Bears offense vs. Dolphins defense
The Bears have struggled to move the ball this season, convert on third downs, and put together a complete offensive game. Until last week against Minnesota, that is. They finished with 360 total yards of offense, scored 27 points, and converted 11 third down attempts. They’ll get a stiff challenge this week against the No. 8 defense in the league in Miami. Linebacker Cameron Wake, who has been battling a hip injury, was not listed on Wednesday’s injury report and will play in this game. Wake leads the team with 8.5 sacks, ranking him third in the league in that category. The Bears will have to pay extra attention to him and keep in an additional blocker if needed. The offensive line has done a much better job protecting Jay Cutler the past two weeks after their bye week. Part of that has to do with the change in play calling by Mike Martz. The Bears have made a commitment to the run game in the last two games against Buffalo and Minnesota and that will likely continue. I genuinely believe Martz understands the need to scale back his offense and mix in more runs for multiple reasons. First, it doesn’t do him any good if Cutler is on his back. Second, Matt Forte and Chester Taylor are two of the more reliable offensive weapons and need to get involved in the game plan. The Dolphins are No. 6 against the pass but only 16th against the run, so there may be room to operate. If the Dolphins’ offense struggles, which is more than possible, the defense might be left on the field too long and the Bears might find some running room late in the game. Miami has a pair of active safeties in Yeremiah Bell and Chris Clemons, who rank second and third, respectively, in tackles on the team. The defense is not a ball-hawking unit, though. They have just six interceptions on the season, ranking them 26th in the league. But what the Dolphins do best is keep the score low and close. They’re allowing 21.3 points per game, 13th-best in the league. The Bears’ offense is 23rd in points scored.
Bears defense vs. Dolphins offense
The Bears have the No. 4 defense according to yards allowed and the No. 2 scoring defense. They’re allowing just 301.9 yards and 16.2 points per game. Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, and Julius Peppers are all playing at a high level. Charles Tillman is still punching the ball loose as well as he ever has and Israel Idonije has stepped up and contributed well as the starter opposite Peppers. The Bears will be without linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, and despite how well he was playing, Nick Roach should step in and do just fine. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the season is the play of the safeties, Danieal Manning and Chris Harris, the starters for the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Manning is fourth on the team in tackles with 48. Harris is not too far behind him with 37 and also has two interceptions. He’s been most effective in blitzes and has a good chance to make a play this week against a weakened Dolphins offense. That’s because Miami will be starting its third-string quarterback, Tyler Thigpen. Chad Pennington and Chad Henne both suffered injuries last week against Tennessee and Thigpen had to finish the game. As part of their game plan, the Dolphins will likely institute some of the Wildcat formation, where running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams will take snaps from the shotgun formation. There shouldn’t be too much to worry about from that formation. Neither player can throw the ball particularly well and the Bears have great team speed to string out the play. The Dolphins are minus-5 in turnover ratio, which could hurt them in this matchup because of how good the Bears are at taking away the ball. The Bears are second in the league in interceptions and third in fumble recoveries.
Last week’s special teams effort was about as dominant as we’ve seen the unit perform in a few years. The Bears had the No. 1 special teams during their Super Bowl run, back when Devin Hester was “ridiculous” while setting kick return records. By no coincidence whatsoever, Hester was back returning kickoffs against Minnesota and he gave the Bears great field position all game. Hester had kick returns of 32 and 68 yards and a punt return of 42 yards. If not for a missed field goal by Robbie Gould, the Bears would have had a nearly flawless game on special teams last week. Miami kicker Dan Carpenter leads the NFL with 22 field goals made. He’s converted on 88% of his kicks with a long of 54 yards. Brad Maynard has not had a good season but neither has Miami punter Brandon Fields. Fields has a net average of just 36.5 yards, only slightly better than Maynard’s 34.6. Fields is good at placing his kicks, though, as he’s dropped 16 inside the 20, just one behind Maynard’s 17. Miami’s kick returner, Nolan Carroll, has a return average of just 23.9 yards per return. Punt returner Davone Bess has good speed and quickness but is averaging just 10.8 yards per return. Hester is clearly a better returner than both.
The Bears return to South Beach for the first time since Super Bowl XLI. Hester returns to play in front of his friends and family and I have a strong feeling he’ll put on a show, unless the Dolphins completely kick away from him. Short weeks generally favor the home team because they get to schedule one extra practice while the road team has to travel, but the Bears worked in one last quick practice yesterday before boarding the plane for Miami. I’m not so sure the Dolphins will have any extra advantage aside from the normal home field advantage. The warm Florida climate will make weather a non-factor. The real issues to be determined in this game are the injuries to the Dolphins’ offense. Will Thigpen be able to engineer their offense against one of the best defenses in the league? How will Long’s dislocated shoulder hold up against the fierce pass rush of Peppers? Will the Dolphins’ offense be able to protect the football? Those are the factors that will likely decide the outcome of this game. Last week, I felt that the Vikings would win the game due to the desperation of their situation. It seemed like they would come out swinging with their best effort while their backs were up to the wall and their season was in a dire state. The Bears had no sympathy and summarily dismissed them. The Dolphins find themselves in a similar situation. Two games behind co-division leaders, the Jets and Patriots, and tied with three other AFC teams for a wild card spot, Miami needs this game badly. That alone ought to keep this game close, but I think the Bears pull out the victory.
Final Score: Chicago 20, Miami 17