Co-hosts of Bear Report Radio, Jeremy Stoltz of Bear Report and Brett Solesky of MidwayIllustrated.com, discuss a six-pack of keys for the Chicago Bears in tonight's prime-time matchup with the Houston Texans.
1. With the Texans such a strong running team and Major Wright a strong in the box run-stopping safety do the Bears play more single high safety to stop the run and trust Tillman and Jennings to slow down the passing game?
JS: Yes. Outside of Andre Johnson, the Texans don't pose much of a threat at wide receiver. Tight end Owen Daniels is second on the team in targets, catches and receiving yards, yet he's a game-time decision with a back injury. So the Bears should be able to leave one safety deep and use Charles Tillman one-on-one with Johnson on the outside. Houston's offense starts with running back Arian Foster. When he gets going on the ground, that opens up their deadly play-action attack. With Chicago's aggressive defense, that could spell doom. Sliding Wright into the box will be absolutely necessary, especially in a game where there is a 100-percent chance of rain.
BS: With Andre Johnson not being the same type of wide receiver this late in his career as he was a couple of years ago the Bears' best bet would be to bring Wright down into the box. Let Tillman and Jennings make the plays they're capable of in coverage and focus on stopping Arian Foster and the run game. Add to it Brian Urlacher's struggles this season in run defense and the Bears would be best to do whatever they can to stop the run first.
JS: Matt Forte. In the three games Alshon Jeffery has missed, neither Devin Hester nor Earl Bennett has stepped up to claim the No. 2 role in Chicago's passing attack. Hester is far too inconsistent and Bennett has struggled to get open. Tight end Kellen Davis, while explosive at times, has been a disappointment as well. My bet is on Forte, who should be a weapon out of the backfield on a windy, rainy night, which could limit the deep pass. If Forte gets the ball in open space, the slick turf should help him get plenty of yards after the catch.
BS: At this point I have no idea which player is going to step up in the absence of Alshon Jeffery to take the heat off of Marshall. Earl Bennett has been and continues to be a major disappointment this season and the Bears are likely better off adding a better receiver in the off-season. Hester isn't any good either and it's apparent that the Bears miss Johnny Knox's ability to stretch the field.
3. Should the Bears have active four defensive tackles in this game to deal with the Texans running game?
JS: It makes sense to activate an extra DT to help plug up holes in the middle. That means the Bears keep eight defensive linemen, which would likely force the team to sit a special teams player. In cold, sloppy conditions, field position, created in large part by special teams, will be at a premium. Playing Amobi Okoye means someone like Anthony Walters, Eric Weems, Blake Costanzo or Sherrick McManis, all core special teams players, will have to sit. I think it's worth it to start four defensive tackles but it'll weaken another area of the team.
BS: I think the Bears would be better off playing a fourth DT in this game, even though Amobi Okoye has been less than stellar this season. Peppers' production overall has declined and I think part of that decline in production is having to deal with the mess inside. Shea McClellin has been severely inconsistent this season and struggles against the run. I know it's hard to imagine putting McClellin on the bench as an inactive, but I'm just not as high on his abilities as a lot of the other analysts are. Bench McClellin to strengthen the run game because Wotton is the more complete player for the game against the Texans.
4. Which role player or back up needs to step up and have a big game among Wootton, McClellin, Collins etc.
JS: I would like to see Collins be stout on the inside, helping to keep Foster swallowed up. But I think Nick Roach is very important in this game in run situations. His ability to disrupt at the point of attack will be key in forcing Foster to cut back into the teeth of Chicago's defense. If Roach gets pummeled and Foster is able to turn the corner on Houston's very effective zone stretch runs, he'll eat up Chicago's defense on the ground.
BS: I'd like to see Kelvin Hayden or Nate Collins have a big impact in this game. Hayden because he's big and physical and can match up well with the Texans' best receivers all of who go 6-foot-3 or bigger. Collins because he is so stout against the run and would keep the DT rotation fresh to slow down Foster.
5. With the Texans such a strong run stopping defense, what should the Bears do to try get the run game going? Should they pass first to open up the run or try and run to establish the pass?
JS: A pass-first approach with Jay Cutler at the helm, a consistently slow starter this season, scares me. It could lead to an early deficit. I think the Bears just need to be better along the line of scrimmage. Run Forte and Bush early and often, and continue to do so even if yards are hard to come by at first. Eventually, the sloppy conditions will help create some big gainers on the ground. Then you use your play action, as well as a heavy dose of screen passes, to get chunks through the air.
BS: The fact that the Bears haven't allowed Matt Forte to find the rhythm on offense he needs to have a big game makes me wonder why the re-signed him this year to such a big contract. What are they waiting for? You have a franchise RB who you paid extremely well that is the most well rounded RB in the NFL, yet Mike Tice refuses to make him an integral part of the offense. This is the most important game of the season to this point so hopefully based on how few carries Forte has had this season they can turn him loose for the stretch run and ride that horse to the finish. Get off the bus running because it's what this offense does best, and it's the best way to slow down the Texans' pass rush.
6. Lastly what type of game do you expect Jay Cutler to have?
JS: Cutler has played some of his worst games in prime time, which includes the Week 2 stinker this year against the Packers (11 of 27, 126 yards, 4 INTs). If the weather is as bad as predicted, I don't see him having a strong game through the air. In a contest like this one, he needs to be more Kyle Orton than Drew Brees. If Cutler can just manage the game and not turn the ball over, as well as use his legs to gain yards on the ground when Houston's front seven starts getting too aggressive, that should be enough for the Bears to earn the victory.
BS: This game reminds of the game against the Philadelphia Eagles game of two years ago. Both teams were playoff caliber, with Michael Vick getting MVP talk and everyone talking about how explosive they were on offense and how the Bears didn't stand a chance. Everything centered on how good the Eagles were how they were clicking on all cylinders and so forth. They came strolling into Soldier Field and Cutler threw four touchdowns, and the Bears absolutely romped. Now on the flip side the Eagles didn't have the defense that the Texans have, but I expect Cutler to go out and have his best game of the season. I don't see him throwing for four touchdowns, but I could see him leading the Bears to victory in this game.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Brett Solesky is publisher of MidwayIllustrated.com.