Bears at Jets: What to Watch for on Sunday

The 8-1 Bears travel to the Big Apple for the second week in a row, this time to face the 5-4 Jets. New York head coach Eric Mangini has the J-E-T-S playing better than expectations already, and Chicago front man Lovie Smith is coming off his second Coach of the Week award this season. Here are 10 things to watch for on Sunday afternoon at the Meadowlands.

1. Has Thomas Jones finally settled the running back debate?
Jones got off to a slow start against the Giants, but he finished strong and kept Cedric Benson on the sideline almost the entire second half. Jones carried a season-high 30 times for a season-high 113 yards and scored his fourth touchdown of 2006. He did lose a fumble - the first time he's done so all year - but was dominant in the second half and helped the Bears solidify themselves atop the NFC standings. There was a minor buzz floating around Halas Hall after the loss to the Dolphins that a change at tailback may be in order, but Jones's performance against the G-Men proved once again that he is the ball-carrier of the present in the Windy City. Benson will have his time, but for now, Jones is gaining momentum and getting better as the season goes along.

2. Is Brian Urlacher simply unstoppable this season?
Urlacher is one of the premier players in the game and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but 2006 may be his finest season yet. A sprained big toe near the end of the Miami game was supposed to keep him out of the lineup, but he was all over the field last Sunday against New York. He registered eight more tackles - seven of them solo - and helped shut down Eli Manning & Company. Urlacher again leads the team with 76 tackles this season and is a shoe-in for another Pro Bowl berth. He hasn't dented the stat sheet with too many big plays - he has no sacks and but one takeaway - but that is largely a product of the wealth of talent around him.

3. Can Rex Grossman get to 30 touchdown passes this year?
Grossman threw three more TD tosses last week against the Giants, bringing his season total to 17 in nine games. He is on pace for 30 scoring strikes, which would break the franchise record. Erik Kramer threw 29 back in 1995 running a Ron Turner offense this is very similar to the one Grossman is presently directing. With the emergence of Mark Bradley last week and the possible return of Bernard Berrian this week, all of a sudden, the Bears have as many quality receiving targets as any team in the league. Not to mention the fact that they have struggled to run the ball consistently in the red zone, so Grossman will get plenty of opportunities the rest of the way to air it out.

4. Is it officially time to worry about the rush defense?
After Tiki Barber shredded the Bears for 141 yards on only 19 carries, he become the third consecutive tailback to hit the century mark on the ground. San Francisco's Frank Gore went for 111 in Week 8 and Miami's Ronnie Brown racked up 157 in Week 9, a disturbing trend to say the least. Sloppy tackling has been the main culprit, but the loss of Mike Brown has to be a factor here. He's been out of action the last three games, but the last time he suited up, Arizona's Edgerrin James rushed 36 times for only 55 yards. Todd Johnson has been unspectacular replacing Brown and could lose his job to Chris Harris very soon.

5. Will Bernard Berrian be ready to go?
Berrian was enjoying a breakout season before bruising his ribs on the first play of the game in Week 9 against Miami. He was held out of last Sunday's game in New York as a precaution but practiced every day this week. Berrian is officially listed as questionable, but considering how good Bradley looked in his absence, Berrian knows he needs to get back out there if he wants to keep his starting job. Bradley caught four balls for 79 yards and a touchdown in his first significant action of the season and was able to stretch the field vertically with his speed. Since the Bears like to keep tight end Desmond Clark on the field in passing situations, it might be hard find room for both Berrian and Bradley.

6. Is Todd Johnson the right man to play strong safety?
Johnson played pretty well against the 49ers when he first replaced the injured Mike Brown, recording five tackles and forcing a pair of fumbles. Since then, he's been exposed from time to time and has been guilty of some missed tackles. Chris Harris, last season's starter at free safety, is healthy again and saw some action at strong safety in the second half last week. He even had an interception. Replacing Brown is an impossible task because of all the intangibles he brings to the defense, but Johnson's sand could be running short in the hour glass.

7. Will the offensive line have any trouble facing a 3-4 defense?
The Dolphins play an awful lot of 3-4 on defense, and we all know how bad the offense struggled in that head-scratching loss. Defensive end Jason Taylor was a one-man wrecking crew and even scored a touchdown on an interception return. The Jets are only 31st in the league defensively according to the statistics after nine games, but head coach Eric Mangini had enough tricks up his sleeve to frustrate three-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady in Foxboro last Sunday. New York's pass rush leaves a lot to be desired, but tackles John Tait and Fred Miller will have to deal with smaller and quicker blitzing linebackers. Grossman has been fantastic when given time to throw, but he's made most of his mistakes when the the opposing defense has gotten pressure on him.

8. Is Tommie Harris ready to emerge from his five-game slumber.?
After Week 4's dismantling of the defending NFC champion Seahawks, Harris was generating some buzz around the league as the best defensive player in football. He sacked Matt Hasselback two times, bringing his total to five in just four games. Since then, Harris has been double-teamed continuously and rather quiet on the stat sheet. He's certainly made life easier on the likes of Alex Brown and Mark Anderson, but Harris sounded like a frustrated player in the Halas Hall locker room this week. He wants to reach 10 sacks this season, and getting one or two against the Jets will make it much easier for the former Sooner to accomplish that goal.

9. Can Chad Pennington have success against the Bears secondary?
A month ago, the Bears had the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL. While they have fallen to 11th overall defending the run, the Monsters of the Midway are now tops in the league against the pass. Oh by the way, they are also the top-ranked defensive unit overall. Pennington is having a fantastic season coming back from multiple surgeries on his throwing shoulder, but he's cooled off lately. Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery have become a solid receiving duo, but they will have their hands full today going against the likes of Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman.

10. Are the Jets capable of back-to-back monumental upsets?
The Jets surprised everyone in football with their 17-14 victory over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium a week ago. Nobody expected much from Mangini's club in his first season, yet he has them 5-4 and in the AFC playoff hunt. This is the second leg of a nasty three-game road trip for the Bears, but last week's game against the Giants and next week's game against said Patriots are considered the marquee matchups. Talent-wise, head coach Lovie Smith's crew is superior on both sides of the ball. Trouble is, that was the case for New England, as well.

JC


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