NFL Nation: Jermon Bushrod

As Chicago eyes free agency next month, we’ll take a look back at the top players from the 2013 class of free agents, how they performed in their first year with the Bears and their prospects for 2014. Here we look at offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod:

Bushrod
Money: Signed a five-year contract worth a little more than $35.965 million that included $17.715 million in guarantees.

Stats: None, but as one of four new starters on the offensive line, Bushrod helped the Bears set a franchise record in yards (6,109) as the club finished with a 4.9 sack percentage on 609 drop backs, which ranked as the club’s sixth-lowest sack percentage since 1982, when sacks became an official statistic.

2013 role: Of all the free-agent offensive linemen available, Bushrod had allowed the most combined sacks, hits and hurries, but he still represented an upgrade over the inconsistent J’Marcus Webb. Bushrod became an immediate starter on the offensive line, and protected the blindside of quarterback Jay Cutler in addition to helping his position group adjust to the new blocking schemes brought to the club by coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who the tackle had previously worked with in New Orleans. A Pro Bowler in 2012, Bushrod started all 16 games at left tackle for the Bears.

The good: Chicago surrendered just 30 sacks, which ranks as the club’s fewest since 2008 and the second fewest for the Bears in seven seasons, and Bushrod played a major role in that. On the season, Bushrod was responsible for four sacks, and that number perhaps could have been greater when taking into account the Bears now utilize an offense designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quicker. Perhaps one of Bushrod’s greatest accomplishments in 2013 came in helping the rest of the offensive line learn the team’s new blocking schemes because of his experience working with Kromer in New Orleans. Bushrod was slightly better than average in pass protection. But when Chicago ran the ball behind Bushrod over left tackle, it averaged 5.03 yards per attempt, which ranked as 12th in the NFL.

The bad: In addition to the four sacks Bushrod surrendered, he also allowed nine hits and 42 quarterback pressures. By comparison, in 2012 Webb gave up seven sacks, five hits and 30 hurries. But Webb’s salary wasn’t near what the Bears paid to land Bushrod. So he’s got to perform at a level commensurate to what the Bears are paying. In addition, Bushrod tied with tight end Martellus Bennett for the team lead in penalties (seven). Luckily for the Bears those penalties resulted in only one stalled drive. Five of the flags were called for holding (three) or false start (two). Bushrod’s 2013 season was an improvement over what he did in 2012, but not by much. In 2012, Bushrod gave up four sacks, eight hits and 45 hurries.

2014 outlook: Bushrod is set to count $7.3 million against Chicago’s salary cap in 2014. So while he didn’t play horribly in 2013, he needs to play at the level he’s being paid: as an elite pass-protector. Bushrod knows that, and should improve in Year 2 with the Bears as the offensive line continues to develop chemistry. Down the stretch of 2013, Bushrod displayed signs of improvement. Over the last five games of the season, he surrendered a sack, two hits and six pressures after giving up a sack, three hits and 20 pressures in the five games previous. So perhaps Bushrod can carry that momentum into 2014 because he’ll certainly need to for the Bears to improve upon a strong 2013 campaign in the first year of Trestman’s offense.

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 15
Preseason power ranking: 13

Biggest surprise: The Chicago Bears' offensive line didn't exactly set the world on fire, but for the first time in recent memory the group wasn't the weak link of the team. The Bears revamped the offensive line by adding four new starters: Kyle Long, Jordan Mills, Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson. The group's efforts, combined with a more quick-hitting passing game, resulted in just 19 sacks for QB Jay Cutler, his lowest total since 11 with Denver in 2008. The offensive line in 2013 displayed more consistency than any at other time in Cutler's time in Chicago, but the group struggled at inopportune times and often was aided by Cutler and Josh McCown getting rid of the ball quickly. Still, this year's group laid a foundation it can build on.

Biggest disappointment: New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will unfairly take criticism for the defense's failures in 2013. Coming off a 2012 campaign in which the defense ranked No. 5 overall and in the top 10 against the run and the pass, the unit in 2013 surrendered the most rushing yards (2,583) and points (478) in franchise history. Injuries played a major role. They cost the team a combined 72 missed games, 43 among starters alone. In recent history, the defense was the one facet that Chicago could always count on. But that wasn't the case in 2013. What's most surprising is how quickly the defense's decline came after being the team's backbone for so many years.

Biggest need: The defense is badly in need of a total makeover, and the bulk of that work should be done on the defensive line. It's safe to say now that former first-round defensive end Shea McClellin hasn't lived up to expectations and franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton is overrated. The Bears also have to decide whether to move forward with Julius Peppers, who is expensive and starting to show his age (will be 33 on Jan. 18), while finding a way to bring back Corey Wootton. The back end needs help, too. The deals for cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are up, as is the contract for safety Major Wright. The Bears also need to bring in competition to push underperforming safety Chris Conte.

