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Friday, August 27, 2010
Five things to watch vs. Cardinals

By Jeff Dickerson and Michael C. Wright

Five things to keep a close watch on Saturday in the Chicago Bears’ third preseason game -- which is widely considered the most important exhibition outing for a team -- against the Arizona Cardinals at Soldier Field:

1. Can the defense get off the field on third down? The Bears’ defense ranked 27th last season in third-down defense, and based on the preseason so far, it could be headed for similar statistics in 2010. The defense held opponents to a 20.6 conversion percentage on third-and-8 and longer last season, and against the Raiders last Saturday, the Bears allowed the Raiders to convert 37.5 percent in those situations. Not good. It needs to change, starting with Saturday's game against the Cardinals. The major contributor to the club’s third-down futility appears be shoddy tackling. The Bears have allowed what should have been just short gains fester into first downs because the first defender to the ball has missed the tackle. The Bears also need to tighten up in the secondary. Safeties Chris Harris and Danieal Manning seemed to be a split-second late on most of their reads.

Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler has had trouble getting into a rhythm during the preseason.
2. Can the offense get into any type of rhythm? Quarterback Jay Cutler hasn’t completed more than two consecutive passes in one drive all preseason. He has completed two in a row, before taking a sack on the next play or throwing incomplete because of pressure from defenders. That’s usually a rhythm killer for an offense. The offensive line needs to give Cutler enough time to hit his receivers, while his targets need to eliminate the dropped balls. Once that happens, the Bears can get defenses off balance, and utilize the running game even more. Since the Bears are game-planning this week, we should get a better feel for how the offense will look in the regular season. Given all the hoopla concerning Cutler and offensive coordinator Mike Martz, things need to look a lot better than they have in the first two preseason outings.

3. Veterans on the bubble: This game may represent the final chance for certain players to prove their worth to the coaching staff since most personnel decisions are already set in stone before the final preseason game. Will Garrett Wolfe find a way to vault past Khalil Bell on the depth chart? Can former third-round pick Juaquin Iglesias do enough to earn a roster spot for the second consecutive year? Will Josh Bullocks or Al Afalava secure the final slot at safety? And how many defensive linemen will the Bears keep? Is there room for Jarron Gilbert, Corey Wootton or Henry Melton? Not only is the third preseason game the most valuable for the first team, it's just as critical for the reserves trying to make the final 53.

4. Can Cutler remain upright? The Bears don't need to break out Mike Tice's 37 pass protection schemes, but the offensive line must do a better job protecting the quarterback, regardless of how many stunts the Arizona defense throws its way. All eyes will be on Chris Williams, but right guard Lance Louis -- bothered lately by an ankle injury -- also needs to pick up his play. If you think the public reaction toward Williams was negative after the Oakland game, imagine if the tackle has another rough night on Saturday. One the other side of the coin, another strong performance by right tackle Frank Omiyale could go a long way in solidifying his confidence at the start of the regular season. They say chemistry up front is one of the hardest things to achieve in professional football. The Bears still have time for that to happen, but not much.

5. Safety combinations: Injuries to Major Wright and Craig Steltz continue to force the Bears to alter their plans at safety. Although the return of Bullocks should help in terms of numbers, Smith may get a little creative against Arizona, perhaps using a new face or two at the position.

"We've been in this situation before," Smith said earlier in the week. "It just seems like the secondary in general, there are a lot of injuries, because they run a lot and it's a physical game, especially with our safeties. They have been through this before, and we just look at it as an opportunity to see more guys. We came in with a lot of guys we like at the safety position, and we've needed every one. This week we may have to work a different combination, but during the course of the season, you have to work those combinations."