Bears-Cowboys Ultimate Game Preview

More detail than is probably necessary about Thursday’s contest between the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys, including statistics of note, matchups to watch, keys to the game and much more.

The Chicago Bears (5-7) will square off against the Dallas Cowboys (8-4) on Thursday Night Football at 7:15 CT at Soldier Field.

It will be the 25th meeting between the two franchises, with the Cowboys holding a 13-11 all-time lead. The two teams are meeting for the third straight year on prime-time national television. The Bears won the last two contests, both on Monday Night Football, 34-18 at Cowboys Stadium in 2012 and 45-28 at Soldier Field in 2013.

Chicago is 2-3 at home this season, winning their last two games at Soldier Field versus the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both by the score of 21-13.

This will be the first of three straight contests for the Bears at Soldier Field.

INJURY REPORT

For the Bears, LB Darryl Sharpton (hamstring) will not play. K Robbie Gould (right quadricep) and DE Cornelius Washington (chest) are doubtful.

To replace Gould, the team today signed 13-year veteran kicker Jay Feely.

Questionable for Chicago are S Chris Conte (eye), WR Alshon Jeffery (hamstring) and DT Jeremiah Ratliff (knee). All three will be game-time decisions.

Probable for the Bears are TE Martellus Bennett (foot), CB Tim Jennings (groin), G Kyle Long (calf) and DE Trevor Scott (knee).

For the Cowboys, S Jeff Heath (thumb), CB Tyler Patmon (knee/ankle) and LB Dekoda Watson (hamstring) have been declared out. DE Demarcus Lawrence (chest) is doubtful.

The following Dallas players are probable:

DT Josh Brent (groin) DE Tyrone Crawford (knee) T Doug Free (foot) DT Nick Hayden (shoulder) LB Rolando McClain (knee) QB Tony Romo (back) DE George Selvie (thumb) T Tyron Smith (illness) WR Terrance Williams (finger)

THE CUTLER REPORT

Jay Cutler’s 2014 Statistics

GP/GSComp.Att. YardsTDINTRating
Jay Cutler12/122984483,105241491.2

Jay Cutler came out firing against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day, throwing two touchdown passes to Alshon Jeffery in the first quarter. Yet after building a 14-3 lead, Cutler and the offense reverted back to their inconsistent and inefficient ways, scoring just three points total in the final three quarters.

Cutler was harassed in the pocket all game and was sacked three times. He turned the ball over three times – two interceptions, one lost fumble – and had a 76.1 QB rating, his third lowest of the season.

Cutler wasn’t helped by his offensive line or his head coach, Marc Trestman, who called just seven total runs in the game. He threw 48 passes in the contest, his second highest attempt total of the season, and struggled to move the ball in a one-dimensional offense.

I’ve been hard on Cutler all season but he didn’t cost the Bears a win last Thursday. That was a team loss in every sense of the word.

Statistically, Cutler is still on pace for his best NFL season. His 91.2 passer rating and 66.5 completion percentage are career highs, while he needs just four more touchdowns to set his single-season best. Yet he’s also on pace for his most interceptions since throwing 26 in 2009, and has already tied season highs in fumbles (11) and fumbles lost (6).

Cutler’s 20 total turnovers are a league high and the team has won just one game this year when he’s thrown an interception (Week 11 vs. Minnesota).

Cutler Career vs. Cowboys

GP/GSComp. Att.YardsTDINTRating
Jay Cutler2/2395355250138.2

Cutler has played very well in two career contests against the Cowboys, throwing five touchdowns and zero interceptions. Dallas has a below-average secondary (22nd against the pass) and their 19 team sacks are 28th in the league.

There should be room to pass the ball down the field and Cutler will likely have plenty of time in the pocket. If Trestman has developed a semi-cohesive game plan – a big question mark at this point in the season – there’s no reason Cutler can’t throw for 300-plus and multiple touchdowns.

As always, turnovers will be key. Cutler and the offense must protect the ball to keep a run-heavy Dallas offense from controlling time of possession.