Team MVP: Running back Matt Forte quietly put together his best season as a pro, accounting for nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage (1,933) and career highs in rushing (1,339 yards) and receiving (74 catches, 594 yards). Receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery may have made flashier plays, but make no mistake: Forte is what makes the offense go. Cutler called Forte the best all-around back in the league, and he definitely made a strong case for it in 2013. A true three-down back, Forte threatened defenses as a runner and a receiver. On passing downs, Forte was also key in the team's protection schemes.


Locker Room Buzz: Chicago Bears

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
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CHICAGO -- Observed in the locker room after the Chicago Bears' 26-18 loss to the New Orleans Saints:

Bushrod
Lamenting the loss: Bears left tackle Jermon Bushrod sat alone at his locker after all the other players had left. As he pulled on one of his black and pink LeBron James sneakers, the question was posed as to whether losing to his former team hurt more than a defeat to another team. “Would’ve liked to get the W; would have been nice,” Bushrod said. “But at this point, I just want to win, period.”

Blocking schemes tossed: Strewn across a bench in front of a locker was a bundle of papers detailing blocking schemes drawn up for the game plan against the Saints. It appeared as if a player had been studying them prior to the team coming out for the game. But early on, those schemes didn’t seem to work. Jay Cutler suffered three sacks in the first half, including one on a corner blitz by Malcolm Jenkins that caused the quarterback to fumble, with Cameron Jordan scooping up the loose ball. New Orleans turned that turnover into a Garrett Hartley field goal.

Bennett keeps sense of humor: Wearing an ice bag on his left knee, tight end Martellus Bennett stopped in front of the doors leading out of the locker room and stared at a table that usually contains postgame snacks for the players. “Where’s a Rice Krispies treat when you need one?" he asked.
METAIRIE, La. -- Left tackle Charles Brown was one of the most talked-about players in New Orleans Saints camp through the spring and summer after he replaced Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod in the starting lineup. But since the regular season started, Brown has been virtually ignored.

That’s a good thing. There’s nothing a NFL left tackle would rather do than go unnoticed.

[+] EnlargeCharles Brown
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSaints LT Charles Brown has "improved every week," according to teammate Zach Strief.
Brown hasn’t been perfect. He’s allowed either two or 2.5 sacks, depending on the stats service, and he’s been whistled for three holding penalties (one declined). He has also been part of the run-blocking issues that have plagued the entire Saints offensive line.

But for the most part, Brown has held up well for a passing offense that has started to explode in recent weeks. Quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns on 166 attempts this year -- and the Saints are 4-0.

“I feel good where I’m at right now, the team’s doing good. I feel like I’m getting better every week and showing (the coaches) what they want,” Brown said, though he balked at the notion that it feels good for him to finally have the starting job locked down after he spent the summer auditioning for the job.

“Honestly, I don’t know if I was out of reality, but I never felt like it wasn’t my job,” said Brown, who easily won the training camp competition over rookie Terron Armstead and veteran Jason Smith.

Brown does, however, admit it’s been a huge benefit for him to play every snap this year. The former second-round draft pick out of USC never had this kind of continuity before as a backup during three seasons that were plagued by injury.

“Definitely. Because then you and your guard (left guard Ben Grubbs), you gain this trust for one another. It just keeps things running smoothly,” said Brown, who said his biggest improvements so far have come with technique things like hand placement and footwork. “I think I just fine-tuned a little bit of everything. And this week I have a great matchup to see where I’m really at (against Chicago Bears star defensive end Julius Peppers).

“I’m sure I’ll get better after this game.”

Both Saints coach Sean Payton and veteran right tackle Zach Strief also noted that weekly improvement in Brown. Payton said Brown had his best game this past Monday in a 38-17 rout over the Miami Dolphins.

Of course, Brown had three negative plays in that game that stood out (allowing a sack and a run stuff and being flagged once for holding). But again, that’s the nature of the left tackle position. It takes a coach to appreciate all the times Brown did his job while Brees was racking up 413 passing yards and four touchdowns.

“I think he’s improved every week. I think that he’s playing well,” Strief said. “Just like all of us, he’s got things to work on. We all do. But I think you’ve seen a guy that’s settling in a little bit, that’s more comfortable with himself and more confident with himself. I think he’s gotten better each week, and when you’ve got a guy in that’s a first-time starter, that’s exactly what you want from him.”

Bushrod, meanwhile, is earning plenty of praise himself for the job he’s doing in Chicago.

The Bears made Bushrod a huge part of their attempts to rebuild a battered offensive line this offseason, signing him to a five-year, $36 million contract as a free agent. The Bears also snagged former Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer as their new offensive coordinator under new offensive-minded head coach Marc Trestman. And they drafted two new starters on the right side of their offensive line.

