Friday night's preseason opener for the Bears and Panthers was an excellent example of why the NFL is considering reducing ticket prices for preseason games.
The sloppy game featured 7 turnovers and a lot of players who won't be around when the regular season opens.
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The 24-17 Panthers victory began poorly for quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears' offense. On the visitors' first offensive play at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Cutler was intercepted by Josh Norman. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery may have been more to blame for the pick, since he appeared to stop his route short.
"It was an unfortunate start," Cutler said. "I should have put it on his other shoulder."
On the Bears' next possession, Cutler went right back to Jeffery for 13 yards on a quick slant and connected with running back Matt Forte for 5 yards on a swing pass out of the backfield. But on third-and-6, Cutler was forced to throw the ball away despite having plenty of time to throw.
"We were a little slow coming out," said two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who was acquired in the off-season to protect Cutler's blind side. "But we got a little better each time out."
New Bears coach Marc Trestman surprisingly kept Cutler and the starting offense on the field for a third series, despite saying before the game that the quarterback wouldn't play much.
Cutler and Co. played the entire first quarter, and the QB bounced back to complete all 4 of his passes in his final series. He finished with 6 completions on 8 attempts for 56 yards and was sacked once when right tackle J'Marcus Webb was beaten by defensive end Charles Johnson.
It's still way too early to tell if Trestman and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will help Cutler and the Bears' offense improve from last year's No. 28 ranking (in total yards).
"Other than the pick, we moved the ball a little bit," an unsatisfied Trestman said. "Jay made some great throws. We caught some slants in contested throwing areas. We certainly didn't do what we wanted or up to our expectations."
The Bears' defense, under the direction of coordinator Mel Tucker, showed the characteristics that enabled the 2012 squad to score an NFL-best 9 touchdowns while finishing No. 5 in yards and No. 3 in points allowed.
Rookie linebacker Jonathan Bostic, who started at middle linebacker in place of injured veteran D.J. Williams (calf), had a spectacular debut. The second-round pick from Florida intercepted Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and sprinted 51 yards for a touchdown to tie the game 7-7 midway through the first quarter.
"He was in position," said Bears seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs. "He got himself into the end zone, and that's special for a guy in his first-ever pro game. That's rare."
Early in the second quarter Bostic chased running back Tauren Poole out of bounds for a 3-yard loss. Later, Bears cornerback Sherrick McManis, fighting for a roster spot, stripped the ball from running back Kenjon Barner after a short reception and then recovered the fumble. Backup cornerback Zack Bowman intercepted a Derek Anderson pass to set up a 35-yard field goal by Robbie Gould.
Backup defensive tackle Nate Collins made the most of his opportunities with 2 tackles for loss and a sack in the first half. In the third quarter, undrafted rookie defensive tackle Zach Minter, fighting an uphill battle for a roster spot, recovered another Barner fumble, the Bears' fourth takeaway of the game.
The offense finally showed some big-play potential in the fourth quarter, when No. 3 quarterback Matt Blanchard, a former Lake Zurich High School star, connected with seventh-round draft pick Marquess Wilson on a 58-yard catch and run with a deep slant route. That set up undrafted rookie Michael Ford's 4-yard TD run.
Blanchard completed 15 of 18 passes for 194 yards and was intercepted once for a passer rating of 88.4.
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