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NFL Preview - Indianapolis (0-0) at Chicago (0-0)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Anxiety is a part of sports and something that can be exceptionally distracting for rookies and coaches.
The Indianapolis Colts will display a few newcomers in Sunday's 2012 season opener against the Chicago Bears from Soldier Field, where rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and first-time head coach Chuck Pagano will be under an intense microscope.
Pagano took over for Jim Caldwell in January after previously serving as the defensive coordinator in Baltimore, and said the entire team is ready to get this new era of Colts football started.
"Absolutely, everybody is [itching]," Pagano said on Monday. "You could tell from the moment you walked in the building this morning, from the first meeting until we just broke it down [at practice] out there [in the afternoon]. Everybody's really anxious. We've got a lot of work to do, though."
Indianapolis has lost two straight and three of its past four season openers, and has a new face at quarterback in Luck. Selected No. 1 overall back in April's NFL Draft, the Stanford product landed in the hands of Indianapolis following a tumultuous 2011 campaign in which the team went 2-14.
Luck has all of the tools to be a great one in this league, but gets thrown into the fire against a historically-tough Chicago defense.
He won't be able to do it alone, but does have a few veterans around him to kick off his professional career. Notable wide receiver Reggie Wayne is pegged to be Luck's main target, while fellow wideout Austin Collie should be ready for Sunday's game even though he sustained a concussion in the preseason. Running back Donald Brown and Luck's Stanford teammate, rookie tight end Coby Fleener, are other options during his big debut.
One good way to relieve the nerves is if the Colts are able to get off to a fast start.
"I think about that, especially on the road, we want to make sure we start fast," Luck said.
Indianapolis opens the season in the Windy City before returning to Lucas Oil Stadium for three games in a row. Getting that first win out of the way, especially on the road, would do wonders for Luck's confidence as well as the team's.
Chicago is two years removed from losing to rival Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game and went 8-8 a year ago to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. Needless to say, Bears head coach Lovie Smith is treading on thin ice, and it's possible a poor start by his team could cost him his job.
Like every team in the league, health is a major issue for Chicago, as quarterback Jay Cutler missed the team's last six games of 2011 with a thumb injury, leaving those duties to an ineffective Caleb Hanie.
The Bears may have made it back-to-back years with postseason appearances had Cutler stayed healthy, however. Chicago was 7-3 through the first 10 games of last season, then lost five of six after its quarterback went down.
Chicago went out and got Cutler's former Denver teammate, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, in the offseason in hopes of igniting the old connection. His addition is a major upgrade, since the NFL has turned into a pass-first league and the Bears haven't had a deep threat since Willie Gault in the mid-1980's.
Also, Bears running back Matt Forte signed a new deal in the offseason and won't have that uncertainty weighing over his head for the coming year.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher hopes to be in the starting lineup for this Week 1 matchup with the Colts after sitting out the entire offseason program while recovering from a knee injury he suffered in last year's season finale against Minnesota. Urlacher had arthroscopic surgery on Aug. 14, and Smith is optimistic his middle linebacker will be ready to go.
"He had a good first day back [at practice]," Smith said on Monday. "He's got to get in shape. I'm sure he'll tell you that and a few other things like that. But we didn't have any trouble with him today. He's right on schedule."
The Bears will play two of their first three games at home before playing back-to-back road contests.
Colts lead 22-18
Last Meeting: Bears 29, Colts 13 (Sept. 7, 2008 at Indianapolis) Last Meeting at Site: Colts 41, Bears 10 (Nov. 21, 2004)
Colts HC Chuck Pagano vs. Bears: 0-0 Bears HC Lovie Smith vs. Colts: 1-2 Pagano vs. Smith Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Indianapolis and Chicago also met in Miami in Super Bowl XLI to cap the 2006 NFL season, with the Colts prevailing over Smith's Bears by a 29-17 count.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Indianapolis: 30th overall (286.8 ypg), 26th rushing (99.6 ypg), 27th passing (187.2 ypg), tied 28th scoring (15.2 ppg)
Chicago: 24th overall (314.1 ypg), 9th rushing (125.9 ypg), 26th passing (188.2 ypg), 17th scoring (22.1 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Indianapolis: 25th overall (370.9 ypg), 29th rushing (143.9 ypg), 15th passing (227.0 ypg), 28th scoring (26.9 ppg)
Chicago: 17th overall (350.4 ypg), 5th rushing (96.4 ypg), 28th passing (254.1 ypg), 14th scoring (21.3 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Indianapolis: -12 (17 takeaways, 29 giveaways) Chicago: +2 (31 takeaways, 29 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Indianapolis: 42.1 percent (38 possessions, 16 TD, 13 FG) -- 27th overall Chicago: 52.6 percent (38 possessions, 20 TD, 14 FG) -- 12th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Indianapolis: 61.4 percent (57 possessions, 35 TD, 15 FG) -- 31st overall Chicago: 44.6 percent (56 possessions, 25 TD, 20 FG) -- 7th overall
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Luck completed 41 of his 66 pass attempts for 522 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in the preseason. He was also sacked three times behind an offensive line that will face steady criticism if it fails to protect the Colts' new franchise quarterback. Center Samson Satele (from Oakland) is replacing fan favorite Jeff Saturday, while Winston Justice came over in a trade with Philadelphia to be the new right tackle. Anthony Castonzo is back at left tackle, however, and will counted on to protect Luck's backside. Wayne (75 receptions, 4 TD in 2011) struggled to record his usual excellent numbers without Peyton Manning last year, failing to reach an eight year in a row with 1,000-yard receiving yards. He leads the NFL with 11,708 receiving yards since 2001. Brown (645 rushing yards, 5 TD) is hoping he can cash in as the feature back and gives Luck another target out of the backfield. The Colts' offense was brutal last year, so it can only get better under a new regime. Rookie Fleener, a second-round pick, hopes to expose Chicago's aging linebackers and give the secondary some trouble in his first game.
