LAKE FOREST – Typically, Jay Cutler and his Bears coaches and teammates follow a familiar pattern as they prepare for an opposing defense.
Step 1: Obtain film from several of the opponent’s games from last season.
Step 2: While watching the tape, search for weaknesses to exploit.
Step 3: Transform those lessons into touchdowns on game day.
Yet the Bears faced an extra challenge as they took the field Wednesday at Halas Hall for their first padded practice of the week before Sunday’s regular-season opener. They prepared for an Indianapolis Colts defense that no opponent has seen in full.
“At the end of the day,” Cutler said, “we’re kind of guessing.”
A look at the Colts’ revamped coaching staff should provide some clues.
At the top of the list is head coach Chuck Pagano, a defensive specialist who replaced Jim Caldwell as head coach several weeks after the end of a 14-loss season in 2011. Pagano spent the previous four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, where he oversaw the league’s third-best defense in 2011 as defensive coordinator.
One week after he was hired, Pagano named Greg Manusky as defensive coordinator. Manusky spent last season in the same role for the San Diego Chargers.
Overseeing both men was first-year general manager Ryan Grigson, who spent the previous nine years in the Philadelphia Eagles’ front office.
It’s no wonder the Bears can’t trust film from the Colts’ 25th-ranked defense in 2011.
Before long, Pagano tossed out the Colts’ longtime 4-3 defensive scheme and replaced it with a 3-4 scheme that worked well in Baltimore. Pagano’s decision meant that seven-time Pro Bowl selection Dwight Freeney and four-time Pro Bowl selection Robert Mathis would play outside linebacker instead of defensive end.
Bears cornerback Tim Jennings, who played alongside Freeney and Mathis for four seasons from 2006-09, barely recognized his old teammates in a new system.
“It’s all new to me, man,” Jennings said.
But this week’s top priority is an old one for the Bears’ offensive line.
Cutler said he expected to see a variety of blitzes with the purpose of making his Sunday as miserable as possible. He has been sacked 110 times in 41 career starts with the Bears, and more harassment could prevent him from taking advantage of new additions such as Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in the passing game.
“I think as defensive coordinators and their head coach being a defensive guy, they’re going to be smart,” Cutler said. “They’re going to put [Freeney and Mathis] in positions where they’re going to be blitzing off the edge. They’re going limit the amount of times they put them in coverage. So I expect to see ‘Sam’ and ‘Will’ [linebacker] blitz a lot from those guys.”
As both players rush from the outside, the Bears’ offensive tackles will have to be ready. J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi return as starters on an offensive line that has been pegged as one of the team’s weakest links heading into the season.
“We have to prove ourselves,” Carimi said. “Obviously, we have to make Jay feel comfortable back there. This is a quarterbacks’ league, and when you don’t feel comfortable, you can’t play as well.”
And when you don’t play as well, it’s easy to guess the ending.