Chicago Bears at St. Louis Rams – Week 12 Preview

Week 12 – Chicago Bears at St. Louis Rams

Part 12 of a 17 part series analyzing each week of the Bears’ season

 

The Chicago Bears begin a short road trip against the St. Louis Rams. The Bears are 6-4 and looking to get ahead in the divisional race. Coming off of a wet and muddy overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens, Chicago is likely looking forward to playing in the Rams’ dome on artificial turf. These two teams draw a lot of parallels, making the game all the more interesting. A lot is riding on this game for both teams, so the intensity level will definitely be high in this one.

The Rams on the other hand are 4-6 and siting in last place in the division. It is going to take a lot for them to sneak into the playoffs, but it all starts with a win in this one. Teams starting the season have only a 6.6-percent chance to reach the playoffs historically, but there is always that chance (Statistic Courtesy of Fox Sports). Both teams have overcome a lot of adversity so far this season, and it has helped shape their character and identity.

 

Key Matchups

Bears RT Jordan Mills versus Rams DE Robert Quinn

Young Jordan Mills has performed admirably at right tackle this season. As a fifth-round pick who found himself buried on the depth chart during the preseason, it is remarkable that he has played as well as he has. Mills was expected to be more of a developmental tackle, but he very quickly found himself in the starting role He struggled quite a bit earlier in the season, but in the last few games he has really been solid. However, this game may yield his biggest test yet.

In only his third season, young Rams’ defensive end Robert Quinn is already a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He has the second most sacks in the league with 12, behind only Robert Mathis. He also has five forced fumbles, and he has proved himself as of the best young pass-rushers in the league. Quinn has registered a sack in all but three games this season, and he has three other games with multiple sacks.

Keeping Quinn under control will be a daunting task for Mills. He has played well against some quality defensive ends this season, but none have been as dominating as Quinn. Mills allows a bit of pressure on the Bears’ quarterbacks, but their underrated mobility has been a big reason for their limited number of sacks taken. The Bears will most certainly give Mills a lot of help from tight ends, but they need him to do a good job against Quinn to keep the offense moving effectively. If he can’t, it could be a rough day for Josh McCown.

 

Bears Front Seven versus Rams RB Zac Stacy

The Bears have really had issues stopping runningbacks this season, and as a result they are statistically the second-worst run defense in the league, ahead of only the Jacksonville Jaguars. They have already allowed over 1,300 rushing yards this season. Last year, they allowed just over 1,600 yards all season. Some of the issues can be accredited to injuries. During their last game against the Ravens, the Bears were missing six key players, including three defensive tackles and two linebackers. A fully healthy squad would most likely not quite so bad.

Since he took over as a full-time starter week five, Zac Stacy has performed well. He averages over four yards per carry and has rushed for more than 75 yards in four games. By no means has he been an explosive or dominant runningback, but he has been formidable and good enough to distance himself from the team’s other rushers. One of his best games this season came against a stout Seattle Seahawks defense, so he will most likely give this struggling Bears’ group a tough time.

Finding a way to stop Stacy is going to be vastly important for the Bears. Their defense has allowed opposing runningbacks to rush for over 100 yards in three straight games, and they cannot afford to let that trend continue if they want to keep winning. With Kellen Clemens at quarterback, the Rams rely heavily on their running game to keep the pressure off him while opening up the field at the same time. Stopping, or at least slowing down, Stacy will make it much harder for the Rams’ offense to function properly.

 

Bears WRs Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery versus Rams CBs Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson

Week in and week out, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery become the focus of opposing defenses. They have combined for 1,846 yards this season, averaging 15.6 yards per reception. The dynamic duo is a huge reason for the Bears’ offensive potency and defenses have not found a way to neutralize them both. They have helped both McCown and Jay Cutler look good, as they are second in the league in combined receiving yards, behind only the Denver BroncosDemaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

The Rams’ secondary has only allowed three receivers to surpass 100 yards in a game this season, and they have done a good job against some very good receivers this season. They have kept the likes of Dez Bryant and Steve Smith under 70 yards, and as a result, they are one of the better pass defenses in the league. Neither Janoris Jenkins nor Trumaine Johnson has been especially spectacular, but they have been solid, and they will need to be on top of their game in this one.

