Let’s all yell a collective hooray! Players and fans can't wait for the real football season to begin in earnest on September 9th at Soldier Field, but the Bears wrap up the pre-season with one final tune-up in Cleveland on Thursday. Here are some key things to watch for in that game:
Key injuries surfacing
Injuries have crept up on the Bears the past few weeks. Rookie Brandon Hardin injured his neck against Washington, severely enough that now he's out for the year. The team is relying on a rookie punter Ryan Quigley to nurse them through this final game until Adam Podlesh can kick. But if Podlesh's hip is still a problem when the season starts, will the Bears go with a rookie in this key role of special teams?
Heaven knows when the injury status of linebacker Brian Urlacher will be known for certain. Right now, Nick Roach is playing the middle of the linebacking corps and Geno Hayes is on the outside. Urlacher’s absence should not phase Roach, though: He is more prepared than he was three years ago filling in for the All-Pro linebacker. This Bears defense just operates best with Urlacher running sideline to sideline and covering the middle of the field. Even if he does come back in time for the opener against the Indianapolis Colts, will he be able to play his usual game?
Nagging issues at the “O” line
This last game will have very few regular players in it even though there were some glaring issues after the last game in New York. The pass protection was much better with both rotating left tackles J'Marcus Webb and Chris Williams. The running game left a big question mark since it was very dismal as far as the numbers go. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice said, "We have some things in the run game that we have to clean up and focus on the details as players and coaches.” With all the money the team forked out for Matt Forte, I am sure the organization would love to see this fixed.
How about the men in stripes?
Those replacement refs throwing yellow flags, meanwhile, may wind up doing it during the regular season — what a joke. The regular referees are still in a labor dispute with the NFL. In a league worth billions it's unfortunate that an agreement has not been reached. The regular NFL refs are not perfect, but they know the rules, the speed of the game and most of the players in the league. Working high school or college games can't fully prepare a less-experience official for the pressures and the intricacies of an NFL game. Factoring in concerns of player safety especially, a resolution should get done. But will it, with the season just days away?
Reducing the roster
Thursday, starters will watch from the sidelines (trying to look interested), while several very anxious players wait for their Bears careers to be decided. The team has to reduce their roster to 53 players on Friday; head coach Lovie Smith says it's "tough” when you have to tell players that they are no longer part of the team. However, some of these players may return when the practice squad is formed on Saturday or if an injury happens.
There is a battle for the last running back: Since Kahlil Bell was cut, Lorenzo Booker and Armando Allen are fighting to claim that spot.
Will the Bears go with 5-6 or 7 receivers on their roster? If it's a smaller number, then the battle between Dane Sanzenbacher, Rashid Davis and Joe Anderson will be important. Their play on special teams will likely be the deciding factor as it is with most of the final players to make the Bears squad. Davis has played pro-ball 12 seasons (Arena and NFL) and he has never been cut; but "it would be easier for me than a rookie," he said. "I’ve been blessed and my wife and I have done well with the money I’ve made.” Not that he wants it to end; Davis said he wants to make it hard for the coaches to release him.
How many tight ends will this team carry? Kellen Davis, Matt Spaeth and rookie Evan Rodriquez are likely set, but will Kyle Adams retain a job?
Did rookie Isaiah Frey show enough to be added to the secondary? Some of the injuries at safety may give Anthony Walters more of an opening to play for the Bears. Walters was undrafted this year and does not have a permanent residency. "I don’t have an apartment; I am still living where they (the Bears) set me up.”
Just like all pre-season games, the score doesn’t matter, but these final roster cuts are important for back-ups in case of injuries. Of course, the make-up of the special teams is determined by the players that make the final cut. So when you watch the game, look for the players that are aggressive but not accruing any penalties.
There will be no Cutler, Marshall, Briggs or Forte Thursday night, just several young men hoping to show the coaching staff they belong on the Bears roster. With Lovie Smith in the final year of his contract, his final 53-man roster has to perform this season — or the Bears head coach may not be here next year.