Chicago Bears vs Jacksonville Jaguars: 5 Keys to the Game
On the surface, Sunday's matchup between the ball-stealing Chicago Bears and the offensively challenged Jacksonville Jaguars appears to be somewhat of a mismatch. After all, the Bears are standing tall at 3-1 while the Jags are slumping over at 1-3.
Ah, but looks can be deceiving. This is the NFL, after all, where anything can and will happen. If the Bears think they can win this game by simply throwing their helmets on and going through the motions, they could be in for a surprise.
Recognizing that, there are keys to the game and those keys can either unlock a victory for Chicago, or can "turn" into disaster for the Bears.
To be sure, this is a game the Bears should win and must win. But while Jacksonville has lost three of its four games thus far, their opening-week loss to the Minnesota Vikings, by a mere three points incidentally, doesn't look so bad now that we know the Vikes are better than we figured.
Plus, their second game was against a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and while they got clobbered by the Texans, lots of teams will get beaten by Houston before this season fades into obscurity.
So while we're not talking about a great team here, it is a team that, at home, has an outside chance of beating Chicago, unless the Bears play well. The Bears are good, but not good enough to simply throw their helmets on the field and go play.
Recognizing that, let's take a look at the five main keys to the game, as I see them.
Get the Lead Early and Take the Ball out of MJD's Hands
Three-time Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew is proven and has explosive talent, who can easily drop 100-plus yards on an opposing defense, as he did against the Colts in Week 3, when he ran for 177 yards.
After spending the spring and summer holding out, Drew came into the first game technically as the backup running back. But the short, stocky 27-year-old didn't take long to make an impact after shaking off the rust.
Drew carried the ball 19 times for 77 yards against the Vikings, but then had only 12 carries the following week versus Houston after the team fell behind. He did average 5.0 yards in those 12 carries, however.
Then came the Indy game where Drew exploded, averaging 6.3 yards per carry and a touchdown.
But it seems that every other week his touches go down. The next week after his huge game, Drew ran the rock just 13 times, for a dismal 2.9 yards per carry.
So which Drew will show up against Chicago? I think the key is not so much whether he will be explosive—he will be. Rather, can the Bears get out to an early lead and force Gabbert to beat them through the air?
It won't be easy for the Bears to start quickly, however. They have scored just 10 points in the first quarter of its four games, and Cutler's first-quarter QB rating is the lowest in the league.
But never fear, Bears fans. If the Bears don't get off to a quick start, they can still stop Drew. After all, DeMarco Murray was held to 24 yards on 11 carries on Monday.
Pressure Gabbert to Make Mistakes
Blaine Gabbert is like a lot of young quarterbacks in that he can be prone to making mistakes under pressure, despite the fact that he has thrown only one interception so far this year.
Gabbert is talented. In fact, at times, he looks like the second coming of Peyton Manning, such as when he threw an 80-yard touchdown pass with 45 seconds left to give the Jags the win at Indy.
But he had just seven completions against the Texans. And he was mediocre in the loss to the Bengals.
For the season, he has limited his mistakes. But these are the Bears he's facing this Sunday. The same Bears who live and die by the takeaways. Chicago will need to get pressure on Gabbert so that he throws off-balanced and, hopefully, to someone in a Bears uniform.
One can expect Gabbert to try and get first-round draft pick Justin Blackmon into the game early on. Blackmon had been almost nonexistent until he got targeted 10 times in the loss to the Bengals, and even then, he did not produce a lot of yards.
He will need to get open and catch some balls if Gabbert is going to have any chance against the Bears on Sunday.
Meanwhile, a young QB throwing to a rookie could spell trouble against a team that had five interceptions on Monday night.
That defensive pressure is the main reason the Bears are 3-1 entering the game, and it hasn't just been Julius Peppers, although he does have two-and-a-half sacks and leads the team with five QB pressures.
The Bears are getting pressure from its front four without having to blitz. They are effectively utilizing their plethora of ends and tackles to roll in a fresh body all the time.
Gabbert was sacked six times last week and he has been on the ground 12 times this season. Guard Eben Britton will start opposite Peppers. Britton was benched at halftime last week because he was so bad.
That could spell trouble for the Jags.
Run the Ball!
The game plan against the Rams was probably a bit too simplistic and conservative. However, they established the run early against the Cowboys and need to take that same balanced approach against Jacksonville on Sunday.
While I would like a healthy dose of Matt Forte and Michael Bush, including catching screen passes out of the backfield, I'd like to see the Bears pull out a few trick plays too.
Perhaps putting Devin Hester in the backfield could be one way to get creative. That, combined with the running of Forte and Bush, could open up the occasional deep ball to one of the receivers.
Doing something creative against a team that you should be able to beat serves another purpose as well. It gets it onto game film that other teams will watch and have to be wary of. It puts the thought into opposing defensive coordinators that Chicago might try that again, so they have to spend time game planning for it.
On Monday, of the Bears 54 offensive plays, 28 were runs and 26 were passes. That's good balance, my friends.
The results weren't overwhelming, with a 3.3 yard per carry average, but it chewed up the clock and set up the pass very well for Cutler.
They should do this again vs. the Jags.
Utilize Kellen Davis, Tight Ends in the Offense
After an early miss, tight end Kellen Davis rebounded nicely against the Cowboys. Much was made about Mike Tice's use of the tight end position as a receiving position prior to the season, but that has come along slowly.
Against the Jags, Cutler expects to have time to throw, given that Jacksonville has just two sacks on the season. That means opportunities to occasionally go deep and get the ball to Brandon Marshall of course.
But it is also a good opportunity to see what Davis can do. The NFL's use of the TE has become widely known throughout the league, but the Bears still haven't received the memo.
Last year, that was attributed to Mike Martz's disdain for the TE doing anything other than blocking. So now is the time to start showing the opposition that Tice is willing to target his big TE.
Davis looks the part, but the jury is still out on whether he has the hands and route skills to be an elite pass-catching TE.
Against Dallas, Davis averaged 20.7 yards per catch, and converted a critical third down in the first quarter. The lack of a pass rush may afford Chicago the opportunity to have more weapons for Cutler to throw to, as they may not need to leave an extra TE or a back in to chip as often.
Keep Your Foot on Their Throats
The Bears must do whatever they can to not give the Jags any confidence. When they score, the Bears must keep on scoring. Don't let up; instead, keep the pedal to the metal, as they say.
I am in favor of establishing the run. But since I am also calling for Chicago to get out to an early lead, I want them to take some shots down the field. Throw the bomb—air it out and if nothing else, that should prevent Jacksonville from stacking the box.
It's going to be a very hot day on Sunday, but the Bears shouldn't let the heat and humidity stop them from trying to score as much as they can.
Look, just because the Jags offense is poor doesn't mean the Bears should be satisfied to get a touchdown or 10-point lead and sit on it. One unlucky break, such as a turnover, could get Jacksonville right back into the game.
Another reason the Bears need to score is that the Jags usually don't beat themselves, so Chicago may not be able to count on the defense scoring points on Sunday, as they did against Dallas. As noted previously, Gabbert has thrown just one interception this season.
Hey, it's just like Chicago politics where you vote early and often—score early and often, and Bears fans should be eating victory chicken on Monday.