There have only been three games this season in which neither Marshall nor Jeffery had over 100 yards receiving. However, the Bears were still able to win all three games. Even so, it is crucial for the Rams that they be stopped. It would greatly decrease the Bears’ offensive effectiveness and force them to look elsewhere to move the ball. The two receivers keep the offense moving, so limiting them will do a lot to slow down the Bears.

 

Biggest Questions

Can Kellen Clements play well enough to win the game for the Rams when they need him to?

Since Sam Bradford was lost for the season with a knee injury, Kellen Clemens has been decent in relief. He started off poorly against a tough Seahawks defense, but in his last two games he has 457 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. However, over those two games Clemens has only a 56.86 completion percentage. He has done a good job managing the game, but a solid running game and big plays from wide receivers have helped him play well.

What he has yet to show is the ability to make a clutch throw to put his team in position to win the game. In his first game against the Seahawks, his team was down by five with 12 minutes left, and he could only get them into deep field goal range. On the next drive, he got his offense to the goalline, but could not punch it in before time expired. In his second game, playing against the Tennessee Titans, the Rams were down seven with three minutes left, and he put together two failed drives in a losing effort.

In this Bears-Rams game, there is a strong possibility that Clemens will be called upon to make a late game drive. The Bears’ last five straight games have been decided by seven points or fewer, so he may have a chance. So far, he has not shown the ability to do so, but he might be called upon once again when the going gets rough.

 

Will Tavon Austin continue to play at such a high level?

Two weeks ago, during the Rams most recent game against the Indianapolis Colts, Tavon Austin finally had his breakout game. He finished with only two catches, but both went for touchdowns for a combined 138 yards. He also had 145 punt return yards, including a 98-yard touchdown return. He was able to unleash the explosiveness that has been restricted for much of the season, and it was a welcomed sight for Rams fans.

Prior to this explosion, he really had yet to do much of what the team expected from the eighth overall pick in the draft. A lot of the disappointment has not been Austin’s fault. He has yet to see the field for more than 75-percent of the Rams’ offensive snaps in a single game, while he has four games in which he was on the field for less than 40-percent. With all they have invested in their young, explosive weapon, it is surprising they have not featured him more. That has been a big reason for his lack of dominance.

The question remains: will he be able to keep it up? He showed them what he can do when given the right opportunity. With a bye-week separating him from his big game, will he be able to ride the momentum? Will the Rams give him enough opportunities to succeed? It certainly seems like an obvious decision, but the team has shown a preference for Chris Givens and Austin Pettis. Monitoring Austin’s snap count will be a worthwhile watch in this game.

 

Can the Bears’ defense play well for four straight quarters?

The Bears’ defense has been inconsistent and unreliable for the first time in nearly a decade. They have been horrible in stopping the run, while the poor play of their safeties has really hurt them in coverage as well. A lot of issues have been a result of injuries, but injuries are an issue that every team faces. They need to find away to overcome them and put together a solid game. They have been very good at times, but more often then not, they seem to be struggling.

One of the main factors that seems to lead to their problems revolves around time of possession. Like most defenses, they perform much better when they have had time to rest between drives. Take their most recent game against the Ravens, for example. The Bears’ second drive of the game lasted only one minute and 14 seconds. So, the defense was sent right back on the field, where they were shredded by Flacco and run over by Rice and Bernard Pierce before eventually holding the Ravens to a field goal.

Later in the game, the opposite effect would occur. In the fourth quarter, the Bears’ offense dominated the time of possession up until the final possession, and it kept the defense rested and ready to go when the Ravens made their final drive. It allowed them to make a crucial goalline stop and send the game into overtime. Then, in overtime too, the defense played very well and got the Bears’ offense the ball back after just under three minutes.

Their defense has shown flashes of solid play, but they have not been able to put it together for an entire game. It is tough for any defense to be dominant for every single play, but that is not what is being asked of them. The Bears would do so much better if they could just get more consistency from their defense, and this game provides an opportunity to improve upon it.

 

Team Comparison

Offense

This will be the Bears’ second game this season featuring the battle of the backup quarterbacks, but McCown has proven to be one of the top backups in the league. He is good enough to be starting for about a fourth of the teams in the league. Handing the ball off has been a huge facilitator of these quarterbacks’ success, and it is the difference in runningback talent that has helped create the difference in quarterback performance. Stacy has been good, but Matt Forte has been better.

