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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Mark Potash

Bears’ unproven depth in the spotlight vs. Colts

Bears back-up quarterback PJ Walker (15) completed 4-of-8 passes for 19 yards and an interception for a 16.7 passer rating against the Titans last week. (Charles Rex Arbogast, AP Photos)

INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL preseason schedule has been dying a slow death in the last decade and Bears coach Matt Eberflus pushed it a little closer to flat-lining with a hearty endorsement of joint practices as the best — and safest — way to prepare for the regular season. 

“It’s invaluable,” he said about watching film of the two joint practices with the Colts this week. “Shane [Steichen, the Colts’ head coach] and I were talking about it the other day — it’s really like playing two preseason games. It really is. With your guys. In a safe environment. 

“You think about that — two extra preseason games. If they let me do it again, I’d do it again next week. I really like it. It’s very valuable to the coaches and the scouts in terms of evaluation.” 

That’s the way the league is headed. In 2014, when Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett and Alshon Jeffery and an offensive line that had started all 16 games together the previous season were in their second year under Marc Trestman, the starters played more snaps on one preseason game (26 or more) than this year’s starters might play all preseason.

Cutler played in three preseason games and 61 snaps. Marshall (57), Jeffery (55), Bennett (53) and Forte (42) also played more than token snaps. And four-fifths of that offensive line played 53 snaps or more together — Jermon Bushrod (71), Matt Slauson (71), Roberto Garza (71) and Kyle Long (53). That’s nine starters from an offense that finished second in the NFL in scoring the previous season. 

Fast forward to this week and you can see how much things have changed. The second-to-last — or the third — preseason game used to be the “dress rehearsal,” when the starters would play into the second half in preparation for the regular-season opener.

Now, as Eberflus’ enthusiasm indicated, the joint practices against the Colts likely were the dress rehearsal. Quarterback Justin Fields and “select starters” will not play against the Colts on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s unlikely any starter will get more than token snaps. 

And Eberflus wasn’t making any promises for next week’s preseason finale against the Bills. Last year, Fields and the starters played through most of the first half — 30 snaps. But Eberflus said he would wait until after practices next week to determine if Fields and the starters will play. 

It’s not because the Bears don’t need the work. On the contrary, while Eberflus said he felt Fields was “on pace” for the regular season, he also indicated all three phases of his team need work with the all-important “attention to detail.”

But the focus is on offense, where Fields & Co. arguably have the most room for improvement, but also the highest ceiling.

“Yeah. A to Z. I just think it’s really everybody,” he said. “It needs to be tighter. It needs to be more efficient. The detail needs to be there. Precision and detail matters. Because then you know what to do, how to do it and you can play with speed. That’s how you win a down. That’s how you win football games. Until we get that, we’re not in the spot we need to be.” 

Be that as it may, the Bears’ back-ups likely will be the focus against the Colts. On a team with virtually no established depth, that’s not inconsequential: 

PJ Walker

Relative to his role, Walker might need the work even more than Fields. The Bears signed Walker to a two-year, $4.15 million contract ($2 million guaranteed) to be Fields’ back-up, but Walker has been unimpressive throughout camp would be in a battle with Nathan Peterman and Tyson Bagent and in an open competition. 

Against the Titans last week, Walker completed 4-of-8 passes for 19 yards and an interception for a 16.7 passer rating. 

A back-up quarterback has started at least one game for the Bears in every season since 2009. 

Tyson Bagent

The unheralded, undrafted rookie from Division II Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W. Va. has not looked out of place in an NFL camp. In fact, he’s arguably shown the greatest grasp of Luke Getsy’s offense among the back-up quarterbacks. He’s still a long-shot, but has earned the better look. 

The offensive line

The Bears entered camp with a set lineup — and a promising one. But with injuries to right guard Nate Davis, left guard Teven Jenkins, veteran back-up center/guard Lucas Patrick and now center Cody Whitehair on Thursday, the line hasn’t played together very much in camp and it could get messy in a hurry if the line can’t shake the injury bug.

Alex Leatherwood (who replaced Jenkins), Ja’Tyre Carter (who replaced Davis) and now Doug Kramer (who replaced Whitehair, with Patrick still out) could be key depth pieces. 

The rookies

It remains to be seen how careful Eberflus will be with his starters or potential starters, but he likes to give his rookies experience. Cornerback Tyrique Stevenson got an extended look last week against the Titans. 

Cornerback Terell Smith, competing with Stevenson for a starting job, returned to practice this week after missing the Titans game with an injury. Defensive tackles Gervon Dexter, Zacch Pickens and Travis Bell and linebacker Noah Sewell also bear watching. 

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