Though the Denver Broncos thrashed the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night in the Mile High City, most NFL fans will recognize Sunday as the true opening of the new season.
Thirteen games are on the docket for that day, including a battle of two teams with big aspirations as the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals do battle on the lakefront.
With the anticipation building to a fever pitch surrounding the contest, here are five keys for the Bears as they try to begin the season with a victory against a team that many (including the author) are picking to reach the Super Bowl this year:
Long, Mills not the only linemen to watch
Going into this game, a lot has been made of the fact that Jordan Mills and Kyle Long, both rookies, will be the starting duo on the right side of the Bears' offensive line.
Also, plenty of talk has gone into how Geno Atkins, a beast of a man who is one of the best defensive ends in the game, is going to prove to be an incredibly difficult person for the youngsters to stop.
All of that talk is well and good, but the fact of the matter is that in the NFL, chemistry on an offensive line is just as big a part of successfully protecting the quarterback and allowing the running game to be effective as the personnel that are involved in the process. For the Bears, this is a crucial distinction, because when the ball is kicked off Sunday, they will be starting four linemen who were not starting for the team last season. In addition to Mills and Long, Jermon Bushrod (left tackle) and Matt Slauson (left guard) will be joining the line to go along with mainstay Roberto Garza, who will play center in the game.
Whether or not these five men can gel, especially with Bushrod missing most of training camp and the preseason with an injury, is going to be something to keep an eye on against a potent pass rushing team like the Bengals, and will go a long way toward determining whether the Bears win or lose the game.
Will Trestman force Cutler to be inclusive?
At various points last season, it seemed as though Jay Cutler only had eyes for one receiver on the field: Brandon Marshall. Even if the All-Pro wideout was triple-covered, Cutler would still attempt to fire the ball in his direction, and while statistically the relationship worked out well, the fact is that it made it easy for teams to gameplan against the Bears.
As for Marc Trestman, he seems to be the type of coach who is going to want his QB to spread the ball around. With guys like Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffrey, and Martellus Bennett all expecting plenty of touches, Trestman is likely going to call a very diverse game with plenty of variations and audibles to keep the Bengals off-balance.
The question, then, is whether or not Cutler is going to adhere to that gameplan, or if he is simply going to slip back into throw-to-Marshall mode. The answer to this query may not be definitively known for several weeks (there will likely be a honeymoon period where Cutler plays nice), but the first test will be Sunday, and it will be interesting to see how quarterback and coach mesh when the game means something.
Paea must benefit from Bengals' attention to Peppers
The Bears may have gone through their fair share of injuries during the preseason, but they have no one listed on their injury report going into Week 1. As for the Bengals, they aren't so lucky.
That's because starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth missed both Wednesday and Thursday's
practices with a knee injury, and is unlikely to play in Sunday's game. That means that the Bengals will be entrusting QB Andy Dalton's blind side to Anthony Collins, and that could be considered good news for Bears defensive end Julius Peppers.
The only problem with that, of course, is that the Bengals are sure to employ various tactics to help Collins out in trying to stop Peppers. They will likely double team Peppers at various times, both with right guard Kevin Zeitler and with pass protection from running backs Benjarvus Green Ellis and Giovani Bernard. That means that Peppers is still going to be the focal point of the protection plan, and it also means that defensive tackle Stephen Paea has to be ready to step up in a big way.
Yes, it will be imperative for the Corey Wootton-Shea McLellin combination on the left side of the line to get good pressure coming from the other wing to try to flush Dalton out of the pocket, but with so much attention being paid on that right side to Peppers, Paea has to be able to win his one-on-one battles, both in run defense and in the pass rush.
Can the Bears' secondary stop Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham?
In what is becoming a bit of a trend in the NFL, the Bengals will employ offensive sets with two talented tight ends on the field at once, with first-round pick Eifert joining the veteran Gresham in Cincy's offense.
That could pose a bit of a problem for the Bears' secondary, which is relying not only on young safeties like Major Wright but also a new middle linebacking combination in DJ Williams and Jon Bostic.
During the preseason, the Bears' secondary struggled at times in defending the pass, with
quarterbacks like Terrell Pryor and others torching them for long completions. Even with cornerback Charles Tillman at peak physical shape, and with linebacker Lance Briggs calling the shots, the team is still going to need big performances out of the other five players in that unit in order to shut down the Bengals' short range passing attack.
And that, of course, isn't even figuring in how the Bears will likely have to call in safety help to stop WR AJ Green.....
Week 1 of the re-invention of Devin Hester
Finally, the Bears have listened to popular pressure from both fans of the team and the pundits that so zealously dissect every move they make, and they have moved Hester back to full-time returning duties, and taken him out of the offensive rotation.
Obviously, this was facilitated by the fact that the Bears have a glut of talented field-stretching receivers, including Marshall, Jeffrey, and Marquees Wilson, but Trestman recognized the thing that Lovie Smith and company seemingly never could: that Hester is not a guy that you want playing on either side of the ball, because he never could seem to grasp the concepts that came with either the cornerback or the receiver positions.
The thought process, then, is that Hester needs to become the field position-determining beast that he was in the early part of his Bears career, and he should get the chance to wreak some havoc on Sunday against the Bengals. It will be interesting to see whether or not Cincinnati elects to kick the ball to him, either on the kickoff (unlikely, since the touchback rate is probably going be through the roof once again in the NFL) or on punts (more likely, considering that teams kicked to Hester quite often in those situations last year with little repercussion).
If the Bengals do elect to put the ball in Hester's hands, he has to be able to make them pay, because if he doesn't, then he is simply dead weight against the salary cap, and on a team that's so hard against it, that is not acceptable at this point.