The Cincinnati Bengals and Chicago Bears got outstanding performances from their respective defenses a year ago on the way to 10-win seasons, but shortcomings on offense were too much for the clubs to overcome.
After a little tweaking on the other side of the ball, the two clubs kick off their 2013 campaign on Sunday in Marc Trestman's debut at Solider Field as head coach of the Bears.
The Bears and the Bengals both finished with defenses that ranked in the top six a year ago, but had trouble putting points on the board. Chicago finished 16th in scoring at 23.4 points per game and 28th overall on offense, while Cincinnati averaged just one more point per game and had the 22nd-ranked offense in football.
Both teams still managed 10-6 record, though the Bears followed up a 7-1 start by losing five of six and ended up losing out on a tiebreaker with the Minnesota Vikings for the sixth seed in the NFC.
The Bengals found themselves 3-5 after a loss to Denver on Nov. 4, but won seven of their final eight regular season games to match the Baltimore Ravens for the top mark in the AFC North. Cincinnati entered the postseason as a wild card club, but failed to score an offensive touchdown in a 19-13 loss at Houston in the opening round.
Cincinnati returns nearly the entire defense that gave up just 319.7 yards per game last year and added linebacker and former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison in the offseason.
Not a whole lot was done to the offense, though the Bengals did spent their first two draft picks in April on Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert (21st overall) and North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard (37th overall). Instead, they are looking for Andy Dalton to continue his improvement as he heads into his third NFL season.
"We start from scratch now," said Marvin Lewis, who enters his 11th season as Cincinnati's head coach. "We don't get to pick up where we left off last year, and there's not much carryover from preseason."
Thanks to the late-season collapse, the Bears made a more drastic change by firing head coach Lovie Smith and replacing him with Trestman, the 14th man in team history to be named to the position.
Trestman comes to the NFL after having served the five previous seasons in the Canadian Football League, where he led the Montreal Alouettes to back-to-back Grey Cup championships in 2009-10 and was named Coach of the Year in '09.
Know for his ability to get the most out of quarterbacks, Trestman will try to become just the fourth Bears head coach to win his debut contest, joining Hall of Famer George S. Halas (1920), Neill Armstrong (1978) and Dick Jauron (1999).
Trestman will try to squeeze all he can out of the offensive core of quarterback Jay Cutler, wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte while keeping up a defense that enters the year without retired linebacker Brian Urlacher for the first time since 1999.
The Bengals have won six of their nine all-time meetings with the Bears, including each of the last two. They won the most recent encounter at home in 2009 following a victory in Chicago during the 2005 campaign.
Chicago has not beaten Cincinnati since 2001 and not at home since 1989, losing four of its five all-time home meetings in this series.
The Bengals, who are opening the season on the road for a fourth straight year, are 20-25 in their opening game, while the Bears' 53 opening-day victories (53-35-5) are the most by an NFL franchise. They have won four of their last five openers and are 17-3 in their last 20 season openers at home.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Even though Marshall set Bears franchise records last year with 118 receptions and 1,508 yards, Chicago still ranked 29th in passing offense.
Marshall enters his second campaign with the Bears and is coming off his third hip surgery. He underwent an arthroscopic procedure in January and was unable to practice until early June, but this week said he is ready to get the season going.
"Structurally, my hip is great. My hip's in great shape. It's going on eight months out and I'm ready to roll," Marshall said on Monday after returning from an excused absence to have his hip checked out.
"It's tough playing at a high level. When you have a surgery, sometimes you get frustrated getting back to that level. We have a lot of amazing things going on here on and off the field, and I want to be a part of it. At times it can be (frustrating), but we made it to Week 1 and that's a positive thing."
Cutler will try to stay upright and get the ball into the hands of Marshall, Forte, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett, signed as a free agent this offseason following a productive season with the New York Giants.
Chicago's offensive line allowed 44 sacks last season, with Cutler getting taken down 38 times, so the unit will have a new look in Week 1.
The Bears signed Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson to take over at left tackle and guard, respectively, while returning center Roberto Garza will have two rookies to his right in guard Kyle Long (20th overall pick out of Oregon) and tackle Jordan Mills, a fifth-round selection out of Louisiana Tech.
Sunday is expected to mark the first time the Bears will have two rookies start on the offensive line since LT Jim Covert and LG Rob Fada in 1983.
"The world is going to change dramatically come Sunday, there's no doubt about it," Trestman said of Long and Mills. "I'm excited for them. I think they've been extremely productive during training camp and during the games and have picked it up each day. I said those weren't small steps they were making, they were big steps they were making and now we'll see. It really does all change a little bit come Sunday, but they have been practicing against some very good defensive lineman during the last five weeks."
The two needed the work as they'll see a Cincinnati defensive line that contributed 43 of the team's club-record 51 sacks last year.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, signed to a five-year extension on Monday, led the Bengals and all NFL interior lineman with 12 1/2 sacks, while improving end Michael Johnson added 11 1/2.
Left end Carlos Dunlap and veteran nose tackle Domata Peko round out the group in front of a trio of solid linebackers in Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowler, pivot Rey Maualuga and weakside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati's leading tackler from a season ago.
"The linebacking corps is phenomenal," said Bengals corner back Terence Newman. "They make plays in the passing game and the running game. They're big and can run. They can hit and they cover. When you talk football, they're all smart as hell, too."
Dalton, meanwhile, will try to make a name for the offense after a solid 2012 season. He threw for 3,669 yards with 27 touchdowns to 16 interceptions while running in another four scores. The talent is there and hopefully the leadership is next.
"That's how it should be. It should be the quarterback's team," Dalton said. "The quarterback is the leader of the team and the quarterback is the one that has the ball in his hands every single play. You have to make sure that the other guys around you trust you enough to say stuff like that."
Wide receiver A.J. Green certainly trusts Dalton, who gets him the ball on a regular basis. Perhaps the best young receiver in the game, Green has pulled in 162 receptions over his first two seasons, the second-most in NFL history for a player in that span, and scored 11 touchdowns last year.
Green is also a go for this game after being slowed early in training camp with a knee strain suffered in late July.
Though Urlacher is gone, the Bengals will still have to deal with the likes of defensive end Julius Peppers and veteran linebacker Lance Briggs. Peppers has made the Pro Bowl in all three seasons since joining Chicago, notching 30 1/2 sacks with the club.
Dalton and Green will also be up against a pair of excellent corners in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Tillman is a two-time Pro Bowler who excels at knocking the ball out of the hands of receivers, forcing an NFL-high 10 fumbles a year ago, while Jennings led the NFL with nine interceptions last year.
It could be slow going in terms of offense in Week 1 at Solider Field.
Cutler and the rest of the offense will likely need a few regular season games before they start clicking under Trestman, and Marshall's ticking time bomb of a hip is also cause for concern.
Things should be more fluid on Cincinnati's side of the ball, but Dalton is going up against a tough secondary. He is going to have to stay sharp and the line will need to keep Peppers at bay.
Cutler also figures to be under pressure all game long from the Bengals' front seven is could make the key mistakes that slant the game in Cincinnati's favor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 20, Bears 17