A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Chargers on Nov. 20, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Chargers defense
Lost and almost forgotten among the thorough beating the Bears delivered to the Lions last week was how much the Bears offense struggled to move the ball and put points on the board. Fortunately, due to two defensive scores and a special teams one, the offense could afford to take a back seat. But after the early turnovers, when the defense set up the offense with good field position, the offense had much less success. The Lions schemed specifically to cut off the outside runs that Matt Forte and the offense have become so adept at executing. Forte was held to just 64 yards rushing on the game, 40 of which came on one run. That’s 17 carries for 24 yards, an anemic average of 1.4 yards per carry. The Bears will have to be able counter these schemes because more defenses will be trying to replicate what the Lions did. Mike Martz, thankfully, stuck to the running game with the big lead and despite the Lions defense keying in on the run, so it’s understandable that Jay Cutler’s passing numbers were down. This week, the Bears should be able to run the ball more effectively against a Chargers defense ranked 24th against the run. The strength of the Chargers’ defense is probably their linebacking corps where Antwan Barnes leads the team with six sacks and Takeo Spikes is third on the team in tackles. Barnes has been filling in for Shaun Phillips, but the Bears are fortunate to not have to face Phillips, who is out with a foot injury. The Bears will see a few of their former defensive linemen on Sunday in defensive tackle Antonio Garay, who has developed into a productive player since leaving Chicago, and Tommie Harris, who lines up at defensive end in the Chargers’ 3-4 scheme. In the secondary, the Chargers have a good cornerback in Quentin Jammer and free safety Eric Weddle leads the team with five interceptions and is second on the team in tackles. The Bears put two offensive linemen on injured reserve in rookie tackle Gabe Carimi and left guard Chris Williams. Edwin Williams will take over for Chris at guard and he’ll be put to the test immediately where he’ll be asked to do the pulling that Chris did well. Against a 3-4 defense, offensive linemen have to be versatile to get to the second level and engage in blocks with the linebackers. How well Williams handles that could be an indicator on whether the Bears can run the ball and move the chains.
Bears defense vs. Chargers offense
The Bears are playing good football on the defensive side of the ball since the beginning of their current four-game win streak. They’re stifling the run and they’re not giving up the big play that plagued them early in the season. Part of the reason is the play of the secondary, where the young safety combination of Chris Conte and Major Wright is doing some good things. Conte lines up so deep off the ball that it makes it almost impossible for a receiver to get past him. He also plays with a level of awareness beyond that of your typical rookie. Between his awareness and athleticism, he could develop into a solid starter in time. Also playing well in the secondary and contributing to the Bears’ win streak are the cornerbacks. Tim Jennings has made his fair share of mistakes in the passing game, part of which is due to his size, but he’s been a force in the run game and the guy plays with a tough streak. On the other side, Charles Tillman is having a Pro Bowl-worthy season and the lockdown job he did on the Lions’ Calvin Johnson last week was impressive. The Bears have played less Cover 2 and I think that’s a big reason why Tillman is stepping up and showcasing his coverage abilities, and, to a bigger extent, why the defense has played well in the past month of the season. They’ll get yet another test this week against a Chargers offense loaded with playmakers. Philip Rivers is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the game although he’s had a miserable season and currently leads the league with 15 interceptions. His options in the passing game look like the starting lineup for a basketball team, which makes sense considering tight end Antonio Gates (at 6-foot-4) played basketball in college. Wide receivers Vincent Jackson (6-5) and Malcom Floyd (6-5) are imposing weapons on the outside, the kind of receivers whom Bears fans have dreamed and fantasized about the team acquiring for years. In the backfield, the Chargers employ a two-back attack with the shifty, second-year back Ryan Mathews and the tough, barreling Mike Tolbert. The two have combined for 825 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. But, as they say, it all starts up front and the Bears defensive line could have an advantage against a Chargers offensive line that is beat up and has gotten Rivers sacked 25 times, third-most in the NFL.
Somehow, the Windy City Flyer keeps doing it. Teams know they’re game planning for perhaps a future Hall of Famer and they see Devin Hester line up on game days, but a poor or mishit punt winds up in his hands and he does incredible things with it. Last week against the Lions, their punter — whom they signed days before the game — blasted a punt over Hester’s head. He still managed to retreat and line up under it, mishandle the catch, pick it up off the ground, reverse field, and score his 12th-career punt return touchdown. And, he did this while battling an injury and an illness. The man, in a word, is ridiculous, and it is just one of the reasons why the Bears special teams has the advantage week in and week out. Dave Toub is a mastermind as coordinator, Patrick Mannelly is one of the best long snappers in the game, Robbie Gould is as consistent as kickers get in the NFL, and Adam Podlesh is having a solid season. Chargers kicker Nick Novak, who spent the 2005 preseason with the Bears before losing out to Doug Brien (who eventually lost his job and was replaced by Gould), is having a good season in San Diego. He’s connected on 17 of 19 field goal attempts with a long of 52 yards. Chargers punter Mike Scifres is as good as they get in the NFL. He’s been a Pro Bowl alternate three times and he’s good at kicking the ball high to give his coverage team time to get down the field and swarm the returner.
This is a battle between two teams heading in opposite directions, one on a four-game win streak and the other on a four-game losing streak. One’s first inclination is to say this is a “trap” game, but I don’t believe such games exist, at least not in the NFL where there is only one game per week and these guys are professionals. Say what you want about Lovie Smith’s game day coaching performances, but few coaches in the NFL get the most out of his players or have them better prepared each week than Smith does. And as such, I don’t see the Bears suffering a letdown in this game. That doesn’t mean they can’t be beat, though, and I do see a close game unfolding. The primary reason is that the Chargers have a talented offense and they’ve lost more games this year due to self-destruction than they have because of talent deficiency or from playing a better opponent. The Bears have to get turnovers and force Rivers to add to his league-leading interception total, otherwise he will lead the Chargers offense up and down the field. The Bears have the benefit of playing at home and not having to make the cross-country trip, and the weather should work out to their advantage, too, making it primarily a run-oriented game. Although I expect San Diego to put up a fight and make this a close game, the Bears are playing too well right now to pick against them. I see the win streak advancing to five games.
Final Score: Chicago 27, San Diego 24