ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Jay Cutler Era in Chicago all but started with a thud.
The Bears' 27-20 loss to the Bills in their exhibition opener Saturday night was supposed to be a sneak peak of what type of firepower Cutler would inject into the offense.
Well, in 14 plays he never marched his team into the end zone, threw a head-scratching floater off his back foot that Leodis McKelvin picked off and nearly had another ill-advised throw intercepted by Reggie Corner.
Thank goodness this is the preseason.
"I feel fine," Cutler said with a smirk, shrugging off any sense of urgency. There's no reason for anybody to start to panic or anything like that. It's preseason.
"We have a lot of time until Green Bay (the regular season opener on Sept. 13). If we come out and play like this against Green Bay, then we will have some problems."
Cutler completed 5 of 10 passes for 64 yards, good for a 30.8 passer rating. He displayed his cannon arm on pass plays to Devin Hester and Desmond Clark but also forced a pass between two defenders that fell incomplete and overthrew Hester deep.
While Cutler struggled without top target Greg Olsen (hip) and back Matt Forte (rest) in the lineup, the much-maligned defense looked somewhat improved under new play-caller Lovie Smith.
It was hard not to be impressed with rookie Al Afalava's sure-tackling as the starter at strong safety, or linebacker Lance Briggs displaying Pro Bowl form in a cameo appearance or Corey Graham returning home to Buffalo and recording the team's first sack off a nickel blitz.
Nathan Vasher was the only starter who looked out of sync defensively, getting beat by Lee Evans on a 36-yard pickup on third-and-3.
Smith expressed disappointment in that play and over some missed tackles by a defense that played without Tommie Harris and Danieal Manning.
"Defensively, we stayed out on the field too long," Smith said. "That one drive, we had a chance to get off, big third down, and missed a tackle and let them convert a fourth-down play.
"Again, start the evaluation process from here. And hopefully we'll see improvement next week."
The first-team defense wasn't on the field long enough to measure how far the front four has come under the tutelage of Rod Marinelli. The Bills' no-huddle offense kept Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye, Mark Anderson, Anthony Adams and Israel Idonije on their toes.
Brown was the only one to notch a sack, although Anderson got close to the quarterback more than anyone else.
With the starters resting the second half, the Bears backups failed to keep the Bills out of the end zone. Veteran running back Dominic Rhodes scored the game's first touchdown on a 3-yard run with 9 minutes 27 seconds left in the third quarter. It was a 10-play, 75-yard drive, sparked by a pass interference penalty on Bears rookie Woodny Turenne.
The second half allowed some of the non-starters to improve their status. Craig Steltz set up the Bears' first score with an interception. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie, whom Smith singled out, followed up with a 14-yard touchdown toss to Will Ta'ufo'ou, a rookie fullback from Cal. Hanie finished 8 of 11 for 87 yards and a touchdown with a rating of 125.9. He was sacked three times.
Rookie Johnny Knox looked good returning the ball but bobbled an easy pass from Brett Basanez, leading to an interception by Ellis Lankster. The end result was the go-ahead touchdown for the Bills.
Lankster picked off Basanez again later on simply a bad pass, setting up a game-clinching, 4-yard touchdown run by Bruce Hall.
Basanez, who was intercepted three times, rebounded with a 10-yard touchdown pass to rookie Juaquin Iglesias late in the game, capping a nine-play, 45-yard drive. Robbie Gould's two field goals, one from 50 yards, accounted for the rest of the Bears' points.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun