Bears offense vs. Texans defense
Sometimes things go beyond rational thought and I want to immediately lay on the table my belief that the Bears’ offense Sunday will more closely resemble the one we saw at the beginning of the season than the one that has looked shaky as of late. I have a feeling we’ll see Matt Forte, Greg Olsen, and Devin Hester excel today — three guys who played college ball down south. Olsen’s become a matchup nightmare for a lot of defensive coordinators because he can line up on the line or in the backfield and his speed is tough to counter with a linebacker while his size creates problems for defensive backs. The Texans are in the middle of the pack at defending the pass, but they’re No. 25 against the run, giving up 126.2 yards per game on the ground. It’s imperative the Bears run the ball effectively and keep Houston’s explosive offense off the field. I think Forte could have a big game today — and he’d better, because we all know how little help he and Orton are getting from the receivers. The offensive line will have their hands full today as well.
Bears defense vs. Texans offense
Ah, yes, it’s the 7-8 Houston Texans, which means it’s an easy win and all we have to do is pay attention to the Vikings-Giants game and hope for a New York victory, right? Actually, this Texans team is underrated because their defense hasn’t performed like they should. But the offense is ranked — and this isn’t a typo — No. 3 overall with 377.2 yards per game. That’s just behind New Orleans and Denver and ahead of New England and Arizona. That’s elite company in which to be residing. But for all the yards they rack up, they only average 22.3 points per game, which is 20th in the league. That plays into the hands of the Bears, who have long been known for their bend-but-don’t-break defense, at least under Lovie Smith’s watch. Yards don’t beat you; points do. So, the Bears have to prevent the big play, and the onus will be on Charles Tillman to lock up with Andre Johnson, one of the league’s biggest and toughest wide receivers. Johnson leads the league with 1,427 yards and is second with 105 receptions. Tillman compared Johnson to Steve Smith this week, something you don’t want to hear from a guy who got burned by Smith in the 2005 playoff game against Carolina. Lined up across from Johnson is little-known Kevin Walter, who is tied for 8th in the league with 8 touchdowns and also has 59 receptions, which is just one shy of Forte’s total but more than any of the Bears’ receivers. Tight End Owen Daniels is also a threat. He’s fifth at his position with 67 catches for 825 yards and 2 touchdowns. Not only is Tillman going to be under pressure to perform, but his three, young defensive back teammates — Corey Graham, Kevin Payne, and Craig Steltz — will also have their hands full. The Bears need Danieal Manning to come up big in nickel coverage as he did last week against Green Bay. I’ve failed to mention up to this point the Texans’ run game, which has been pretty good under rookie Steve Slaton. Slaton is 7th in the league — just ahead of Forte — with 1,190 rushing yards. But, I’m not as concerned about stopping him as I am about the Bears being able to stop the passing game. The Bears are stout against the run and have been that way all year. They’re currently ranked No. 4. But against the pass, as always, if the Bears don’t get pressure with their front four, it could be a long day with a dark ending.
I’m loving every minute of Manning returning kicks for the Bears and I’m so glad that Lovie wasn’t deterred by “Hester nostalgia” and pulled the plug on him weeks ago. Fact is, Manning is as fast as Hester and he hits the hole harder than Hester does, too. I still worry about his ball security, though. During the replay of one of his big returns last week, you could see the ball come loose from Manning’s grip when a defender took a swipe at it from behind, but he was able to adjust his arm to maintain control of the ball. Plus, he fumbled the interception return against Jacksonville a few weeks back and also fumbled on a couple returns in the preseason. I don’t believe in jinxes, but knock on wood, anyway, so that he doesn’t fumble this week. Robbie Gould is — forgive the overused cliché — as good as gold outdoors in the elements of Chicago, so, I’ll take him any day over Houston’s Kris Brown at Reliant Stadium. Brad Maynard continues to coffin corner his punts better than anyone in the business as he dropped two more against the Packers this past week, and would have had a third had Kevin Jones not picked up the ball and ran into the end zone, thinking the ball had touched the Packer punt returner. Houston’s Matt Turk is 25th in the league with a 42.3 punt average, and he’s even worse at No. 30 with a 35.1 net average. Houston’s coverage teams gave up an 80-yard punt return touchdown to Oakland last week. Jacoby Jones is a solid punt returner for the Texans with 12.3 yards per return and has two touchdowns this year. That compares with Hester’s 6.4 yards per return and zero touchdowns. But Manning’s 29.4 yards per kickoff return is tops in the NFL while Houston’s Andre Davis averages just 22.9. Once again, I’ll take Dave Toub’s guys over their opposition.
Every year, there is some team that plays spoiler and knocks another team out of the playoff hunt. And it’s always a team that has nothing to play for but pride — although, there are some cases where playoff-bound teams are spoilers… let’s hope that’s the case with the Giants. Hence, the Texans could be the Bears’ undoing this year. The foremost strength of their team is the utmost weakness of the Bears, and that’s their passing game and the Bears’ ability to stop it. I wouldn’t feel as nervous about this game if Mike Brown were in the secondary calling shots. Or, if the defensive line had more success this year at getting pressure on the quarterback. But, because three of the four defensive backs are youngsters, and because I can get from my couch to the fridge and back faster than the line can get to the quarterback, I am extremely concerned about how the defense will play. What is of little to no concern for me is the type of success the offense will have. Despite some poor showings during the second half of the season, I have complete confidence that we will see a resurgent Bears offense take control of the game and keep Houston’s dynamic offense off the field. I’m not concerned about the homefield advantage or the crowd noise for the Texans, and I’m sure we’ll see the Bears use the no-huddle to take the crowd out of the game early and often. And I don’t feel the Texans possess a coaching staff that will beat the Bears’ staff in a chess match. In this all-important game for the Bears, Lovie will not let his guys enter the game unprepared as they were last week against Green Bay. I think we’ll see a full 60 minutes of effort, and, hopefully, a continuously running clock so the Bears can get into the locker room and catch the end of the Vikings-Giants game. However, anything less than a full effort and it won’t matter what happens in the other game.
Final Score: Chicago 24, Houston 20