Despite a preseason that had him running for his life or ducking for cover far too often, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler can't wait for the regular season to begin.
That might seem odd, considering the Bears scored just 17 points in the five quarters that Cutler had played going into the final preseason game, during which he was sacked 10 times, threw two interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 62.4.
Questions about the reworked offensive line's ability to protect Cutler have not been answered to anyone's satisfaction, although the quarterback and offensive coordinator Mike Martz both insist there has been improvement. The other huge question was how quickly the offense would fully grasp Martz's thick playbook. Cutler, whose football intelligence is almost as impressive as his rocket arm, appears to have it down pat. But unless all his receivers and blockers are on the same learning curve, there could be problems.
But Cutler says he's ready to play for keeps in Martz's scheme, starting with the season opener against the Lions on Sept. 12.
"I'm good," he said. "I met with Mike a lot since the preseason started, just talking through game plans. We're going to do more and more of that once the season starts getting a little bit closer, just talking Detroit. And from week to week, I'm sure we'll have a lot of film sessions and going over the game plan. But I feel good about the system. I understand it, and I know what we're trying to get accomplished out there. So I'm ready for the real games to start."
Really? After getting blanked by the Cardinals on five possessions, plus a kneel-down at the end of the half?
"It's preseason," Cutler said. "We're [running some] plays just to run plays and getting game-ready and season-ready. We're not calling exactly what we want to call against exactly the right defense we want to get. We're not checking anything (changing plays). We're not making a ton of adjustments on the fly, either.
"Is there reason for concern? I mean, maybe. Maybe not. I'm not concerned. I don't think anybody in that locker room is really concerned where we're at. I think we're happy with where we are. There's room to improve, absolutely, but I think we'll be ready Week 1."
No one who's seen Martz's offense hitting on all cylinders doubts that it can run like a race car. Opening up the playbook requires better protection up front, but Cutler's ready to hit the gas pedal.
"We're going to open it up," he said. "Those guys will be expected to make it happen over there. They played a lot better this past game going back and looking at the film. I was a little edgy in the pocket moving around sometimes. I could have helped them out a little bit. That's what we're learning.
"With [guard] Lance [Louis] in there and with [tackle] Chris [Williams] on the left side, they're kind of still jelling together. Some of the calls are a little bit new to them as well with what we're doing protection-wise. So it's all coming together, and I think once we get closer to Detroit, we'll be OK."
Martz expected to see a better performance than he did last Saturday, but he'd rather deal with problems early and get them corrected before the regular season.
"There's so much information on them, they're so wound up and so tight, they wanted to play well so badly," he said. "We made some mistakes that I was a little bit surprised by, but fortunately you get that done now instead of the opener and get that out of your system. We've had a real good clean-up week of practice on those things. I think that there's a cohesion now, particularly in the passing game."
Martz and Cutler both said the offensive line showed improvement in the third preseason game and looked better in film review than in the heat of the battle.
"Chris did a nice job," Martz said. "Lance was a standout. I wish I could show you tape of Lance on [tackle] [Darnell] Dockett. He did a terrific job. Each week, our group grows together and gets better and better. I'm very pleased with the progress, particularly in the protections with that group."
G Lance Louis
Defensively, the Bears have fewer concerns, although a spate of minor injuries at linebacker and safety throughout training camp and the preseason sometimes made progress fitful.
Safety will remain a concern until two players can be found who are sure tacklers and can make plays on the ball. The Bears seem to have a roster full of players who can do one or the other but not both. Rookie Major Wright was homing in on a starting job until finger surgery knocked him out of the final three preseason games, but he could still wind up starting early in the season.
Free agent Julius Peppers has made the D-line more dangerous and the pass rush more effective, which the Bears hope will mask shortcomings in the secondary.
NOTES AND QUOTES
In the third preseason game against the Cardinals, cornerback D.J. Moore was at nickel back with the first team, which is where he belongs – at least in his own mind.
Last year, as a fourth-round pick out of Vanderbilt, Moore was barely on the radar – or the field. He played very briefly in three games, and he was far from a lock to even make the final roster when training camp began a month ago.
"He's a guy that was on the outside looking in early on," coach Lovie Smith said. "He's done enough that we started him. I like some of the things he's done. He has good hands, good quickness, and he has played the run fairly well. I like some of the things Corey Graham has done at the nickel position, too. They'll keep battling to see who's the guy."
Either way, Moore is a lot happier being involved than he was last year as a spectator.
"I enjoy it a lot more," he said. "Last year, it was hard. I guess I got my redshirt year out of the way. I enjoy just being out there trying to help the team.
"Last year, it was just me and my attitude. I was good enough to play, but I just didn't play. It was real tough. You know you can do it. You're thinking, Yeah, I should be out there. This year, I'm just positive. Put me on the field, and I'll do anything." ...
Backup quarterback Todd Collins, who was signed Aug. 23, didn't get on the field for the Bears until the final preseason game, but he is in the running for the backup job behind Cutler.
"I had a big layoff here over the spring and obviously didn't go to training camp," Collins said.
Caleb Hanie's hold on the No. 2 job is tentative because he hasn't played since suffering a sprained shoulder in the preseason opener. He's back at practice on a limited basis and hopes to be ready for the start of the regular season, but that's iffy.
With 16 years in the league, including several in offenses similar to Martz's, Collins might be forced into the top backup spot if Hanie isn't ready to roll.
"We're trying to catch him up," Smith said of Collins. ...
It's inevitable that the NFL will soon convert to an 18-game regular season and eliminate two preseason games, but it's not necessarily what the players want.
"I say, 'If it's not broken, don't try to fix it,'" nose tackle Anthony Adams said. "I like the way it is now. It's been that way since '78. I like 16. It gives us a chance to get our legs up under us. I guess I don't like change. I like my pads a certain way. I like my chin strap a certain way." ...
Running back Chester Taylor has backed up Jamal Lewis with the Ravens and Adrian Peterson with the Vikings, so his role behind Matt Forte isn't foreign.
"I know how to work with another back," he said. "You have to have depth in the backfield because it's going to be a long season."
Taylor had just eight carries for 11 yards in the first two preseason games. But he picked up 34 yards on his first carry Saturday night with a nifty cutback move at the line of scrimmage and a couple jukes in the open field.
In his only season as a full-time starter, Taylor rushed for 1,216 yards and caught 42 passes in 2006 with the Vikings. ...
Throw out Forte's 89-yard run in the second preseason game and Taylor's 34-yard jaunt the following week, and Bears running backs are averaging 2.1 yards per carry through the first three preseason games.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"He's a scholarship player that we're going to keep around here for a while." – Coach Lovie Smith on DE Julius Peppers
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