NFL Nation: 5 Things to Watch

Marshall & Cutler Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesIt's too early to panic about targeting Brandon Marshall too much, but look for diversity Friday.
For those craving real action, this is the closest you’re going to get until Sept. 8, when the Chicago Bears host the Cincinnati Bengals in the regular-season opener.

Teams around the league view Week 3 of the preseason as the most important because most clubs play their starters the entire first half and into the second as a dress rehearsal for the regular season. Bears coach Marc Trestman said he’ll play his starters for the first two quarters and possibly a series or two in the second half Friday when they face the Oakland Raiders on the road.

Here are five things to watch in this contest:

1. How Jay Cutler distributes his passes: The first two preseason games shouldn’t be a real indicator of how Jay Cutler will distribute his passes among the receivers. But the issue certainly became a topic of discussion when he directed all five of his passes (with four completions) toward Brandon Marshall. With Marshall out of the lineup in the preseason opener at Carolina, Cutler targeted five receivers and completed 6 of 8 for 56 yards and an interception. But once Marshall returned, Cutler fired all of his attempts at the receiver, completing 4 of 5 for 38 yards, a touchdown and an INT.

With the first group set to see its most significant action of the preseason, it’s expected Cutler will distribute the ball more evenly because naturally, the starters will play more. Running back Matt Forte pointed that out Wednesday shortly after the team’s practice inside the Walter Payton Center.

“We didn’t play the entire game (in the first two games). So you just can’t say, ‘Hey, how many different passes and runs went to two different guys on the offense?’” Forte said. “Obviously if we would’ve played four quarters, the ball would’ve been spread around. In a game, of course they’re going to be looking at Brandon, and they’re going to be looking at me coming out of the backfield and in the backfield. So other people are going to get the ball, and when they get their chances they’ll excel.”

It’s truly too early to lend credence to the notion that Cutler has become overly reliant on Marshall. This outing should go a long way towards debunking that.

2. A more authentic representation of Marc Trestman’s offense: The Bears executed largely no-frills attacks over their first two exhibition outings. But Trestman now needs to see how the team operates some of the intricacies of his offense. Going into this contest, the plan is to put together a minimal game plan to attack the Raiders without exposing too much of what the club will do in the regular season in terms of plays and formations.

But even with somewhat of a stripped down plan, look for the Bears to provide the most authentic preview to date of what fans can expect from Trestman’s offense in the regular season. The team showcased some of the zone blocking schemes up front last week in its 33-28 win as Forte rushed for 74 yards on eight attempts. Expect to see more of the anticipated quick passing game of the West Coast offense against the Raiders.

“We’re game planning this a little bit more than the other games that we’ve played in the preseason,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “This week we’ve scheduled it out where we’re getting used to what a game week would feel like. So that’s the No. 1 thing we have to get ready for. From there, we’re gonna play the guys hopefully longer than the last time, and we’ll see how that goes. We just want to see a functioning offense. Can we be efficient? Can we call the play, get out of the huddle, quickly get to the line of scrimmage, snap the football and do the right thing? From there, plays will happen.”

3. The rookie right side of the offensive line: Rookie first-round pick Kyle Long and fifth rounder Jordan Mills receive their second consecutive starts at right guard and right tackle, respectively, against the Raiders. How they perform against the Raiders likely solidifies their statuses as starters on the right side of the line, where they were competing with veterans James Brown and J'Marcus Webb.

Throughout the preseason, the rookie duo has played in a total of 86 plays apiece, while allowing a combined three pressures and only one quarterback hit. That’s part of the reason for the staff’s optimism regarding the pair, even though that enthusiasm has been veiled.

“With the new offense, everybody’s kind of working their way through knowing everything that’s going on,” Kromer said. “So (they’ve performed) no different than anyone else. We’re behind. We need to catch up and keep working. They have to continue their development as well as the offensive line in general. There’s a lot of development that needs to be done yet. Luckily we have two or three weeks left before we play Cincinnati.”

The fact the Bears trust Long and Mills enough to start them in the most important outing of the preseason provides a strong indication of the team’s plan for the rookies. The key for them now, however, is to actually go out and earn their jobs against the Raiders. More than likely, they will.

4. Rookie linebacker Jonathan Bostic: The latest timetable given by Trestman on the potential availability for veteran middle linebacker D.J. Williams is approximately two weeks, which means the Bears would be pushing it to thrust him into the starting lineup on Sept. 8 when the club hosts the Bengals.

That’s why it’s important for Bostic, a second-round pick, to put in some quality work in what will be his most extensive action of the preseason.

“We think eventually he’ll be back,” Trestman said of Williams. “We just don’t know when. We’re getting close to the season. His conditioning now becomes an issue.”

So, internally, the staff at this point seems to be pondering the possibility of going into the regular season without Williams in the starting lineup. Bostic can make that decision easier for the coaches with another strong performance against the Raiders.

Bostic returned an interception 51 yards for a touchdown in the exhibition opener at Carolina, and followed that with a two-tackle performance against the Chargers, in which he laid down a bone-rattling lick that broke up a pass and resulted in a $21,000 fine from the league. Bostic continues to make minor mistakes that will only be corrected with more playing time. But he’s left little doubt about his ability to start as a rookie. The staff has a difficult decision to make. Bostic will make it even tougher with another big game.

5. The preseason debut of defensive end Julius Peppers: Peppers hasn’t played a down throughout the preseason, and although he’s a perennial Pro Bowler, it’s important for him to get in some snaps to prepare him for the regular season; especially when considering the starters likely won’t even play in the exhibition finale against the Cleveland Browns.

The Bears expected Peppers to play last week against the Chargers, but the defensive end -- after doing some work on the field during pre-game warmups -- approached Trestman “and said he didn’t feel right,” according to the coach. Peppers experienced tightness in a hamstring during an Aug. 3 practice, and the team has been cautious about subjecting him to further injury by giving him days off and keeping him out of preseason games.

The good news, however, is that Peppers participated fully in practice all week leading up to the matchup with the Raiders.

“Every player needs to work, and needs to play. We’ll do the right thing for Julius,” Peppers said. “He’s been doing this a long time. Every player needs the work. He’ll get a chance to play if he’s 100 percent and believes he can go.”

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