Week 14 – Dallas Cowboys at Chicago Bears
Part 14 of a 17 part series analyzing each week of the Bears’ season
The Chicago Bears return home to face the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football after two straight losses. They are 6-6 and looking to get back in the divisional race after today’s loss by the Detroit Lions. It has been an up and down season for the Bears, but a win in primetime could help put their team back on track.
The Cowboys are in a slightly different position, although they need the win just as badly. They are 7-5 and in first place in their division entering the weekend. With a win by the Philadelphia Eagles, they need to beat the Bears to keep their first place position. They have been undefeated since their bye week, and they are looking to ride their momentum to the playoffs.
In recent games, the Bears have had some minor issues along the offensive line. Their pass protection has worsened, while they have struggled to generate a strong push in the run game. According to the NFL Game Statistics and Information System, the Bears average under four yards per carry when running behind the left guard and under three yards per carry when running directly up the middle, which is the third lowest in the league. Much of their struggles fall on the shoulders of Matt Slauson and Roberto Garza, who have a tough matchup in this game.
Arguably the most dominant 4-3 defensive tackle this season has been Jason Hatcher. He leads all defensive tackles with nine sacks through 11 games, already doubling a career high. He also has three passes defended and a forced fumble. It is apparent that he has benefitted greatly from the tutelage of former Bears’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who is now the Cowboys’ defensive line coach.
Blocking Hatcher is going to be one of the biggest challenges that Slauson and Garza have faced all season. He is constantly in the backfield, and if the Bears want to have much luck moving the ball down the field, they need to find a way to neutralize. In both the running and passing game, Hatcher makes plays, so keeping him under control will be vastly important for the Bears.
Tim Jennings has been one of the few consistencies on the Bears’ defense. Whether it was injury or mental lapses, just about every player on the defense has not had a very good season. He is one of only five Bears’ defensive starters to play in every game this season, and he has found a way to continue to make a positive impact in the secondary. He has three interceptions on the season, two of which have been returned for a touchdown, which leads the league. However, he has not had an interception since week six against the New York Giants.
Jennings will have another tough task in this game taking on Dez Bryant. Bryant is having another strong season, averaging just under 75 receiving yards per game. His nine receiving touchdowns this season is tied for third among wide receivers, and he has been a big reason for the Cowboys’ offensive success. Some of questioned Bryant’s sideline ferocity, but his performance on the field cannot be criticized.
Keeping Bryant contained would be huge for the Bears defense. It would force Tony Romo to look elsewhere. Young Terrence Williams has looked good, but he is not ready to carry the load at wide receiver, while Miles Austin has battled injuries all season. Like Brandon Marshall was last season for the Bears, Bryant has been Romo’s favorite target by far, so neutralizing him really helps slow down the Cowboys offense. In a game where both teams’ defenses are struggling, this matchup could greatly affect the outcome of the game.
Bears Linebackers and Safeties versus Cowboys TE Jason Witten
The Chicago Bears’ linebackers and safeties have struggled against quality tight ends this season. They allowed Brandon Pettigrew and Jared Cook 70 or more yards and Jordan Reed and Jimmy Graham over 130 yards. The middle of the field has been vulnerable at times, mostly as a result of injuries and poor play by the Bears’ safeties. With injuries to D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs, the Bears have had to rely on two rookies, while the terrible performances of both Chris Conte and Major Wright have really hurt the Bears.
In addition, Jason Witten has a history of success against the Bears, even when their defense was dominant. In 2012, he had 13 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown against the Bears week four. 2010 yielded him a slightly lesser performance, but his five catches and 51 yards was still formidable in their week two game against Chicago. Even as far back as 2007 he had six catches for 90 yards and a touchdown against the Bears. The Bears’ defense needs to do their best to prevent him from having another big game if they want to give their offense a chance to win the game.
When players face their former teams, they always have a little bit extra motivation and energy for the game. This will be the case for Martellus Bennett and Jeremiah Ratliff in this game. Bennett was drafted by the Cowboys in the second round of the 2008 draft and played there for four seasons behind Witten. He then spent a year with the New York Giants before signing with the Bears this past offseason.
The Cowboys also drafted Ratliff, in the seventh round of the 2005 draft, and he spent his entire 9-year career up to this point in Dallas. He failed a physical earlier this season while recovering from a hamstring and sports hernia injury. He had a number of interested teams, but chose the Bears because of the available playing time and the opportunity to face his old team. After spending so much time there, he almost certainly would like to get some revenge for letting him go.
