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The 2009 NFL schedule was released April 14, 12 days after the Bears completed their trade with the Denver Broncos to acquire quarterback Jay Cutler, a move that sparked tremendous expectations for the team.

The season opener at Green Bay followed by the home opener this afternoon with the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers looked like a formidable start for all those not sipping the Kool Aid. Now, after a rough loss at Lambeau Field that has the Bears making four changes in the starting lineup on defense, two necessitated by injuries, the Bears know how important it is to avoid an 0-2 start. A loss to the Steelers could put the Bears two behind the Packers and fellow NFC North foe Minnesota. Green Bay hosts Cincinnati (0-1) and the Vikings, which also won their opener, are at Detroit (0-1) where the Lions will try to avoid their 19th straight defeat.

The statistics are daunting as well. Three of the 10 teams that started 0-2 last season--Miami, Minnesota and San Diego--reached the playoffs. But that kind of success is rare. Since 2000, nine of the 78 teams that started 0-2 reached the postseason (11.5 percent). Since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, 30 teams that have started 0-2 made the playoffs, including three Super Bowl winners (1993 Dallas, 2001 New England and 2007 New York Giants). That's one a year. Finally, the Bears, the cornerstone franchise of the league, have never made the playoffs after an 0-2 start. Add in the fact that next week's game is at Seattle where the Bears are 1-4 all-time with their last win coming in 1976, the first year of existence for the expansion Seahawks, and this game takes on an added significance if you believe in looking ahead.

Enough with the numbers. Let's get to it. What are keys for the Bears to be successful?

1. The Steelers have been getting some heat for some time. Why don't they run the football more? What happened to the fullback? The fact is, Bruce Arians runs a passing offense that suits his personnel. But after failing to generate any kind of ground game in the opener, the Steelers are going to try to establish success early vs. the Bears. They flat ran over them the last time the teams played in 2005. That was a different offensive line with a different back running behind it in Jerome Bettis. This line outweighs the Bears' front by an average of 47 pounds. The Bears have to stop the run because if Pittsburgh is two-dimensional, Ben Roethlisberger will be very difficult to stop.

2. Be like Hunter. It will be interesting to see if there are subtle differences in the scheme with Hunter Hillenmeyer replacing Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker. He knows he can't try to be like Brian. He's not that player. I detailed here for the National Football Post how the change could affect the Bears when it comes to the blitz. The good news for the Bears is Hillenmeyer is probably a better middle linebacker than he is a strong-side linebacker, the position he started at for most of four seasons. The blitz will be key because the Steelers use a spread attack that forces the linemen to play in space. There will be opportunities to pressure Roethlisberger.

3. Safety dance. Lovie Smith was itching to get Danieal Manning in at free safety before training camp started. A pulled hamstring delayed that move. Now, Manning is in position. It's the 18th change in starting free safeties since Smith came on board in 2004. There have been 15 changes at strong safety. Hey, the Bears finally found a position to switch more often than starting quarterback. There is a chart of all the turnover during Smith's era here. Manning needs to curtail some of the glaring assignment errors that have marked his time at the position in the past. The wide open touchdown by Andre Johnson in the season finale last year at Houston comes to mind. The issue here is the team didn't use him at safety once during the offseason. He missed significant time in training camp with a pulled hamstring and he'll be going off classroom instruction more than anything else.

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The question has come in multiple e-mails, via Twitter, text message and personal e-mails.

Why can't Brian Urlacher heal up a little after surgery this morning, get a cast put on his right wrist and return to action in a month or so? It's a good question, and a fair question.

Cornerback Nathan Vasher and linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer both underwent wrist surgeries last season and returned to action. Vasher took a little longer than anyone expected, but still 1 1/2 months would be far better than losing the middle linebacker for the season. Heck, having him return for the second half of the season would be a huge boost. But it's not possible after he was placed on season-ending injured reserve to make room for Tim Shaw, who agreed to terms on a one-year contract and will sign the deal Tuesday pending a physical.

The reason Urlacher was placed on IR is because of the bone he injured. He dislocated the lunate bone, according to the Bears, and that is the bone that is at the center of the wrist, at the middle of the eight bones. It holds the wrist together, and the risk in not treating the injury immediately, or coming back before the injury is completely healed is significant. It could lead to permanent nerve damage and that could affect Urlacher's hand long term.


GREEN BAY, Wis.--The Bears announced that Charles Tillman will be active and is expected to start at left cornerback.

Tillman warmed up on the field two hours before the game with Lance Briggs, and had a short visit with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The surprise is that Zack Bowman, who the Bears raved about all spring and summer, has not supplanted veteran Nathan Vasher at right cornerback. Coach Lovie Smith hinted strongly during training camp that the Bears were holding starting spots for Tillman and Bowman while they were injured, but Vasher gets the nod.

