Bengals, Bears will be tested from start

Published 4:10 pm Sunday, September 8, 2013

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — Jay Cutler, get ready for Geno Atkins. Andy Dalton, brace for Julius Peppers.

The Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals figure to be tested right from the start when they meet in the season opener at Soldier Field.

Both teams boast defenses that ranked among the best a year ago, and for those wondering how the Bears’ offense stacks up under new coach Marc Trestman, this figures to be a good barometer.

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“I think we have a high ceiling,” tight end Martellus Bennett said. “But there are a lot of places with high ceilings. Right now we’re just an offense trying to figure out what we’re going to be. So this will be our first chance to go against somebody else who really counts and really matters. I don’t think we have our identity yet. I think we’re going to figure out our identity during this journey. So we’ll figure out if we’re a run-first team, a pass-first team. We have no clue.”

For now, the Bears are something of an unknown, particularly on offense.

They brought in Trestman to replace the fired Lovie Smith with the idea that he could inject some pizazz into a stagnant offense and get Cutler to reach his potential. How that will play out is a big question mark.

Trestman is a head coach for the first time in the league after leading the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes the past five seasons following a long run as an NFL and college assistant.

He has a history of success with quarterbacks from Bernie Kosar to Steve Young to Rich Gannon. Now, he’s trying to do what past offensive Bears coordinators Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice could not — get the most out of Chicago’s talented QB.

To that end, Chicago also brought in four new starters on the offensive line and added Bennett at tight end, beefing up the protection for Cutler and giving him another weapon to go with star receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte.

The Bears did that after winning 10 games but missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.

For all those moves on offense, not much has changed on defense. Sure, Brian Urlacher is gone, but the rest of the core from a group that has consistently ranked among the best remains intact. Not much has changed scheme-wise, either.

Dalton could have his hands full as the Bengals try to kick off a promising season on a winning note.

Here are five things to watch for as the Bears and Bengals open the season.

STARTING STRONG: The Bengals got blown out at Baltimore in last year’s opener on the way to a 10-win season and playoff loss to Houston. That’s something they’re trying to avoid this time. They’re coming off back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1981-82 and are a popular pick to win the AFC North, if not the conference championship.

“I don’t want them to worry about any expectations positively or negatively,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “They really don’t matter. What matters is what you earn out there each and every week.”

COACH, QB DYNAMIC: That’s the biggest issue facing the Bears as they head into this game. The Cutler-Trestman relationship has already been dissected like a frog in high school biology lab, and the season is just starting. Now, we’ll find out how this will work. The Bears are going with the West Coast offense, which should get the ball out of Cutler’s hands and, presumably, help reduce the pounding on him. Of course, there’s also that issue of his expiring contract, which just adds some more intrigue to this story.

NEW LOOK IN TRENCHES: The Bears made sweeping changes to an offensive line that ranked among the league’s worst. They brought in veteran tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Matt Slauson on the left side and are going with a pair of rookies on the right side in first-round pick Kyle Long at guard and fifth-rounder Jordan Mills at tackle. It’ll be worth watching the rookies in this one, particularly since they’re going against a team that set a franchise record with 51 sacks last season. The only returning starter is center Roberto Garza.

ALL OPTIONS AVAILABLE: Dalton will have his full complement of receivers available for the first time. Pro Bowler A.J. Green bruised his left knee in the first training camp workout and missed the first two preseason games. He was limited to three catches in the preseason. Tight end Tyler Eifert, the first-round pick out of Notre Dame, was limited by a wrist injury. He’s expected to play in two-tight end formations to take some of the coverage away from Green.

OLD FACES, NEW FACES: One area of concern for the Bears is age on defense, even though Urlacher is gone. Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are in their 30s, although they’ve shown no signs of slowing down. The Bears will also have two new starting linebackers, with Urlacher and Nick Roach no longer on the team.