Chicago's defense will have its ears pinned back against Luck and has the defensive ends to pressure the rookie in Julius Peppers (37 tackles, 11 sacks) and Israel Idonije (52 tackles, 5 sacks). Peppers led the team in sacks and can still bring a heavy pass rush even entering the twilight of his career, while Idonije (52 tackles, 5 sacks) doesn't garner as much attention as Peppers, but will still be a challenge for the Colts' new-look offensive line. Defensive tackle Henry Melton (24 tackles, 7 sacks) can stop the run and bring pressure up front, as evidenced by his sack total from last season. Urlacher (102 tackles, 3 INT) is the captain of Chicago's 4-3 defense, and all eyes will be on him to see if his knee holds up. One of the league's most-feared defenders, the veteran could be a liability in pass coverage if he's far from 100 percent, however. Weakside linebacker Lance Briggs (105 tackles, 1 INT) and cornerback Charles Tillman (99 tackles, 3 INT) are other accomplished veterans on the Bears' defense.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Cutler (2319 passing yards, 13 TD, 7 INT) is back for his fourth season with the Bears and must stay healthy to keep Chicago's offense moving. He would have easily eclipsed the 3,000-yard passing mark for a fifth straight season had he not suffered a thumb injury against San Diego in Week 11, and ranks first in franchise history in career passer rating (82.1) and passing yards per game (225.8). If Cutler, who hasn't played a full season since 2009, goes down, the Bears do have veteran backup Jason Campbell after signing him in the offseason, and that's certainly better than after experiencing last year's debacle with Hanie. Marshall (81 receptions, 1214 yards, 6 TD) may bring some baggage with him, but is a big target with strength, speed and durability. The ex-Dolphin has hit the 1,000-yard receiving mark in each of his last five seasons, so helping out a weak Chicago receiving corps shouldn't be an issue. Return specialist Devin Hester (37 receptions, 1 TD), Earl Bennett (24 receptions, 1 TD) and rookie Alshon Jeffery (2nd Round, South Carolina will share time opposite Marshall. Forte (997 rushing yards, 3 TD) can catch passes as well, and a new deal should have him focused on producing another big season.
The Colts will see plenty of Forte after they were dreadful against the run a year ago. Perhaps a new 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Greg Manusky may help, though that defensive strategy has failed in the past for some clubs. Middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett is no longer with the team, while inside linebacker Pat Angerer (148 tackles, sack, INT) is still bothered by a foot problem and will miss the opener. He led the Colts in stops last year. Kavell Conner (104 tackles) and Jerrell Freeman will start out at the inside spots, while veteran defensive ends Dwight Freeney (19 tackles, 8.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (43 tackles, 9.5 sacks) moved to outside linebacker after previously spending their careers as ends. The two can still rush the passer, however, and should be the strength of the unit. Indianapolis' defensive backfield will have some different faces, as cornerback Vontae Davis (43 tackles, 4 INT) came over from Miami in a trade and strong safety Tom Zbikowski (23 tackles) hopes to get a fresh start after spending four years with Baltimore under Pagano.
It's difficult not to give the Bears the advantage in this one, with the Colts unveiling both a new quarterback and head coach at historic Soldier Field. Luck's heard raucous crowds before at Stanford, but this is the NFL and Bears fans are unlike any other. Staring down the likes of Peppers and Urlacher could also intimidate a 10-year veteran, let alone a rookie like Luck. Still, he displayed his ability to adapt to the fast pace of the NFL during the preseason and has the potential to perhaps supplant Manning as the franchise's savior. New offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has taken Luck under his wing, and aims to have the same type of success he had with Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger during his time with the Steelers. Chicago won't let that happen yet on its home field, however, and looks for a strong game from Cutler and the offense. Cutler, Marshall and Forte will carry this offense, barring injury, and an aging Chicago defense will prove it still has some gas left in the tank.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 20, Colts 10
09/06 12:59:59 ET