Chicago’s line remains a work in progress, but the improvement has been significant. The 3-1 Bears are tied for third in the NFL with just six sacks allowed (either 0.5 or 1 of them credited to Bushrod, based on the stats service).

“Bush has come in here and has been as steady as he could possibly be since the day he walked in,” Trestman said. “We’re very, very lucky to have him.”

The Saints didn’t make a strong effort to keep Bushrod in free agency. Although he made two trips to the Pro Bowl during four standout seasons as a starter in New Orleans, the Saints have opted to invest more heavily in their guard positions over the years. They felt like Bushrod’s production could be replaced without a huge drop-off, especially with Brees so good at stepping up in the pocket and avoiding trouble.

Bushrod insisted he harbors no ill will toward the Saints for letting him go and considers his new opportunity with another playoff contender to be a “blessing.”

“I cherished my time in New Orleans, and I am very appreciative of their organization and the opportunity they gave me to grow and all that stuff. It’s a good thing. It’s a good position to be in,” said Bushrod, who entered the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick out of Towson State in 2007. “Sometimes you just have to take the feelings out of it a little bit. It was tough because New Orleans meant a lot to me, still does being that my wife is from there and I won a Super Bowl there. But this is just another opportunity, another opportunity for my family, another opportunity for us and it is a special situation.”

So far, it would be tough to claim that the Saints are much worse off without Bushrod. Although New Orleans has allowed an uncharacteristic 12 sacks this season, much of that has been because of All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans’ struggles with a hamstring injury.

Pro Football Focus, which assigns grades to each individual player on a play-by-play basis, has Bushrod graded as the 36th best starting tackle in the NFL this year and Brown at No. 41. By PFF’s count, they’ve each allowed 12 quarterback hurries, with three QB hits for Bushrod and one for Brown.
Freeman-BreesGetty ImagesBucs QB Josh Freeman faces off against Saints QB Drew Brees in a Week 2 division rivalry game.
Two of the biggest stories in the NFC South in Week 1 were that New Orleans played good defense and Tampa Bay never was able to get into an offensive rhythm.

Will that continue as the Saints and Buccaneers play one another?

ESPN’s Matt Williamson and Buccaneers team reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.

Yasinskas: Matt, I have to admit I was stunned by the Saints holding the Falcons to just 17 points in the opener. I saw the Saints in training camp and had serious doubts about whether they had the personnel to run the 3-4 defense successfully, and they have endured several major injuries since then. Yet, the Saints kept one of the league’s best offenses in check. Was this just a fluke or is the New Orleans defense actually for real?

Williamson: If I were an optimistic Saints fan, I would take this stand: The Saints' young, talented three-man defensive line, led by Cameron Jordan, looks simply exceptional and fits the new scheme very well. Their secondary is also clearly improved from a year ago -- which isn’t saying much. If I were taking a more pessimistic view on New Orleans’ defense, I would say that Roddy White was a shell of himself and completely ineffectual, and the Falcons’ offensive line might be among the worst in the NFL right now. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but I also believe that as long as the Saints’ defense isn’t among the very worst in the league, that this is the team to beat in the NFC South. So, in return, here is my question: Even if the Saints’ defense isn’t noticeably improved and is closer to the 2012 version than what we saw last week, is Josh Freeman capable of exploiting it? Vincent Jackson played a great game in New York, but Freeman has looked terrible throughout the preseason and now into regular-season action.

Yasinskas: After watching Freeman in the New York game, I'm not so sure he's capable of exploiting any defense right now. He never got into any sort of rhythm in the passing game and, at times, look flustered. Over the past few years I've been steadfast in my belief Freeman has what it takes to turn into an elite quarterback. But that hasn't happened yet, and I'm starting to doubt if it ever will. He has plenty of weapons at the skill positions, but it seems like Freeman is regressing, instead of progressing. Speaking of regressing, what's your take on the Saints' running game? Coach Sean Payton has said he wants to run more, but the Saints got very little out of the running game in the opener. Now, they'll play a defense that was No. 1 against the run last season. Can Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas move the ball against the Buccaneers?

Williamson: That’s a great question and I know it is extremely early, but I have forecasted Ingram to have a breakout season in 2013. But I am having second thoughts on that, as he is a volume runner who needs to be fed the ball to be most effective, and I just don’t know if that will ever be the case here, as Thomas is such an effective all-around player and Sproles needs to be on the field. I do think Payton believes in balance and he wants to have a physical offense with a very good interior offensive line paving the way, but running against Tampa Bay doesn’t seem to be the prudent move. Of course, the Tampa secondary is also vastly improved, but Drew Brees is the type of elite passer who just produces no matter the competition ... and can the Buccaneers match up to Sproles and Jimmy Graham? I have my doubts they can. Therefore, I say this is a game Payton puts on Brees’ shoulders -- which is never a terrible idea. Along those lines, the Buccaneers clearly made a concerted effort to improve their pass defense by using numerous valuable resources to improve their secondary. Mission accomplished there. But this pass rush still has to be a concern, and if Brees is given time, he is going to find someone to his liking to eventually distribute the ball to. Brees is a tough guy to sack, but can the Bucs at least disrupt him in the pocket with some consistency?