HEAD-TO-HEAD COMPARISON

BEARS (NFL Rank) COWBOYS (NFL Rank)
21.1 (21st)Points Scored 25.2 (10th)
340.1 (20th)Total Offense377.3 (8th)
93.2 (26th)Rushing Offense145.3 (2nd)
246.9 (14th)Passing Offense231.9 (17th)
28.1 (T-30th)Points Allowed22.8 (16th)
376.2 (26th)Total Defense364.1 (22nd)
105.5 (11th)Rushing Defense119.6 (22nd)
270.7 (30th)Passing Defense244.5 (20th)
4 (T-22nd)Turnover Ratio3 (T-19th)

BEARS ON OFFENSE

Matchups to Watch

G Kyle Long vs. DT Henry Melton

Dallas coordinator Rod Marinelli uses a heavy defensive-line rotation and Henry Melton is the team’s top pass rusher in nickel situations. Melton’s 5.0 sacks lead the Cowboys and Bears fans are well aware of the potential impact the former Pro Bowler can have on passing downs. Kyle Long has played very well this year and must once again be stout against Melton to keep Cutler upright in the pocket.

“Whenever [Long] got here, he was just a really raw talent. You could see that he was going to develop into a great player,” Cutler said this week. “But I think he’s done a great job of listening to [the coaches] and really taken the techniques to heart and learning how to be an offensive lineman in their system, and now his guy doesn’t get through. He’s pretty much locked down over there.”

If Long isn’t on lock down tomorrow and Melton is able to collapse the pocket in Cutler’s face, the Bears’ struggling passing attack will have no chance of picking up steam.

TE Martellus Bennett vs. LB Rolando McClain

Martellus Bennett is arguably the most dangerous weapon in Chicago’s offense. He’s a mismatch nightmare in the middle of the field and in the red zone, and he’s easily the toughest tight end in the league to tackle. He’s third on the team in receptions (65) and second in receiving yards (737), and he’s coming off an eight-catch, 109-yard outing against the Lions last week.

If the Bears want to move the ball through the air on Thursday, they must utilize Bennett. Yet that’s easier said than done, as Rolando McClain is an outstanding coverage linebacker who is tied for the Cowboys’ team lead with two interceptions.

Keys to the Game

-Alshon Jeffery has officially passed Brandon Marshall as Chicago’s No. 1 wide receiver. Jeffery leads the team in targets (107) and receiving yards (854) and is second only to Matt Forte in receptions (67). Due to a lingering hamstring injury, Jeffery is a game-time decision. He practiced yesterday, which is a good sign for the Bears, who need him on the field tomorrow.

Something is not right with Brandon Marshall, whether that’s between his ears or due to his ankle injuries, he is not the same dominant player he’s been throughout his career. Force-feeding him passes used to be the only way Chicago could move the ball through the air, now it’s a surefire way to stall the offense.

Which is why Jeffery needs to play and play well. The Cowboys cornerbacks have been very generous this year, particularly Brandon Carr, who appears to have mailed it after cashing in as a free agent. Carr has been repeatedly abused by opposing wide receivers, with zero interceptions and just seven passes defended.

This is a matchup Cutler, Trestman and Jeffery must exploit.

-Most times, the simplest answer is usually the right one. With that in mind, the Bears have to run Matt Forte early and often. The Cowboys will want to keep control of the ball with their power run game and the Bears must match them in that effort.

Cutler threw 48 passes last week, his highest single-game total since Week 1. Not surprisingly, the Bears lost. Cutler, the offensive line, the offensive coordinator, the receivers, the front office and the entire city of Chicago know that Forte is the team’s best weapon on offense. Trestman needs to realize that as well and feed his workhorse.

If the Bears can win the time of possession battle, they’ll severely limit Dallas’ methodical offense and force the ball into Tony Romo’s hands.

-Rolando McClain is the Cowboys’ best defensive player. He’s an athletic linebacker who can matchup one-on-one in coverage, yet he’s also a thumper against the run. McClain’s 36 run stops lead the team and are 13th most amongst NFL middle linebackers (per Pro Football Focus).

