The backdrop for Sunday's tuneup for the regular season at Denver is going to be all things Cutler.
Cutler and Josh McDaniels. Cutler and Pat Bowlen. Cutler and his former teammates. Cutler and the Broncos fans. And you have to figure NBC will sprinkle in a liberal dose of Brandon Marshall and how-not-to-behave. But beyond these juicy storylines there are plenty of football items that need to be followed. Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo already have a good idea, a very good idea how the 53-man roster is going to shake out. But this is the game where players can confirm their appearance on that list or confirm that they will be elsewhere in 2009. Let's jump in with a look at six areas worth paying close attention to during the game. Go ahead and weigh in with your list as well.
1. Pass rush. Smith went out of his way to praise the pass rush last week against the New York Giants who were missing a handful of players, notably both starting guards. Denver has one of the best young offensive lines in the game, led by bookend tackles Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris. Cutler was sacked only 11 times in Denver last season and that wasn't just a product of his athletic ability and pocket presence. He had an emerging line in front of him. Let's see how the Bears get after ex-Bear Kyle Orton in the first half.
2. Corner play. The plan is for Charles Tillman to come off of the physically unable to perform list by Friday, and Zack Bowman has been doing some stuff at practice for about a week now. They're projected to be the starters when the season opens Sept. 13 at Green Bay. Given their injury history, it's fair to believe the Bears are going to need more help at some point during the season. Nathan Vasher played better last time out against the Giants, and Trumaine McBride has managed to make himself a part of the equation. The defense needs one of these guys to be a reasonable option because they will likely be called on at some point during the season.
3. Receiver toss up. My guess, this is just a hunch, two receivers make it out of the trio of Devin Aromashodu, Rashied Davis and Brandon Rideau. These guys are going to need to maximize their opportunities, particularly the ones they get with the first team. You can put together a well founded case for Davis being one of the two based on his abilities on special teams. Cutler seems to prefer the bigger options. Ultimately, the play on the field is the biggest factor and Rideau helped himself with some work on special teams last week.
4. Adrian Peterson vs. Michael Gaines. The venerable running back Peterson has had his back against the wall most of the summer. It's clear he is the fourth option now as a running back with Garrett Wolfe ahead of him. He's a contributor on special teams and a roster spot could come down to Peterson vs. Gaines. How the Bears decide which is more needed, a fourth running back or a fourth tight end? Kellen Davis seems to have stepped forward and made progress from an unfulfilling rookie season. If he's made enough strides, does that minimize the need for a player like Gaines? Watch for how they are both utilized.
5. Hesterized. Devin Hester will get some action as a punt returner for the first time in preseason. I'm not sure you knock the rust off something like that in one outing, and it does make sense to limit him in preseason. I just wonder how the punt return team collectively, as an 11-man unit, breaks out of what was a season-long slump last year. Hester is the start of it and he needs to be more decisive when he catches the ball.
6. Commando, and I'm not talking about the California governor. They call linebacker Darrell McClover "commando" and he's back on the scene for a role on special teams. Coordinator Dave Toub is usually given a roster spot to get one guy who serves as a core, four-phase contributor for him. You'd have to think that is what McClover was re-signed to do. Whether he fills the role remains to be seen, but he'll make it more interesting at the bottom of the depth chart at linebacker. Jamar Williams has an undisclosed foot/ankle injury. Hunter Hillenmeyer has been in a battle most of camp and played well at Buffalo. Undrafted rookie free agent Kevin Malast has done some positive things. Rookie fifth-round pick Marcus Freeman probably will not make the team. Does McClover pose a danger for Hillenmeyer, who is probably an average special teams contributor?