As Chicago debuts go, Zach Miller's was memorable

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Zach Miller

Tight end Zach Miller celebrates with quarterback Jay Cutler after Miller's touchdown catch in the first quarter. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune / August 8, 2014)

One day later, Chicago continued to buzz about Friday's memorable debut packed with possibility and hope.

No, not that one.

With due respect to Cubs prospect Javier Baez and baseball's most exciting last-place team, the city's first exposure to Bears backup tight end Zach Miller stole this news cycle.

Miller caught two touchdowns in the Bears' 34-28 exhibition victory over the Eagles at Soldier Field, looking like he belonged on an elite offense. He displayed athleticism running after the catch and adjusting to the ball, especially on a perfect back-shoulder throw from Jay Cutler for a 10-yard touchdown pass after Miller deftly freed himself from coverage.

"When you get an opportunity, you have to make the plays,'' said Miller, the game's biggest eye-opener with six catches for 68 yards. "You have to prove you can do it when the lights are on."

Besides Cutler, Miller proved the quarterback who left the deepest impression wore No. 86. The 6-foot-5, 236-pound Nebraska-Omaha product played tight end for the first time in 2009 at a Division III all-star game. Before that, Miller starred as a dual-threat quarterback who threw for 4,096 yards and ran for 3,122 more after transferring from the big-time Nebraska program without the hyphen.

Fast-forward to Friday night. The fluid former quarterback showed skills that easily translate into an offense ideal for any tight end/H-back with versatility. It was what the Jaguars, Thursday's Bears opponent, envisioned when they picked Miller in the sixth round of the 2009 draft. He spent nearly four injury-plagued years learning the position until being waived during the 2012 season. The Buccaneers signed Miller a few months later but released him at the end of 2013 training camp.

"(My patience) has been tested,'' said Miller, who signed with the Bears last winter. "I truly felt I can still play. It's just important for me to stay healthy and then show everybody I can still do it.''

Nobody's suggesting this Zach Miller will become as productive as the Seahawks tight end with the same name, who has 322 career receptions. Nobody with only four games' experience in the last three regular seasons guarantees an NFL team anything, but Miller's emergence at least reminded wayward starter Martellus Bennett the Bears have options if he cannot clean up his act. They might not be 65-catch-per-season options, but coach Marc Trestman's midweek comments made clear the Bears prefer hungry players eager to please over talented but selfish guys immersed in immaturity.

Depth behind Bennett represented a preseason concern, but Miller quietly has accrued respect. As far back as organized team activities in June, one offensive coach described Miller as a "less-than-one-rep guy,'' who doesn't forget anything once he is told. On Saturday, wide receiver Brandon Marshall tweeted a picture of Miller above the caption: "This boy balled last night.''

Miller wasn't the only Bear who did.

Cutler did nothing to temper expectations for the Bears offense, running it with authority and providing the night's most relevant takeaway with a 112.7 passer rating.

From this perspective, Jimmy Clausen edged slightly ahead of Jordan Palmer in the backup quarterback competition. Clausen threw two touchdown passes, including a 73-yard beauty to Chris Williams, but forget the numbers. He displayed more command than Palmer, whose interception was a product of poor judgment more than bad protection.

The starting defensive front enjoyed a strong start, even without Jared Allen. Defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, 33 later this month, demonstrated the interior push he can provide if he stays healthy. Stephen Paea resurfaced. Newly signed Lamarr Houston, the key to everything, made his presence felt. Overall, the Bears defense improved the part of the game that escaped it most last year.

"We had solid, clean tackling,'' Trestman said.

Safeties Danny McCray, a surprise starter, and Ryan Mundy stood out for the right reasons. The second pair — rookie Brock Vereen and veteran Adrian Wilson — stayed in the mix with solid outings. And, though nobody in town wants to hear it, the most experienced option at free safety, Chris Conte, worked out pregame and could be close to returning.

Of course, there also were reminders this was the exhibition opener. Shea McClellin struggled again against the run at his new strong-side linebacker spot, Jon Bostic suffered lapses against the pass and the special teams performed like a bunch of guys who met in the parking lot before the game. Penalty flags flew like the officials were getting paid on commission.

Work remains on defense. Questions linger about the health of Kyle Long and Jordan Mills as the right side of the offensive line sat out with injuries. Nobody knows yet if the long snapper is on the roster.

But with the Bears keeping score for the first time since December, the good times — especially the Miller times — easily outweighed the bad.

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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