A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Raiders on Nov. 27, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Raiders defense
The sky inevitably fell last week in the waning hours after Sunday’s big win against the Chargers. Is everybody okay? The truth is, the Bears were playing as good as any team in the league outside of the one team in the land of cheese, hairy women and dental problems. That all came to a screeching halt with the injury to Jay Cutler that will keep him sidelined for possibly, probably, the rest of the season. The Bears offense now goes from one that started to look like a modern-day passing offense to one with a skittish, undrafted fourth-year pro out of Colorado State. Caleb Hanie reminds me of Rex Grossman for two reasons: one, he never quite looks comfortable out there as if his mind is running a mile a minute, and two, he can have his moments of success like he did in the NFC championship game last year but then completely flop at other times like he did in the preseason this year — or, when he threw a pick-six to Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji in that game last year. Before we start calling him Good Caleb and Bad Caleb, though, he does at least have three things going for him right now. First, he and Cutler had a friendship going where it appeared Cutler was taking him under his wing and Hanie was learning on the sideline from him. Second, Hanie, as opposed to Josh McCown, the veteran free agent the Bears brought in this week, has spent a year and a half in Mike Martz’s system and knows the scheme and what the offense is trying to accomplish. And third, Hanie actually has some of the same characteristics that Cutler does, minus Cutler’s cannon for an arm that few other quarterbacks in the league can rival. With Cutler out, Martz will probably dial down some of the passes that Cutler was able to throw deep down the field, but there’s no reason to believe the Bears can’t continue to roll Hanie out of the pocket. He’s proven to be able to make plays with his feet if needed, and if he can maintain consistency on his throws, he can complete passes on the run as well. The Raiders have the 24th-ranked defense, but that’s according to yardage, which can be deceiving because the Bears defense — which is playing well — is ranked one spot below them. What matters most is how the Raiders do against the run, which is what the Bears will have to do a lot of, and they are ranked 26th in that department. The Raiders are stout up the middle with defensive tackles Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, and Desmond Bryant, from whom they get most of their pressure on the quarterback. Together, the trio has combined for 13.5 of the team’s 28 sacks. On the second level, linebacker Kamerion Wimbley brings pressure from the outside and leads the team with six sacks. Strong safety Tyvon Branch leads the team in tackles, and by a wide margin, too, and also has one interception this year. Free safety Matt Giordano, filling in for the injured Michael Huff, leads the team with three interceptions. After losing cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to the Eagles this offseason, the Raiders are very liable on the outside.
Bears defense vs. Raiders offense
Over the past month of the season the Bears defense has been stepping up and playing much better than they had to start the season, particularly at stopping the run. Their pass defense still has holes, though, as we witnessed last week against a good throwing offense like San Diego. The Bears face a different test this week in a Raiders offense that is third in the league in rushing but still has a quarterback in Carson Palmer who can pick apart a secondary with his accuracy. Palmer, on the wrong side of 30, is not a quarterback who is light on his feet and the best way to make him struggle is to flush him out of the pocket with pressure up the middle. That means whatever the defensive tackle rotation may be — be it Anthony Adams, who isn’t much of a pass rusher, Henry Melton, Amobi Okoye, Stephen Paea, or Matt Toeaina — it has to cave in the middle of the Raiders offensive line so that there are bodies in Palmer’s lap and he’s unable to step up in the pocket. The sooner the better, too, because the Raiders are, and have always been, a size and speed team, and if the receivers are able to gain separation quickly, Palmer will find them with time to throw. The first obligation of the defense, though, will be to stop the run. Oakland’s primary ball carrier, Darren McFadden, has been ruled out for the game, meaning Michael Bush will handle the workload. Bush is just a yard shy of 600 rushing yards on the season and he’s averaging 4.3 yards per carry on a team-leading 139 rushing attempts. Bush is more of a between-the-tackles bruiser than McFadden and he has five rushing touchdowns on the season. His longest carry went for 44 yards and he has a long of 55 yards in the receiving game, so he does still have some speed, albeit not as much as McFadden. The Bears defense knows it has its work cut out for it, as Brian Urlacher mentioned following the news of Cutler’s injury. They know they have to step up their game and I think they’ll put forth a great effort in this one.
Jacoby Ford is one of the most dynamic kick returners in the game and Raiders safety Mike Mitchell made headlines this week by ranking him ahead of Devin Hester in that area of specialty. Unfortunately for Oakland, and for those who enjoy a good battle of special teams, Ford is listed as out this week with a foot injury. Hester, however, should play — he’s listed as probable with a shin injury — and that could be bad news for Mitchell and his big mouth. The Raiders are not afraid to kick to him and one mistake by kicker Sebastian Janikowski or punter Shane Lechler could lead to six points for the Bears, or, at the very least, great field position for Hanie and the offense. Rookie Denarius Moore handles the punt return duties for the Raiders and is averaging 9.3 yards per return. Janikowski and Lechler are among the best in the league at what they do and have been for quite some time now. They rival Gould and Podlesh, respectively, and make this special teams matchup a tight one. Obviously of concern this week for the Bears is how the new long snapper will do. After a one-day stint with Jake Laptad, who struggled in practice this week, the team signed veteran Chris Massey to ultimately replace injured Patrick Mannelly. The Bears know the importance of special teams and weren’t willing to take any chances at the position. I think the Bears hold a slight edge in the special teams battle with Ford missing this game due to injury.
I’ve been tossing and turning all week about this matchup and even as I write this I’m still flip-flopping my prediction. The Bears, from top to bottom, are a better team, have been playing as well as if not better than the Raiders over the last month of the season, and have had a tougher schedule to boot. The Raiders’ last five games have been against the Browns, Chiefs, Broncos, Chargers, and Vikings, teams with a combined 19-31 record, and the Raiders are just 3-2 in that stretch. Granted, Palmer was still getting acclimated to returning to football, but I’m not impressed by the caliber of opponents they’ve beaten. If Cutler were playing, I’d have no trouble picking the Bears. Or, if this were a home game, I’d have no trouble picking Hanie and the Bears. But with this being Hanie’s first NFL start in a tough road environment, I’m fearing the worst out of him. Still, the Bears are a relatively healthy team whereas the Raiders are decimated with injuries. If Lovie Smith is nothing else, he’s a coach who gets his players prepared to play each week. In this ultra-tight game where one big play could swing the momentum one way or the other, I’m going with the team with the veteran leadership, an experienced coaching staff, and the healthier backfield. That’s right, I’m going with my heart over my head in this one. Chicago in a squeaker. Bear Down.
Final Score: Chicago 23, Oakland 20