Charles Tillman will be questionable for Sunday's game at Green Bay when the injury report is released later this afternoon.

Coach Lovie Smith said that the decision will rest in the hands of medical people, but at this point, two days before the start of the season, you would have to imagine a decision has been made. Tillman had back surgery in July, and just returned to the practice field on Monday. He completed his fourth practice this afternoon, and he and fellow cornerback Zack Bowman were the last two players on the fields behind Halas Hall.

"Either way,'' Smith said when asked if he didn't know or just didn't want to say. "What difference does it matter? Don't want to say, don't have to say, what I have to say is give you a questionable for him and that's what I'm saying right now and why would I want to say anymore.''

Tillman, well coached on the matter, said his gut feeling is ... what else? Fifty-fifty.

"I'm in the paper all week long,'' Tillman said. "What the hell?''

Tillman said the difference today as opposed to earlier in the week is he is no longer sore.

"It's really not about me pushing them to make me play,'' he said. "They're going to make their decision and the doctor is going to make his decision regardless of what I say or what I do. They have the green light to whatever it is I need to do. I'm just prepared if I get it, prepared if I don't get it. That's why I've been saying 50-50 all week.''

Did Lovie Smith tip his hand on the plan for Sunday night at Green Bay?

We're going to have to wait until we get to Lambeau Field to find the answer, but Smith at least seemed to indicate that veteran cornerback Charles Tillman will be on the field against the Packers.

Smith was asked how tough it has been to prepare the secondary through what has been a series of injuries. Tillman didn't return to practice until Monday after missing all of the preseason, training camp and the majority of the offseason program as he had back and shoulder surgeries. Cornerback Zack Bowman missed most of camp and three preseason games with a pulled hamstring. Projected free safety and nickel back Danieal Manning was in and out with a hamstring pull, and now looks like he'll just play the nickel, at least to start the season.

"Well, I think it is a good thing though because now we have all of the players that we started training camp hoping would be on the field, we have for our first game,'' Smith said in answer to the question. "That's a good thing. Players tell you who should start, who should dress. We have a pretty good idea of how we will play our players this week. We are confident they will play well and again we have a good group to choose from."

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We should get a pretty good indication of how the Bears feel about Nathan Vasher Saturday night when the Bears face the New York Giants in the second preseason game at Soldier Field.

Lovie Smith made it pretty clear earlier this week that he is waiting on Charles Tillman and Zack Bowman to emerge from the training room and be the starting cornerbacks this season, but that hasn't happened yet, and someone needs to hold down the fort while they're out. Vasher struggled last week at Buffalo, with at least two completions to wide receiver Lee Evans the result of some poor technique.

Smith has walked a fine line in calling out Vasher, but he's included his name in a group of players that need to step up their performances.

"We've had one game,'' Smith said. "With DB's you never know. Just think about it. The quarterback has an opportunity to hold the ball every play. So its tough on the defensive backs. We've seen Nate do some good things. Just like the rest of our football team didn't play as well as we probably would like to have played last week but there's a big challenge coming ahead this week.''

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BOURBONNAIS, Ill.--Lovie Smith did not hand out a starting job on Monday afternoon after the Bears completed their first practice since Saturday's preseason opener, but the coach sure gave a strong indication that Zack Bowman will be in the starting lineup when the season opens Sept. 13 at Lambeau Field.

Bowman is sidelined with a pulled right hamstring right now, but he did some work on the side Monday, joining cornerback Charles Tillman, who is working his way back from back surgery. Smith made it sound like the team is biding its time right now, waiting for the pair to return.

"[Tillman and Bowman] don't have to come out here and prove to us that they can play," Smith said. "So we'll just do what we need to do. Everything we do in general is to set up our play for [Green Bay]. Yeah, we would like to have them out here practicing, but as long as we can get them back around in time, we'll be OK."

Asked if he was endorsing Bowman as a starter on the spot, Smith continued.

"I speak of Bowman based on what he's done since [offseason team activities], and he's played as well as any of the defensive backs. That's how I am looking at it.''

There is no disputing that in the first week of training camp Bowman made more plays than any one player has made in all of camp to this point. He's been out since Aug. 5, and the Bears are hopeful to get him some preseason action soon. They need to because he played in just one regular-season game last year after beginning the season on the practice squad. He suffered a ruptured biceps and his rookie campaign was done.

It doesn't bode well for veteran Nathan Vasher. The hope the team had for him entering camp appears to have faded. Vasher's in good shape, he's been working hard, but the results haven't appeared like anyone would like to see. He's making good money but will be needed when you consider the health risks associated with Tillman and Bowman at this point.