Yasinskas: One of the few encouraging things to come out of the loss to the Jets was that the Bucs recorded five sacks. Four of them came from the linebackers, which shows a willingness to blitz. But the front four can be more productive and several guys have the ability to bring some heat on Brees. End Adrian Clayborn and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy both have the talent to get to the quarterback. But the real wild card could be Da'Quan Bowers. The team wanted him to start, but he didn't play well enough to earn the job in the preseason. For the moment, Bowers is being used as a situational player. But he has more upside as a pass-rusher than anyone on this team, and this game would be a good time for him to start showing. Brees is tough to slow down under any circumstances, but you absolutely have to have a strong pass rush to have any chance. Speaking of Tampa Bay's pass rush, that brings up another question. The Saints let left tackle Jermon Bushrod depart as a free agent and they've replaced him with Charles Brown. Can Brown be an effective left tackle?

Williamson: Because of their strengths on the interior and the need for the shorter Brees to have a clean pocket up the middle, the Saints construct their protections schemes from the inside out, which makes life for their offensive tackles easier. And, of course, Brees has a great feel for the rush to go along with underrated, but highly effective pocket movement and athletic ability to elude the rush, particularly from the edges. Bushrod never impressed me much, considering some viewed him as a Pro Bowl caliber left tackle. In fact, I think Brown has more natural ability when it comes to movement skills and length for the position. Brown played quite well in the preseason and that carried over to Week 1. It appears the Saints just might have found their starting left tackle for the foreseeable future.

Underrated tackles held up well

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
6:55
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Whatever angst the Green Bay Packers had about their starting tackles should have been eased somewhat after their performance in Sunday’s season opener at San Francisco.

Although it wasn’t a flawless performance and there were issues in the running game, rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari and second-year right tackle Don Barclay held up well, especially considering their pedigree.

Bakhtiari was at least partially responsible for both of Aldon Smith's sacks, but otherwise was solid in his debut. Meanwhile, Barclay, in just his seventh career start, showed significant improvement over last season.

A study of all 64 opening-day tackles showed that the Packers trotted out one of the most unheralded combinations in the league. Bakhtiari was a fourth-round pick, while Barclay was undrafted.

Only two other teams had both of their Week 1 starting tackles taken in the fourth round of the draft or lower. They were: the Chicago Bears (Jermon Bushrod, fourth round; Jordan Mills, fifth round), and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Demar Dotson, undrafted; Donald Penn, undrafted).

Based on Week 1 starting lineups, 28 of the 64 starting tackles were first-round picks. Another 13 were drafted in the second round. That accounts for 64.0 percent of the opening-day starting tackles. Only 15 were drafted in the fifth round or later (or were undrafted).

“I know that when you get players that are doing a good job, that’s a tribute to them, not where they were picked,” Packers offensive line coach James Campen said. “It doesn’t matter to me where they were picked as long as they can play.”

Bakhtiari was one of only six rookies who started at tackle in Week 1. Four of them -- Eric Fisher of the Kansas City Chiefs, Luke Joeckel of the Jacksonville Jaguars, D.J. Fluker of the San Diego Chargers and Justin Pugh of the New York Giants -- were first-round picks. Of the six, only the Bears’ Mills was drafted lower than Bakhtiari.

Of course, the Packers didn’t envision a Bakhtiari-Barclay starting tackle combination. Like many teams in the NFL, they used high draft picks on tackles. In 2010, they took Bryan Bulaga at No. 23 overall. A year later, they picked Derek Sherrod at No. 32. Together, they were supposed to be the starting tackle combination for the foreseeable future. But Sherrod still hasn’t recovered from the broken leg he suffered as a rookie and remains on the physically unable to perform list, and Bulaga was lost for the season to a knee injury on Aug. 5.

Tackles are often the key to pass protection, and other than Smith’s two sacks, one of which came when Bakhtiari whiffed on a cut block, the Packers kept Aaron Rodgers fairly clean against the 49ers. The running game, however, was another story. The Packers had only 63 yards rushing against the 49ers.

“Didn’t notice them that much, so that was good,” Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said of the starting tackles. “They both played well. They got after it, and they were playing against excellent players, and they moved their front four around at times to get different defenders on them, and they reacted well.”

