Broncos v. Bears Game Preview

Denver Broncos punter Todd Sauerbrun says the Broncos will kick to Devin Hester on Sunday. Chicago's Hester is perhaps the best returner in the NFL. Read more about Hester and check out the complete game preview.

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Denver Broncos (5-5) at Chicago Bears (4-6)
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GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF:
Sunday, 4:15 ET
GAMEDATE: 11/25/07
SURFACE: Grass
TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
SERIES: 13th meeting. Broncos and Bears are tied, 6-6, in the series. The last meeting was 2003, when Kordell Stewart led Chicago to a 19-10 victory at Denver.

PREDICTION: Bears 27-24

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Broncos' offensive confidence has increased along with the maturation of QB Jay Cutler, who is managing the game well on the field and emerging as a leader off it. Cutler is completing 71.8 percent of his passes with six TDs on third down, which is going to be critical with the team unsure of who will be able to line up in the backfield. And Cutler's arsenal will only grow if WR Javon Walker is able to suit up Sunday. ... RB Cedric Benson is coming off his best game of the year, and the Bears would be in great shape if he can exploit the league's No. 30-ranked run defense to open up the passing lanes like he did against Seattle. But Benson has been far less than dependable this season, and most likely QB Rex Grossman is going to have to work against CBs Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly for Chicago's offense to have consistent success.

KEY INJURIES: Broncos: Walker (knee) is practicing in hopes of playing for the first time since Week 3; RBs Travis Henry and Selvin Young are day-to-day with knee injuries. Bears: QB Brian Griese (shoulder) should be healthy enough to be Grossman's backup; CB Nathan Vasher (groin) is expected to miss his eighth straight game; DT Tommie Harris (knee) continues to play at less than 100 percent.

FAST FACTS: Broncos coach Mike Shanahan is 31-19 (.620) against the NFC. ... Bears WR Bernard Berrian is averaging 36.7 yards per touchdown catch.

PERSONNEL NEWS:
Broncos:

--FB Kyle Johnson, who was Denver's normal starter at fullback from 2004-06, was re-signed by the team. Denver has many injuries at tailback and fullback, including to fullback Paul Smith, and Johnson knows the offense so he can step right in and contribute.

--RB Travis Henry was out of practice again Thursday with a knee injury. Henry hasn't bounced back quickly from the knee injury and could miss his third straight game.

--RB Selvin Young didn't practice Thursday. He has a knee injury. The Broncos hope he can play, but he would probably have to practice Friday to have a realistic shot to handle a full workload.

--OL Isaac Snell was released to make room for Kyle Johnson. Snell provided depth, and hadn't played in a game for the Broncos.

--FB Mike Bell could move back to tailback to provide depth against Chicago. Bell was a tailback last year, but was moved to fullback late in the preseason and has been there since. Cecil Sapp could also move from fullback to tailback and see carries.

Bears:
--CB Nate Vasher (groin) will miss his eighth straight game. He did not practice Thursday for the second straight day.

--CB Charles Tillman, who tied for the team lead last season with five interceptions, doesn't have any picks this year.

--CB Ricky Manning Jr., who missed Wednesday's practice with an illness, returned to full capacity on Thursday. Manning tied for the team lead with five interceptions last season but doesn't have any this year.

--RB Cedric Benson upped his average per carry to 3.3 yards with last week's 89-yard effort on just 11 carries, but he still has the lowest average of the top 25 rushers in the NFL.

--TE Desmond Clark has just four catches for 42 yards combined in the past three games. In the three previous games he caught 11 passes for 142 yards.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Broncos:

If punter Todd Sauerbrun is to be believed, the Broncos will kick to Devin Hester on Sunday.

Chicago's Hester is perhaps the best returner in the NFL. But the Broncos are improving on special teams, and Sauerbrun said they're ready for the challenge.

Aside from perhaps giving the Bears good field position by kicking away from Hester out of bounds or kicking it short, Sauerbrun said he didn't think it would set a good tone.

"It doesn't look good, it really doesn't," Sauerbrun said. "Yeah, and I know it doesn't look good if he brings it back for 80 yards, but we want to make plays. We're here to make plays and help the team win, not help the team not lose."

Sauerbrun admitted Hester is probably the best returner he has ever seen, but hoped the Broncos would show confidence in him and their coverage units.

"We're not worried at all," Sauerbrun said. "We respect the hell out of him, don't get us wrong. Absolutely. But we're not going to go out there tiptoeing around."

Sauerbrun said that special teams coach Scott O'Brien, who he worked with in Carolina as well, usually doesn't kick away from anyone.

"We're not going to do it," Sauerbrun said. "That's not Scott's M.O. and that's not my M.O."

Sauerbrun, who also handles kickoffs, is averaging 48.5 yards per punt.

Bears:
When it comes to running the football, nobody does it better than the Denver Broncos -- at least since 1995, when Mike Shanahan took over as head coach in the Mile High City.

The amazing thing about the team that can accurately say it gets off the bus running is that it doesn't seem to matter who runs it. In the past four years, the Broncos have had a different 1,000-yard runner each season -- Tatum Bell last year, Mike Anderson in 2005, Reuben Droughns in '04 and Clinton Portis in '03 -- the only time that has happened in NFL history.

This year's leading rusher, Travis Henry, gained 580 yards in the first seven weeks before a knee injury sidelined him. So undrafted rookie Selvin Young, who followed the Bears' Cedric Benson at Texas, rushed for 109 yards against the Chiefs on Nov. 11, becoming the 12th different 100-yard rusher under Shanahan. Only the Carolina Panthers have had as many different 100-yard rushers over the same time.

But Young also suffered a knee injury last week, so Andre Hall, an undrafted first-year player from South Florida, stepped up and scored on a 62-yard run against the Titans Monday Night. Henry and Young both missed practice Wednesday and Thursday and might not play Sunday. That might not matter.

"You have to say it has a lot to do with the scheme," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "They've had some good tailbacks play in the system, Terrell Davis (the franchise's all-time rushing leader) being one of them. But the same thing has continued to happen (with) them being able to run the football.

"Even this year (with) Travis Henry going down, Andre Hall steps up, (and) of course Selvin Young. We know we'll have our hands full. They run the football, but I think you would say that they won the game (Monday) night based on what they were able to do throwing the football. (Jay) Cutler is having a heck of a year. (Brandon) Marshall is playing as good as any receiver right now. He's got great size, speed. He does a great job after he catches the football, so it'll be a big challenge for our defense."

The Bears' defense hasn't played well against either the run or the pass this season, ranking 26th in rushing yards and 22nd in passing yards allowed. The Bears are also 29th in average gain allowed per rush, 31st in interception percentage.

In just his second NFL season, Cutler is fourth in the AFC with an 88.9 passer rating, but stopping the run will be Job One. Every team in the NFL knows the Broncos are famed for their ability to run the ball no matter who carries it, but they still can't shut down their ground game.

"They've been doing it for 15 years," Bears defensive end Alex Brown said. "I'm not just going to figure it out after a week of watching film. We have to stay in our gaps and tackle. We can't miss tackles. We've got to cut down on the big plays, the big runs that they have."

Part of what has made the Denver running game so good for so long is their offensive linemen's sometimes-questionable technique of cut-blocking. Defensive linemen hate getting blocked at the knees, which is the reason it's so successful.

"I'm not really worried about any of their blocking," Brown said. "But yeah, they cut, so you have to acknowledge it. You can't just run up the field and (think) they're not going to cut you. But it's not really a concern. You play the game. It's in the game, so play the game."

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