Bennett, unlike Ratliff, has already had opportunities to face his former team, as a member of one of their division rivals. He had four catches in each of his two games against Dallas, going for 29 yards in one game and 40 yards and a touchdown in the other. Now, Bennett is on a more high-powered offense, even with backup quarterback Josh McCown. However, Bennett is averaging about two fewer targets with McCown. Still, it is fair to expect Bennett and Ratliff to put together a nice game in this one.
Can the Cowboys’ secondary handle Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery?
The Cowboys have had some issues defending wide receivers this season. Last week against the Oakland Raiders, the Cowboys’ defense allowed one of their former undrafted free agent wide receivers, Andre Holmes, to go for 136 yards and seven catches. Earlier this season against the New Orleans Saints, they let Marques Colson go for 107 yards and a touchdown. And week eight against the Lions, Calvin Johnson went for a career high 329 yards, the second highest single-game total in NFL history. This secondary needs to find a way to step up if they want to avoid another embarrassment
Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have been the most dominant wide receiving duo in the league, leading all other duos with a combined 2,099 yards and 14 touchdowns through only 12 games. Only once this season have they both been held under 100 yards, and the way the Cowboys’ secondary has played, it does not look like it will happen again in this one. It’s up to them to prevent it from becoming another humiliation.
Can DeMarco Murray remain consistent against a struggling Bears’ run defense?
DeMarco Murray has really struggled to stay consistent this season. He has four games rushing for more than 85 yards and four games rushing for less than 45 yards. From week to week, the Cowboys never know whether they are going to get good Murray or bad Murray. In recent weeks, it has been more good than bad, accumulating just under 80 yards per game and a total of four touchdowns over the last three weeks. Dallas needs him to keep it up to keep their offense running efficiently.
The Bears have had some major problems trying to stop opposing runningbacks this season. They have the statistically worst run defense in the league, allowing five yards per carry for a grand total of 1,843 yards this season. Over the last four games, opposing runningbacks are averaging over 160 yards per game on 6.5 yards per carry. Like the struggling Cowboys secondary, the Bears run defense needs to improve to give their defense a chance to stay in this game.
Both Tony Romo and Josh McCown have played well for their respective teams this season, although Romo has been the more dynamic of the two. The inconsistencies of Murray make Matt Forte the better of the runningbacks, who is having another great season. The wide receiver situations of both team has been pretty well laid out, and the dominating duo of Marshall and Jeffery gives the Bears the better position group.
The tight end situations too have been thoroughly discussed, and Witten has had the better season. The Cowboys have also gotten a little production from their other tight ends, while Bennett is the only tight end to register a catch for the Bears. Neither team’s offensive line has been spectacular this season, although both have been better than last season. Both have had their own problems, but the Bears’ line has been the slightly better one.
The transfer of coach Marinelli between these two teams has, perhaps indirectly, lead to the worsening of the Bears’ defensive line and the improvement of the Cowboys’ defensive line. Arguably their best lineman, DeMarcus Ware, has only the third most sacks along the line. At linebacker, both team have dealt with injuries, with the Bears being the more banged up of the two. Overall, the Cowboys linebackers have been the more consistent group.
Both teams have also had problems in the secondary. The Cowboys have allowed the second most passing yards this season, and it is difficult to isolate one player as the main problem. For the Bears, Charles Tillman is on injured reserve, while safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright have both played extremely poorly. In spite of their struggles, the Cowboys secondary heading into this game is the better of the two.
A couple of missed field goals last week have lowered Robbie Gould’s accuracy this season, one of which was a 68-yard, desperation kick. He has still been an excellent kicker his year, and neither he nor Dan Bailey have been significantly better than the other. The punting of Adam Podlesh for the Bears has been awful, while the Cowboys have had a good year from Chris Jones.
The Cowboys and the Bears have had similar results returning kicks and punts this season. Dwayne Harris and Devin Hester both have a punt return for a touchdown and have gotten very close on multiple kickoff returns. Each has done a great job of giving their respective team good field position, and neither has been significantly better than the other.
Both teams really need a win in this one for the playoff race. As the season winds down, these two teams could be battling each other for a wildcard spot or even home field in the first round. The Bears have the fortune of playing at home in this one, and it looks to be another bitter cold duel. The Cowboys have the momentum heading into this one, but the Bears are the more desperate team. This is going to be an emotional game for both teams, and as a result, it looks to be a good game.
Game Prediction: Dallas Cowboys 27 – Chicago Bears 20