Week 15 – Chicago Bears at Cleveland Browns
Part 15 of a 17 part series analyzing each week of the Bears’ season
The Chicago Bears are heading out on their last road trip of the season to face the Cleveland Browns. The Bears are 7-6 and trying to stay in the heat of the divisional race. This game marks the return of Jay Cutler into the starting lineup, and after the excellent performances from Josh McCown, everyone will be watching to see how he does. While they game may technically not be a “must-win”, it is a crucial game for the Bears’ playoff hopes.
The Browns on the other hand are 4-9 and out of the playoff race. They do not have a whole lot to play for, but they certainly would like to play spoiler for the Bears to try and knock them out of the postseason. They are a better team than their record shows, and they have a lot to build off of for the future. It will a close game in spite of their win-loss difference.
Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have been the most dominant wide receiver duo in the league. They have accounted for 2,283 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns on the season, carrying the Bears’ offense. No defense has been able to really neutralize them, and both are having fantastic seasons. The excellent performances of these two has really helped both Cutler and McCown play well. The Browns’ secondary will certainly have a challenge in this one.
It’s going to be up to Joe Haden and Buster Skrine to handle the Bears’ towering receivers. Conventional wisdom would say that Haden, the Browns’ number one cornerback, would match up with Marshall, the Bears’ number one receiver, while Skrine and Jeffery would matchup. But as Mike Clay at Pro Football Focus pointed out, Haden plays the majority of his snaps (55-percent) at left cornerback, while Marshall has played the majority of his snaps (40-percent) in the slot, while Jeffery is the one who plays the most of his snaps (45-percent) across from the left cornerback. In addition, Skrine has defended the slot wide receiver for most of his snaps (56-percent), so for the most part, it will be Jeffery versus Haden and Marshall versus Skrine, although all four move around the field.
The Browns, and Haden, have done a very good job keeping opponents’ top receivers under wraps, holding A.J. Green to just two catches for seven yards and Calvin Johnson to three catches and 25 yards. However, they have neglected team’s other receivers, allowing big games to lesser receivers. For the Detroit Lions, when Johnson was locked down, young Kris Durham went for 83 yards and eight catches. In the very next game, against the Green Bay Packers, they held Jordy Nelson to 42 yards, his second worst game this season, but allowed Jarrett Boykin to grab eight catches for 103 yards. The Browns’ pattern makes it seem likely that either Marshall or Jeffery is in store for a big game.
The other big cornerback-wide receiver matchup in this game involves each team’s lone consistent player at the position. A triceps injury sent Charles Tillman to injured reserve, leaving Tim Jennings to handle Josh Gordon. Jennings has had a solid but quiet season so far. After gathering three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, in the first six weeks, he has not forced a turnover since. Still, he has done a good job in coverage and has been one of the few reliable players in the Bears’ secondary.
While the Bears have the best wide receiver duo in the league, the Browns may have the best wide receiver in the league. He leads the league in receiving yards with 1,400, a ridiculous 19.72 yards per reception. There have only been four games in which he has been held to fewer than 125 yards, all with a quarterback carousel that has consisted of Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, Jason Campbell, and Weeden a second time. Even with inconsistent passers, Gordon has been the top receiver in the league. In only his second season, he has established himself as one the elites. Jennings and the Bears’ secondary are going to have a tough time keeping him under control.
Bears RB Matt Forte versus Browns Run Defense
As many expected, Matt Forte is having a fantastic season under Marc Trestman. He is the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher with 1073 yards, and he is on pace to set career-highs in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards, and yards from scrimmage. He is on pace for just under 2,000 yards from scrimmage, and his versatility has been invaluable for the Bears’ offense. He has not had any dominating performances, but he has been as solid as ever. It has been tough for defenses to slow him down.
The Browns have one of the best run-defenses in the league. They have allowed the fourth fewest rushing yards and the second fewest yards per carry. They held the NFL’s second-leading rusher Adrian Peterson to just 3.52 yards per carry, the third-leading rusher Jamaal Charles to 74 yards, his third-worst game of the season, and the Cincinnati Bengals’ dual rushers to just 50 yards on 16 carries (3.125 yards per carry). They have not allowed a rusher more than 90 yards in a game this season, and Forte and Co. will have their work cut out for them to keep balance in the Bears’ offense.
Can the Browns’ offense avoid turnovers against an opportunistic Bears’ defense?
The Browns’ Achilles Heel this season has been their turnovers. They are 4-9 and on a four game losing streak, but four of their losses on the season have come by eight or fewer points, and some crucial turnovers have really hurt them when it counts. Specifically, their most recent losses have been most affected by turnovers.
Last week’s loss to the New England Patriots was a fluke in and of it’s own because of some controversial calls late in the game. The game before that was against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, and the two interceptions and fumbles by Weeden cost them the game. On their own 44-yard line in the second quarter, Weeden threw an interception that was returned into the redzone, setting up an easy touchdown for Maurice Jones-Drew. On the very next offensive play, Weeden threw another interception at his own 31-yard line, leading to a field goal. His first fumble, which came on the very next drive, led to another Jacksonville field goal, and his second fumble was for a safety.
