Bears-Rams preview and game breakdown (09.23.12)

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Rams QB Sam Bradford is coming into his own in his third season with the team.
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is coming into his own in his third season with the team.

A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Rams on Sept. 23, 2012.

Bears offense vs. Rams defense
In anything in life, you tend to learn more from losing than you do from winning, and sometimes we all need a setback to keep our feet on the ground. That’s exactly what happened last Thursday night for the Bears in a humbling loss to the Packers. There were a lot of good feelings — and rightfully so — throughout the offseason and into the preseason about the high expectations for the Bears this season and the team was riding high after an explosive Week 1 win against the Colts. But the Bears were delivered a harsh reminder that offensive success starts up front with the offensive line and the team still has a weakness in that area. The Bears made a move this week to replace left guard Chris Spencer with Chilo Rachal, whom the team acquired through free agency this offseason. The Bears are hoping the move will give them a little more toughness and stability on the left side of the line next to tackle J’Marcus Webb. And speaking of Webb, many are wondering if he’ll have a short leash this week, but I’m not so sure the Bears are confident in replacing him with Jonathan Scott just under two weeks after signing him from the street. The Bears clearly have lost faith in Chris Williams and I’d be surprised to see him on the field unless there is an injury. The tackles will be given a test this week against a pair of talented defensive ends in Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Behind the defensive line, the Rams feature a trio of talented linebackers with James Laurinaitis — who has led the team in tackles each of the past three seasons — anchoring the middle and Rocky McIntosh, formerly of the Washington Redskins, and Jo-Lonn Dunbar on the outside. Dunbar had a 42-yard interception return against the Lions in Week 1. We should see a competitive matchup on the outside when Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan, formerly of the Tennessee Titans and a physical player known for getting under the skin of opposing receivers, lines up on Brandon Marshall. If you recall, in the week leading up to the Packers game, Marshall said he welcomed press coverage and a physical matchup so it’ll be interesting to see who gets the best of that matchup. After being held quiet last week, expect Jay Cutler to look to get Marshall involved early in this one. Joining Finnegan in the secondary are cornerback Janoris Jenkins and safety Quintin Mikell. Strong safety Matt Daniels is out with a hamstring injury and the Bears should be able to test the deep middle of the field. With starting running back Matt Forte out, Michael Bush will carry the load for the Bears and after offensive coordinator Mike Tice neglected the run for much of the Packers game, look for Bush to get involved early.
Advantage: Bears

Bears defense vs. Rams offense
Don’t look now, but the Rams have something going on offense. Quarterback Sam Bradford, former Heisman Trophy winner and first overall pick in the 2010 draft, is starting to come into his own in his third season in the league. He had a solid rookie season before injuries derailed his sophomore season last year. With a new coaching staff in place and talented young players surrounding him, Bradford could be in for a big season. The passing game, at least thus far through two weeks, runs through wide receiver Danny Amendola, a short player in the mold of the Patriots’ Wes Welker. Amendola led the NFL after two weeks with 20 receptions thanks to a team record-tying 15 receptions last week against the Redskins. Amendola likes to work underneath the defense and the Rams like to get him the ball in space where he can make things happen with the ball in his hands. Factoring in the style of defense the Bears like to play, where they prefer to keep all the action in front of them and line up their safeties deep to prevent the big play, we can probably expect another big day from Amendola, at least in number of catches. Fifth-year pro Brandon Gibson is Bradford’s target on the outside who has just six receptions on the year, two of which have gone for touchdowns — including a 34-yarder a week ago. The 5-11 Amendola and 6-0 Gibson aren’t imposing figures and could have trouble going up against the big frame of Charles Tillman and the physicality of Tim Jennings. With Major Wright and Chris Conte patrolling the deep middle, I wouldn’t expect any big plays barring any mental breakdowns. Running back Steven Jackson is listed as questionable with a groin injury and will be a game-time decision. If he can’t go, Daryl Richardson — who carried the ball 15 times for 83 yards last week — should see the bulk of the workload. The Rams have allowed Bradford to be sacked 6 times, currently tied for seventh-most in the NFL. The key, as always, for the Bears is to apply consistent pressure on Bradford with their front four, something the defense has done well through the first two weeks of the season. Not only are Julius Peppers and Henry Melton applying pressure but they’re getting help from Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin, too.
Advantage: Bears

Special Teams
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein is a perfect 6-for-6 in field goals this year with a long of 48 yards. The Bears’ Robbie Gould also has not missed but has three fewer field goals with a long of 45 yards. Zuerlein, with the benefit of playing indoors, has launched seven touchbacks while Gould has sent six through the end zone. While recovering from his hip flexor injury, Bears punter Adam Podlesh currently ranks 20th in the NFL with a 38.3 net punting average, somewhere he’s not used to being. I can only imagine that total will improve as the season progresses. Rams punter Johnny Hekker is averaging 41.8 net punting yards with two punts downed inside the 20. Where the Bears get the edge in the special teams department is in the return game. Devin Hester is averaging just 10.3 yards per punt return and 26.5 yards per kickoff return, but he’s always just one or two blocks away from breaking one for a score. Hester had the ambitious goal of four return touchdowns this season, so he’ll have to get cracking on that. For the Rams, Amendola doubles as the team’s punt returner but he’s been far less effective at returning punts than catching passes as he’s averaging just seven yards per return. Isaiah Pead, on just two kickoff return attempts, is averaging a paltry 18.5 yards per return. The Bears lost containment on a fake field goal attempt last week against the Packers but special teams coordinator Dave Toub maintains the team had the right call on the field, but didn’t execute. I wouldn’t look for something like that to happen again in one season, let alone in back-to-back weeks.
Advantage: Bears

For the most part, whenever a Lovie Smith-led team has tripped over itself one week, it has rebounded and gone out and performed well the following week. The Bears were served a big dose of humble pie by the Packers and I wouldn’t expect them to be overlooking this Rams team, especially after studying film of the Rams’ first two games. St. Louis nearly beat the Lions in Week 1 in Detroit and they outlasted the Redskins a week ago. They have some young talent on both sides of the ball and now that they have a good coaching staff in place with the much-respected Jeff Fisher — former Titans coach and one-time Bears player — the team will be competitive in most games it plays. The Bears can’t afford to be turnover-prone like they were against the Packers, and assuming they take care of the ball, the game comes down to pure talent and matchups, which is a decided edge for the Bears. It’s only Week 3 of the Mike Tice experience so it’s a little difficult to judge what kind of offensive coordinator he’ll be, but I’d be shocked if he didn’t correct some of the mistakes the offense made in Week 2 by helping out his offensive linemen with different protection schemes and getting the run game more involved. I said it a week ago and I’ll say it again: what lies between the ears of No. 6 will play a huge role in this one and whether or not the Bears can rebound from last week’s embarrassing loss to the Packers and course correct on the season. I don’t expect Cutler to have another meltdown and we should see him have a solid performance at home on a Sunday afternoon.
Advantage: Bears

Final Score: Chicago 24, St. Louis 16

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