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NFL Preseason, Bears At Chargers: Martz's Playbook, Cutler Take Center Stage

(Sports Network) - A critical preseason for the Chicago Bears will be launched in San Diego on Saturday night, when an organization seeking to get back to its glory days faces the Chargers in the preseason opener for both teams from Qualcomm Stadium.

The Bears, who finished 7-9 last season and have now endured three consecutive campaigns without a playoff berth, made substantial changes in the offseason in the interests of ending that streak.

The biggest may have been the hiring of coordinator Mike Martz, who needs to have his offense clicking in the preseason if the Bears are going to have a fighting chance once the games count. That means error-prone quarterback Jay Cutler and the team's suspect wide receiving corps and offensive line need to show a comfort level within the pass-happy scheme, beginning on Saturday night. Getting running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor (ex-Vikings) involved will be key as well.

The defense, now under the tutelage of ex-Buccaneers head coach Rod Marinelli, needs to make strides after struggling throughout 2009. Linebacker Brian Urlacher is expected back on the field after missing most of last season with a dislocated wrist, though he may make only a cameo on Saturday. The same goes for new Bear Julius Peppers (ex-Panthers), who will take his initial steps in a Chicago uniform after the defensive end signed a multi-million dollar free agent deal in the offseason.

In the secondary, the cornerback battle between Zackary Bowman and Corey Graham should take a step forward on Saturday as well.

The Chargers enter the preseason at something less than full strength, as No. 1 wideout Vincent Jackson, left tackle Marcus McNeill and outside linebacker Shawne Merriman are all holding out of the preseason amid contract disputes.

Among those who should be in uniform on Saturday is rookie running back Ryan Mathews (Fresno State), though it's unclear how many touches a team that rarely allowed LaDainian Tomlinson to appear in the preseason will give its likely new starter in a meaningless contest.

Among the other newcomers who fans in San Diego will get to see are wideout Josh Reed (ex-Bills), who figures to play a substantial role with Jackson out, fifth-round nose tackle candidate Cam Thomas (North Carolina) and ex-Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher, who appeared in 73 games as a Bear from 2004 through 2009 and made a Pro Bowl appearance in 2005.

The Chargers own a 3-2 advantage in their all-time preseason series with the Bears, but were 24-3 road losers in the last such meeting, prior to the 2006 campaign.

The teams last met in meaningful play during the 2007 regular season, a 14-3 San Diego home victory.