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Friday, August 9, 2013
Five things to watch: Bears-Panthers

By Michael C. Wright

Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler is expected to play a series or two against the Panthers on Friday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here are five things to keep an eye on Friday night when the Chicago Bears face the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.

1. OL blocking: It's likely the Bears go into this game with a starting five up front that you won't see once the club opens the regular season Sept. 8 against Cincinnati, mainly because of the calf strain suffered by starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who isn't expected to play. The plan is to play the starters just a few snaps. So in that limited amount of time it's important to see how well the group protects and opens the lanes in the ground game given all the changes made schematically. Count on a starting five of Roberto Garza, James Brown, Eben Britton, J'Marcus Webb and Matt Slauson. Rookie Kyle Long should see plenty of snaps, too, and is also a player to keep close tabs on. The only way skill-position players such as quarterback Jay Cutler, receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte excel is for the offensive line to sufficiently do its job. If in limited duty, the starting offensive line performs similarly to the way the group played in 2012, it will be clear the group still needs extensive work.

2. Cutler's command of the offense: Cutler is in the midst of learning his fourth offense in five seasons with the Bears, and it would be unrealistic to expect him to operate flawlessly against the Panthers. But he does need to show some degree of command of the new system. So far during training camp practices, for whatever reason, the timing between Cutler and the receiving corps appears to be off. Some of that is a function of Chicago's defensive line bearing down hard on Cutler every play during training camp, and tipping many of his passes at the line of scrimmage. But in this game, the offensive line will have every tactic at its disposal to combat Carolina's pass rush. That should open up some passing lanes for Cutler to be able to find some type of rhythm. It's also worth it to watch how quickly the Bears get in and out of the huddle. The club unnecessarily burned timeouts too often last season, and Marc Trestman's system contains much more verbiage than some of the schemes Cutler has operated in the past.

3. The linebacking corps sans Brian Urlacher: With Brian Urlacher out of the picture at middle linebacker, how much does it change the linebacking corps? We'll soon find out once the Bears face the Panthers. Because of a strained calf suffered by Urlacher's replacement, D.J. Williams, the Bears go into this outing with rookie second-round pick Jon Bostic as the starter. If Bostic performs, he could wind up making a serious push for the starting job. Right now, Bostic is considered the future of the position with Williams slated to start, but the rookie can take a step toward making the future now against the Panthers. The expectation is that the Bears will be more athletic with the new starters, which also include James Anderson, playing alongside veteran Lance Briggs. But the intangibles Urlacher brought to the defense -- his command of the scheme, and his ability to quickly diagnose offenses and consistently line up teammates in a position where they can succeed -- might be what the team misses most without No. 54. Briggs will make the calls in Urlacher's place, and there shouldn't be much of a dropoff in that department, if any.

4. Nickel corner Isaiah Frey: Veteran Kelvin Hayden tore a hamstring and is out for the season, thrusting second-year cornerback Frey into the position to secure an important job as the starting nickelback. When considering how frequently the Bears will play with five defensive backs this season, the nickel corner spot becomes just as important to this team as the starting strong-side linebacker. Frey finds himself with an ideal opportunity to seize a starting job, and for the most part in training camp, he's earned it by making plays virtually every day the team has practiced. Now it's time to do it in a live-game situation. Frey's teammates in the secondary have expressed confidence in his ability to contribute. But obviously, games are much more difficult than practices.

5. Lower-round draft picks/players on the bubble: Rookies Marquess Wilson (seventh-round pick) and Cornelius Washington (sixth) figure to see plenty of repetitions this game, along with Khaseem Greene (fourth) and Jordan Mills (fifth) with the starters expected to play so sparingly. So this represents one of the best opportunities for these rookies to make the team. With receiver Earl Bennett ruled out for this game, look for Joe Anderson and Devin Aromashodu to also take on more reps, which means increased chances for receivers lower on the depth chart such as Josh Lenz, Jerrell Jackson, Marcus Rucker, Brittan Golden and Terrence Toliver.

At the safety position, there could be a battle for one of the final safety spots between 2012 third-round pick Brandon Hardin, Tom Zbikowski, Tom Nelson and Cyhl Quarles. Hardin hasn't played in a football game since last preseason, and prior to that, he hadn't played in a game since 2011. The team appears to be committed to giving Hardin ample opportunity to make the team, but he'll have to be the one to seize it with his play on the field.

Offensive linemen such as undrafted rookies A.J. Lindeman, P.J. Lonergan might also have an opportunity to impress the staff because they're expected to play extensively in the second half.