It’s been almost eight full months since the Chicago Bears named a new Front Office and Coaching Staff, and now we’re finally about to see a game. Sure it’s just a preseason game, but on Saturday afternoon the Bears will host the Kansas City Chiefs, and there are plenty of things we can be watching for.
Fans are sure to be excited to see this new version of the Bears. There are several new players on both offense and defense, as well as a new offensive and defensive scheme. This has to be exciting, right? Well, not really. The worst game of the entire NFL season is the opening preseason game. The team has been practicing for only two weeks and what we’ll see tomorrow can not be seen as good football.
There is a bright side though, if you train yourself to look at what is important. Teamwork, cohesiveness, and fundamentally sound football are not what an opening preseason is about. Rather, it’s all about who will be on this team come opening day on September 11th.
There are 90 players on the Bears roster today, but by the end of the month, teams need to be down to a 53-man roster. The coaching staff has to find their best players, and they make this evaluation during practice every day and in the preseason games.
Yes, fans want big plays and a win, but that’s not what is important. What is important is to find the right combination of players on both offense and defense. Going back to 1981, when I started with the Buffalo Bills, I have always looked at preseason games one way: studying individual players.
We have to find out who is good enough to compete on a weekly basis in the NFL.
The Bears have brought in several new players between the Draft and veteran free agency, and this will be our first time to evaluate how good they are. Some of these new players are more important than others, so let’s talk about a few.
One of the surprises of training camp has been rookie left tackle Braxton Jones. Usually, we don’t expect much from a late-round offensive lineman, but to date, it’s been different with Jones. He has shown in practice that he is capable of making a large contribution as a rookie. While he has looked good practicing, this will be his first opportunity to play against someone other than a teammate. How he fares tomorrow will go a long way towards deciding to start him on opening day.
When watching Jones, don’t worry about what the rest of the line is doing, but rather concentrate on what he does. Does he get off the ball quickly, play with strength and power, does he keep good positioning while pass blocking? Can he anchor? Does he get movement with his run blocks?
Receiver Equanimeous St Brown was a veteran free agent acquisition this past March. ESB played under Bears Offensive Coordinator Luke Getsy in Green Bay the last three seasons, and that is why he was signed. Getsy knew the talent level of the player and felt that he could become a productive player for the Bears.
To date in camp, St. Brown has looked good; tomorrow night he might not get a pass thrown his way, but what you want to look for is how quickly he comes off the ball, can he get separation coming out of cuts, and does he show a strong effort when blocking downfield on run plays?
Early in free agency the Bears signed defensive tackle Justin Jones, formerly with the Los Angeles Chargers, to play the all-important 3-technique position. In Head Coach Matt Eberflus’ version of the Tampa-2 scheme, the 3-technique is one of the most important players. What you want to see from Jones is does he get off the ball quickly to get penetration and whether he’s disruptive in the run game. As a pass rusher he has to be explosive and get consistent pressure. In this scheme, having a productive 3-technique takes pressure off the edge defenders.
Chicago’s first two selections in last April’s Draft were defensive backs Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker. Gordon probably won’t play because of an undisclosed minor injury, but Brisker has been a starter at safety since day one. How he plays opposite Eddie Jackson will have a lot to say with how strong the Bears' secondary is this season. When watching Brisker you not only want to see his cover skills but how effective is he in run support. If he is a physical run support defender, it will give the Bears something they haven’t had since Adrian Amos was paired with Jackson.
I don’t really expect much from quarterback Justin Fields tomorrow. He will probably only play a couple of series, and the offensive game plan will be beyond simple. What you do want to see though is how poised he is. Does he make quick decisions and get the ball out of his hand, and does he play with confidence?
Once the game is over tomorrow afternoon, I will probably watch it five or six more times as I want to study the play of individuals. If the new players play well on an individual basis, that bodes well for the Bears showing improvement once the regular season begins.
When you learn to watch preseason games for what they are… ”PRACTICE,” then they can be much more fun to watch and enjoy.