Cincinnati Bengals at Chicago Bears – Week One Preview

Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears

 

Week 1 — Cincinnati Bengals at Chicago Bears

Part 1 of a 17 part series analyzing each week of the Bears’ season

The Bears start off the season with the Cincinnati Bengals. This is the first time  the new Bears team will be in full action. The preseason has shown snippets of the team, but the first game is when they really unleash the new offense. This is especially important because very few know what to expect from Marc Trestman after his five-year stint in the CFL.

The Bengals will be the first real test for Trestman and Co. and it won’t be an easy one. Coming off of a 10-6 season and an AFC North crown, the Bengals re-tooled this offseason, adding dynamic tight end Tyler Eifert in the draft and signing play-making linebacker James Harrison, among others. Many are wondering if Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton will take the next step this season, and the Bears will try their hardest to make sure it won’t happen against them.

 

Key Matchups

Bengals DT Geno Atkins versus Bears RG Kyle Long and C Roberto Garza

Atkins plays the three-technique defensive tackle spot in the Bengals 4-3 defense, and he is the best in the league at that position. He came away with 39 tackles and 12.5 sacks, the most in the league among defensive tackles, on his way to his second Pro-Bowl and his First-Team All-Pro recognition.

In a typical alignment, the three-tech DT lines up over the right guard, who usually receives help from the center. On the Bears’ offensive line, those two players are rookie Kyle Long and aging veteran Roberto Garza respectively. Long, the team’s first round pick this year, is very inexperienced, having played only 12 games at guard in college. He does, however, have impressive physical tools and the potential to develop into a very good offensive lineman. Garza, on the other hand, is a 12-year veteran whose play has steadily declined, but he’s a great leader and is very familiar with the quarterback he’s snapping to.

Because of Atkins’ great talent, he will likely face an almost constant double-team from two linemen, but even that may not be enough to stop him. He’s one of the most underestimated and under-appreciated players in the league, and the Bears would be foolish to not focus him at all times. In this matchup, Atkins has the clear advantage over Long and Garza, and it is up to those two to keep him from disrupting Jay Cutler and the offense.

 

Bengals WR A.J. Green versus Bears CB Charles Tillman

Last season, Green followed up his rookie year with another Pro-Bowl, racking up 1350 yards and 11 touchdowns on 97 catches. He was by far Dalton’s favorite target, and it looks to be the same this year. Cincinnati is banking on the development of the rest of their receivers to take the pressure off of Green, but how effective they will be remains to be seen.

Tillman had a career year in 2012, with three interceptions, all going for touchdowns, and 10 forced fumbles, which tied for most among corner backs in NFL history. He always matches up against the opposing team’s best wide receiver, which in this case is Green. Most notably, Tillman held Calvin Johnson to just three catches in their week six get together last season. However, Tillman is 32 years old, so his stellar play could soon begin to decline.

Until Tillman shows otherwise, it is fair to assume that he will continue a high level of play. This battle will be a great one, and it adds intrigue to see who will beat the other. In this tussle, Tillman has the advantage over Green, but it is only a very slight one, and Green could just as easily “win” this match-up.

 

Bengals TEs Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert versus Bears Linebackers and Safeties

Gresham and Eifert look to become one of the best tight end duos in the league, and with some solid development, they very well could become a top group. Gresham is the starter, but rookie Eifert will see plenty of snaps because of his talent and his first round draft position. Tight ends like these create matchup problems in the open field. Generally speaking, with dynamic tight ends like these, linebackers aren’t fast enough to keep up with them, and safeties don’t have the size to match up with them.

The Bears starting linebackers are James Anderson, Jon Bostic, and Lance Briggs, and the safeties are Major Wright and Chris Conte. Although Anderson is considered more of a coverage linebacker, he likely doesn’t have the speed to handle the Bengals’ tight ends. Briggs is not exactly known for the speed either, which may create matchup problems. Bostic may have the speed to stay with them, but his inexperience will hurt him in coverage. Conte and Wright, conversely, could theoretically matchup with Gresham or Eifert, but they also needed deep in coverage to help against wide receivers, and they can’t divert too much attention on the tight ends.