“Rolando McClain is a big, strong run-stopping linebacker,” Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said this week. “He’s really been physical in their front and they are an aggressive group and the thing that you see is they are really dialed into their gaps that they have and how to fit them. You can see Rod Marinelli has done a nice job of making sure everyone is on the same page in their fronts with their fits and how to fit it.”

The Bears must have a plan for McClain on every snap, yet defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford has the potential to be just as disruptive. Crawford is second on the team in QB hurries (19, per PFF), while his 17 run stops are the most of any Dallas defensive linemen. In the run game and in pass protection, if anyone is going to get double-teamed, it needs to be Crawford.

-LT Jermon Bushrod has struggled mightily of late and it appears his knee injury is holding him back. That’s not good news, as Cowboys defensive end Jeremy Mincey is dangerous off the edge. He’s second on the team in sacks (3.0) and leads the team in QB hurries (28). Bushrod needs to get his act together or Mincey is going to cause havoc from Cutler’s blindside.

BEARS ON DEFENSE

Matchups to Watch

RB DeMarco Murray vs. Bears Front Seven

The Cowboys boast one of the best offensive lines in the game, which features five maulers up front. DeMarco Murray is the league leader in rushing (1,427 yards, nearly 300 more than any other running back).

The Bears have allowed a lot of points this year but their run defense has quietly gotten the job done. The unit is nearly Top 10, ranking 11th in the NFL against the run.

Defensive tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea are playing at a very high level and must be stout inside. The burden also falls on rookies Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, who will see plenty of reps as the Bears try to keep the defensive line fresh.

Yet the real onus falls on the linebackers, who will be without Lance Briggs. In particular, Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin must be sound in their run fits. McClellin has struggled to stand up at the point of attack all season and if he crumbles at the hands of fullback Tyler Clutts, a former Bear, then Murray is going to quickly get to the second level.

This one is real simple: if Murray runs wild, the Bears will get blown out. Contain Murray and Chicago has a shot of keeping Dallas’ offense in check.

WR Dez Bryant vs. CB Kyle Fuller

Kyle Fuller has hit the rookie wall. He started the campaign as if shot out of a gun, picking up three interceptions in the first three games, yet hasn’t had a pick since. Last week, Fuller was abused with extreme prejudice by Lions receiver Calvin Johnson (11 catches, 146 yards, 2 TDs).

Things don’t get any easier for Fuller this week, who will face another elite wideout in Dez Bryant, whose 952 receiving yards are 10th most in the NFL. Bryant is deadly in the red zone, as evidenced by his 10 receiving touchdowns (2nd most in the league). Yet he’s also a big-time weapon after the catch.

Bryant serves as the Cowboys’ only legitimate receiving threat (Jason Witten may be joining AARP soon), so it only makes sense for the Bears to bracket Bryant on nearly every snap. Coordinator Mel Tucker didn’t do that last week, choosing instead to put a rookie on an island against Megatron, and they got burned.

Hopefully for the Bears, Tucker learned his lesson and Fuller will have safety help over the top. If not, expect Bryant to have a big day.

Keys to the Game

-The Cowboys have given up 25 sacks this year, so there will be opportunities for Chicago’s defensive line to get after Tony Romo. If the Bears can keep Murray from killing them on the ground and force the ball into Romo’s hands, pass rush will be key.

Since 2006, the year Romo took over as Dallas’ quarterback, the Cowboys are 12-17 in the month of December. Romo, particularly in cold outdoor games late in the season, makes a lot of mistakes. If the Bears can pressure him in the pocket, that will force him into “hero” mode, which could lead to some timely turnovers.

-The weak link up front for the Cowboys, if you can call him a weak link, is LG Ronald Leary. If the Bears can stunt at Leary on passing downs, they’ll find room in Romo’s face.

-Jason Witten’s best days are behind him but the Bears can’t forget about him, particularly near the goal line. Witten has four touchdown grabs in the past seven games and three in Dallas’ past three contests. If Chicago’s linebackers are too concerned about Murray and the run game, Witten will make them pay.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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