The Bears will attempt to keep up with the Lions in the race for the NFC North title when they take on the Rams in St. Louis on Sunday.
The Rams are one of those teams just good enough to be dangerous. At the beginning of the season, this was a game you could look at on the schedule and mark as a win for the Bears. And even now, with the Rams sitting in last place in the NFC West with a sub-.500 record, it still appears to be a game the Bears can and should win. But with the specter of the Rams’ 38-8 drubbing of the Colts — a pretty good team that they beat in Indianapolis two weeks ago — hanging over this matchup, suddenly this doesn’t look like such a gimme.
The problem the Rams face is that they’re still a young and inexperienced team that was mired in a losing culture for far too long. Long time Titans coach Jeff Fisher — a well respected coach around the league — took over the reigns for this team and is still trying to shape them into a winning organization. The Rams have some good young talent on offense in wide receiver Tavon Austin and running back Zac Stacy, but they lost quarterback Sam Bradford to a season-ending knee injury, and now they’re going to battle with backup Kellen Clemens, and that’s the Bears’ opening.
It’s hard to envision the Bears losing to a team quarterbacked by Clemens. In his four games played this year, Clemens has thrown just three touchdowns to two interceptions, has been sacked nine times, fumbled five times, and has just a 79.3 passer rating. He is a caretaker of the offense, a guy who doesn’t possess the gifts to make plays in a critical situation, so it’s up to the Bears to put him in that situation.
In order to do that, the Bears have to defend the run much better than they have been this season. Stacy has rushed for 537 yards with only six starts this year. He’s averaging 4.2 yards per carry. He runs with power and is tough to bring down. These kinds of backs have been particularly difficult for the Bears to defend because the secondary hasn’t been good in run support. The Bears could stack the box against Stacy, but then they run the risk of getting beat deep by the speedy Austin, who has blazing speed.
The real battle to pay attention to is on the other side of the ball, and how Josh McCown does filling in for the injured Jay Cutler. McCown did a nice job the last time he had to start for Cutler, against the Packers. The Rams, however, have a bit better pass defense than the Packers did, mainly because of their strong defensive line. The Rams, perhaps, have the best collective defensive line the Bears have faced this season, led by their ends, Robert Quinn, who has 12 sacks on the season, and Chris Long — brother of Bears guard Kyle Long — who has 6.5 sacks. The Bears have done a great job protecting the quarterback this year, allowing just 16 sacks on the year, third-fewest in the NFL. Credit goes to Marc Trestman as well, because even though the offensive line has improved dramatically from last year, Trestman’s offense calls for the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly. Those two factors combined with McCown’s versatility in the pocket and his ability to maneuver out of trouble leads me to believe the Bears can and will neutralize the Rams’ pass rush.
I expect big things from the Bears offense in this one. Playing inside a dome on a fast track will really allow the Bears to showcase the athletes that they have on that unit. Matt Forte should play a big role for the Bears as both a running back and a receiver out of the backfield. Once he’s in the open field, he can be extra dangerous on turf. Teams have had difficulty covering the NFL’s best wide receiver tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery this year, and I don’t see that changing this week.
Special teams have been a source of frustration for the Bears this year. Losing former coordinator Dave Toub, plus the plethora of defensive injuries, has really proven to be a detriment to the special teams. It’s worth mentioning because Austin not only is a deep threat for the Rams’ offense, but he also returns punts, and is always just one block away from taking it all the way for a touchdown. Gap discipline will be important on both defense and special teams for the Bears.
This is a big game for the Bears in many ways. The Lions are playing at home this week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one of the worst teams in the league. And while it’s possible the Bucs upset them, we can’t count on that. So the Bears need to win to keep pace with the NFC North frontrunner. Additionally, if the Bears can’t get into the playoffs by winning the division, they have to start looking at tiebreakers for the wild card, and conference wins is a big factor. With the Rams being a conference foe, the Bears have to take care of them.
Is it possible that I’m underestimating the Rams’ pass rush? Yes. It’s also possible I’m overestimating the Bears’ pass protection. And what’s more is that I could be overvaluing the Bears’ offensive production and Trestman’s value to their success. But I don’t see the Bears losing this one. Whether they give up 20 points or more to the Rams’ offense, the point could be moot, because I don’t see the Rams matching up well with what the Bears do on offense.
It could be another shootout for the Bears this week and I’ll take the team with the better offense every time.
Prediction: Chicago 27, St. Louis 23