
It’s not just the pass blocking that’s been an issue either. The first-team running game hasn’t gotten on track, carrying the ball 21 times for 76 yards, with 10 of those carries going for two yards or fewer.
The Bears’ best bet in the passing game will be bootlegs out the backside of outside zone plays. However, if opponents don’t respect the run game, they’ll have no need to drop an eighth defender into the box, so the Bears will likely see a lot of split-safety looks — which flummoxed them last season, as they had no deep threat to take the top off. It’s an issue they have again this season with top-draft choice Kevin White on the PUP list.
Defensively, the Bears lack playmakers and overall team speed.
Their strongest position group remains their outside linebacking corps, which will give defensive coordinator Vic Fangio some options to run different sub packages and keep fresh legs later in games.
Reserves Lamarr Houston and Willie Young played their most extended snaps of the preseason and looked strong rushing from a two-point stance off the edge. They both made plays in the backfield, which is a positive sign for a team that needs to pressure opposing quarterbacks in order to protect protect an unsettled and talent-poor secondary.
Fangio dialed up a few five-man pressure packages against the Bengals, with both man and zone coverages behind them. The blitzes didn’t get home, and passes were still completed. The Bengals targeted the vertical seams and found voids between inside linebackers Shea McClellin and Christian Jones as well as safeties Adrian Amos and Antrel Rolle.
The Bengals didn’t have a pass hit the ground until the third quarter. Starter Andy Dalton and backup AJ McCarron combined for 13 straight completions and a touchdown to start the game.
The Bears’ cornerback situation is dire, and the safety play has that familiar feeling of poor pursuit angles and getting to a receiver two steps after the pass has already been completed.
Regardless of who Aaron Rodgers is throwing to in two weeks at Soldier Field, he’s keenly aware that the Bears defense isn’t playing with a full deck. Spanning the past season and this preseason, there’s enough film out there for opponents to know that they can mercilessly target the Bears through the air and find little resistance.
Ready or not, the preseason ends this Thursday. The Bears might be one of the few teams in the league who wish it didn’t.MORE NEWS: Man Shot In Leg In West Rogers Park
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.