This week we find out what the Chicago Bears are made of.
What are they capable of? Can Jay Cutler transcend pressure from a player of J.J. Watt's caliber? Can the offensive line step up? Can the rest of the receivers?
If you notice a trend that most of the questions are on the offensive side of the ball, you'd be right.
This morning on the radio in Canada (hello, neighbors to the North!), I said that this is the best defense in the NFL.
There is very little to pick apart defensively. They generate pressure. They create turnovers. They rock quarterbacks, running backs and receivers.
The big questions all remain on the other side of the ball.
They've been playing better—they need to step it up a notch.
When the Bears Are on Offense
This will come down to the way that the offensive line protects Cutler, and not necessarily from the standpoint that if he's pressure, he'll implode.
No, the real concern is getting the pass off without getting it batted down or getting it off at all.
Watt is an amazing player, without a doubt and he is on a tear. The Bears have multiple players to account for, but none more important to stop than Watt.
So it's up to the offensive line to keep Cutler safe and sound—especially tackles J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi, who have been struggling.
Simply put, they need some help.
Bring in a fullback, an extra tight end, whatever it takes to double-team Watt and keep him off Cutler.
You need to keep him away from Cutler completely, if possible, as Watt has a habit of swatting passes down at the line.
While there are other players to keep an eye on—rookie Whitney Mercilus is chapped the Bears passed on him for Shea McClellin for example—Watt is the big dog of this defense.
If they can cap Watt's impact, they should attack the Texans with a well-rounded attack—both running Matt Forte (who is the chief back here—Michael Bush is now an afterthought) and moving the ball through the air.
While Johnathan Joseph is a good cornerback, he isn't having a great year (not a bad year either, but he looks human). So Brandon Marshall will probably have some success against him.
Marshall is focused and playing at a high level—he and Cutler never missed a beat as they reunited.
Another key, though, is to continue integrating Earl Bennett and Devin Hester more fully into the offense. As I said last week, I'd like to see if they can get Hester open a tad more for some vertical throws, and Bennett is looking like a steady alternative to Brandon Marshall.
Still, this is a Marshall-based offense.
Cutler was once asked if he thought he threw too much to Marshall—in my opinion there is almost no such thing as long as it works. And right now, it does.
It all comes back to keeping Watt off Cutler, though. If they can't manage that, Cutler will not be able to get the ball out and the entire rest of the plan is moot.
When the Bears Are on Defense
It's interesting—the Texans are not the passing team they once were. It's not a lack of talent and ability, so much as a shift in philosophy. Andre Johnson is still a tremendous wide receiver, but while the Texans will still throw to him plenty of times, they aren't using him to stretch the field much, don't target him heavily in the red zone and don't focus on him.
Same with tight end Owen Daniels to a smaller extent.
This offense is all about Arian Foster these days, and you can't blame them. The Zentastic running back is among the league's best, and Houston is rightfully content to ride him early and often in a game.
The Bears are a tremendous defense, against the run as well as the pass.
It's strength on strength as the Texans are unlikely to shy away from using Foster and running right at the defense.
That doesn't mean the Bears can stack eight in a box and hope the Texans quarterback forgets he can throw the ball. However, they need to focus a lot of energy and effort in stopping Foster, especially in the red zone where Foster has received 47 of the Texans' 98 red-zone touches.
Foster is also responsible for 11 of the Texans' 33 touchdowns.
Can they score other ways? Sure. Do they?
Not if they can help it.
With an opportunistic Bears secondary (even if Charles Tillman's wife gives birth and much to Mike Florio's dismay he skips the game), the Texans won't risk turnovers. They'll run and trust Foster to protect the ball.
The Bears will want to force more throws, and they do that by hitting Foster behind the line and limiting his yards after contact.
No easy job, but well within the realm of their ability.
It's not a must-win game, but it is an important one. Despite the 7-1 record, the Bears seem to be unable to get any props for their play.
Beating the Texans—or at the very least looking very good in a loss—should quiet the doubters, at least for a short time.
At home, in front of a loud crowd and with their defense at 100 percent, I believe the Bears win this game and stretch their lead over the rest of the NFC North.
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