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 1

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
12:00
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An examination of four hot issues from the Bears’ 24-21 win over the Bengals:

No pressure from the defensive line: Let’s not get too worried about it now because Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton let the ball fly quickly at the end of his drops. Cincinnati’s game plan was to get rid of the ball quickly and take what the defense was giving it. That meant lots of dink-and-dunk football.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJay Cutler and the Bears' offense got off to a slow start, but rallied in the second half to beat Cincinnati.
“There were times we were getting frustrated,” Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton said. “You couldn’t really even get into your pass-rushing moves because the ball was already coming out. They were playing small ball.”

Defensive end Shea McClellin posted the lone sack, but that play came in a timely fashion considering it was Cincinnati’s final drive. Again, this isn’t something to be concerned with. Also, after one game, I’m not buying the theory that defensive end Julius Peppers has all of the sudden lost it. Trust me, he hasn’t.

Slow start on offense: Left tackle Jermon Bushrod said if there was anything he thought the Bears could’ve done better Sunday, it would have been getting out to a faster start.

The Bears converted on just 2 of 8 third downs in the first half, while generating 97 yards of offense, compared to Cincinnati’s 245. The 10 points Chicago scored in the first half came as a result of prime field position from a Charles Tillman interception and a 15-yard personal-foul penalty by Dre Kirkpatrick, which gave the Bears possession at the Bengals' 44.

“We could always start faster,” Bushrod said.

Missed tackles: Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker thought the defense performed well, but admitted the unit missed too many tackles while squandering opportunities to get off the field on third down -- issues that seem to go hand in hand.

In the first half, the Bengals converted on 71 percent of their third downs.

“It wasn’t like it was third-and-short. It was third-and-10, third-and-11,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “Those are defensive-heavy, winning-percentage downs. That’s stuff we have to correct. I missed a lot of tackles today.”

No running game: Matt Forte averaged 2.6 yards on 19 attempts, which is a little low. But it’s to be expected considering the caliber of competition the Bears faced Sunday against Cincinnati’s dynamic front seven.

What’s important is Forte was able to gain 8 yards on a crucial fourth-and-1 with the game on the line.

Locker Room Buzz: Chicago Bears

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
5:20
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CHICAGO -- Observed in the locker room after the Bears’ 24-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

No-huddle ineffective: The Bears tried to execute the no-huddle offense early against the Bengals, but “the [calls] just weren’t working,” according to tackle Jermon Bushrod. Running the no-huddle offense is supposed to speed up things, but in this case it slowed down things, he said.

Rookie has words with Atkins: Bears right guard Kyle Long walked off the field talking to Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, and in the locker room after the game the rookie seemed in awe of the feat he had just accomplished in his first NFL start. The Bears held the Bengals sackless.

“I told him my sleep cycle will probably be back to normal after playing him,” Long said. “It’s like trying to block a fire hydrant. The guy’s like bolted to the ground.”

Williams holds up in debut: Linebacker D.J. Williams missed the preseason due to a calf injury, but played the whole game without conditioning becoming an issue.

“It’s been a long time since I actually put a bunch of plays together,” said Williams, clad in all black, including a T-shirt with a screened image of Bruce Lee.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler’s drop-backs against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday likely won’t include the familiar sight of him patting the ball indecisively, as the pass rush comes barreling through the protection.

Instead, expect rhythmic, on-time throws from what might be shaping up to be a new Cutler in a new Bears offense under coach Marc Trestman.

“In the new offense and where we’re at right now, I think this is probably the most comfortable I’ve felt in a new offense, [despite] not having as many reps as somebody [who is in] Year 2 or 3 of the offense,” Cutler said. “We want to get rid of the ball quick. You don’t really want to give 97 [Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins] and those other guys a lot of time to work into their second moves because they get to the quarterback. They get to the quarterback a lot, and they show you a lot of different fronts, which makes it even more difficult trying to figure out who’s who. So we’ve got to be on it with our protection game, and on the outside, guys have got to get open quickly.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsFiery Bears QB Jay Cutler appeared to be a happy camper this summer. Will that hold during the regular season?
Although the Raiders took on the look of inferior competition when the Bears faced them on Aug. 23, Cutler’s performance provided a glimpse of what this new offense might blossom into at some point this season. Given that it was the third preseason game -- widely viewed as the most important -- it marked the first time the coaching staff actually game planned a defense, and pulled real plays from the playbook as opposed to keeping the scheme basic as a deterrent to revealing too much to future opponents.

Cutler responded by hitting 3 of 5 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown during Chicago’s first two drives, before finishing the game with 142 yards passing and a 93.8 rating in two quarters of action.

The staff expects a similar performance Sunday with more extensive game planning and the team going deeper into the playbook to utilize concepts that work best for Cutler.

“I think Jay, just as we saw in the third preseason game when we really amped it up and ran our offense, I thought he did a good job with getting the ball off is what we said at the time, and the timing with which he did that, and the way he ran the offense was impressive, and he’s done it ever since,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “So we feel good about entering this game.”