Because the Bears run a lot of zone coverage, their linebackers and safeties will not be required to cover the Bengals’ tight ends one-on-one very often. Regardless, the presence of the tight ends stretches out the defense and makes it tougher on the unit as a whole. In addition, the Cover-2 often is vulnerable in the middle of the field, so the Bears will be forced to play different coverages. In this matchup, Gresham and Eifert have the advantage. The Bears’ players and coaches are smart enough to find ways to reduce their effectiveness, but the two of them should have a pretty good first game.

 

Biggest Questions

Which team’s new and improved weapons will make the biggest impact?

The Bengals only significant offensive additions were Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard, so much of their offense improvement is contingent on the development of their younger players. They need their young wide receivers Mohamed Sanu, Andrew Hawkins, and Marvin Jones to all make strides in their play or else the offense won’t be able to flourish like Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden desires.

The Bears added big-time, play-making tight end Martellus Bennett in the offseason to go with their entirely new, offensive-minded coaching staff. Like the Bengals, they are also hoping their younger receivers develop in Alshon Jeffery, Joe Anderson, and Marquess Wilson. Jeffery is the starting receiver opposite Brandon Marshall, and he is looking to build off an impressive, but injury-shortened rookie season. Anderson saw the field very rarely last season, but the coaches have been talking him up all offseason, and he to looks to make an impact. Seventh-round pick Wilson will see the field sparingly, but he has the physical tools to make some plays. The team is also looking to get a bounce-back season from Earl Bennett, the team’s slot receiver.

 

Chicago Bears defense

 

Which team’s defensive line will be able generate more pressure?

Last season, the Bengals’ defensive line came away with 41.5 sacks, 3.5 more than the Bears defensive line. The majority of the sacks and pressure game from Atkins and defensive end Michael Johnson, accounting for 24 sacks. Their rotational players were also able to get to the quarterback, and the unit must produce again to keep opposing quarterbacks on their heels, something Cutler is quite used to. It is worth noting the brought back the exact same personnel from last year, so it is fair to assume strong production.

Although not as statistically strong as the Bengals’ line, the Bears’ defensive line was extremely effective in pressure the opposing quarterbacks. Pressure from the defensive line is arguably the most crucial factor in an effective Cover-2 scheme. If the defensive line is able to get good pressure by itself, the team doesn’t need to blitz and can drop back more players into coverage. This was a major reason for Tillman’s and fellow corner back Tim Jennings’ extremely successful seasons. Not only were the Bears able to keep everyone in coverage, making it difficult for the receivers, but they were able to get to the quarterback and pressure him into bad throws, resulting in Jennings’ league leading nine interceptions.

Entering the 2013 season, the Bears have a slightly altered defensive line unit. They kept all four starters by using the Franchise Tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton, but they were only able to retain two of their rotational players. Defensive end Shea McClellin, the team’s 2012 first round pick, looks to build on a disappointing rookie season, and he should be the primary backup at his position. Another young end, Cornelius Washington, will have some pass-rushing opportunities along with young David Bass, but both are extremely raw. Third year defensive tackle Nate Collins is now reunited with his first Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker, and he looks to continue his development. He and undrafted free agent Zach Minter will rotate in the DT spots.

The biggest thing for both groups will be the rotational players. The Bengals are relying on the development of their second-year defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson to effectively spell Atkins and Domata Peko. They also hope rookie second-round pick Margus Hunt can make an impact rotating in at defensive end.

Meanwhile, the Bears are relying heavily on McClellin to rotate in for Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton, and his performance this season will be key for the Bears. Behind him are two late-round rookies, neither of whom are ready for extended playing time. Defensive tackle faces a similar predicament. Collins is adequate and looking to showcase his abilities, but behind him is an undrafted free agent who also should not be relied on for significant snaps.

Both teams team counting on the development of its younger players, and it is exactly that which will determine the group’s success, and, in turn, the success of the defense as a whole.

 

Which team’s running game will be able to keep the pressure off of their quarterback?

One of the best ways to keep the pressure off of a quarterback is running the ball. It forces the defense to pass-rush less because they need to stay back and stop the running back. This game features two defensive lines that excel at rushing the passer, which makes each team’s running game all the more important.

The Bengals’ leading rusher last season was BenJarvus Green-Ellis, also known as the Law Firm, running for nearly 1100 yards and six touchdowns. In spite of this, he still left a little bit to be desired. The reserve running backs did very little to help. As a result, the team used a second round pick on the aforementioned Bernard. They’ll both receive a similar amount of snaps, and the Bengals hope the two of them can form a formidable running back tandem to keep the pressure off of Dalton.

