The Chicago Bears (2-1) travel south to North Texas Monday night to take on the Dallas Cowboys (2-1) in what should be a telling game for two NFC teams with playoff aspirations.
Both quarterbacks—Tony Romo for Dallas and Jay Cutler for Chicago—have worked through up-and-down starts to the 2012 season, but two strong defenses ranked in the top 10 for average yards allowed have helped keep the two teams at a 2-1 clip through three games.
The winner Monday night will sit at 3-1, a record which historically has been very favorable for teams in making the postseason. That said, 2-2 is far from a playoff death wish, especially this early.
Here are five matchups that should help determine which team improves to 3-1 and which falls to 2-2 Monday night.
Bears LT J'Marcus Webb vs. Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware
It's no secret why Cutler and the Bears offense have sputtered at times in 2012. As has been the case since Cutler arrived in Chicago, the Bears can't consistently keep their quarterback clean on passing downs.
Webb, Chicago's much-maligned left tackle, has been just one culprit on a line consisting of several poor pass-blockers. Overall, Cutler has been under pressure on 41.5 percent of his dropbacks this season.
That said, Webb is faced with the tallest test Monday night in Ware, who is arguably the best pass-rusher in football. According to Pro Football Focus, Ware is fifth among 3-4 outside linebackers in pass-rushing productivity this season, providing a pressure play on over 17 percent of rushes in 2012.
Bears WRs Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall vs. Cowboys CBs Brandon Carr, Mike Jenkins and Morris Claiborne
The Bears added Marshall and Jeffery this offseason to add an explosive element to their passing offense. So far, protection issues have played a part in limiting the two to just five plays over 20 yards and two touchdowns.
Expect the Bears to see a majority of man-to-man coverage from the Cowboys' three cornerbacks Monday night. Last Sunday against Tampa Bay, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan employed Carr, Jenkins and Claiborne no matter what the situation, with Carr sometimes playing a safety-high look. That allowed Ryan to blitz freely and leave coverages to three cornerbacks experienced in playing physical, man-to-man defense.
Jeffery and Marshall need to be technical at the line of scrimmage to ensure Cutler has somewhere to go with the football quickly. If Cutler has to wait around for the two receivers to break off press coverage and get into their routes, the blitzes and simple four-man rushes are going to get home.
Cowboys TE Jason Witten vs. Himself
A big reason why the Cowboys have struggled offensively in 2012 is the slump of Witten, who is typically leaned upon heavily by Romo in tight situations. According to PFF, Witten has dropped six passes this season on just 20 targets—far and away the highest drop percentage of any tight end in the NFL.
General offensive theory dictates that one place to attack a Tampa Cover 2 defense is down the middle of the seam, where Witten will likely be asked to make plays beyond Brian Urlacher's backpedaling retreat. Urlacher (knee) has probably lost a step or two, especially in pass coverage, so plays could be had in the middle of the field Monday night.
However, the stats say that's a dangerous proposition for Dallas, as Romo has completed just three of 12 passes with an interception to Witten in that area of the field this season. Witten simply has to be better, starting tonight against a defense that will attempt to make the Cowboys go 10 or more plays to score touchdowns.
Bears DL vs. Cowboys OL
This matchup couldn't be more general, but that's by design. The Bears simply have favorable matchups at every point along the defensive line, and the Cowboys have struggled protecting Romo and providing holes for running back DeMarco Murray.
Offensive tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free has struggled in pass protection, and the two new guards—Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau—have been liabilities in pass- and run-blocking.
The Bears can throw a never-ending depth of quality defensive linemen at the Cowboys' shaky line Monday night.
Julius Peppers (2.5 sacks) is the rusher everyone focuses on, and Shea McClellin (2.0) was a first-round pick. But Henry Melton (3.0), Israel Idonije (2.5), Amobi Okoye (1.0), Stephen Paea (0.5) and Corey Wootton (1.5) represent the game's deepest pass-rushing defensive line.
Overall, the Bears rank third in the NFL with 14 sacks this season in just three games. How the Cowboys respond up front to that unit will be a telling point for the Dallas offense.
Bears Special Teams vs. Cowboys Special Teams
Being this general in a preview is typically frowned upon, but a game that could feature a bunch of punts and little scoring always has room for game-changing special teams plays.
The Bears would normally be a heavy favorite in this area, but Dez Bryant adds an explosive element returning punts (set up Cowboys score vs. Tampa Bay), Dan Bailey hasn't missed a kick (4-of-4) and punter Chris Jones has made the most of his 11 punts this season (five inside the 20, 44.4 net average).
Chicago does counter with the ever-dangerous Devin Hester, the always reliable Robbie Gould and so-so punter Adam Podlesh.
If this games plays out like many think—an ugly, sack-ridden defensive battle—punting and returning will become important keys. The team that best controls field position on this night should be the offense in best position to score points, even if they are just field goals.