Meanwhile, Corey Graham worked primarily at the nickel in practice and he also got some occasional reps at left cornerback in place of Trumaine McBride. Graham said he is taking a liking to the nickel, and the Bears would be best served to get him comfortable there right now. Danieal Manning will be out for a while as he heals his hamstring injury. The Bears need someone they are comfortable with in that role in reserve, and training Graham will give them two options.

BOURBONNAIS, Ill.--Did the NFL do in Twitter?

I don't know, but my efforts to tweet from the dorm room have been stifled by struggling technology. Perhaps the site will be up and chirping by the time this post is done.

Reports coming out of San Diego now are that Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers could begin talking about a new contract for him soon. Rivers is believed to have been waiting for Eli Manning to strike. Although Manning has a Super Bowl title to his credit, and that's what it is all about, Rivers' statistics over the course of their careers are far superior. Don't think for a second there is any reason other than that for his delay in getting to the bargaining table.

Wanted to Twitter a piece I did for the National Football Post this morning on Jay Cutler and what at some point will be his own negotiation for a contract extension. The Bears have never written the big-money deal for a quarterback before. Since general manager Jerry Angelo took over in 2001, no team has allocated less money to the position. Who did he have to pay? The team has someone to pay now but putting a gauge on that pay day right now is very difficult. When the team goes to a player, they are adamant that the integrity of the current contract be maintained. In other words, the player will get his money but the team isn't going to rip up the current contract and start all over.

The Bears have a history of approaching players during season to see if they can strike a deal and get ahead when it comes to the salary cap. If a deal is done by midseason, money can be applied to the current year's cap. With the Bears sitting on more than $20 million in cap room, doing a Cutler deal now would allow them to put a nice chunk in 2009. Assuming the CBA gets worked out--that looks like the assumption the Giants went under in doing Manning's deal--it's a smart move.

But it's no guarantee that the team and Cutler get to the bargaining table. If they don't, it's possible the Bears could target tight end Greg Olsen for an extension as I wrote here for the NFP. Olsen is entering the third year of his five-year contract and is clearly part of the long term future. Early restructures turn into win-wins. The player gets guaranteed money sooner than he would, and the team gets value moving forward.

I've spent four weeks here analyzing some of the things I'll be looking when when the whistle blows at 3 p.m. Friday and the Bears get rolling with their first practice of the season. Now it's time to turn over some space to the trained eye of Tom Thayer, who lists his occupation on his IRS paperwork every April as a "football describer.''

Thayer, the color analyst for WBBM-780 AM, will be at training camp and will offer daily updates for the Bears' flagship station. Here is what Thayer offered:

"There are three things I will be looking at and one of them is the free agents, the newcomers, [Jay] Cutler, Pisa [Tinoisamoa], [Orlando] Pace, big Frank [Omiyale], [Kevin] Shaffer, [Josh] Bullocks, these guys that came in. I want to start looking at those guys and see if they really are what they are, if they're going to fit in, what they're going to do to the team and how they're changing it. Then, I have a key selection of veterans who have been here already who are on the roster who I really want to pay attention to to see if they re-emerge, if they're playing like they did last year, if they're not involved in the betterment of the football team the way they should be due to their position on the roster and with the team and all that. My guys here are [Nathan] Vasher, [Brian] Urlacher, Tommie [Harris], Kevin Jones, Wale [Ogunleye], Nick Roach.

"And then [Johnny] Knox, [Juaquin] Iglesias and D.J. Moore are some rookies I want to watch. I think Moore may have a place. He is one of the three guys of the rooks I am looking at who may need to come in and just provide interest. Just to see if they can help in any way. There is a specific group and positioning of players that I am interested in looking at first. Then I think if you are looking at a position specifically, I still have concerns about the safety position. I like Kevin Payne but there is a battle for all other interior defensive back positions. Payne is only going to be pushed by himself. He is a guy who has to stay healthy. You can go out there and Kevin Payne can show flashes of brilliance and then he can pop his head in there and come out, get dinged, and you're back to square one. My only issue with Kevin Payne is durability.''

We have a full edition of Four Down Territory scheduled for Wednesday, but we'll dip into the mailbag now with a question that has popped in from several e-mailers this morning.

Q: Is Jerry Angelo going to make an effort to sign a veteran cornerback now that Charles Tillman is out for at least all of training camp? It can't hurt to add some depth and let someone learn the system during training camp.

Charles, Apopka, Fla.

