The Chicago Bears are riding a five-game win streak heading into today's game. A victory over the Oakland Raiders would propel them past the Detroit Lions into the top wild card spot in the NFC. Yet this will be no easy task.
The Raiders boast a strong roster and have won two straight themselves. They have a veteran quarterback, Carson Palmer, whose comfort level with his new team grows each week, and a defense that is stingy at home. For Chicago, they'll begin their playoff run without quarterback Jay Cutler. Today, the Caleb Hanie project begins.
The Bears will be without Cutler (thumb) as well as nickel corner D.J. Moore (ankle), who will be replaced by Corey Graham. WR Devin Hester (shin) and S Brandon Meriweather (concussion) are both listed as probable and expected to play. Other than that, the Bears are relatively healthy.
The Raiders, on the other hand, are banged up. The team has ruled out QB Jason Campbell (collarbone), WR Jacoby Ford (foot), RB Darren McFadden (foot) and DE Jarvis Moss (hamstring). Nine players are listed as questionable: WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (neck), DE Lamarr Houston (knee), S Michael Huff (ankle), CB Chris Johnson (hamstring/groin), RB Taiwan Jones (hamstring), S Michael Mitchell (ankle), WR Denarius Moore (foot), DT Richard Seymour (knee) and RB Manase Tonga (knee).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Matchups to watch
G Edwin Williams
LG Edwin Williams vs. DT Tommie Kelly
The Raiders' pass rush is most dangerous up the middle, specifically from defensive tackles Tomie Kelly and Richard Seymour. The two have combined for 10.5 sacks this season. Williams held his own last week against the Chargers but the Raiders present a much tougher challenge. Keeping Hanie upright will be crucial today, so Williams, as well as C Roberto Garza and RG Chris Spencer, must keep the Raiders' defensive tackles at bay.
TE Kellen Davis vs. LB Rolando McClain
For an inexperienced quarterback like Hanie, a tight end is his best friend. Davis' size will offer Hanie a big target over the middle. He'll need this outlet against what will surely be a heavy pass rush from the Raiders. McClain is decent in coverage but won't be able to handle Davis one-on-one. In passing situations, Davis needs to find the open spaces between the seams and provide Hanie with an outlet target.
-The Raiders are going to stack the box for most the game, forcing Hanie to beat them through the air. If they are successful in shutting down Matt Forte and the Bears' rushing attack, forcing Hanie to throw the ball 40 times, things will get ugly. So it's imperative the run game continues to be a threat throughout the contest. Even if Forte isn't picking up big chunks on the ground, coordinator Mike Martz cannot revert to his pass-happy ways. He'll need to feed Forte early and often if this offense is going to move the ball consistently.
-If Forte can have success on the ground, that will open things up for the play action pass. The Raiders' young linebackers bite hard on play action and can be exploited by using play fakes. They key is to keep giving Forte touches and follow those up with easy play-action completions.
-The Raiders are going to bring the blitz early and often. That means LB Kamerion Wimbley, who leads the team in sacks, is going to be a busy man. He's a speedy edge rusher who gets up field very quickly. He typically comes off the right edge, meaning Lance Louis needs to have another big day. Keeping Wimbley out of the backfield will be crucial in helping build Hanie's confidence in the pocket.
-Oakland likes to blitz its safeties as well, specifically Tyvon Branch, who serves more as a fourth linebacker than a safety. He leads the team in tackles and can be extremely disruptive in a manner similar to Green Bay's Charles Woodson. The offense needs to know where Branch is on the field at all times.
-At the cornerback position, the Raiders are dangerously thin. As such, the nickelback for their secondary is backup safety Matt Giordano. WR Earl Bennett needs to take advantage of that matchup out of the slot. Oakland uses a lot of zone coverage in base sets but likes to switch to man coverage when blitzing. If Bennett is lined up with Giordano one-on-one, he'll need to make the defense pay.
-The main key for Hanie is getting the ball out quickly, especially against the blitz. If nothing presents itself after a few seconds, tuck it down and run. There's no need for him to be forcing passes into tight windows. The offense needs to utilize three-step drops, slants, drags, quick hitches and outs, and use Hanie's legs when things break down. Avoid turnovers at all costs.
Matchups to watch
DE Israel Idonije
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
DE Israel Idonije vs. RT Khalif Barnes
On one side of the line, Julius Peppers will face off against T Jared Veldheer, a young, promising edge blocker who held Minnesota's Jared Allen in check last week. So Peppers will have his hands full. Which is why Idonije needs to make his presence felt. Barnes is a finesse blocker. Idonije needs to use his brute strength to knock Barnes around and finally make his presence felt as a pass rusher. Someone besides Peppers needs to step up and provide the necessary pressure on Carson Palmer.
S Chris Conte vs. WR Louis Murphy & WR Chaz Schilens
Starting wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey (neck) may not play, and he'll be limited even if he does. That leaves Murphy and Schilens on the outside. Neither player runs great routes or has great hands but both can flat out fly. Even with the weak-armed Palmer, the Raiders still like to air out down the field. This week, due to the injuries to Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore, Oakland's offense won't have any other choice. Conte must make sure those deep bombs fall incomplete.
-First and foremost, the Bears have to keep Michael Bush in check. The Raiders are third in the league in rushing and have fed Bush the ball 30 or more times the past two weeks with McFadden out. Expect that to continue this afternoon. He's a powerful runner with good speed; the type of player that gets better as the game wears on. Expect the Bears to keep a lot of players close to the line, with S Major Wright up near the box in most rushing situations. Considering Oakland's issues at wide receiver, stopping Bush is absolutely crucial.
-Palmer deals with the blitz pretty well. He's a smart signal caller who knows when to get the ball out quickly. Yet he's not going to extend plays with his feet, so there's no real worry about him scrambling for big yardage. If the Bears can get pressure in his face, particularly with defensive tackles Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye, it will make life miserable for Palmer, and lead to sacks and turnovers.
-Don't sleep on WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh on third downs. The former Pro Bowler is a shell of the player he once was, but he's still a smart receiver who knows how to exploit zone coverage from the slot position. He and Palmer have a strong rapport, having played together for six years in Cincinnati. Corey Graham needs to continue his solid play by keeping the ball out of Houshmandzadeh's hands on third down.
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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.