The staff and Cutler expect some mistakes, though.

“There’s gonna be bumps in the road. There’s gonna be some missed assignments; just want to minimize them as much as we can,” said Cutler, who Trestman has described all preseason as being “even-keeled.”

Throughout Cutler’s career in Chicago, “even-keeled” seems to have been the antithesis of the quarterback.

Even Trestman admits he “really won’t know” the truth about Cutler “until some adversity hits.” But the coach expects Cutler to not deviate very far from the quarterback he’s been.

“He’s a fiery guy and I think people know that,” Trestman said. “He’s a very competitive, tough man and tough player. So I expect some of that to come out as we move along. I think he’s been very even-keeled as far as his preparation, work ethic and determination to learn and get things done from his position standpoint.”

Trestman considers the fiery element of Cutler as something “universal in guys who are confident in their abilities, their skill set, both physical and emotional skill set. I think that’s pretty common.” That’s why Trestman won’t attempt to quell Cutler during those times when he does suffer the occasional blowup.

“His demeanor, because he is the quarterback, is critically important. I think there’s going to be moments like that, that’s just part of who he is and I’m not going to take that away from him,” Trestman said. “From my standpoint, I don’t think you’re going to see somebody firing back. I’m going to let him wear himself out, get it off his chest, tell him to go back and play the next play. At the end of the day, I know that when a player gets that way, that’s not really who he is. It’s an emotional game, and guys are going to lose it for a minute. The most important thing is to get back to move on to the next situation. That’s what I hope to do is to, just be there to help him get on to the next play, the next quarter, the next game, whatever it might be. That’s part of my job to help him do that.”

Cutler’s job, meanwhile, is to move the offense; put it in the best position to succeed by making smart, timely decisions and taking care of the football. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod recognizes the potential difficulty in that.

“He has a lot that he has to take on, mentally, to take Coach Trestman’s and Coach Kromer’s ideas and philosophies from the classroom to the playing field. Then, he has to take it to the [game] come Sunday,” Bushrod said. “He’s doing a great job picking it up, and I can see it every day with him making calls and putting us in the right position to do what we have to do.”

Trestman thinks this year “we’re going to find out where [Cutler] is” as a quarterback.

Cutler, meanwhile, seems to relish the challenge.

“I’m just kind of a piece of the puzzle. It takes those 10 other guys to do their jobs for me to do mine,” Cutler said. “That being said, at the quarterback position we do have a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of responsibility. I own up to that each and every day.”
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.

ESPN.com’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.

Atkins impressed with Bears' RG Long

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
12:30
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears knew at the end of last season the team desperately needed a massive overhaul on the offensive line. Mission accomplished. General manager Phil Emery tackled the issue of improving the line by investing significant resources in both free agency and the NFL draft en route to acquiring left tackle Jermon Bushrod, left guard Matt Slauson, right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills -- leaving veteran center Roberto Garza as the lone holdover from 2012.

[+] EnlargeGeno Atkins
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsCincinnati's Geno Atkins should prove to be a tough assignment for rookie Kyle Long in his first regular-season start.
This new-look group will be put to the test immediately in Week 1. The Cincinnati Bengals come to town Sunday with arguably one of the top defensive lines in the NFL, led by the game’s premiere three-technique defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who inked a lucrative five-year contract extension after he led all interior defensive linemen last season with 12.5 sacks to go along with a team-high 15 tackles for loss.

As a unit, the Bengals’ defensive line recorded 43 sacks last season and helped the defense rank sixth in fewest yards allowed.

This should present a terrific challenge up front for the Bears, especially for the Long/Mills rookie right side of the offensive line. Atkins told the Chicago media during a conference call on Wednesday that he was impressed by Long’s performance in the preseason after the first-round pick won the starting job outright. The Atkins-Long matchup is expected to be one of the most intriguing battles on Sunday.

“He’s big and he’s physical, very aggressive and a strong player,” Atkins said. “And by watching him, you can tell he likes to get after defensive linemen. He likes to get off, be aggressive and show his strength.”

Atkins also praised Bears tailback Matt Forte, who averaged 9.9 yards per carry on 15 rushing attempts behind the offensive line in the preseason. Forte is expected to be a focal point of the Bears’ offense in Week 1.

“He’s very, I want to say, shifty,” Atkins said. “He likes to cut back, so, I mean, he’s very explosive. If you give him a cutback lane, he will take it back and make you pay. To me, that makes him a dynamic player.
They’ve got tons of playmakers like Jay Cutler, Forte and Michael Bush. The offensive line is pretty stout. They’re a big group. And Brandon Marshall. They’re already loaded, so we just have to get after them.”
There were two notable injuries Monday morning at the Chicago Bears' training camp practice and both merit further discussion.

