Last year, the Bears made headlines by signing Muhsin Muhammad to a long term deal. The theory was that Muhammad was going to bolster a young, speedy wide receiver corps and help the Bears open up their long-stagnant offense. In wasn't in the cards, though, as Rex Grossman got hurt, Kyle Orton became the quintessential "game manager," and the Bears rode the coat tails of their defense all the way to a division championship. With the return of Grossman and the emergence of Bernard Berrian as a deep threat, Chicago is finally reaping the rewards of having two solid receivers at the line of scrimmage. Grossman has responded, throwing 10 TDs to only 3 INTs this season and giving opposing teams something else to worry about when the Bears come up on the schedule.
This is not, as the stats would lead you to believe, a potent passing attack that rivals the Cardinals for talent a quick strike ability. This is an attack that has found early season success due to the running game's consistency and coach Lovie Smith's fanatical devotion to running the football. For the most part, Grossman and his charges have had success getting big plays off of playaction and taking advantage of a bewildered defense after Chicago has jumped out to an early lead. It's easy to gain yards, complete passes, and score touchdowns when you're leading 27-0. The real challenge comes when you're involved in a close game and can't dictate to the defense as easily. There was one situation this year when the Bears had to "take what the defense gave them," and that was against Minnesota in Week 3 when Grossman threw a critical fourth quarter interception that should've cost Chicago the game.
Therefore, cornerbacks Eric Green and Antrelle Rolle aren't necessarily the most important defenders in the secondary (even though they're tasked with covering Muhammad and Berrian). The two most important defenders in the secondary are Adrian Wilson and Robert Griffith. These two gentlemen must support Rolle and Green in the deep passing game, not get sucked in towards the line of scrimmage on playaction, and make sure that neither Berrian nor Muhammad (especially Berrian) gets behind them for a long touchdown.
Early in the game off of playaction and late in the game with a huge lead, this is a very dangerous team in the passing game. However, if the Cardinals are able to somehow manage to keep the game close, Grossman might be good for another crucial turnover.
The strength of Chicago's offensive line is their cohesiveness and coaching. They have taken a number of talented athletes with bad reputations and turned them into steady performers on an exceptional line where the sum is far greater than the parts. Right tackle Fred Miller and left tackle John Tait (a natural right tackle) would seem to be overmatched by the Pro Bowl caliber 1-2 punch of Bert Berry and Chike Okeafor. In actuality, though, Okeafor and Berry will probably be on the losing side of this battle given Tait and Miller's ability to overpower smaller defenders that are more suited to being pass rushers, and wearing them down by the end of the game. With Pro Bowler Olin Kruetz at center, the ageless Ruben Brown and the underrated Roberto Garza at the guard positions, the Bears are primed, physically and athletically to have their way with the Arizona's defensive line and linebackers at the point of attack.
Where the Cardinals may be able to win a few battles and make some plays are when Grossman drops back to pass. The Bears are very focused on controlling the game with their power run attack and hitting big passing plays off of playaction. Their passing attack is geared towards stretching the field vertically. This means that Grossman will need to sit in the pocket for long periods of time while the play develops.
Every Cardinals fan knows of the incredible potential and pass rushing prowess of Okeafor and Berry. These two men just need to harness their rare physical ability and translate it into performance on the field. While both Miller and Tait are exceptional pass protectors, they both have a reputation (especially Miller) for being intimidated by speed rushers coming off the corners. The interior of the line is too stout and Kruetz too experienced at making line calls for Arizona to successfully pressure Grossman up the middle. But, if they're able to overload one side of the formation, they'll be able to pressure Grossman and get to him before he unloads the ball (or at least force Miller into committing a few false start penalties before the game is decided).
The bottom line is that defensive tackles Kendrick Clancy and Darnell Dockett proved they can hold their own on the interior last week against Larry Johnson and the vaunted Chiefs running attack. If the two tackles on defense can have a repeat performance and clog up the middle, Berry and Okeafor need to take advantage of the two tackles on offense and bring more pressure than Grossman can handle.
Making Grossman, the offensive line, and the coaching staff hesitant and taking some of the confidence out of their play calling is one of the big keys to this game. Of course, for that to happen, the linebackers need to start doing their jobs.
Three of the four leading tacklers for the 2006 Arizona Cardinals are members of the secondary. This is a bad sign. It means that teams are completing passes over the heads of the linebackers and that tailbacks are breaking free to the second level and regularly making their way into Arizona's back four. It's also a sure sign that the linebackers (who should be getting the bulk of the tackles in this defense) are getting killed both at the point of attack and in the passing game.
In order to stop the Bears and their rushing attack, the linebackers need to fill the gaps in run support and make more plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. Clancy and Dockett have at least been decent at clogging the rush lanes between the tackles. This means that the onus falls on Calvin Pace and Orlando Huff on the outside and especially Gerald Hayes on the inside to sift through the garbage at the line of scrimmage, find the ball carrier, and bring him down.
In the passing game, Huff and Pace need to assist Berry and Okeafor in pressuring the quarterback. Since Griffith and Wilson need to stay back in coverage and patrol the middle of the field, the entire pass rush needs to come from the front seven (though preferably just the front four). In addition, Wilson will not be able to creep up on the line of scrimmage and be the eighth man in the box, so the front seven needs to stop the Bears when they run and pressure Grossman when they pass, especially since Griffith isn't spectacular in run support and definitely doesn't possess the speed to play Cover 1, covering the entire deep portion of the field.
Now that Arizona is facing a far superior opponent, the linebackers need to step up be noticed on a national stage. Without their help, the Bears might score 156 points just this Monday Night.
Blitzes, blitzes, and more blitzes from the front seven. We know the secondary can tackle, the linebackers can't cover, and the front four can't produce sacks all by themselves. The key is accepting these facts and using them to your advantage. Bring more than they can block on every down (with run blitzes on first and second down, hopefully forcing a third and long).
If the run blitzes are successful and Grossman needs to convert a lot of early 3rd and 8s and 3rd and 9s, the Cardinals stand a chance. By continuing to blitz and bring pressure from the outside (but not from the secondary), Arizona can hopefully force the Grossman to take the "hot read" early on, putting his receivers in the difficult position of being short of the first down and needing to get through the Cardinals sure-tackling secondary to make the sticks.
Above all, the safeties need to make sure they don't fall for playaction or any other type of trickery (including sneaking up to the line of scrimmage to support in the running game). Such a mistake could prove deadly in this game, as the Bears defense can make even a 10 or 13 point lead seem insurmountable.
And, here's where it gets complicated. If Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson have success running the ball, it's not the end of the world. The Cardinals defense doesn't seem to get demoralized when another team is consistently effective running the football (perhaps because it's been happening for so long). They tend to unravel when the opponents hit on a big play for an early touchdown, or really a big play at any point in the game. Arizona needs to keep the plays in front of them, not let Berrian or Muhammad get behind them, and make a young offense with an inexperienced quarterback (due to injuries, Grossman doesn't have that many more career starts than Matt Leinart), work and stay mistake-free, sustaining long drives to get the ball in the end zone.
It may not work, but it's the only chance we have.