Last season, the Bears’ running game was led by Matt Forte, who ran for exactly the same amount of yards as Green-Ellis, 1094. Still, the Bears’ running game outranked the Bengals’, 10th to 18th. Much of this was due to the Bears’ backup running back Michael Bush, who struggled and still put together over 400 yards and five touchdowns. The Bears will need a strong season from both running backs to keep the pressure off of Cutler and keep the offense balanced.

 

Team Comparison

Offense

Both teams have a lot of question marks facing their offense in 2013. The Bengals need Dalton to further develop his game to take the offense to the next level, while the Bears need Cutler to buy into the new offensive system and shore up his mechanics to run the offense effectively. The Bears have a consistent running game with their two veterans, while the Bengals are relying on the big-play ability of Bernard to add some burst to their offense.

At receiver, both teams are counting on their young players to step-up and take pressure off of their top-tier pass-catcher, but at this point, it appears the Bears have the more talented group. A big season by Sanu or Jones could change that, but Jeffery seems to be further along in his development. As previously discussed, the Bengals’ tight ends are dynamic, while the Bears have very little behind Martellus Bennett.

The two offensive lines are one of the biggest question marks of the two offenses. The Bengals’ line struggled to gel in 2012, so the team is hoping another offseason together will have done them some good. Another problem they faced was Dalton holding on the ball too long, a problem that the Bears line faced at times too. The Bears group now has four new starters, including two rookies on the right side, and a lot of their success is contingent on how well they gel. Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth may miss the game due to a knee injury, which may severely cripple Dalton’s blind side protection.

 

Defense

The Bengals have the more potent defensive line, with more consistent pass-rushers and more experience, while the Bears defensive line has many developing players that won’t be as effective right away. At linebacker, the veteran consistency of Anderson and Briggs along with the quickly developing Bostic give the Bears’ corps a better outlook than the Bengals’ group that is counting on a bounce-back season from a 35-year old Harrison and a historically awful Rey Maualuga.

In the secondary, 36-year old Terence Newman will be starting opposite of Leon Hall, but both are still solid in coverage. However, if Tillman and Jennings can replicate some of their 2012 success, they will be the better pair in 2013. Reggie Nelson provides solid play at safety alongside second-year man George Iloka and the two may form a quality duo in 2013, while the Bears boast Conte and Wright, both of whom are young and budding. Both tandems are young and improving, and neither seems to be significantly better than the other.

 

Special Teams

Bears kicker Robbie Gould is the more accurate of the two teams’ kickers, while Bengals punter Kevin Huber has a better leg than the Bears’ Adam Podlesh. The main factor that has yet to be determined is Devin Hester. The Bears are once again using him exclusively on special teams, with the hopes that they’ll reawaken the greatest kick returner in NFL history. If he finds his confidence, he will return to elite status. The talent hasn’t gone away, the decision-making and confidence has. If the Hester of old shows up on the field, then the special teams advantage goes to Chicago. If he can’t find it, then the advantage likely goes to Cincinnati and their return men  Brandon Tate and Adam Jones.

 

Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears

 

Conclusions

On paper, the Bears appear to have the more talented team this year versus last. This does not mean that the Bears are going to win,  if Atkins has a field day against the Bears’ rookie right guard, it could mean trouble for the Bears. Similarly, if the Bengals’ tight ends are able to dominate the middle of the field, the Bears’ defense could be on its heels all game long. This game is going to be a great test for both Chicago and Cincinnati, and because of this, it will be even more fun to watch. If the Bears offense lives up to the new hype, fans and opposing defenses will see that Trestman is the real deal. Some offensive struggles should be expected because it is the team’s first game in a brand new system.

That will be the ultimate determinant of whether or not the Bears can win – growing pains. Because it is their first game, there will probably be some miscommunications, and the team will struggle. If they can get it together and run the system like it is supposed to be run, the Bears have a good chance win. Alternatively, if Dalton shows great improvement in his game, he could shred the Bears’ secondary. The Bengals are a formidable team, but the Bears have the advantage in key matchups. Of course, a key injury to either team would greatly shift the balance. Here’s hoping both teams can stay healthy, so they can put together a great game.

 

Game Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals 23 – Chicago Bears 27