There was no Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brian Urlacher or Julius Peppers on Thursday night as the Chicago Bears dropped a 31-3 decision against the Denver Broncos in their first preseason game of the season. There was very little of several of the Bears other stars, as well. However, the Bears were able to take something away from a blowout loss that ushered in a season full of high expectations for a squad that, when healthy, looked like an elite team in the NFL at times in 2011 and fell just short of the Super Bowl in 2010.
Last season, the Bears depth, or lack thereof, was exposed in the grandest possible fashion when Jay Cutler and Matt Forte went down late in the season with injuries. This offseason, the Bears tried to remedy the situation by making the kind of splashy moves that were largely absent throughout the Jerry Angelo era.
New general manager Phil Emery made developing a capable 53-man roster from top to bottom the clear priority, and on Thursday night, several reserves got the sort of valuable snaps that could pay dividends in November and December.
As mentioned, Julius Peppers didn’t take a snap besides being fully dressed and in his absence Corey Wootton shined like a floodlight. For the first time since his junior year of college, Corey Wootton is healthy and he has taken full advantage of his now stable right leg by dominating in camp and it carried over quite clearly to the game on Thursday night.
Wootton made Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady look downright foolish on more than one occasion and made a habit of placing his 6’7″ frame squarely in Peyton Manning’s and former Bear turned Broncos backup Caleb Hanie’s line of sight.
Wootton is currently bracketed as the second-string left defensive end with rookie Shea McClellin, but Wootton has quite obviously outplayed McClellin in camp up to this point. McClellin, however, also had a solid outing on Thursday and showcased the type of speed and effort that garnered him a first-round draft grade.
It was easily the best McClellin has looked since camp has started, and has left some with the impression that he is a bit of a gamer. McClellin’s issue is still obviously his size, and he will probably always be on the small side for an end in a Lovie Smith defense, but he has the type of motor and speed that is coveted in a pass-rusher.
With a healthy Julius Peppers and Henry Melton still making a routine of slipping into the backfield from his three-technique position, along with the contributions of Wootton and McClellin, provided Shea continues to develop, the Bears should have a formidable pass-rush in 2012. They may need it considering the secondary still leaves something to be desired.
However, as soft as the coverage was, the Bears offensive line play was even softer and probably a much larger cause for concern. The first unit played the majority of the first half, and tackles Gabe Carimi, J’Marcus Webb and Chris Williams played deep into the second half, but they found themselves routinely overmatched on the night.
The unit gave up six total sacks and paved the way for a running game that averaged a putrid 1.7 yards per carry on the ground. On the whole, the Bears were only able to average 2.7 yards per play offensively.
Granted, that number was heavily influenced by the fact that Matt Forte was essentially absent and franchise quarterback Jay Cutler was — in fact — absent, while other stars played minimally, but with the sort of depth the Bears seem to think they’ve added, those numbers have to be improved upon.
In mop-up time, fourth-string rookie quarterback Matt Blanchard, a former two-time national champion at Wisconsin-Whitewater, probably helped his cause more than he hurt it, despite one poor decision where he forced the football into press coverage and was picked off. With three veteran quarterbacks on the roster, Blanchard isn’t likely to make the 53, but he has the kind of developmental qualities that should earn him a long hard look on the practice squad.
- Brandon Hardin is still a ways away from upending Chris Conte at free safety, but he is a big-time athlete and he will make an impact on special teams and eventually in the defensive backfield when he gets a grasp of Lovie Smith’s playbook.
- Alshon Jeffery looked like a guy who is ready to contribute immediately, and warranted high-praise from Charles “Peanut” Tillman who compared him to Brandon Marshall.
- The Bears passing game was efficient, completing 16 of 22 pass attempts as a unit, however, they lacked the kind of explosive plays everyone will be expecting come September. That has a lot more to do with Jay Cutler not taking a snap and Brandon Marshall seeing limited action then anything.
- D.J. Moore is still up to his old tricks at nickelback. The pesky corner made a fantastic play on a Peyton Manning pass over the middle intended for Brandon Stokley and tipped the ball into the waiting arms of Major Wright. Moore is technically listed behind rookies Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy on the unofficial depth chart at cornerback, but he has still been manning (no pun intended) the No. 1 spot at nickelback, which the depth chart doesn’t account for.
Ryan Wooden is a freelance sportswriter in Chicago. His work has been featured prominently on several national websites. Currently, he works as a correspondent for the Morris Daily Herald in addition to covering the Chicago Bears for pingroof.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ryan_wooden.