September 05, 2016

CHICAGO (AP) The Chicago Bears rebuilt their front seven on defense. They gave their offensive line a makeover, too. And they also got hit with a rash of injuries.

Between players going down and poor play in general, it was a rough preseason for a team trying to pick itself up after finishing last in the NFC North at 6-10.

On the positive side for the Bears? Teams have a history of making big jumps in their second season under coach John Fox.

Carolina did it. So did Denver. And the Chicago is hoping the pattern holds.

The Bears have been plagued by injuries and at least two important players might be limited or unavailable for the opener at Houston on Sept. 11: star right guard Kyle Long (shoulder) and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who had offseason knee surgery.

There are also concerns in the secondary, and the offense is missing two of its top contributors from last season after Chicago parted with running back Matt Forte and tight end Martellus Bennett.

Besides all that, they released Robbie Gould and ended an 11-year run with the most accurate kicker in franchise history while upgrading their offensive line by signing three-time Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton on Sunday night.

Here are some things to look for this season:

CATCHING UP: The Bears will finally get to see just how just how dynamic a receiving tandem Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White can be. They never got that chance last season.

The 6-foot-3, 216-pound White missed his rookie season because of a stress fracture in his left shin after being drafted with the seventh overall pick. But with his size and physical skills, Chicago is counting on big things from the West Virginia product.

''He's an explosive guy,'' Cutler said. ''You can see he's a physical specimen. So we'll just find ways to get him the ball in space and kind of let him catch and run and use that speed and that burst he's got.''

Jeffery led the team in receiving, but there are questions about his ability to stay healthy, not to mention his future with the club.

Calf, hamstring, groin and shoulder problems limited the former Pro Bowl receiver to nine games last season after he played in all 16 the previous two years. A strained hamstring in training camp only raised more questions.

Jeffery is also playing under the franchise tag after he and the Bears were unable to agree to a long-term contract extension.

LINING UP: Quarterback Jay Cutler should be happy after the Bears signed Sitton. After all, Chicago now has two elite guards.

With Sitton at left guard, rookie Cody Whitehair could slide to center. Veteran Ted Larsen, who took over when Hroniss Grasu tore the ACL in his right knee in early August, is another option.

A healthy and effective Long would also take some pressure off new right tackle Bobby Massie as well as the center. Long is back at guard, the position he played his first two seasons, after filling in at right tackle last year.

UP FRONT: While the defense made strides in its first year under Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio, the Bears were inconsistent and lacked playmakers. They tied for 22nd against the run, 22nd in sacks and 30th in interceptions.

Chicago is hoping that changes with the additions of 336-pound defensive end Akiem Hicks, inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, and No. 9 overall draft pick Leonard Floyd at outside linebacker.

PROVING TIME: With two-time Pro Bowler Forte and the colorful Bennett gone, the Bears are banking on players who are unproven or have injury histories to fill the voids.

Jeremy Langford, who had 537 yards rushing and 279 receiving as a rookie, leads a committee that includes Ka'Deem Carey, Jacquizz Rodgers and fifth-round pick Jordan Howard.

At tight end, the Bears are counting on Zach Miller staying healthy - no sure thing given his history. The veteran earned a two-year contract after he re-established himself last season by catching 34 passes for 439 yards and a team-leading five touchdown receptions. Miller also missed the 2012, `13 and `14 seasons because of injuries and spent much of the preseason in the NFL's concussion protocol.

SMOOTH TRANSITION: The Bears maintained some continuity for Cutler when offensive coordinator Adam Gase took the Miami Dolphins' coaching job by promoting quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains. That was hardly a surprise.

Cutler had one of his best seasons for Chicago, posting a career-high 92.3 rating and cutting his interceptions from 18 to 11 in 15 games.

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