It’s GAME DAY!!!! No more speculation. No more questions. No more wondering. Today, we start to get answers. A full 8+ months since Lovie Smith was fired and Phil Emery set the Chicago Bears organization on a new course, we start to understand a little more about this mysterious coach from Canada.
We start to figure out if Jay Cutler, playing in his fourth offensive system in his fifth season with the Bears, is the quarterback to lead the Bears back to the Super Bowl or if he’s just going to end up the in the record books in many Bears passing categories and little else. We see two rookies starting on the offensive line for the first time since 1983.
Today, we see if Mel Tucker was able to successfully accept the torch from Lovie Smith and carry on defensive excellence. We see if father time is catching up with Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman. We see if youth will be served. Today, we see a starting defense without #54 on opening day for the first time in well over a decade.
Today is the first in a 16-step process to reach the playoffs or spend another January watching from the warmth of their couches. Today is the day we’ve all been waiting for! Let’s look at the matchup for Bears vs Bengals:
The Bengals are led by Andy Dalton at quarterback, heading into his third season with the Bengals. You know what? They’ve been to the playoffs each year he’s been running the show. They bring back the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis at running back but add speedy rookie scatback Giovani Bernard to add a new dimension.
The wide receiver group is anchored by all world wideout AJ Green, but look out for second year man Mohammed Sanu on the other side. The tight ends are Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, whom the Bengals drafted one spot after the Bears grabbed Kyle Long. The Bengals offensive line is stout, but left tackle Andrew Whitworth is expected to miss the game, which could create opportunities for the Bears defensive line.
The Bengals defense is anchored by DT Geno Atkins, who just signed a massive extension. Alongside are Nose Takcle Domata Peko and DE’s Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. The linebacking corp is solid too, with Vontez Burfict, Rey Maualuga and James Harrison rounding out the front-7. The depth of the Bengals linebackers will be challenged as they’ve lost a couple of their backups to injury. They’ve been working out backup safety Taylor Mays at nickel linebacker. The cornerbacks are all recognizable names, with Terrence Newman, Leon Hall and Adam Jones as the top three. If there is a weakness on the Bengals defense, it’s probably safeties George Iloka and Reggie Nelson.
Jay Cutler will run the show as the trigger man. Matt Fote will be the featured running back, with Michael Bush spelling him in short yardage and goal line. Fullback Tony Fiammetta should play a key role in the running game.
Brandon Marshall leads a wide receiver group in transition. Second year man Alshon Jeffery has looked good in the preseason while Earl Bennett, apparently recovered from another concussion, will play in the slot. Rookie Marquess Wilson made the team, but I’m not sure he’ll dress for the game.
The tight end group is completely overhauled with Martellus Bennett as the primary, backed up by Steve Maneri as the blocking tight end. Dante Rosario was recently brought in, but he’s another one who might not dress on Sunday as he learns the playbook.
The offensive line has been completely overhauled, as only starting center Roberto Garza returns from last season. The left side of the line will be headed up by veterans Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson, while rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills will hold down the right side of the line.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears defense must carry on without Lovie Smith at the controls and Brian Urlacher in the middle. They still bring back Pro Bowlers Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Henry Melton and frequent Hawaii-goer in years past.
The defensive line will be anchored by Peppers and Melton, with up-and-comers Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin taking a more prominent role on the other side. Stephen Paea will continue his development at the nose.
The linebacker group will be dramatically different without Brian Urlacher in the middle. The Bears brought in DJ Williams and drafted rookie Jon Bostic as the heir apparent. Williams suffered a calf injury that cost him virtually all of training camp and preseason. Bostic shined in the preseason but might only see spot duty as Williams has returned to practice. At the strong side linebacker, veteran James Anderson, who was a tackling machine for the Carolina Panthers, will take Nick Roach’s old spot.
The safeties are returning as solid as they’ve been in years, with Major Wright and Chris Conte back again. Both have developed nicely and will be expected to take their game to the next level in Mel Tucker’s defense. It’s rare for a team to be bringing back a pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks, but that’s what the Bears will do with Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Kelvin Hayden was injured in the preseason, so redshirt freshman Isaiah Frey will be thrust into the spotlight.