The Chicago Bears come into this 2012 campaign with high hopes and higher expectations.
Their offseason was considered one of their most productive in recent times, with the arrival of Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall and some highly-touted rookie draft picks.
Along with their typically solid defensive squad, the Chicago Bears look to be in it until the end in the offensive-minded NFC North.
Here's a look at some players who impressed in their 33-31 victory against the Washington Redskins and some that need to improve their play as the preseason goes on.
Jay Cutler did not dress for the first preseason game due to the birth of his son, so everyone was excited to see how the 29-year-old quarterback would look after missing the final five games of the 2011 regular season. He wasted little time in showing the fans he was back to normal and ready to go this season, connecting with Marshall on a 41-yard gain on the first offensive play from scrimmage for the Bears.
Cutler led the Bears seamlessly up the field, with catches by Devin Hester and impressive rookie wide receiver, Alshon Jeffery. New Chicago running back Michael Bush finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
The first-team offense looked very impressive. Cutler ended the game with 122 yards on 7-of-13 passing. Michael Bush took the majority of the carries as Matt Forte only took a few in order to save him for the regular season. Bush finished with two touchdowns and made it clear that he is as good as advertised rushing the ball in the red zone.
The most important aspect of the offense's performance was the play of the offensive line. Cutler was not sacked once against Washington's potent defensive line. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are two very good defensive ends, and J'Marcus Webb (left tackle) and Gabe Carimi (right tackle) held them in check.
Webb has been much maligned as of late. The seventh-round draft pick of two years ago has been very inconsistent in his young career, but it is vital that he plays well this season to protect Cutler's blind side.
Other notable action from the second and third-team offenses included rookie tight end Evan Rodriguez. The fourth-round draft pick made some nice grabs and also played some H-Back, a position similar to that of a fullback, but providing more of a pass-catching ability. Look for him to be another solid option for Cutler behind fellow tight ends Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth.
: Rookie wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has been very impressive to this point throughout this preseason. He caught all three balls thrown his way, including one in which the defender committed a defensive pass interference. He finished the night with 62 yards.
His large frame, 6-foot-3, 216 pounds, provides Cutler with another big target to go along with Marshall. Jeffery's ability to run after the catch was apparent on a 34-yard reception from backup quarterback Jason Campbell in the second quarter as well, providing the faithful of Soldier Field a glimpse of the extreme potential this rookie possesses.
If Jeffery can continue this progression and avoid injury, he looks to have an impressive rookie campaign here in Chicago.
Offensive lineman Anthony Spencer, a free agent acquired last offseason, has had a tumultuous tenure with the Bears to this point. He came in initially to fill the absence of long-time Bears' center Olin Kruetz, but lost out on the job to Roberto Garza.
Since then, he has played a lot of left guard, but in Saturday's game, he seemed lost on the field. Spencer committed a false start penalty and was seen getting beat on multiple plays. Look for free agent addition Chilo Rachal, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, to compete with Spencer for that left guard spot.
The defense had an intriguing task this past Saturday against Washington as they faced highly-touted rookie Robert Griffin III, better known as RG3. The second overall pick of the 2012 Draft showcases a unique set of skills, with a cannon of an arm and the legs and speed of a young Michael Vick.
No matter, the Bears were up to the task. They provided RG3 with a lot of pressure in the first half, and wound up getting to him three times, with one of the sacks leading to a fumble inside his own 20.
With Brian Urlacher missing time due to his left knee, it was very promising to see the play of Nick Roach. The Northwestern University alum was making plays out there, filling the holes where Washington's starting running back Alfred Morris was running, and more importantly, Roach was directing the defense.
Similar to Urlacher, Roach was seen changing the defensive scheme mid-play and seemed to be a vocal leader on the field. Newcomer Geno Hayes also played well on the strong side, where Roach would normally play with a healthy Urlacher on the field.
The play on the defensive line was one of the highlights of the night for the Bears. Highlighted by superstar defensive end Julius Peppers, the Bears admit that they need to provide him with more help on the line in order to get to the quarterback more.
Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin had his ups and downs in the first preseason game, and this game was no different. It's clear that the rookie will need some work at the defensive end position, but his speed and agility will certainly provide a new dynamic to the Bears' defensive front.
He lost containment on one play and allowed RG3 a window to scramble for 35 yards, but he also showed off an impressive swim move to shed off left tackle Trent Williams and almost recorded his second sack of the preseason. McClellin has work to do, but it seems as if he will be a solid contributor to this defense come time for the regular season.
One spot ahead of McClellin on the defensive end depth chart resides longtime Bear, Israel Idonije. He was converted from defensive tackle to defensive end two years ago, and although he did not have a poor season in 2011, there was a lot of room for improvement.
Idonije came out firing Saturday against Washington as he recorded 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble, which led to a Bears' touchdown. With Peppers getting double-teamed regularly, it is vital that they take advantage of that on the other end, which is where Idonije comes in. If he can keep this pace up, the defensive line will be a force to be reckoned with.
Another highlight of the night for the Bears was the play of newly acquired defensive tackle Nate Collins. Collins was seen blowing up the opposing offensive line frequently and provided the defense with constant penetration.
With fellow defensive tackle Stephen Paea out with an injured ankle, the competition is back open. Collins will be suspended for the first game this season for an off-field substance abuse penalty. Fellow defensive tackle Matt Toeiana also looked very impressive, and looks to be a favorite for a starting job come Week 1 against the Indianapolis Colts.
There weren't any obvious poor performances overall on the defensive side, but the Bears did suffer two difficult injuries in their safety corps. Chris Conte injured his shoulder late in the second quarter, and rookie safety Brandon Hardin was carted off the field after injuring his neck on a play early in the third quarter.
The Bears have lacked a consistent safety combination since Lovie Smith has been head coach, and these two injuries surely will not help that issue. Look for Craig Steltz and Anthony Walters to see playing time with the starting defense, alongside incumbent safety Major Wright.
Usually a strong suit for the Bears, the special teams unit was the weakest of the three core units for the Bears. Washington was able to get good returns on most kickoffs, and Brandon Banks took back a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown right before halftime. This is something special teams coach Dave Toub will certainly work on in the weeks to come, but there were also some highlights from this squad.
Lorenzo Booker ran back a 105-yard kickoff return to start the second half. It was a very impressive run with Booker juking half of the coverage and outrunning the rest. In typical fashion, place kicker Robbie Gould reminded Bears' fans how important he can be to the success of this team.
Gould was 4-for-4 on field goals, including a 57-yard field goal with under a minute left in the game to seal the 33-31 victory for the Bears.
The Bears certainly have room for improvement in all three phases of their team, but they showed on Saturday what they are capable of. Their next matchup is this Friday in New York against the defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants. This will be a great test for them to see where they are, and it will be intriguing to see how they stack up against the defending champs.