Beyond The Stars
Bears have to balance passing game
Marc Trestman's offense cannot function properly unless the ball is spread around in the passing game. Therefore second-year wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is more vital to the Bears' success in 2013 than teammates Jon Bostic, Shea McClellin, Jordan Mills or Martellus Bennett.
That's not to say Marshall isn't a great player. A four-time Pro Bowl selection with 612 catches for 7,755 yards and 45 touchdowns in just seven seasons, Marshall needs to touch the football early and often. You don't forget about the guy who rewrote the Bears' record book last season with 118 receptions for 1,508 yards. But when Marshall is simply not open or when defenses successfully remove him from the play, Cutler needs another wide receiver to step up and make plays.
That is where Jeffery enters the picture.
Jeffery arrived in the NFL with an abundance of talent. But he struggled to stay healthy, missing six games his rookie year (24 catches, 367 yards, 3 TDs) with knee and hand injuries. However, Jeffery managed to stay off the trainer's table and on the field this preseason, and the Bears were a much better offense for it.
When Marshall had a rare bad performance in the third preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, the 6-foot-3 Jeffery rose to the occasion, catching a team-high seven passes for 77 yards on eight targets.
Jeffery's importance to the club was further highlighted when Marshall expressed frustration about the status of his surgically repaired hip in the days leading to the preseason finale. If Marshall were to ever go down due to injury, Jeffery would be the player responsible for keeping the passing game afloat from a wide receiver standpoint. Who else could do it? Earl Bennett is sure-handed but is still fighting his way back from a concussion. Joe Anderson is talented but raw. Eric Weems is an ace special-teams contributor. And Marquess Wilson is a rookie seventh-round pick.
Add it all up and Jeffery is one of the key members of the 2013 Bears not named Cutler, Marshall, Forte, Peppers, Briggs and Tillman.
Jeff Dickerson covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com
Mills needs to play like a veteran
Like most of you, I never heard of rookie right tackle Jordan Mills until he started playing with the first-team offense.
Where did Mills go to college? What round was he drafted in? Do you know anything about him?
(Give up? Louisiana Tech, the fifth round, and he's an accomplished harpsichord player. One of those tidbits is made up.)
I talked to Mills for a few minutes after the fourth preseason game. Mostly because I had no one else to talk to in a crowded locker room and he looked friendly.
Because while his rookie linemate, right guard Kyle Long, has received the commensurate attention of a first-round pick, the previously unknown Mills might be more important, especially because Jonathan Scott was cut Tuesday.
The Bears have fixed their problem at offensive coordinator (Marc Trestman and Aaron Kromer) and should have a much better group of pass-catchers to complement Cutler (Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte).
But the Bears need Mills to play like a veteran on the right side of the offensive line. Jermon Bushrod is a big upgrade over Webb at left tackle, but any good defensive coordinator is going to attack Mills and Long, specifically Mills out there on the edge.
Trestman can call the right plays and Cutler can make the right passes, but neither will work without the offensive line holding up. The Bears can't chip and bring in extra tight ends every play. That's how you neuter an offense.
The good news is Mills hasn't looked like a disaster in the preseason. Kromer is a renowned line coach, but Bushrod told me it takes years to get comfortable in his system.
If by years he means this week against Cincinnati, then it's all good. If he means actual years, the Bears are in trouble.
But really, it's just semantics. What is comfortable? The Bears need Mills to survive for Cutler to survive.
Yes, no one knew his name a month ago, but come Sunday, the spotlight will be on Jordan Mills, the fifth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech.
The best he can hope for is that no one says his name all day and he blends into the background of the offense. Just as it should be.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com