The Chicago Bears (7-1) take on the Houston Texans (7-1) this evening on Sunday Night Football. It is only the seventh time since the merger that two teams with one or fewer losses have faced each other in Week 10 or later. The Bears are looking for their seventh straight win.
The two franchises have faced each other just three times, the fewest matchups for the Bears against any opponent. The Texans hold a 2-0 lead in the series. They are the only team Chicago has never defeated. The two teams last met in Houston in 2008, a 31-24 victory for the Texans.
Bears on Offense
Chicago's offensive rankings
Points scored: 3rd (29.5)
Total offense: 25th (324.4)
Rushing offense: 11th (128.5)
Passing offense: 29th (195.9)
Houston's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 4th (17.1)
Total defense: 3rd (286.1)
Rushing defense: 2nd (82.4)
Passing defense: 4th (203.8)
Turnover ratio: 6th (+8)
Matchups to Watch
RG Lance Louis vs. DE J.J. Watt
In Houston's 3-4 scheme, the responsibility of blocking Watt, who leads the NFL in sacks (10.5), will fall mainly on Louis. He'll get help from RT Gabe Carimi on occasion but it'll be up to Louis to keep one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the league under wraps. Watt has a full arsenal of pass rush move and leads all defensive linemen in tipped passes (10). He's also solid against the run and has the second most tackles for the Texans. Louis has been Chicago's most consistent blocker this season and will need to have his best game of the year against Watt.
WR Earl Bennett vs. CB Kareem Jackson
The Texans will line up All Pro CB Johnathan Joseph across from WR Brandon Marshall this game. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said this week he plans on doubling Marshall throughout the contest, meaning Bennett will get a lot of one-on-one matchups with Jackson, who has been solid this season and leads the teams in interceptions (3). The Bears have been slowly working Bennett into the passing game but so far he's been a disappointment. This is the game he must step up, so that Houston can't focus all their attention on Marshall.
Keys on Offense
-The forecast for the game calls for a 100-percent chance of rain, meaning it will be cold, wet, sloppy and windy. This could hinder the ability of both teams to throw the ball down the field. Likely, the club that's able to run the ball better is the one that is going to win. Chicago must lean heavily on Matt Forte, as well as Michael Bush. The onus falls on coordinator Mike Tice to stay committed and not get pass happy after a few bad runs or series. It also falls on the offensive line to be physical up front, creating holes against the second best run defense in the league. If the run game falters, the entire offense will follow.
-The Texans boast a pair of strong safeties in Glover Quin and Danieal Manning. When the Texans bring Manning, who is strong against the run, into the box, that will leave just Quin deep. Those are the situations in which the Bears should test Houston with the deep ball. Yet when both safeties are back, with the weather possibly creating havoc, the Bears would be best served utilizing the underneath passing game. That should include Forte out of the backfield, as well as tight end Kellen Davis, who should have an advantage over Houston's linebackers.
-The biggest key is the use of Brandon Marshall. If the Texans do double team him during this contest, Tice has to have a plan in using Marshall as a decoy, or designing two-man routes that can exploit bracket coverage. Chicago's passing attack will go as far as Marshall will take them. If he is shut down, things will get ugly.
Bears on Defense
Chicago's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 2nd (15.0)
Total defense: 6th (318.1)
Rushing defense: 6th (88.0)
Passing defense: 16th (230.1)
Turnover ratio: 1st (+16)
Houston's offensive rankings
Points scored: 2nd (29.6)
Total offense: 12th (371.8)
Rushing offense: 8th (138.0)
Passing offense: 16th (233.8)
Matchups to Watch
CB Charles Tillman vs. WR Andre Johnson
With Texans TE Owen Daniels questionable, the onus on Johnson increases. Yet he faces arguably the hottest cornerback in the NFL in Tillman, who shut down Detroit's Calvin Johnson in man coverage a few weeks ago. Tillman has 43 tackles this year (second most on the team) to go with two interceptions, both returned for touchdowns, and a league-best seven forced fumbles. If Tillman can shut down Johnson, the Texans will struggle to move the ball through the air.
LB Brian Urlacher vs. RB Arian Foster
Foster leads the AFC in rushing yards (770) and is the key cog in Houston's offense. Everything goes through him, particularly in a game with inclement weather imminent. No running back in the league has toted the rock more than Foster (192 rushes). Don't expect that to change tonight. The Texans will likely run right at Urlacher, whose knee still isn't fully recovered. That said, Urlacher is improving and will need to have his best game of the year if he's going to help keep Foster in check.
Keys on Defense
-NT Stephen Paea has a big role this weekend. He is Chicago's primary run stopper on the defensive line. If he can penetrate and force the Texans to double him, that will open up room for Urlacher and Lance Briggs to make plays. Houston's zone-blocking scheme relies on pinpoint coordination with the front five. When one guy fails to do his job, gaps open up, of which Paea and fellow DT Henry Melton must take advantage. Penetration into the backfield will surely slow down Foster, forcing him to cutback into the teeth of Chicago's defense.
-At the point of attack, LB Nick Roach must be stout. Because the Texans are a run-first team, the Bears won't go as heavy on the nickel package this week, meaning Roach will see more time on the field. If he can set the edge and force Foster to cut back into Briggs, it will go a long way toward shutting down Houston's run game.
-S Major Wright has been outstanding in the box. His read, react and tackling have all been above average. Against the Texans, he'll again be used near the line of scrimmage. If he can serve as an effective fourth linebacker, Foster won't have much room to run.
-Texans LT Duane Brown is one of the best blindside protectors in the game. He's also a very good run blocker. Because of this, DE Julius Peppers will likely be shifted all over the defensive line. Expect defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to be very creative in his defensive line formations, with shifts and stunts designed to get pressure on QB Matt Schaub, a pure pocket passer that will be no threat to run on a wet field. If the Bears can limit Foster and pressure Schaub, Chicago will win its seventh straight.
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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.