A: It's certainly not a bad idea but I think you've got to consider a couple of issues on this matter. First, Tillman didn't have surgery yesterday. The procedure was two weeks ago so if the Bears were going to make a move, it's fair to consider that there is at least a chance they would have already done so. Second, the club brought in some veterans for a look in the spring. First, Ken Lucas paid a visit before ultimately returning to his first home in the NFL in Seattle. Then, Rod Hood came in during OTA's before promptly signing with Cleveland. By failing to sign either one of those players, or engage them in contract negotiations, I would venture to guess the decision was made that the Bears would be better off going with the young players they have. Now, would that decision be different right now? Let's just say no one was expecting Tillman to have back surgery after he had shoulder surgery and then missed time with a hyperextended knee.

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Charles Tillman will be placed on the physically unable to perform list Friday at training camp when he fails his physical.

That makes the focus for the Bears during three weeks at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., finding a contingency plan in the event Tillman has not recovered from back surgery in time for the Sept. 13 season opener at Green Bay.

Tillman underwent surgery performed by Dr. Robert Watkins two weeks ago in Los Angeles. He was given a timetable of six to 12 weeks for a return to the field. Six weeks would put Tillman back on the field right around the final preseason game Sept. 3 vs. Cleveland, but teams are so hesitant to use starters in those games that it might be surprising to see him on the field then. The outside range for a return would mean Tillman would miss at least the first three regular-season games. He'll have to be removed from the PUP list before the Sept. 5 roster cutdown to 53 or else he would wind up missing a minimum of six weeks of the regular season. The Bears don't anticipate that happening, but then again they didn't think he'd be hobbled with a back issue after undergoing reconstructive shoulder surgery on Jan. 14.

In fact, it's the third ailment Tillman has dealt with since playing the bulk of last season with injuries to both shoulders. He was cleared for a return from shoulder surgery in June but then was forced to deal with a hyperextended knee. This turns the team's hope that Nathan Vasher returns to form at right cornerback into a need. Zack Bowman got plenty of reps at left corner with Tillman sidelined during the spring. He performed well but that was without pads on. The fifth-round pick from 2008 appeared in one game last season before a torn biceps muscle ended his season.

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Returning to our position-by-position breakdowns as we close in on being a week away from the first practice of the summer at Olivet Nazarene University, we focus on the cornerbacks.

Projected starters: LCB Charles Tillman, 6-1, 198, 7th season, Louisiana-Lafayette; Nathan Vasher, 5-10, 187, 6th season, Texas.

Others

Zack Bowman, 6-1, 193, 2nd season, Nebraska
Rudy Burgess, 5-10, 185, 1st season, Arizona State
*Corey Graham, 6-0, 198, 3rd season, New Hampshire
Marcus Hamilton, 5-11, 185, 2nd season, Virginia
Danieal Manning, 5-11, 202, 4th season, Abilene Christian
Trumaine McBride, 5-9, 181, 3rd season, Ole Miss
D.J. Moore, 5-9, 183, Rookie, Vanderbilt
Woodny Turenne, 6-0, 184, Rookie, Louisville

* Graham will be listed in the safety preview also. The Bears list him on their Web site as a safety but that move might not be permanent at this point.

Projected depth chart

LCB: Tillman, Bowman or Graham
RCB: Vasher, Bowman or Graham, Moore
NICKEL: Manning

2009 salary cap numbers

Zack Bowman $315,200
Rudy Burgess $315,200
Corey Graham $502,575
Marcus Hamilton $390,200
Danieal Manning $885,200
Trumaine McBride $479,012
D.J. Moore $426,688
Charles Tillman $4,716,666
Woodny Turenne $310,333
Nathan Vasher $4,866,666

Number of cornerbacks on the roster at the start of the 2008 season:
5 (including Manning, who the Bears list as a safety)

Projected number of cornerbacks on 2009 roster at start of the season: 6 (including Manning and Graham)

The skinny: What could have been the beginning of turnover at the position looks to be halted by the re-emergence of Vasher during the offseason program. While Ricky Manning Jr. fell into the coaching staff's dog house a year before and was never seen again, Vasher has worked himself out of it. At least that is the way it looks right now. The veteran and former Pro Bowl performer lined up with the first team throughout the offseason program, and we're reminded of what general manager Jerry Angelo told us after the draft: "I feel he will come back strong. I felt like last year he was ready. During this time last year, during training camp, I thought he did really well. He got off to a poor start of the season in terms of making plays, lack of, I don't know what that did to his psyche one way or the other. We just didn't see the same swagger, the same ballhawk that we know and came to love when you talk about Nate. Do I feel that he has that? Yes. I don't see any diminishing of his skills and I feel this guy is a great competitor and his back is to the wall. I expect him to come out and give us really good football and we're going to see the guy we paid. I have a lot of confidence in Nate. Saying all that, he's got to go out and do it. He's got to do that and he knows that.''

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