First, veteran defensive end Turk McBride was lost for the season after he ruptured his Achilles tendon. I'm not sure that McBride was going to make a team whose defensive end rotation is largely set with Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin, but he was an experienced player who could have stepped up if a member of that trio got injured.

Meanwhile, left tackle Jermon Bushrod strained his right calf and sat out the rest of practice. The injury isn't expected to sideline him long term, but it was serious enough to require a walking boot. Regardless, Bushrod's injury raised the now-relevant question of how the Bears will stack their reserve offensive linemen after reshuffling their starting lineup.

Former left tackle J'Marcus Webb is now working at right tackle, so when Bushrod was injured Monday, the Bears plugged in veteran Jonathan Scott. Leg muscle injuries can take longer to heal for big players, so Bushrod's situation is worth monitoring.
Sunday marked the first day in pads for the Chicago Bears, and by most accounts, rookie offensive lineman Kyle Long made an impression.

Long planted veteran defensive lineman Nate Collins in an early drill, and afterwards Collins made a point to note Long's strength. Several offensive linemen, including left tackle Jermon Bushrod noticed his work as well.

Remember, Long has some extra work to do this summer after NFL/NCAA rules prevented him from participating in most of the Bears' offseason workouts. He is technically competing with James Brown for the right guard job, but most of us expect him to assume that role as soon as he is anywhere close to being ready for it.

Based on reports from Sunday's practice, that time could be coming relatively soon.

Here is an on-site report on Long's day from Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC South team?

ATLANTA FALCONS

Offense: Reshuffled offensive line
Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons elected to go with youth and stick with guys already on their roster. Second-year pro Peter Konz should be fine at center after spending much of his rookie season at guard. But the right side is a question mark with Garrett Reynolds ticketed for guard and either Mike Johnson or Lamar Holmes at tackle. If the new starters don’t step up, this offensive line could have problems.

Defense: Pass rush
It seems reasonable to expect defensive end Osi Umenyiora to fill the shoes of John Abraham. But the Falcons need the pass rush to come from other areas, as well. Kroy Biermann likely will be used as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, and he has some pass-rushing skills. Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi also has some potential. But defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might need to get more creative and blitz his linebackers and defensive backs more often.

Wild card: Kids have to be ready
The Falcons used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. The Falcons need one of them to start right away, and the other likely will get a fair amount of playing time. Opponents are likely to test the rookies, so safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore might have to provide a lot of help early on.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Offense: Establishing an identity
The Panthers opened last season using a lot of read-option with quarterback Cam Newton. After a 2-8 start, they switched back to a more conventional running game and had much more success. I expect that trend to continue under new coordinator Mike Shula. Newton has the skills to be a very productive passer if this offense is executed the right way.

Defense: Secondary questions
Aside from free safety Charles Godfrey, no one has a clear-cut starting position in the defensive backfield. There are lots of candidates, such as Drayton Florence, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn, at cornerback. But some of those guys will have to elevate their games for the Panthers to have success in defending the pass.

Wild card: Missing links?
With defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, Carolina has the potential to have one of the league’s best front sevens. But that is largely contingent upon rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. If they live up to the hype right off the bat, this front seven could be special.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Offense: Left tackle an open competition
After letting Jermon Bushrod go in free agency, the Saints have a glaring hole at left tackle. Charles Brown and Jason Smith haven’t done much in their careers, and rookie Terron Armstead is also in the mix. The Saints are hoping one of those three can step up. If not, the Saints might have to scramble to find a left tackle elsewhere.

Defense: Unit a question mark
After finishing last in the league in overall defense last season, the Saints brought in coordinator Rob Ryan and switched to a 3-4 scheme. The changes are probably a good thing, mainly because things can’t get much worse than they were last season. But it remains to be seen whether Ryan has the type of personnel to make his defense work.

Wild card: Payton’s return
If nothing else, Sean Payton’s suspension last year illustrated the true value of a head coach. He’s back now, and that should be a major positive. Payton is great with X's and O's, but he also is an excellent motivator. I expect Payton and the Saints to use what happened last year as fuel for this season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Offense: Franchise quarterback?
It clearly is a make-or-break year for quarterback Josh Freeman as he heads into the last year of his contract. Freeman has done some very good things, but he has struggled to deliver the kind of consistency coach Greg Schiano wants. The Bucs have a strong running game with Doug Martin and two good receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. There will be no one else to blame but Freeman if this offense doesn’t prosper.

Defense: Pass rush
The Bucs let last year’s leading sacker, Michael Bennett, walk in free agency. It was a calculated gamble because the Bucs have a lot invested in Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers and believe they can be a strong duo at defensive end. They'd better be right. If they’re not, the revamped secondary might not be as good as it looks on paper.

