A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Broncos on Dec. 11, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Broncos defense
Wow. A three-letter word that best describes the Bears’ offensive performance last week against the Chiefs. It’d be one thing if the Bears managed just a field goal against the Texans or Ravens or a team with a great defense, but the Chiefs? I’m not going to sugarcoat it, this Bears offense is atrocious right now, but was anybody expecting anything different? They entered the Chiefs game already without one of their two best offensive weapons in Jay Cutler and then lost their other best option, Matt Forte, early in the game. This offense brings back memories from Lovie Smith’s earlier days with the Bears when they won games with defense and special teams. That’s exactly what they’ll have to do for the remainder of the season. Without Forte in the lineup, the Bears will have to lean on Marion Barber and Kahlil Bell to pound the ball on the ground. The Bears have to move the chains, period. You can’t win if you don’t score points and you can’t score points if you don’t get first downs — unless you throw bombs or break off a long run and neither of those are likely to happen. The Bears offense went 0-for-Sunday last week on third downs, and I don’t care how well the defense plays, they’re going to get tired and succumb even to the worst of offenses if they have to stay on the field for too long. The Broncos have a solid veteran cornerback in Champ Bailey who will likely line up on Johnny Knox, who is Caleb Hanie’s preferred target. Hanie will have to look at other options such as Earl Bennett and Devin Hester. I’d like to see them get the tight ends and running backs involved in the passing game because Hanie doesn’t have much time in the pocket. Against the Chiefs’ league-worst pass rush last week, the offensive line allowed 7 sacks, five of which were credited to Lance Louis. Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who leads the team with 10.5 sacks, and Elvis Dumervil (6.5 sacks) will be bringing the heat from the outside and I fear Hanie will be under heavy pressure all day. He’s got to get rid of the ball quickly. Denver is only 20th against the run so expect the Bears to run the ball in excess of 30 times between Barber and Bell.
Bears defense vs. Broncos offense
Finally, after weeks of Tebowmania spreading throughout the country, we get our first up-close look at Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos’ option offense. The Broncos lead the league in rushing due to Tebow’s ability to run the ball so effectively with a rare combination of size and speed. Behind him, running back Willis McGahee is having a career revival of sorts, averaging 4.9 yards per attempt with 886 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He is listed as questionable on the injury report but is expected to play. It’s hardly worth mentioning what the Broncos have on the outside because they rarely throw the ball. Second-year pro Eric Decker leads the team with 39 receptions for 552 yards and eight touchdowns, which, sadly, rivals what the Bears have at receiver running a pass-heavy offense. After Decker, there is a considerable drop-off in production. A month ago against the Chiefs, Tebow threw just eight passes and completed only two of them, one of which was a 56-yard touchdown pass to Decker. The Broncos won that game 17-10. How a team wins with that kind of production from the quarterback position is baffling. I’m fairly confident in declaring that, unless there’s a broken play or a turnover that sets up the Broncos with great field position, the Bears defense will not let the Broncos get into the end zone. The Broncos may be ripping through defenses with their run game, but they have not faced a defense with as talented playmakers as the Bears have in Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, and Lance Briggs. Discipline and assignments are the keys to defending the option and I’m confident Smith will have his defense ready to go. They’re surely motivated, if you take into consideration some of the things Briggs said to the media this week. “I will be frickin’ pissed,” he said if they lose to Tebow’s Broncos. “[Tebow’s] one heck of a football player and we’re going to have to stop that crap.” I’m not so worried about the front seven staying disciplined against the run, but I do worry about the secondary, specifically the safeties. Craig Steltz will fill in for the injured Major Wright this week, and while Steltz may have more discipline or knowledge of the defense than Wright, Wright is clearly the better athlete. The Bears defense has a lot riding on them in this one.
The last time the Bears played the Broncos, Hester returned both a 75-yard punt and an 88-yard kickoff for touchdowns after punter Todd Sauerbrun, known for his fierce, stubborn pride, decided to kick it right to him. That was four years ago and things have changed since then as the Broncos are ranked fourth in special teams, according to Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub. The Broncos’ Quan Cosby is fourth in the league in kick return average among those returners with at least 10 attempts. He’s tied for third in the league with two returns of 40-plus yards. He’s not as effective returning punts as he ranks 10th in that statistic, far behind Hester, who leads the NFL with 18.5 yards per return and has scored twice. Robbie Gould missed a chip shot last week against the Chiefs but he is tied for fourth in the NFL with 24 field goals made. Denver’s Matt Prater is ranked 27th with just 15 field goals made and he’s only converted on 75% of his kicks. Denver’s Britton Colquitt is fourth in the NFL with a 41.6 net punting average. The Bears’ Adam Podlesh is right behind him, ranked fifth with a 40.8 net average. Considering neither offense in this game is expected to do much against the opponent’s defense, this game could come down to the battle of special teams and field position and it’s an ultra-tight matchup.
Two things are certain after the Bears have lost two-straight games to AFC West foes: Caleb Hanie isn’t any good and the offense might not be able to put points on the board without being aided by field position provided by a solid effort from the defense and special teams. The Bears have to prove they not only can win a game without Cutler, but without Forte, too. The thin air in Denver is surely going to have an impact on this contest. The defense better have the oxygen tanks ready to go on the sideline because if the offense makes them stay on the field for too long, they’re going to get gassed quicker than usual. A complete, four-quarter effort will be required to get the job done because that’s how Denver has gone on a five-game win streak. The Broncos can look like the worst offense in the league for three quarters — and, let’s face it, they have been — but in the fourth quarter, their run game prevails because the opposing defense runs out of energy. The Bears, fortunately, have been a great fourth-quarter team under Lovie Smith so I don’t expect a late-game miracle from Tebow. I think this game will be won or lost in the third quarter and if the Bears can keep it close, they can pull it off late. I’ve been burned the last two weeks by putting my faith in Hanie to be an effective game manager and he’s let down Bear Nation by failing to even do that. He doesn’t need to hit the highlight reel with his play; just complete a handful of short passes and don’t make mistakes. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen that yet.
Final Score: Denver 16, Chicago 13