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Behind Enemy Lines: Manuel a prime target for Bears' hungry defense

Behind Enemy Lines: Manuel a prime target for Bears' hungry defense
Buffalo Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel gestures at the line of scrimmage during the 2014 Hall of Fame game against the New York Giants. (Kirby Lee / USA Today Sports)

As the Bears prepare for Sunday's season opener at Soldier Field, we asked Mark Gaughan, the longtime NFL beat writer at the Buffalo News, for his candid personal scouting report on the Bills. Here are four things you need to know before Sunday's noon kickoff.

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1. The Bears defensive line should have an opportunity to get after second-year quarterback EJ Manuel.

The Bills' starter is far from a proven difference maker at this point and might just be the ideal opening day assignment for a Bears defense looking to show that it's not the same pushover unit that finished last season by allowing an average of 430.5 yards and 35.2 points per game over the final six weeks.

Manuel's accuracy remains a work in progress. He completed 61 percent of his passes during the Bills' five exhibition games after completing 58.8 percent of his throws during his 10 starts as a rookie last season. Those aren't woeful numbers by any means. But overall, Manuel's precision and pocket presence need polish.

"The question with EJ is right there for you. Does he have that elite ability to stand in the pocket and go through his progressions and make the right play?" Gaughan said. "Does he an Aaron Rodgers-like ability to dissect a defense? Obviously that's a little much to ask from a guy right away. But you'd like to see that on occasion."

Manuel still has stretches of inconsistency. And if the Bears can apply pressure early Sunday, they have a chance to really disrupt the Buffalo offense.

So what was it that the Bills saw in Manuel to make him the top quarterback drafted in 2013, selected at No. 16 overall? There's his size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds), his arm strength, his ability to throw the deep ball, his leadership qualities. That's what makes his future development potentially intriguing.

"Ideally," Gaughan said, "he has some Ben Roethlisberger-type ability to shrug off pass rushers and stay upright. Because he has that kind of body. Ideally, he has some Steve McNair-type mobility to extend plays. So there's your pie-in-the-sky, dream scenario – that EJ Manuel will some day develop into a cross between Ben Roethlisberger and Steve McNair."

But in Week 1 of his second season? Manuel is still very rough around the edges and a good target for the Bears to go after.

2. Sammy Watkins is only a rookie gearing up for his NFL regular-season debut. But he has the firepower to create major issues for the Bears' defense.

Need an idea of Watkins' upside? Have a look.

Speed. Elusiveness. Big play explosion. Which is why the Bills gave up first- and fourth-round picks in 2015 to jump up from No. 9 to No. 4 in May to snag Watkins in this year’s draft. In other words: Watkins was a must-have for GM Doug Whaley.

Watkins has been battling a rib issue during the preseason and his availability for Sunday's game remains uncertain. But if he's able to play, he has a chance to give the Bears' defense a fit or two.

Naturally, there will be differences for Watkins in his long-term pro potential, his rookie season potential and his Week 1 of his rookie year potential.

"He's just a phenomenal physical specimen," Gaughan said. "He plays big. Has a huge catch radius. Fast. He's dangerous with the ball in his hands. So it's evident he's a great prospect long-term."

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As a rookie? Gaughan zeroes in on parallels to Julio Jones' rookie season with the Falcons in 2011 (54 catches, 959 yards and eight TDs) and Torrey Smith's rookie campaign with the Ravens (50 grabs, 841 yards and seven scores) that same season. Those are realistic goals.

But most immediately, what can the Bears expect in Watkins' first regular season game in the NFL?

"His route tree was very limited at Clemson," Gaughan said. "He pretty much ran what I call 'now' routes and bubble screens and go routes. So in Week 1, if I'm the Bears' defensive coordinator, I'm focusing on those. It won't be extensive. But that still might be enough to make two big plays."

It's also worth noting that the Bears' 2013 tackling issues could be exposed again by an athlete of Watkins' caliber.

"That's what he does," Gaughan said. "He makes good players miss tackles. Odds are he isn't going to be super in Week 1. But he can still make some big plays."

3. The Bills' defensive line could create plenty of disruption to bother Jay Cutler's timing.

The Bills will arrive at Soldier Field on Sunday with a pair of disruptive defensive ends in Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams and two talented tackles on the interior in Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. That's a big reason the Buffalo defense could be sneaky good in 2014. Last season, those four defensive linemen contributed 41 of the team's 57 sacks.

Said Gaughan: "One of the best front fours in the NFL. If not top five, then probably sixth or seventh."

Williams, formerly a No. 1 overall pick, has more power in his game than speed at this stage. Hughes is a feisty speed rusher off the edge who had a career-best 10 sacks last season. And while Williams, at three technique, is a three-time Pro Bowl selection, Dareus may be even better overall.

In a nutshell, after allowing only 30 sacks in 2013, the Bears offensive line will face a big test right out of the gates.

4. A familiar face with a familiar plan will be calling the shots for the Bills defense.

Remember Jim Schwartz? Remember the defense he helped spark to two convincing wins over Jay Cutler and the Bears last season? The former Lions head coach is now the Bills defensive coordinator with a similar system and an imposing defensive front.

So, yes, it's worth recapping Cutler's numbers against Schwartz last season: 48-for-87, 567 yards, three touchdowns, five turnovers. And two losses.

A similar defensive attack will present itself Sunday.

"This is the traditional Schwartz defense, everything you saw in Detroit," Gaughan said. "In Buffalo, though, he has better coverage guys than he had in Detroit."

In passing situations, Schwartz will still frequently position his ends in "Wide 9" alignment, allowing them to spread out more and get after the passer with ears pinned back. So that will present its own challenges for starting tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills and tight end Martellus Bennett.

The Bills have a strong new addition in middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who came over in March after spending his previous four seasons with the Patriots. Spikes is a sound run defender and should help a unit that allowed an average of 128.9 rushing yards per game last season.

"His question mark," Gaughan said, "is that he can be exploited in space, going sideline to sideline."

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