Bears vs. Seahawks: What to Watch for Sunday

Everyone expected to handle the Packers at Lambeau Field. The Lions weren't supposed to be much of a challenge at Soldier Field. And the Vikings are tough in the Metrodome, but they are not a serious contender yet. The real test for the 3-0 Bears comes today as the defending NFC champion Seahawks pay a visit to Chicago in prime time. Here are 10 things to watch for in tonight's game.

1. Will the real Rex Grossman please stand up?
Grossman has made monumental strides this season and was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for September this week by the NFL. But despite his 829 passing yards and six touchdown passes through three games, he has still been intercepted three times, one of which he had returned for a TD last week in Minnesota. A few more potential picks have been dropped by defenders, and Boss Bailey of the Lions returned another for a score that was negated by a penalty in Week 2. It was great to see him recover after last Sunday's catastrophic mistake and rally his team to a victory, but the fourth-year QB still needs to learn when to throw the ball away. Seattle has a very talented secondary, and a prime time audience will only add to the pressure Grossman may be feeling.

2. Can Alex Brown have any success against Walter Jones?
Brown is one of the more well-rounded defensive ends in the NFL, capable of harrassing quarterbacks all day yet still able to provide solid run support. He will meet his biggest challenge of the season against the Seahawks because he will be lining up opposite Jones, the best offensive tackle in football. The left side of Seattle's line isn't as good as it used to be with Steve Hutchinson now in Minnesota, but Jones is arguably the most dominant player in the league regardless of position. Brown catches a break considering MVP Shaun Alexander will miss the game with a cracked bone in his foot, but Maurice Morris is a talented backup. That being said, if Matt Hasselbeck has time to throw, he has the ability to pick apart the Chicago secondary.

3. Is Cedric Benson secretly in Lovie Smith's doghouse?
Coach Smith said all the right things at Halas Hall this past week, denying the accusations that Benson was moping on the sidelines during the Minnesota game and promising that his second-year tailback is a big part of this team's present and future. Still, it's hard to believe that considering the former Longhorn didn't even enter the huddle once against the Vikings. Starter Thomas Jones has been far from impressive, averaging only 3.0 yards per carry through three games and not scoring a single touchdown. Seattle is currently ranked second in the NFL defending the run, so if Jones once again can't get it going on the ground and Benson doesn't at least get a few series, something is obviously wrong. The Seahawks get most of their pressure up front with the front four, so his ability to pick up the blitz isn't an excuse this week.

4. How much will Seattle use their four-wide receiver formation?
Hasselbeck shredded the Giants secondary last Sunday to the tune of five touchdown passes, using four wide receivers to spread the defense and create mismatches. When those four wideouts are Darrel Jackson, Nate Burleson, Deion Branch, and Bobby Engram - all of whom are good enough to start in this league - defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has even more reason to be worried. One advantage the Bears have is that the four-wide set won't catch them off guard as it did New York. They have had plenty of time in the film room this week to find a way to defend it. Plus, Seattle will be susceptible to the rush in that formation because there is no fullback or tight end on the field to help protect the quarterback.

5. Can the Bears still throw the ball without Desmond Clark?
Grossman has played much better, Muhsin Muhammad has had two 100-yard efforts already, Bernard Berrian is looking more and more like a legitimate NFL starter, and Rashied Davis has been a pleasant surprise in the slot. That being said, perhaps the most important element of this rejuvenated passing game is the re-discovery of the tight end. Clark has occupied the middle of the field, made a ton of tough catches, and helped soften the outside or his receiving mates. He will be a game-time decision depending on how his sprained right foot feels today, but if he can't go, backups John Gilmore and Gabe Reid need to make an impact. Gilmore is a better blocker and Reid is a better receiver, so it will take both of them to make up for Clark's potential absence.

6. Does Maurice Morris stand any chance against the Bears D?
The Bears catch a huge break this week since Alexander was ruled out with that foot injury. Morris is one of the top backups in the NFL at the tailback position, but let's face it, he's not the reigning MVP of the league. Alexander's no-nonsense running style might have been troublesome for the Bears, but Morris is more of a slasher. The way to beat a fast defense is to run right at them and neutralize their speed, but Alexander is much more equipped to produce in that fashion. If Morris tries to cut east-and-west against the likes of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, expect a handful of stops behind the line of scrimmage.

7. When will the offensive line start to push people around again?
The Bears have one of the more experienced offensive lines in football, with the starting unit combining for more than 540 career NFL starts. Although the front wall has been very good in pass protection, the running game has been stuck in neutral all season long. The Seahawks led the league in sacks a year ago, with 32.5 of their 50 takedowns coming from their defensive front. Former Rams Bryce Fisher and Grant Wistrom are high-motor guys on the edges, and Rocky Bernard had 8.5 sacks in 2006 from his tackle position. Olin Kreutz & Company need to get bodies on athletic linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Julian Peterson, otherwise, Jones and Benson will struggle again.

8. Will the Bears need to implement a dime package on defense?
Since the Seahawks will most likely lean on their passing game with no Alexander, the aforementioned four-receiver look will put a lot of speed on the field at once. The Bears run a standard nickel defense in obvious passing situations, replacing strongside linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer with reserve cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. However, that still leaves the possibility of weakside linebacker Lance Briggs lining up against a slot receiver. Briggs is certainly one of the fastest in the league at his position, but covering wideouts down the field is not his strong suit. Don't expect the Bears to develop a dime package in the locker room at halftime or anything if they are getting exploited, but it could be something to watch down the road.

9. Are the Bears of 2006 just like the Seahawks of 2005?
A year ago, Seattle beat up on an inferior division and rode that momentum all the way to home-field advantage and a berth in Super Bowl XL. Few experts felt they were the best team in the NFC, but lo and behold, they were. This season, the Bears have already jumped out to a 3-0 record in the NFC North, and they should have little trouble repeating their division title. If they can rack up enough victories - they certainly have the schedule to do so - the road to Super Bowl XLI may have to go through Chicago. It may only be Week 4, but a win over the Seahawks could be humongous since the first playoff tiebreaker is head-to-head record.

10.How much of a factor will Soldier Field be in prime time?
The last time the Bears played on Sunday Night Football, they throttled a supposedly superior Atlanta team 16-3 in Week 15 last season. The atmosphere was electric, especially when Grossman, freshly recovered from a preseason ankle injury, trotted onto the field and took over for Kyle Orton. Needless to say, Bear Nation will have a few extra hours to get good and lubricated at their parking lot tailgate parties. Seattle boasts the '12th Man' at Qwest Field, but when the weather is good and crisp as it is expected to be tonight, Soldier Field can be a tough place to play for any opponent. If the Bears - or the fans, for that matter - can't get up for this game, something is seriously wrong along Lake Michigan.

I think they'll be ready.

JC


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