Heading into opener, Bears still don't have act together

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Chicago Bears v Cleveland Browns

Head coach Mike Pettine of the Cleveland Browns talks with Marc Trestman. (Jason Miller / Getty Images / August 28, 2014)

Game week in Chicago begins much the same way training camp opened in Bourbonnais, with the Bears facing uncertainty at safety, linebacker and on special teams.

That's not the kind of continuity any NFL team seeks from one season to the next.

That's running in place for a month.

The competition Bears general manager Phil Emery stressed on day one never really materialized and no starter in key position battles seized an opportunity. You know August didn't go that well when wide receiver Santonio Holmes, signed two weeks ago, represents the preseason's most pleasant surprise. Whether good scouting or a happy accident, the Bears aren't complaining.

Holmes reminded the state of Ohio on Thursday in Cleveland how explosive the former Buckeyes star can be when healthy. He also likely struck fear into NFC North defensive coordinators. If Holmes can stay on the field, his presence as a No. 3 receiver and punt returner gives the Bears as many dangerous skill-position players as any NFC team. What group is deeper than that of Holmes, Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett? 49ers or Falcons? Anybody?

It all starts with quarterback Cutler, whose comfort in the second year of coach Marc Trestman's offense stood out more than anything. The obvious growth in Cutler received less attention than whose name will appear next on the depth chart, with No. 2 quarterback Jimmy Clausen edging out Jordan Palmer in a decision easier than it appeared. Not that Clausen looks ready to lead this team to the playoffs if Cutler goes down but, with any luck, the Bears never will find out.

The most inspired option to back up Cutler signed Saturday with the BillsKyle Orton. Orton clearly wanted to compete on a team with an unproven starter. That lack of opportunity and financial considerations never made him a viable option for Emery. The struggling Bills expect Orton to be in uniform at Soldier Field for the opener the Bears will use to find answers to questions that persist.

A big one looms on the offensive line, a supposed strength. No position group depends more on chemistry and timing, yet the starting five went the entire preseason without working together against live competition. The next snap starting right tackle Jordan Mills takes in a game will be his first since the 2013 season finale. The Bears cannot afford to let assumed strengths develop into weaknesses or knowns to become unknowns.

They face enough concerns on defense, where chronic issues in the middle of the field threaten to derail a season once believed headed somewhere nice. In other words, yes, the Bears still miss Brian Urlacher, who patrolled that area like an All-Pro for years.

Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, teammates since 2003, can say publicly this is the most talented Bears defense they have played on, but they only sound like old guys with bad memories. More talented than 2005 or 2006? Based on the preseason, nobody knows if this defense will outperform last year's, despite its improved line.

At safety, Ryan Mundy offers stability at one spot but neither the draft nor free agency adequately addressed the unsteadiness at free safety. Chris Conte returns as the most qualified starter — yes, 40 NFL starts confirm that — but shoulder surgery and a concussion slowed his progress. When a guy signed to help on special teams, Danny McCray, wins the job by default, it hardly inspires optimism.

Nor does the situation at outside linebacker, where neither Shea McClellin nor Jon Bostic removed doubt. Beginning the third season of Emery's tenure as GM, we await one of his defensive draft picks playing consistently like an NFL starter. Cutting cornerback Isaiah Frey left the Bears with two members of Emery's first class in 2012. Cornerback Kyle Fuller shows signs of bucking the trend, if he overcomes an ankle injury. A defense that relies as heavily on players older than 30 who are susceptible to breaking down must be able to depend on their draft picks more than the Bears can.

Remember that when piling on defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who bears responsibility if things unravel but shares it with Emery and Trestman. Emery drafted and signed the players at Tucker's disposal. Trestman retained Tucker and should be held accountable for more than just the offense that buoys his reputation. Before you explore buying the domain name FireJoeDeCamillis.com, consider the head coach and GM also determine how much a team emphasizes special teams.

No longer can the Bears count on winning a game or two per season thanks to special teams. No longer do they have a defense that makes assuming anything wise. They have a special offense and especially familiar problems that remain unsolved with the 2014 season six days away.

They have 9-7 written all over them, health permitting.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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