A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Cowboys on Oct. 1, 2012.
Bears offense vs. Cowboys defense
The Bears ran a simplified game plan last week against the Rams, keeping things balanced and making sure to get the run game involved. The Bears ran the ball 34 times and passed it 33. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice will need to have a similarly balanced game plan against a Cowboys team ranked No. 1 in the NFL after three weeks. They have the second-ranked pass defense but are No. 19 against the run. By running the ball effectively, the Bears can neutralize the Cowboys’ pass rush, led by outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. In the middle of their 3-4 defense are linebackers Dan Connor, formerly of the Carolina Panthers, and Sean Lee — a couple of solid but unspectacular inside ‘backers. The front three of the defense can be attacked by the run. Rookie defensive end Tyrone Crawford, who played at Boise State with Bears rookie Shea McClellin, has been making plays and improving. Opposite him at the other end, Jason Hatcher, in his seventh season with the team, has been a regular contributor. With Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff missing time this season, Josh Brent has been filling in for him and head coach Jason Garrett has approved of his performance, saying Brent is “instinctive … does a good job defending the run … can get off blocks.” Ratliff reportedly didn’t practice this week as he works to recover from a high ankle sprain suffered in the preseason. If he doesn’t play, the Bears will be at a big advantage. In the secondary, cornerbacks Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne are a talented, playmaking duo whose additions have seriously upgraded the Cowboys’ defense from a year ago. Expect the Bears to test the rookie, though, especially if Brandon Marshall lines up against him. The biggest question mark in this matchup is how Jay Cutler will handle the pressure from the Cowboys’ pass rush and whether Cutler can remain poised under the bright lights and not have a meltdown like he did against the Packers in Week 2.
Bears defense vs. Cowboys offense
The Bears lead the NFL with 14 sacks after three weeks and it’s their pass rush that is a primary factor why they’re 2-1 and in first place in the NFC North at this point. Even in their loss against the Packers, they sacked Aaron Rodgers five times and made his job much more difficult than it has been in the past against them. Julius Peppers has been his normal solid self despite battling foot problems and Israel Idonije has stepped up his game this year and has generated more pressure. Pep and Izzy each have 2.5 sacks on the season. Defensive tackle Henry Melton has gotten off to a hot start for the second year in a row and leads the team with three sacks. Also a big contributing factor to the success of the defensive line is a healthy and effective Stephen Paea collapsing the middle of the pocket. The Bears bring pressure in waves and they’re doing it with backups Amobi Okoye, Corey Wootton, and McClellin. Lance Briggs is once again playing at a Pro Bowl level and Brian Urlacher is working his way back into football shape and should be finished with the “preseason” phase of his conditioning since he missed the Bears’ exhibition schedule. But credit the Bears secondary with a job well done this season. Cornerback Tim Jennings is performing at a Pro Bowl level with four interceptions and tipped passes on two other picks. Safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte have remained healthy and active and are preventing the big plays by lining up deep in the secondary. The player least heard from is Charles Tillman, who had a Pro Bowl season a year ago. The Cowboys will be bringing a balanced offense into this one. Quarterback Tony Romo’s having himself a strong season while averaging 280 passing yards per game with four touchdowns, a 64.8 completion percentage and an 89.3 quarterback rating. He has a collection of solid receivers in Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Kevin Ogletree along with tight end Jason Witten — perhaps the best all-around tight end in the NFL. The Bears also have to deal with running back DeMarco Murray, who is averaging 4.3 yards per carry and is a load to tackle. I have no doubts the Bears defense will be able to keep this one close and winnable if their offense can follow suit.
Last week the Bears did a good job of pinning the Rams deep with poor field position. They also benefited from some stupid penalties the Rams committed, one of which was on a punt when Adam Podlesh was drilled in the back well after getting the punt away. Podlesh has done a good job of easing back into things after the hip flexor injury he suffered in the preseason. I wonder whether the injury will hamper him all season or if he’ll work his way back to his pre-injury level, because when he’s healthy he’s one of the top punters in the NFL in net average. The Cowboys have a steady punter in Chris Jones, who is averaging 40.7 yards in net average with five kicks downed inside the 20. He’s also had a punt blocked this year. Jones has only had 22 return yards against him through three games, the third-lowest total in the NFL. Devin Hester could double that in one return. Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey was third in the NFL last year with 32 field goals made. This year, he’s 4-for-4 with a long of just 33 yards compared to Robbie Gould’s 6-for-6 and a long of 54 yards. The game will be played indoors so there might not be many kickoff returns. Gould is fifth in the league with 11 touchbacks compared to Bailey’s four. If anything, Hester should get a crack at a return or two. Dallas has not had a lot of success in the return game. Felix Jones is averaging just 20.9 yards per kickoff return along with a fumble. Dez Bryant, who has game-breaking speed, has just 6.4 yards per punt return.
Dissect this game any way you want, but the ultimate key to the contest will be how Cutler performs on the biggest stage of the week in primetime on Monday Night Football. Count me as a believer of the idea that Cutler’s struggles in primetime have more to do with the quality of opponent the Bears face than the time of day or size of the television audience. Although Cutler’s won-loss record is lopsided in the wrong way and his interception total is much greater in these types of games, his sack total goes up as well. And if we learned nothing from the Seahawks-Packers game last Monday night, shame on us. The biggest story line that will be remembered from that game was the blown call at the end of the game that gave the Seahawks the victory. But locally, Bears fans should remember what happened in the first half of that battle. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked an unbelievable 8 times and finished the half with just 86 yards passing while his team trailed by a touchdown. That’s arguably the best quarterback in the NFL and he could do nothing with a bunch of large, angry men in his face. Then, in the second half, the Packers blocked better and prevented a single sack which allowed Rodgers to go to work and to put his team in position to win the game. It’s quite simple, actually. Protect Cutler and the Bears offense can use its plethora of weapons. But let the defense harass him all game and both Cutler and the offense will look mediocre at best, terrible at worst. Two years ago, against the Cowboys in this very same building, tackle Chris Williams left the game early with an injury and Cutler was on his way to getting physically assaulted. Credit Tice — then the offensive line coach — for making some quick, in-game adjustments to protect Cutler better and the Bears went on to win that game 27-20 behind a beautiful performance from Cutler. The quarterback completed 21 of 29 passes for 277 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Cutler made some great throws in that game including a 59-yard bomb in stride to Johnny Knox, a terrific touch pass to Hester in the corner of the end zone (which was one of, if not the best-ever catch by Hester), and a 39-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen. That was a performance that verified the Bears have a talented quarterback. When … he gets … some protection! So, perhaps the real question isn’t which Jay Cutler will show up on Monday night, but rather which offensive line will it be? Unfortunately, I need to see more consistency up front before I feel comfortable projecting a good performance from it. I originally thought this would be a higher-scoring game, but my defensive instincts have kicked in.
Final Score: Dallas 23, Chicago 17