Wild card: Leadership void
Aside from recently retired Ronde Barber, this team hasn’t had a lot of obvious leadership in recent years. Even Barber was more of a leader-by-example type than a vocal leader. The Bucs need some other players to step up. Newcomers such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson seem to be the most likely candidates to fill the leadership void.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the NFC North as summer break looms.

Chicago Bears: Offensive line. Jay Cutler has been sacked a whopping 148 times over the past four seasons. That won’t do. I commend the Bears for their efforts to improve their abysmal offensive line from 2012, but did they do enough? Honestly, I think they did, but I am having a tough time finding holes in Chicago’s roster right now so offensive line is still my choice for its biggest remaining question. One more wide receiver or defensive back would be great, but with all the changes in the front five, there could be growing pains in terms of continuity and finding exactly who should be the starter at each position. From left to right, the Bears most likely will be starting Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long and J'Marcus Webb. Only Garza and Webb were on the team in 2012, and Webb is moving from left to right tackle. Change was needed, but continuity is a key aspect of offensive-line play, and I don’t see a singular great player in this group. That could be an early problem for the Bears. The scheme will help though, as will former offensive-line coach Aaron Cromer as the offensive coordinator. This line will be better, but it does remain a question.

Detroit Lions: Offensive line. Quietly, the Lions’ offensive line did a fine job last season. But three of their starting five are gone, including both offensive tackles. My hunch is Detroit would have loved to select Lane Johnson to plug in at left tackle with the fifth pick overall in this latest draft, but three offensive tackles, including Johnson, went in the top four picks. As a result, Riley Reiff, who is best fit as a right tackle, will start on the left side and highly unproven Corey Hilliard or Jason Fox will man the right side, which is an obvious concern. I loved the drafting of Larry Warford, a mauling pure guard who should upgrade the right guard spot. He should solidify the interior of Detroit’s offensive line, especially in the run game, along with incumbent Dominic Raiola at center and the vastly underrated Rob Sims at left guard. But the tackles certainly worry me, especially considering the edge pass-rushers in the division, headlined by Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews and Jared Allen. Matthew Stafford is very tough and has been durable over the past two seasons, but the Lions certainly don’t want their franchise quarterback taking a lot of punishment, particularly considering how passing-oriented this offense has become.

Green Bay Packers: Offensive line. Seeing a trend developing in this division? The reality is, like the Bears, I don’t have a lot of major concerns with Green Bay’s roster at this point of the process. I understand moving Bryan Bulaga to left tackle, as he is the best candidate on the roster for that job. And moving Josh Sitton, Green Bay’s best offensive lineman, to left guard to keep that continuity intact between the two players while improving Aaron Rodgers’ blindside protection also makes sense. But I also feel like it was messing with a very good thing on the right side, which gives me mixed feelings on those changes. Marshall Newhouse is clearly better suited for the right side, but it wouldn’t shock me if he was unseated as the starter by David Bakhtiari, who I thought was a mid-round steal for Green Bay. T.J. Lang is solid, the loss of Jeff Saturday should be addition by subtraction and maybe Derek Sherrod is finally healthy and can contribute at tackle. I also liked the selection of J.C. Tretter, a small-school prospect who is tough and smart. Improved play at the running back position also should help this line immensely. Still, there are quite a few questions that need answering from this unit overall, and the Packers can’t afford for Rodgers to be sacked anywhere close to the 51 times he was in 2012.

Minnesota Vikings: Quarterback. I still have hope for Christian Ponder, but he was extremely up and down during his second season. Many ask me during my chats and radio hits, “What would be a successful season for Ponder?” My response is that he needs to play within himself -- allowing his impressive supporting cast to do what it does best -- and show composure and leadership late in games. He doesn’t have to become Dan Marino as a passer for this offense to be successful. In case you forgot, the Vikings do still have Adrian Peterson as the foundation of this offense. But in addition to Peterson, Minnesota has one of the better offensive lines in the NFL, and I expect that group to be further improved in 2013 with Matt Kalil developing into one of the league’s better left tackles in his second season. The line, fullback blocking and Peterson will allow Ponder to see many favorable matchups in the passing game. Gone is Percy Harvin, but the trio of Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph should be able to exploit single coverage with a varied skill set. Patterson is far from a refined wide receiver, but if the Vikings limit him to deep routes or quick hitters where he can use his amazing run-after-the-catch abilities, he can be very effective in his rookie season. Jennings is a true professional who understands the position well, and Rudolph’s ability in the red zone and in the middle of the field should provide Ponder with plenty of throws that won’t challenge his average passing skills. It also must be noted that Minnesota upgraded its backup quarterback spot by signing Matt Cassel. Cassel had a nightmare of a 2012 season, but before that, he showed the caretaker quarterback skills that Ponder needs to develop.

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