Hot Topic: Hunter vs. RMJ in Nickel

The Bears made a change in nickel situations against Oakland this past Sunday, keeping LB Hunter Hillenmeyer on the field more often while CB Ricky Manning Jr. watched from the sideline. Perhaps not by coincidence, the Monsters of the Midway responded with their best defensive effort of the season.

The Bears' playoff prospects were brightened considerably Sunday, and not just by the victory over the Raiders that lifted them to 4-5 thanks to a dominant defense and a rescue mission by demoted quarterback Rex Grossman.

Amazingly, five NFC teams who were ahead of the Bears in the standings lost Sunday: the Lions (now 6-3), Panthers (4-5), Saints (4-5), Giants (6-3) and Redskins (5-4). All five could be teams the Bears wind up battling for a wild-card berth, assuming they're not going to make up a four-game deficit to the Packers in the NFC North.

"You look around a little bit today, and I guess that's good that that happened," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. "But everything that happens with us, we control. So what happens on the outside really doesn't affect us a lot. If we take care of business, we know we'll be in good shape at the end of the year."

After 10 weeks, half of the 16 NFC teams are 4-5 or 5-4, and only the 8-1 Cowboys and Packers are better than 6-3.

If the Bears are serious about getting back into the playoff picture, they'll need more defensive efforts like the one they got in Oakland.

The defense registered season bests in total yards allowed (193) and passing yards (80), while forcing three turnovers for just the second time.

"Defensively, that was the best game we've played this year," Smith said. "The way we practiced last week, I had a feeling that the guys would go out and play with emotion, make plays, fly around and do the things that we did."

After Raiders quarterback Josh McCown surprised the Bears with a 24-yard run off an option play on the first play from scrimmage, Oakland had just 169 yards on its remaining 60 plays, an average of just 2.8 yards per snap.

"We didn't get off to a good start," Smith said. "But the guys settled down from that first drive (which resulted in a field goal), and I thought dominated throughout the rest of the game."

LB Hunter Hillenmeyer
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Bears made a major switch in their nickel package vs. the Raiders, keeping strong-side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer on the field instead of replacing him with nickel cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. as they usually do.

Hillenmeyer responded with a team-high 13 tackles and was instrumental in keeping the Raiders out of the end zone.

"That's a package that we have," Smith said. "Hunter Hillenmeyer has played as well as any of our defensive players, so it didn't make a whole lot of sense to take him off the field when we didn't really have to. (Free safety) Danieal Manning allows us an opportunity to do some different things since he can cover wide receivers, so that's the package that we'll keep up. We may play it a little more. We haven't studied Seattle as much as we need to, and we'll make those decisions later."

If the Bears continue to have success with the same alignment, Manning Jr.'s role diminishes. He played only a handful of snaps vs. the Raiders.


  • QB Brian Griese completed 10 of 14 passes for 97 yards in the first 28 minutes of the Raiders game before he suffered a sprained left (non-throwing) shoulder that sidelined him for the remainder of the game. The Bears aren't saying, but best guess is that he won't start Sunday's game.
  • RB Cedric Benson got a career-high 29 carries against a Raiders team that had allowed the highest average per carry in the NFL, and he responded with just 76 yards and a 2.6-yard average per carry. His role could begin to diminish as soon as Sunday.
  • TE Desmond Clark had two catches for 24 yards as the Bears concentrated on running the ball and throwing to their wide receivers, but he's still second on the team with 30 catches for 346 yards.
  • WR Bernard Berrian had four catches for a game-high 89 yards, including the game-winning 59-yard touchdown with 3:11 remaining – just his second score of the season. He has four or more catches in eight of nine games this season.
  • WR Muhsin Muhammad's 87 yards (on four catches) were a season high and just the second time this season he has had more than 50 yards in a game.
  • CB Nathan Vasher (groin) is still making progress but has not been cleared yet to play Sunday, even after missing the past six games.
  • LB Hunter Hillenmeyer was allowed to remain on the field in nickel situations rather than being replaced by an extra cornerback, and he led the Bears with 13 tackles.
  • DE Adewale Ogunleye tied his career best with three sacks and is now tied for the team lead with seven. He also leads all Bears linemen by a wide margin with 41 tackles.
  • QB Rex Grossman, who will start Sunday if Griese doesn't make a rapid recovery from a sprained left shoulder, had a passer rating of 109.8 Sunday thanks mostly to his last throw of the game, a 59-yard touchdown pass to Berrian with 3:11 left.
  • TE Greg Olsen was shut out and barely played after catching at least four passes in each of the previous four games, as the Bears focused more on running the ball and throwing to the wide receivers.

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    • Reliving the 61-7 win over Green Bay in 1980
    • An excerpt from Cindi Dammann's Tailgating Tales
    • Getting to know LB Jamar Williams

    All of that plus much more in the latest issue of ...

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