The game before that was against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in it Weeden would have only one interception, but the team lost fumbles three times. With 1:51 left in the second quarter, Chris Ogbonnaya fumbled, allowing the Steelers to drive down and get a field goal at the end of the first half. Then in the third quarter, Jason Campbell was sacked and fumbled, and the ball was returned all the way to the four-yard line before the Steelers reached the endzone on the next play. The worst of them all came in the fourth quarter, when Brandon Weeden, now in the game for the injured Campbell, threw a pick-six from his own 20-yard line. Those three turnovers led to 17 points for the Steelers. They won the game by 16.
The story was the same week 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals scored 31 points in the second quarter, with a lot of help from an interception, a fumble, and a blocked punt that were all either returned for a touchdown or very close to one. Such a high frequency of turnovers does not bode well against any team, especially one as opportunistic as the Bears. Although they have not forced as many turnovers as years past, for a number of reasons, they are still tied for seventh in the league in interceptions and are third in the league in forced fumbles. When they make the turnovers, they are also very good at returning them, as they are tied for the most interceptions returned for touchdowns. The Browns need to careful with the ball to give themselves a chance to win in this one.
Can the Browns’ runningbacks get back on track against the Bears’ struggling run defense?
With Willis McGahee out for this week’s game, the Browns will have to rely on Ogbonnaya and Fozzy Whittaker. While they may lead the league in peculiar names, Ogbonnaya has been more of a fullback while Whittaker has only 28 career rushing attempts. All things considered, Ogbonnaya has been pretty decent, averaging 5.33 yards per carry in his limited playing time. However, even with a healthy backfield, the Browns have really had problems running the ball effectively. They have the third fewest rushing yards of any team this season. Three runningbacks have more rushing yards by themselves than the Browns do as a team.
As bad as the Browns’ rushing offense has been, the Bears’ run defense has been worse. They have given up a league-high 2,041 rushing yards this season with a league-high 5.2 yards per carry. They have allowed a 100-yard rusher in six straight games, including season-highs to the struggling Ray Rice and the rookie undrafted free agent Benny Cunningham. There are a number of factors that have led to this epically bad run defense, mostly injuries, but there are no excuses when an entire unit is playing this poorly. They need to step up in this game to avoid being embarrassed by a rushing offense that is having a lot of issues of its own.
Which Jordan Cameron will the Browns get in this game?
It is rare that a player is so dominant yet inconsistent at the same time like Jordan Cameron has been this season. He has the second-most receptions and receiving yards among tight ends with 72 for 825 yards. He is also tied for fourth most touchdowns by a tight end with seven.
On the season as a whole, he has been dominant, but from game to game, the Browns don’t know what they are going to get. He has five games this season with more than 80 receiving yards and five games with fewer than 45 receiving yards. Over the first four games of the season, he averaged 90 yards per game. Over the next eight weeks, he averaged only 43 yards per game. Then last week, out of nowhere, he went for his best game of the season with nine catches for 121 yards.
There does not appear to be any strong correlation with his successes and failures. While he has had a cycle of quarterbacks, he has been both good and bad with each of them. Just because he had a strong game last week does not mean it is going to continue into this game. How he performs in this game will be a mystery to every one, and it very likely could have a big impact on the outcome of the game
While Cutler might be a little bit rusty in his first game back from an ankle injury, he is still the better quarterback option over his former backup, Jason Campbell. The runningback situations of both teams will play a big role in this game, but from a pure position standpoint, the Bears have the much better option. Similarly, the wide receiver positions of both teams have been thoroughly discussed, and even the pure domination of Gordon does not outweigh the impact of the Bears’ powerful pair.
The inconsistency of both team’s tight end position make the comparison difficult as each has put up solid games while also having poor ones. However, when both are on top of their respective games, Cameron is the better option over Martellus Bennett. Along the offensive line, the Browns have allowed the second most sacks in the league to go with their poor run block. The Bears’ offensive line has not been perfect, but they have been consistent.
The Browns have gotten solid play from their defensive line this year, and they have been a big reason for their strong run defense. For the Bears, injuries have decimated their line, and their struggles on that front have been a big reason for their defensive struggles. Similarly for both teams, the Browns’ linebackers have performed well, while injuries have force the Bears to rely on rookies at crucial positions. The Browns definitely have the better front seven.
At cornerback, both teams have dealt with injuries, but the health and supremacy of Haden leaves Cleveland the better corners. The safety play of the Bears has been atrocious this year, while T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson have been solid but not outstanding for the Browns. In the secondary as well, the Browns have the better units.
Billy Cundiff has been decent for the Browns kicking, but he has not been as reliable as Robbie Gould has for the Bears. In the punting game, neither Spencer Lanning nor Adam Podlesh has been particularly great this season. Prior to his injury, Travis Benjamin was an excellent punt returner for the Browns, but they have not had much success without him, while the Bears have gotten a resurgence from Devin Hester in both the punt and kickoff return game. Kickoff returns too have less than great for the Brown.
The Bears need this win a lot more than the Browns do, but that does not mean the Browns won’t play hard. Cleveland has a quality team when healthy and functioning, and on their home turf, they are going to make it tough on the Bears. This Browns team has nearly beat two of the top AFC teams in the Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, and they appear to be ready to take the next step to contend for the playoffs next year.
A loss in this game would not completely ruin the Bears’ playoff hopes, but they need to win every game they possibly can to get ahead and stay ahead of the Lions and Packers in the divisional race. This game is going to come down to who can get the best play out of their respective struggling units. The star players are going to play like stars, but it is the other starters that need to step up to get their team the win.
Game Prediction: Chicago Bears 31 – Cleveland Browns 27