Quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte were held out of Thursday's opener at Soldier Field against the Broncos, perhaps to blame for a lethargic showing. Storms interrupted pregame warm-ups, but the playing surface remained in solid shape and the Broncos elected to use prized offseason addition Peyton Manning, who looked like his old self on an opening drive that ended just short of the Bears goal line on a tipped interception.
So the typically brief appearance by the starting unit was lacking star appeal — though one starter put in a long night of work. Left tackle J'Marcus Webb, maybe getting a message from offensive coordinator Mike Tice, played into the fourth quarter.
The Broncos reserves used a strong defensive effort in the first half to set up a 31-3 victory that was led by former Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie, who staked Denver to a 10-0 halftime lead. Hanie finished 7 of 14 for 79 yards, and Manning was 4 of 7 for 44 yards.
"Not pleased in all three phases," Smith said.
A combination of Jason Campbell and Josh McCown at quarterback could not generate offense for the Bears in the first half. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall played just long enough to make one reception for 4 yards. Campbell completed 4 of 5 passes for 13 yards, and McCown was 6 of 10 for 56 yards.
"I'm glad I got the opportunity to come out here and knock some rust off a little," Marshall said. "I look forward to next week against the Redskins and a couple more plays and hopefully move the ball a little bit more."
Center Roberto Garza was the only starting offensive lineman not in the game midway through the second quarter. But three of the first four drives were three-and-out, and the offense gained only 41 yards and three first downs in the first half as the Broncos dominated time of possession throughout.
Webb was called for a false start and was still in the game when fourth-string quarterback Matt Blanchard entered. James Brown finally replaced him with 8:51 to play.
But without Cutler, and with the few skill players who did start leaving quickly, it's impossible to pass judgment on the line. Campbell was sacked once and McCown twice. Broncos nose tackle Derek Wolfe appeared to beat Chris Spencer on a stunt for one, and the other two were coverage sacks.
Denver finished with six sacks, including three of Blanchard, two when he was running around to buy time. The Wisconsin-Whitewater product had a nice debut, connecting on his first six passes before an interception by former Bears cornerback Joshua Moore. The Bears finally scored with 11:29 remaining on Robbie Gould's 47-yard field goal.
Strong safety Major Wright was the one who picked off the tipped Manning pass to thwart Denver's opening possession. But shortly thereafter it was announced he would not return because of a hamstring injury. In a halftime interview, he didn't seem worried about the injury.
"It feels like the right way to start the season off," Wright said of the pick. "I'm confident. I feel like I know what I'm doing. I'm just ready for the regular season to kick off."
First-round pick Shea McClellin chased down Hanie for a sack, showing his closing speed, and was active in the backfield. Corey Wootton, who started in place of Peppers, drew a holding call. He has had a solid training camp and needs to build momentum. It's imperative the defense find a boost for the pass rush, and this was a modest start.
Now the Bears go back to Bourbonnais for a final week of training camp. The pressing questions have not changed. Urlacher's knee and the offensive line remain in focus.