NFL camp preview: Bears begin new era, bank on Cutler

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange


BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- For the first time this century, the Chicago Bears training camp won't include middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, but that's just one of many notable changes as the team reports to Olivet Nazarene University Thursday and holds the first full-squad practice Friday.
The Bears fired coach Lovie Smith in January, ending a tenure that produced more than nine wins per season and a Super Bowl appearance, and gave cerebral offensive-minded Marc Trestman his first NFL head-coaching job.
Trestman played and coached the quarterback position, and is tasked with advancing quarterback Jay Cutler from a physical talent to consistent winner. Cutler, 30, is in a contract year playing in his fourth offensive system in five years.
"It's very different," linebacker Lance Briggs said of taking the field without Urlacher, who retired to leave the reins of the Bears' revamped defense to the 32-year-old Briggs. "I didn't call the plays before, and now I'm calling the plays. I just have a lot of respect (for Urlacher); I've been spoiled for the last 10 years."
Uncertainty is prevalent on the defensive side of the ball beyond mainstays Briggs, a seven-time Pro Bowl weak-side linebacker as Urlacher's wingman, cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive end Julius Peppers.
Two veteran linebackers, D.J. Williams and James Anderson, are the presumed starters, but Williams played only seven games with Denver last season and rookie second-round pick Jonathan Bostic was drafted to be Urlacher's heir in the middle. Durability has been a struggle for Anderson, who averaged more than 100 tackles with the Panthers, but had a tendency to slow down by November.
First-year defensive coordinator Mel Tucker changed almost nothing about the defense, maintaining the same terminology and position assignments that Briggs and other veterans view as second nature.
But it's all about Cutler and the passing attack at camp, much like it always seems to be for the Bears. The chief aim of Trestman in his first season is to get Cutler throwing in a timing attack off three- and five-step drops to multiple targets, rather than holding the ball and waiting for Brandon Marshall to break free on the horizon.
This offensive concept is not completely foreign to Cutler, who started in a West Coast attack with Denver and had one disastrous Bears season under Ron Turner in a similar style offense. Cutler said in minicamp it takes three years to learn an offense, and in offseason work it has looked like it will take every minute of those three years.
The team's camp practice regimen has changed under Trestman, with more time on the field each morning (three hours). That could sharpen Cutler's timing with receivers. He'll need as many reps as possible, so more time in preseason games is not out of the question, either.
"The quarterback is going to have the keys to the car," Trestman said. "He's in the best situation before the snap of the ball to get us in the best play.
"Jay is not a first-year player coming in. He's an experienced NFL quarterback, and a very intelligent one."
Beyond Cutler and his receivers, the offensive line has to show evidence of improvement under new coordinator and line boss Aaron Kromer. Identifying five starters quickly and keeping them together to establish a cohesive force is top priority.
That's not as easy as finding the best five, with at least three new starters projected: left tackle Jermon Bushrod and guards Matt Slauson and Kyle Long. Cutler has been sacked more times per game (2.82) than any quarterback over three seasons. It's not just pass protection the Bears need to improve.
Their run blocking has been abysmal, especially in short yardage and on first down. Poor blocking last year led to 4.65 yards per first-down play, 31st in the league. That only set up Cutler for third-and-long disasters. The only lineman still at his 2013 starting position is center Roberto Garza.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.