Matchups to watch
WR Earl Bennett vs. CB Dante Hughes
With Devin Hester healthy, the Bears will once again use Bennett out of the slot. This means, for most passing plays, he'll be matched up with Hughes, the Chargers' nickel corner. Hughes can be a pest in tight areas, on quick routes and underneath patterns, but he lacks size and speed. Chicago should work Bennett deep and let him use his wheels to create separation downfield. Hughes also struggles as a tackler. Using bubble screens and quick hitches will get Bennett in space against the defender, where one missed tackle could turn into a big gain.
RT Lance Louis vs. LB Antwan Barnes
Barnes leads San Diego in sacks (6.0) as a situational rusher. With the injury to Shaun Phillips (foot) Barnes will be asked to step in as the starter. That may wear him down a bit late in the game but it's doubtful the Chargers' staff will hold him back. He'll be coming after Jay Cutler early and often. He blitzes from both sides of the formation but mainly from the offense's right side. This means Louis, who has been outstanding of late, will be the man to keep Barnes at bay. San Diego uses a lot of creative blitzes with their 3-4 defense but Barnes is priority number one.
-In order for the Bears to run the ball successfully between the tackles, NT Antonio Garay must be subdued. He's a big-bodied, two-gap space eater that anchors well in the middle. It will be up to Roberto Garza to make sure Garay isn't allowed to clog up the running lanes. Garza will need help from his guards, Chris Spencer and Edwin Williams, but Chicago can't afford to double team Garay on every play. Some feel Garza is playing at a Pro Bowl level this year. This will be his chance to prove it.
-Spencer and Williams will have their hands full at the second level trying to corral middle linebackers Takeo Spike and Donald Butler – San Diego's two leading tacklers. Spencer has shown outstanding vision and awareness at the second level. He's great at getting his body in position to cut off linebackers. Yet Williams is making his first start of the season, so we'll see how he performs in space. The key for Williams is to make it simple: know the player he has to block before the snap and then take the proper angle. If he can accomplish this on a regular basis, Matt Forte will have a big day.
-Chicago's passing attack needs to stay away from S Eric Weddle, who leads the league in interceptions (5). He does a great job of reading quarterbacks from his deep safety spot and is very quick breaking on the ball. If Cutler is going to test Weddle, he has to use his eyes to freeze the safety in the middle of the field. If Cutler stares down a receiver, Weddle's chances of making a big play increase tenfold.
-The better bet in the passing game would be to go after S Steve Gregory, an experienced player who lacks ideal athleticism in coverage. He's solid in the box but can be exploited by quicker receivers. Coordinator Mike Martz needs to dial up plays that look to confuse Gregory, or flood his zone. In man coverage, the Bears should try to get Gregory matched up on Forte whenever possible. This would be a mismatch of epic proportions, one Chicago could exploit all day for good chunks of yardage. Even TE Kellen Davis would be too much for Gregory to handle.
Matchups to watch
DT Henry Melton vs. G Tony Moll
The Chargers are depleted at offensive line, with three starters out for this game. They signed Moll this week, a journeyman offensive lineman that was cut by the Ravens before the season and has been sitting at home all year. He'll start at right guard with only a few days of practice under his belt. Melton, and fellow under tackle Amobi Okoye, must take advantage of this situation. Physically, Moll is not ready to play and mentally, as far as knowing the system and the players around him, Moll will be lacking. Melton must use his quickness to abuse Moll all day and apply pressure directly in the face of Phillip Rivers.
CB Charles Tillman vs. WR Vincent Jackson
The Bears have recently used more Cover 1 than Cover 2, lining up the corners up tight in man coverage on the receivers. Last week, Tillman held the best receiver in the league, Detroit's Calvin Johnson, in check. Physically, he worked over Johnson, never allowing him to get in a rhythm. Jackson is the same type of receiver: a tall wideout with great speed. I expect the Bears to shadow Jackson with Tillman in order to take away the Charger's biggest weapon in the passing game. If he can do to Jackson what he did to Johnson last week, San Diego will have a very hard time moving the ball downfield.
-The Bears must pressure Rivers early and often. The Chargers will be without their starting left tackle Marcus McNeill, meaning Julius Peppers will be facing backup Brandyn Dombrowski. Poor kid. Peppers is playing at an elite level right now and should have a field day against the youngster. Expect the Chargers to use tight ends and running backs to chip on Peppers, which should open things up for the rest of the defensive linemen. For if they don't, and they put Dombrowski out on an island, Peppers will eat him for lunch.
-The Chargers like to push the ball deep. That won't change this afternoon, especially if the Bears deviate from their base Cover 2 and use more man coverage. This means S Chris Conte is going to be tested down the field. He's done a great job of keeping opposing defenses in front of him since becoming the starter. This could be his biggest test yet, as Rivers won't be afraid to test the rookie over the top. If Conte can stay within the system and not allow receivers to get behind him, the Bears shouldn't have any problem shutting down San Diego's deep passing attack.
-The Bears cannot sleep on TE Antonio Gates. Age and injuries have worn him down the past few years and he's no longer the dominant force he once was, but that doesn't mean he can be ignored. Gates still runs great routes, has great hands and knows how to find the soft spots in zone coverage. Rivers still looks his way often, so Chicago's linebackers will need to be cognizant of where Gates is on the field at all times and not allow him to do damage on underneath and seam routes.
-San Diego has a potent one-two rushing attack with Ryan Matthews and Mike Tolbert. Matthews is developing into one of the most dangerous all-around backs in the league, while Tolbert is a power runner who almost never goes down on the first hit. Both are dangerous as pass catchers as well. If these two get going, the Bears' defense will be in for a long afternoon. The defensive linemen must hold their ground against the rush, while the linebackers and safeties, particularly Major Wright, must be patient, stay in their gaps and wrap up. If the Chargers are unable to run the ball and are forced into a one-dimensional attack, it will play right into the Bears' hands. At that point, Rivers will get frustrated – as he always does – and we'll see him berate his teammates, coaches and the referees. Once that asinine behavior begins, it will be lights out for the visiting team.
Follow me on Twitter: @BearReport
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.