AFC North: Jermon Bushrod

Cutler-DaltonGetty ImagesChicago's Jay Cutler, left, and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton lead their respective offenses against very stingy defenses.
Two strong defensive teams led by highly scrutinized quarterbacks in Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton set the scene for what should be a hotly-contested matchup between what are expected to be ascending clubs.

Marc Trestman makes his debut as an NFL head coach at Soldier Field on Sunday, leading a Bears team with plenty of roster turnover on offense, including a totally revamped line expected to better protect Cutler as he operates the club’s new scheme. That group will be tested by a Bengals defensive line, led by Geno Atkins, that accounted for 43 of the team’s franchise-record 51 sacks in 2012, and also paved the way for the defense to finish the season ranked No. 6 for fewest yards allowed.

Chicago’s defense in 2012 was even better, finishing fifth in net defense, third in scoring defense (17.3 points per game) and No. 2 in turnover differential while leading the NFL in interceptions (24) and total takeaways (44).

While home-field advantage can be key for teams, it's certainly been a factor in this series. The Bengals hold a 4-1 road record against the Bears and own a 6-3 series lead, which includes victories in their last outings (2005 and 2009).

Chicago hasn’t beaten the Bengals since 2001.’s Matt Williamson and Bears team reporter Michael C. Wright discuss the matchup.

Wright: The Bears hope they fixed the offensive line with a combination of scheme (shorter drops for Cutler), beefed up protection with Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and a pair of draft picks in Kyle Long (first round) and Jordan Mills (fifth) at right guard and right tackle, and another weapon for Cutler to find down the middle of the field when he’s in trouble. But the inexperience of Long and Mills will be question marks against Cincinnati’s active defensive line.

It seems Cincinnati’s defense is built around Atkins, but how much of a factor are guys like Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson?

Williamson: Atkins is the foundation of the defense for sure and everyone thrives off his presence, but the Bengals have a lot invested in the defensive line now in terms of finances and draft picks. This is an extremely deep and talented group that makes the entire defense go. Dunlap might be a little underrated and Johnson a little overrated, but they form an impressive pair of defensive end. These three players, along with the rest of Cincinnati’s defensive front, will prove a very steep challenge for Chicago’s rebuilt offensive line in Week 1.

What can the Bengals’ defense expect from this new Trestman offense?

Wright: The Bears will utilize zone blocking in the running game, which should allow Matt Forte to pick his own holes. That should open up the passing game, where the Bears will use West Coast philosophies such as shorter routes and drops for Cutler so he can get rid of the ball quickly. Look for the Bears to also try to use Earl Bennett down the seams to exploit potential matchup problems, especially on traditional running downs where the Bengals might be using base personnel.

Speaking of the Bengals, they’ve made the playoffs in three of the last four years, but really haven’t made much noise. What are the expectations for this team now?

Williamson: Expectations must go up. They had yet another high-quality offseason and this team has an exceptional young core of players on both sides of the ball. They clearly play in a tough division, but going one-and-done in the playoffs yet again will not be considered a successful season in Cincinnati. I fear they will only go as far as their quarterback will take them. But Bengals fans have a lot to be excited about.

Do you think this Bears defense can defend A.J. Green?

Wright: They should be able to keep him from dominating the game. It’s likely the Bears match Charles Tillman up against Green, but if the receiver winds up in front of Tim Jennings, the team is confident he can get the job done, too. The Bears typically don’t double or shade coverage against players such as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, so don’t count on seeing the Bears try that against Green. Cincinnati’s tight ends could be an issue now that they’ve got two good ones in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.

With such a talented supporting cast, do you see Dalton as just a guy surrounded by weapons, or a blossoming young quarterback?

Williamson: He shows signs of blossoming into a solid young quarterback, and has been especially adept in the red zone, which is very noteworthy for a young quarterback. But I think he is more of the former. He is a limited passer who lacks great tools, and isn’t as accurate or on time with his throws as you would like for someone with his limitations. The Bengals knew this and landed two very “Dalton-friendly” receivers for him in Eifert and Giovani Bernard. Eifert should develop into an exceptional target in the middle of the field as well as the red zone, while Bernard provides an easy dump-off option for Dalton. With all the Bengals’ resources over the past two offseasons, it really surprises me that Cincinnati didn’t do more to challenge Dalton or greatly improve its backup quarterback spot.

» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?

Baltimore Ravens: Jermon Bushrod, OT, Saints. To answer the question, the Ravens will target their own players when free agency begins. The focus will be on inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and safety Ed Reed, and it's likely that order. But a primary target for the Ravens should be Bushrod. He's not a top-tier left tackle but he went to two Pro Bowls, owns a Super Bowl ring and knows what it takes to play in a fast-paced offense. Bushrod, who played college locally at Towson, is also more dependable than Bryant McKinnie. Adding Bushrod would allow Michael Oher to play right tackle, his more natural position. There's two problems with this working out: the Ravens may not have the salary-cap room to sign a free-agent offensive tackle and the Saints have made Bushrod a priority to re-sign.

Cincinnati Bengals: Dashon Goldson, SS, 49ers. He was going to be my targeted player for the Bengals even before an overblown radio interview linked him to Cincinnati. The Bengals ignored the strong safety position last season, and it resulted in the team shuffling through Taylor Mays, Nate Clements and Jeromy Miles in the first seven games. Cincinnati eventually had to bring back Chris Crocker to stabilize the spot. Goldson is a tough, physical player who is in the prime of his career. The Bengals have the cap room to meet Goldson's high price tag (likely about $8 million per season), but they might not want to invest so much in the safety position after signing Reggie Nelson to a four-year, $18 million contract last year.

Cleveland Browns: Cliff Avril, DE-LB, Lions. It would be a big statement by the new regime to land a top-five free agent like Avril. He upgrades the pass rush in a major way (29 sacks in his past three seasons) and can bring leadership to a young defense. There are concerns about giving a big contract to a player who has to switch positions. Avril would move from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker, but it's not a major shift because he played linebacker in college. If the Browns are unable to get Avril, they can turn their attention to Ravens free agent Paul Kruger, or the draft. Oregon's Dion Jordan and Georgia's Jarvis Jones have been linked to Cleveland.

Pittsburgh Steelers: LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB, Cardinals. Sure, this isn't a big name like Goldson or Avril. But the Steelers don't have the salary-cap room to pursue top free agents. And, let's be honest, the Steelers don't step into the free-agent waters very much, and it would be accurate to list "none" as the targeted player. Still, if I had to pick a free agent who fits a need and can come at a reasonable price, it would be Stephens-Howling, a former star at Pitt. With Chris Rainey gone, Stephens-Howling is an elusive back who can provide a big-play spark, whether it's as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. His low per-carry average is more a reflection of the Cardinals' offense than his speed. This doesn't change the fact that Pittsburgh needs to find a young featured back in the draft. It's a bonus that Stephens-Howling can make an impact on special teams and has experience as a returner.