A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Seahawks on Dec. 18, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Seahawks defense
Last week against the Broncos, the Bears rode Marion Barber and Kahlil Bell for 148 yards on 36 carries, a respectable 4.1 yards per carry, while trying to keep the ball and the decision making out of Caleb Hanie’s hands. The game plan in theory was sound and smart but the passing game just wasn’t effective enough to move the chains and put up more than 10 points. Did the offense do enough to win the game? Sure, but they — Barber, specifically — also did enough to lose the game. The defense was responsible for letting Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow make not one, not two, but three scoring drives in the second half of the fourth quarter and in overtime. Still, it’s the offense that has to play better if the Bears have any shot to win another game this season. I feel like Jim Mora (“Playoffs!?”) after the last two losses to two very beatable opponents in the Chiefs and Broncos. Aside from the five turnovers Mora talks about in that press conference, much of what he says can be applied to the Bears. It’s no longer applicable for Bears fans to think about the playoffs; we have to wonder if they can win another game. Seattle comes to Soldier Field for the Bears’ final home game of the season bringing a strong run defense ranked 11th in the league. They also rank 15th at defending the pass and are tied with the Bears with 17 interceptions on the season, fifth-most in the NFL. They’re not very effective at rushing the passer, ranked 25th with just 25 sacks on the season, but let’s not forget that the Bears allowed the worst pass-rushing team (the Chiefs) to pick up 7 sacks two weeks ago. Defensive end Chris Clemons brings the heat from the edge and has nine of the team’s sacks and also has forced three fumbles. He’s joined up front by tackles Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane and fellow end Red Bryant. Linebackers David Hawthorne (knee) and LeRoy Hill (neck) are both banged up but are listed as probable to play. Cornerback Brandon Browner leads the team with five interceptions and safety Kam Chancellor has four. As long as the Bears stick to the game plan they had last week by eliminating the amount of choices Hanie has to make, they should be able to avoid the ball-hawking secondary of the Seahawks, but really, that’s no way to win games.
Bears defense vs. Seahawks offense
The Bears shut down the Broncos for three and a half quarters last Sunday, backing up their tough talk about not letting Tebow beat them. Unfortunately, the Bears offense put them in difficult situations and they eventually succumbed to point-scoring drives and an overtime loss. With the aid of the home crowd and the homefield advantage, I once again expect big things from the Bears defense this week. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has been a hot story around the league as of late, but as I mentioned in my Bears-Seahawks prop picks, nearly half of Lynch’s season production has come during the past four weeks of the season when he hasn’t faced a run defense ranked higher than 17th. He may be on a hot streak, but unless the Bears blow an assignment they should be able to contain him. In last year’s NFC divisional playoff round, the Bears held Lynch to two yards on four carries. Sure, the Seahawks had to abandon the run because the Bears put up 21 unanswered first-half points, but the defense smothered all of the Seahawks’ rushing attempts that game. It’d be naive to expect similar results, but I don’t see Lynch breaking out for a big game unless somebody on the defense blows an assignment. The Seahawks do not have a good passing offense to go with their run game. They’re ranked 24th in that department led by quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, a familiar face to the Bears from his days with the Vikings. Jackson has thrown just 11 touchdowns this season compared to 12 interceptions. He’s ranked 23rd in the league with a 77.9 passer rating — which, ironically, makes him a much better player than Caleb Hanie, but that’s another story — and he’s been sacked an alarming 33 times, fifth-most in the NFL. Rookie receiver Doug Baldwin, who is probable with an ankle injury, leads the team with 45 receptions and 718 yards and has scored three touchdowns. Another former Viking, Sidney Rice, is second on the team with 32 receptions, 484 yards and two touchdowns. Golden Tate is a speedy receiver to keep an eye on down the field. As long as the Bears stay fundamentally sound and don’t get tired from being on the field for too long — here’s looking at you, Hanie and the offense — the Bears should have the edge in this matchup and will keep the surging Seahawks in check.
The biggest story this week regarding the Bears special teams was the arrest and subsequent release of wide receiver and special teams contributor Sam Hurd. The loss of Hurd is by no means alarming and the Bears should truck on without him. But the second-biggest story about the special teams is that Devin Hester was sidelined this week after tweaking his ankle in practice on Thursday. That, of course, is an injury they can’t afford and it would certainly hurt them to be without the league’s most dynamic kick returner ever. Hester has been listed as questionable on the injury report and if he can’t go, Johnny Knox would assume the kick return duties. Knox has the speed to rival Hester, but he doesn’t have Hester’s elusiveness and strength to break arm tackles, not to mention Hester’s instincts which have clearly set him apart from any kick returner in the league. Earl Bennett would probably get the first crack at punt returns and he’s nowhere near as talented as Hester in that area. Seahawks kick returner Leon Washington is not having quite the season he had last year, but the Bears cannot fall asleep on him. Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka is ranked 16th with 21 made field goals but has only converted on 84% of his kicks. Robbie Gould’s 25 field goals rank fifth in the league and he has converted on 89% of his attempts. Bears punter Adam Podlesh has been a nice addition this season to the Bears and as expected, his strong leg is making fans forget about the aging Brad Maynard. Podlesh ranks eighth in the NFL with a 40.6 net average. Podlesh ranks fifth in the league by forcing 20 fair catches. I always enjoy when the Bears play the Seahawks because I get to mention Seahawks punter Jon Ryan, who doubles as a venture capitalist from New Hampshire with his brother Jeremy.
This is it. Last chance, final countdown, do-or-die… you can use any cliche you want but Sunday’s game against the Seahawks represents the Bears’ final opportunity to win a game and keep their slim playoff hopes alive. They went from being guaranteed playoff participants under the leadership of Jay Cutler to a team that no longer controls its own destiny and can’t buy a win at any cost. The Bears are averaging 11 points per game in the three games without Cutler after being ranked in the Top 10 with a 26.8 points-per-game average with Cutler. Players typically show improvement as they get more playing time but Hanie has appeared to have gotten progressively worse as Cutler’s replacement. The margin for error is so slim when you have a bad offense that can’t score that they can’t afford to make mistakes like Barber did twice last week against the Broncos. The Bears will return to Soldier Field for their last home game of the season. One thing you can say for Lovie Smith is that he’s never let his teams slip into a funk and completely bomb out for extended periods of time, so I’d expect to see the Bears best effort in this game. Is effort alone good enough to win? Certainly not, which is why Hanie and the offense have to start making plays and moving the chains. After three straight weeks of not doing that, why would I expect anything different? I don’t know. But I do expect them to keep this game close and put up just enough points to come away with the victory and tease Bears fans with playoffs hopes for one more week.
Final Score: Chicago 13, Seattle 10