The wide receiver situation of both teams has been discussed thoroughly, but Marshall and Jeffery have more yards than all of the Rams’ wide receivers combined. Tight end is a tougher comparison, as both Martellus Bennett and Jared Cook have put up similar numbers this season. Bennett has been the more consistent of the two, as Cook had one big 141 yard game and hasn’t gone over 50 yards in any other game this season. The Rams have also gotten production from backup tight end Lance Kendricks, while Martellus has been the sole contributor for the Bears. That gives the Rams the advantage.

Both the Rams and the Bears have much improved offensive lines from last season. Their enhanced play has been very big for both quarterbacks and runningbacks. Both teams brought in a lot of new personnel, and the fixed lines have worked very well. However, over the entire season, the Bears’ line has been the better group. They have given their quarterback more time to throw and opened up more lanes for their runningbacks. Both lines are steadily improving, though.

 

Defense

The Rams have had the much more dominant defensive line, mostly because of Quinn but also from the play of their other linemen. Their defensive line is what has made their defense so good. The Bears on the other hand have had disappointing performances from Julius Peppers, while battling a plethora of injuries. Their top three defensive tackles will miss this game against the Rams, forcing them to resort to undrafted free agents and veterans off of the street.

Both linebacker groups feature a rookie linebacker along side two veterans. The Rams, like the Bears, play a lot of nickel coverage, relying on only two linebackers for most of the game. St. Louis’ linebackers struggled greatly early on in the season, but they have been much better as of late. For the Bears, it has been just the opposite. At the beginning of the year, they were solid with their veteran core. After injuries to two of the starters, the Bears turned to two rookies, and their inexperience has slowed them down. Neither team’s group is significantly better than the other.

The secondary provides more tough comparisons due to the inconsistencies on both teams. The Rams benched Cortland Finnegan halfway through the year, replacing him with Johnson. Both he and Jenkins have been pretty good. For the Bears, Tim Jennings has built off of his strong 2012 season, facing the last year of his contract. Opposite him, Charles Tillman has battled numerous injuries and missed a few games. Once again, neither team’s corners are noticeably better than the others’.

Line other positions, the Bears and Rams safeties have also been similar. Unlike the Rams, the Bears have started the same two players every game this season, but both team’s safeties have been extremely inconsistent. They have had lapses in coverage and failures to tackle in the open field. It is too difficult to say whose safeties have been worse, but it may just be a slight advantage to the Rams.

 

Special Teams

Both Robbie Gould and Greg Zuerlein, also known as “Legatron”, have been excellent this season for their respective teams. Gould has been the slightly more accurate, however. Conversely, punting goes in favor of the Rams, as their young punter John Hekker is more consistent and reliable than Bears’ punter Adam Podlesh.

Prior to Austin’s breakout game, the Rams’ returners had been good but not great. Neither he nor fellow return man Benny Cunningham had been able to break a long return. Cunningham has been respectable, but not spectacular. Up until his 98-yard touchdown return, Austin was awful returning punts, averaging less than six yards per return. For the Bears, Devin Hester has found his reliability once again, averaging nearly 30 yards per kickoff return with multiple returns into opposing territory. He too was able to reach the endzone on a punt return, and he has re-instilled fear into opposing special teams coordinators. He gives the Bears the better special teams.

 

Conclusions

These two teams feature a lot of similarities that should make for an interesting game. They are in similar situations with similar personnel circumstances that have greatly affected their seasons. Both are in very tough divisions. Both are desperate for the win, but the Rams are the team that needs it more. They are two games under 500 and last in their division. They have to win-out if they want a sliver of a chance to make the playoffs. It is a must win for them, as they still have three tough divisional games remaining on their schedule.

The Bears on the other hand find themselves tied for first in their division, and they cannot afford to take a loss and allow the Detroit Lions to distance themselves in the division lead. The Bears have had some tight wins this year, and they have found a way to come out on top when it really counts. They need to keep that up for the rest of the season to set up a big playoff run.

This game is not going to be an easy one for either team. The Rams have found a way to play very well against some very good opponents, while the Bears have looked shaky at times against lesser opponents. That is not to say that the Bears are a much better team than the Rams, but neither team is very predictable from game to game. How each performs in this game will be interesting to watch.

 

 

Game Prediction: Chicago Bears 27 – St. Louis Rams 20