After two weeks of training camp, the Bears and Panthers will be putting on the pads and playing football for real Friday night in Charlotte (or as real as football gets in the first preseason game. The Bears finished 2012 with a 10-6 record but lost on the tiebreaker to the Minnesota Vikings for the final Wild Card spot in the playoffs.
The Panthers tripped over the starting in line last season on their way to a 1-6 start but charged to the finish line by winning five of six games to salvage a 7-9 record
While the starters on both sidelines will only play enough to earn a towel and all the Gatorade they can drink there are still things to watch for with these two developing teams.
1. The Trestmam offense receives its grand unveiling!
Maybe "grand unveiling" is overstating the impact a bit. What the Bears will show of their new offense against the Panthers will be the equivalent of a stripper taking off her coat and exiting the stage while blowing kisses to the audience.
Every first stringer on the initial depth chart will be on the field for the first series, except for left tackle Jermon Bushrod who the Bears are bringing back slowly from his strained calf injury, What happens after the first series will depend on how Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer felt about what they see.
There's one trend established with Trestman to this point. He likes positives. If Cutler is standing comfortably in the pocket with good protection while driving the team down for a quick score, the first string will all be watching the rest of the game from the sidelines.
If there are a rash of pre-snap penalties and Cutler looks a bit shaky with his decision making don't be surprised to see the first string offense play a second series to give them another chance to establish a working rhythm at game speed. It would also give the coaching staff some extra film to evaluate before they head back to practice next week.
2. The Panthers begin the transition at offensive coordinator from Rob Chudzinski to Mike Shula.
The advantage the Panthers see in promoting Shula is he's worked with Cam Newton the past two seasons as quarterbacks coach. He'll be charged with getting the Panthers' offense from it's 2012 ranking as No. 18 in the NFL in scoring back to it's 2011 level of fifth in the league.
Shula's begun his work with the offense by changing the way plays are called in the huddle, shortening the calls to get the the offense to the line of scrimmage quicker. While most of Shula's offense will be kept under wraps, as is normal in the first preseason game, the thing to watch is how well Newton and veteran backup Derek Anderson can implement quicker calls in their first game action of the year.
3. Bears rookie middle linebacker Jon Bostic will be the main play caller on defense.
Bostic has been practicing with the one's since veteran free agent D.J. Williams' knee injury has kept him sidelined. Lance Briggs has taken over the play calling duties on defense after Brian Urlacher's retirement but don't expect him to see more than one series on the field Friday.
Bostic called defensive plays when Briggs was given a day off from practice last week and should get extensive experience handling that duty Friday night.
Bears fans will also see plenty of 2013 draft picks Bostic and Khaseem Greene together on the field against the Panthers. Could that pairing be a preview of things to come?
4. Rookie right guard Kyle Long begins school against the Panthers' defensive front.
So far in training camp Long has shown good ability with run blocking but shakiness in pass protection. By the time Long gets in the game Cutler will be long gone so backup Josh McCown will get plenty of chances to live with the consequences of Long's learning curve.
The Panthers ranked ninth in the NFL with 39 sacks last season. Their defensive line working against the Bears rebuilt offensive line should be worth the price of admission by itself.
5. Special teams play.
To start with, players on the margins of a team's depth chart can make a roster with stellar special teams play. Second, anyone in kick and punt coverage for the Panthers can make the team's highlight reel with a takedown of Devin Hester.
For Bears fans, Devin Hester returns to full time duty as the Bears' return specialist. It's doubtful Hester will get more than two or three chances for returns in this game but the team has to begin evaluating whether he can recover his ability to be one of the most dangerous special teams weapons in the league now that he's no longer allowed on the field as a receiver.
With both the Bears and Panthers, take a good look at who gets credited for the tackles on special teams and you'll have a good indication of which players have put themselves on the inside track to lock down a roster spot when Week One rolls around.
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