Here is a close look at the Chicago Bears as they head into their season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Jay Cutler. Backup -- Josh McCown.
Cutler struggled early in preseason on timing with receivers within the new offense, but improved by preseason game No. 3. He appears ready to test the new, West Coast attack and make a bid for his new contract. McCown has been around since 2002 and started 33 games, so they have to be reasonable certain he can win a few games if pressed into action.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Matt Forte, FB Tony Fiammetta. Backups -- RB Michael Bush, RB Michael Ford.
Marc Trestman's starting backs have averaged more than 60 catches a season, so Forte can expect to get the ball through the air as well as in the running game. Bush shows toughness and a one-cut, downhill style, making him an ideal short-yardage back. Ford's versatile style may help, and he can play special teams. This offense will call on Fiammetta at fullback more than past years, although he lacks the receiving abilities desired in a West Coast fullback.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Martellus Bennett. Backups -- Steve Maneri, Dante Rosario.
Bennett gets deep and his pass-catching ability is obvious, although he has dropped a few. A late trade for Rosario, who has 99 catches in six seasons with four teams, could supply versatility. Maneri came to the team as a blocking tight end and in the third preseason game lived up to that billing by providing excellent seal blocks on some of Forte's runs. He should fit in well with the zone blocking scheme.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery. Backups -- Earl Bennett, Eric Weems, Marquess Wilson, Joe Anderson.
Marshall is ready to play his surgically repaired hip was examined by a specialist. He seemed fine in preseason except for a few drops. Jeffery's seven-catch effort in the third preseason game was impressive, but his durability remains a concern. Bennett says he's over the concussion symptoms and plans to play in the opener, mainly in the slot. Wilson and Anderson show explosiveness and potential, while Weems is a versatile veteran. Weems and Anderson are special teams-savvy.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- C Roberto Garza, LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Matt Slauson, RG Kyle Long, RT Jordan Mills. Backups -- G-T Eben Britton, C Taylor Boggs, T Jonathan Scott, G-T James Brown.
The biggest gamble on the team is the rookie right side with Long and Mills. They handled preseason but now step into a whole new world of blitzes, stunts and defenses exploiting their inexperience. Garza is the anchor and will have his hands full directing the youngsters. Slauson and Bushrod should adapt to a new zone blocking scheme and an emphasis on inside-out protection.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Julius Peppers, DT Henry Melton, DT Stephen Paea, DE Corey Wootton. Backups -- DE Shea McClellin, DT Nate Collins, DT Zach Minter, DE Cornelius Washington, DE David Bass.
Peppers remains one of the league's best and commands the double team. Melton appears over his concussion problems hopes to repeat last year's Pro Bowl season. Paea made strides last year in the pass rush after being mostly a benefit in the run game. Wootton had a breakthrough 2012 and appears to have taken even further, while McClellin's role will be the situational pass rusher.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- MLB D.J. Williams, WLB Lance Briggs, SLB James Anderson. Backups -- MLB Jonathan Bostic, WLB Khaseem Greene, SLB Blake Costanzo.
Williams may not start or play the first game due to his calf strain. So Bostic, one of two rookie linebackers on the team, gets the call. He isn't well-versed enough to stay on the field in the nickel and Anderson will join seven-time Pro Bowler Briggs in it. Briggs is explosive and made things difficult on the offense in training camp. Anderson has been better in pass coverage than expected and does well in the nickel with Williams still healing. All the linebackers should get more chances to blitz under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. The gamble was keeping only six linebackers because it includes two rookies and Costanzo, who essentially has value only as a special teams ace.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Tim Jennings, RCB Charles Tillman, SS Major Wright, FS Chris Conte. Backups -- LCB Zack Bowman, RCB Isaiah Frey, FS Craig Steltz, SS Anthony Walters, CB Sherrick McManis, CB C.J. Wilson.
Jennings maintains the high level he achieved for the first time last year, so no dropoff in production is expected from the 5-foot-8 Pro Bowler. Tillman's ability to strip the football has reached legendary status and he continued practicing it throughout camp and preseason. The safety combo last year had steadied what once was a team weakness. In preseason Conte started making plays on the ball consistently for the first time. The secondary was once the weakest spot on the defense, but no more. The question can Frey play the nickel in regular season like he did in preseason, where he did well playing for injured Kelvin Hayden. Bowman can also play the spot.
SPECIAL TEAMS: KR/PR Devin Hester, LS Patrick Mannelly, PK Robbie Gould, P Adam Podlesh.
Gould answered any questions in preseason over his leg strength after an off-season surgery. The fourth-most accurate kicker in NFL history (.765), he also is 13-of-17 from 50-plus yards. Podlesh is coming off a career year for getting punts downed inside the 20 (34). Mannelly is in his 16th season, but was consistent even after a knee surgery two years ago. Hester's spot is uncertain due to big price tag at the age of 30. He had a 45-yard kickoff return in preseason.