A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Eagles on Nov. 7, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Eagles defense
Credit Mike Martz for picking out ways to dissect the Buccaneers’ defense two weeks ago in London and helping the Bears jump out to a 21-5 lead midway through the third quarter. But what was he thinking on that sequence of plays late in the fourth quarter when the Bears had a first-and-goal at the four-yard line? Three-straight pass plays? Followed by a Buccaneers penalty and then three-straight run plays? Those are exactly the kind of mental lapses the Bears can’t afford from their offensive coordinator against a team like the Eagles on the road. Considering the Bears played in a neutral location against the Buccaneers, they have yet to win a road game this year. Of further concern is the fact that the offensive line has looked downright awful when trying to deal with the crowd noise in opposing stadiums. That’s a tidbit to worry about, as is the prospect of having to go up against a pass rush as good as the Eagles bring. The Eagles have sacked the quarterback 22 times this season, all but three of which have come from their front four. The strength of this defense is on the first and third levels. The front four features a pair of ends in Jason Babin (9 sacks) and Trent Cole (4). Cullen Jenkins — a free agent from Green Bay who has five sacks — is joined by Mike Patterson up the middle. Philadelphia has always been known for its blitz packages, but the fact that they can pressure the quarterback with just their front four is a dangerous sign. In the secondary — the team’s other strength — the Eagles have a pair of talented cornerbacks in former Raider Nnamdi Asomugha and one-time Patriot Asante Samuel. The two of them can lock down receivers by themselves. While Asomugha was in Oakland, opposing quarterbacks wouldn’t even throw to his side of the field. Call it the Deion Sanders Effect. That kind of strategy can’t be employed now that he’s with the Eagles because Samuel, too, will burn quarterbacks who dare throw at him. The Eagles’ No. 3 cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, would start for the Bears, giving you further indication just how strong and deep that position is. The Eagles have eight interceptions this season, 10th-most in the league. Where the Eagles are most vulnerable is their run defense, which is ranked 19th in the league. When they operate out of the “Wide 9″ technique, they have big gaps in their defensive line, allowing running backs to get to the second level where they’ll be met by an average group of linebackers. Expect Matt Forte to be heavily involved in the offense — then again, when isn’t he? He’ll not only see a thorough workload on the ground, but he’ll probably be involved in the passing game because my assumption is that Jay Cutler won’t have much time to throw against this pass rush. Earl Bennett will be back and if he’s fully inserted into the game plan, he should provide Cutler with a nice safety valve.
Bears defense vs. Eagles offense
The Eagles offense starts with their backfield where quarterback Michael Vick and running back LeSean McCoy are a double-threat to run with the ball on any given play. They’re the reason why the Eagles have the top rushing attack in the league by a whopping 20 yards per game. McCoy is a patient, shifty back who will find the hole and hit it hard. Vick, meanwhile, is not afraid to tuck the ball and run on passing plays where his receivers are covered. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Vick leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards with 422, which ranks him 23rd overall in the league. Vick can be careless with the football in the passing game as he’s thrown eight interceptions this year, seventh-most in the league. The difficult thing about defending a player like Vick is that you have to put immense pressure on him, but you can’t get too aggressive and overrun him in the backfield because then he’ll escape the pocket and burn you with his legs. Vick has a talented corps of receivers in Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant. Tight end Brent Celek is a dangerous target over the middle, as well. If the Bears don’t get after the quarterback, these receivers will beat the Bears’ secondary, that’s a guarantee. Of the utmost concern is how the Bears’ young safeties will do against such talented offensive weapons. When Vick scrambles out of the pocket — which he’ll do regularly on Monday night — these safeties can’t bite on the pump fake or be in too big a hurry to help stop Vick from running because that’s when one of these receivers will slip past them for a deep touchdown pass. They have to maintain their discipline and wait for Vick to cross the line of scrimmage before breaking off coverage and pursuing him. I was impressed with rookie Chris Conte, who said this week that his involvement in run support isn’t much, which means he understands that his primary objective is to be the last line of the defense and not let anybody get past him. Let’s hope Major Wright understands his responsibilities and doesn’t get juked out of his jock again. Defensive tackle Henry Melton was approached by Lovie Smith this week and politely was made aware that he needs to step up his game and play a bigger factor in rushing the passer. He and Julius Peppers will play an integral role in containing Vick. Peppers needs to keep Vick in the pocket, or force the left-handed quarterback to his right, and Melton needs to collapse the pocket up the middle and disrupt the timing of the plays.
This by no stretch is a gimme for the Bears. The Eagles have a dynamic punt returner in DeSean Jackson who is capable of breaking one for a touchdown at any time, just like Devin Hester. Dion Lewis handles their kickoff returns but is averaging just 21.1 yards per return, a full five yards less per return than Hester. Where the Bears clearly have the edge is in the kicking game. The Eagles have a pair of rookie specialists in kicker Alex Henery and punter Chas Henry — yes, two ridiculously close last names. Rookie kickers and punters are usually more prone to making mistakes and allowing Hester to get his hands on the ball for a shot at a return, so maybe that’ll work out in the Bears’ favor. Henery has missed three field goal attempts this year and has a long of just 38 yards. He has just 15 touchbacks on 39 attempts, which is 38.5 percent. That’s almost a full 20 percentage points lower than Robbie Gould’s 57.9. With Henery’s low touchback percentage and a November night game in Philadelphia, Hester may get his chances to return some kickoffs on Monday. Henry has a paltry 36-yard net punting average, ranking him 29th in the league. He’s also pinned just three punts inside the 20, the third-fewest in the NFL. The Bears may have their hands full with containing Jackson, but their specialists give them the special teams advantage.
It’s hard to believe, considering they’ve had a bye week mixed in with a London game broadcast at noon in Chicago, but the Bears will be entering their fourth-straight night game when they face the Eagles on Monday. They’re 2-1 in that stretch and were leading the Lions at halftime before they crumbled in the second half. I think they’re starting to get used to playing in these games with late starts. Eagles coach Andy Reid is the longest-tenured head coach in the league and Lovie Smith is not that far behind at No. 5. Reid is a better game-day coach and is actively involved in the offense while calling plays. Entering this season, backup quarterback Vince Young called the Eagles a “Dream Team” when analyzing all the free agent additions the team had made in the offseason. They started off the season 1-4 and looked like anything but a dreamy team, but they have won their last two games in convincing fashion and just might have found their groove. Reid’s teams generally play better at the end of the season than they do at the beginning. I heard a stat on the radio this week — and I can’t verify it, so take this for what it’s worth — but Reid’s winning percentage in all games played after bye weeks throughout his tenure with the team is somewhere in the neighborhood of 70%. I’ve heard a variety of statistics thrown out there for the Bears, too, but none of them give me the full confidence that they can win this game. Michael Vick has never beaten the Bears in his career? Well, in 2001, he was a rookie with the Falcons. In 2005, there were subzero temperatures with a nasty wind chill at Soldier Field. How about Lovie Smith’s 3-1 record against the Eagles in the past four meetings? Well, three of those games were in Chicago and the one that was in Philadelphia required a last-minute, 97-yard touchdown drive by Brian Griese. There isn’t much to feel good about in this one other than the fact that the Eagles can be careless with the football and the Bears have a better chance at containing Vick with their three Pro Bowl defenders — Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers — than most other teams do based on the speed and philosophy of the defense. I feel this should be a close game, but the Eagles might have a little too much in the bag for the Bears.
Final Score: Philadelphia 23, Chicago 20