A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Cardinals on Dec. 23, 2012.
Bears offense vs. Cardinals defense
Injuries are never the sole cause for a team’s dysfunction on either side of the ball, but to deny that they play a strong role in why a team struggles would be foolish. We all knew the Bears had problems along the offensive line from the very beginning of the season. But when you throw in the fact that both poor play and injuries have led to changes all across the offensive line, it’s impossible to expect any kind of consistency from that unit in order to have success. Jay Cutler will make his poor decisions at quarterback. Matt Forte isn’t the type of runner to put his head down and smash through the line. Kellen Davis will have footballs go through his hands and find himself on the ground. And the receivers outside of Brandon Marshall will struggle to find themselves in the right places for Cutler. On top of it all, first-year offensive coordinator Mike Tice has had questionable play calling at points throughout the season. This is what the Bears are and they need to maximize whatever potential they have for the remaining two games — if not more. The Cardinals defense is not a particularly dominant one, but they are talented and opportunistic. They have a strong pass rush, ranked seventh in the NFL in sacks, and will apply constant pressure on Cutler. Their secondary has benefited from the help up front and the team leads the NFL in interceptions. The Bears have to focus on moving the chains with their run game and picking up short chunks of yardage through the air. If they get too overzealous with testing the secondary, they’re going to wake a sleeping giant on the road.
Bears defense vs. Cardinals offense
Like the offense, the Bears defense has had its share of injuries with which to contend. You can say that “good teams find ways to win despite injuries” and “look at the Packers.” Blah blah blah. The Bears do have a good team; they just don’t have a deep team. There is a difference. Brian Urlacher has missed time with a hamstring, Henry Melton has battled a chest injury, Tim Jennings is fighting through a shoulder problem, and a host of other players — safety Chris Conte, defensive end Shea McClellin, and defensive tackle Stephen Paea — have missed time as well. Not to mention, Julius Peppers has played all season with plantar fasciitis. The Bears defense isn’t as interchangeable as some other systems out there. It requires all 11 guys maintaining their gap responsibilities and it’s difficult — if not impossible — to hide weaknesses using game planning. The Cardinals have a much worse offense, one that makes Cardinals fans actually yearn for what the Bears have — so count your blessings this week. They have a rookie quarterback in Ryan Lindley who has a 45.0 passer rating in three games started this season. The team has rotated three quarterbacks this year, much like the Bears used to do in the pre-Cutler era. The offense is ranked 29th in passing yards and dead-last in rushing. Aside from wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts, the offense is almost devoid of playmakers. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Cardinals exploit the Bears in this matchup.
The Bears special teams are ranked No. 2 by Football Outsiders whereas the Cardinals are No. 13. What might hurt the Bears this week is that special teams ace Blake Costanzo is listed as questionable with a calf injury. It also hurts that Robbie Gould is out for the season as well and that the Bears have to turn to Olindo Mare’s noodle leg. Cardinals kicker Jay Feely has converted 88% of his field goals this year with a long of 61 yards. He’s only had 27 touchbacks, though, while playing mostly in a warm-weather and climate-controlled arena. The Bears will miss Gould’s touchback conversion percentage. William Powell returns kickoffs for the Cardinals but is ranked just 18th in the NFL with a 24.1-yard average. The Cardinals have a much more dangerous threat returning punts in Patrick Peterson, a pretty good cornerback who made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season last year as a punt returner. He tied Devin Hester’s record of four punt returns for touchdowns in a season last year as well. Hester, meanwhile, has looked about average this year and only once can I remember him finding a seam and exploiting it — in the Titans game almost two months ago. The Bears cling to a slight edge on special teams.
After dropping five games in six weeks, the Bears have fallen out of the playoff picture for the time being. Of the teams remaining in the NFC playoff race, though, the Bears look like they have the easiest schedule and the best path to the postseason. But the Bears once again have to prove that they can beat up on the powder puffs of the NFL and show that they haven’t given up the fight yet. This is a game that the Bears not only can win, not only should win, but also must win. The Cardinals are not a good football team. All they have going for them at this point is a playmaking defense, which we Bears fans have grown accustomed to seeing from our defense during the Lovie Smith era. Ball security should be the primary concern of the offense this week. Even if the Bears run-run-run-punt several times this Sunday, that’s still better than turning the ball over and giving the woeful Cardinals offense a short field with which to work. But as good as the Cardinals pass defense has been, their run defense is just awful. The Bears should be able to get Matt Forte involved in the game plan as both a runner and a receiver out of the backfield. That offensive production, combined with a solid defensive effort against a terrible Cardinals offense, should give the Bears just enough to win the game on the road and keep their playoff hopes alive one more week.
Final Score: Chicago 24, Arizona 17