There's a lot on the line as the Dallas Cowboys head to Chicago to take on the Bears in Week 14. Tied with the Philadelphia Eagles atop the NFC East, Dallas could really help itself by racking up a couple of wins in the next two weeks.
While it looks the the division will come down to the Cowboys' Week 17 matchup with Philly, it sure would be nice if the Cowboys could wrap up the division before the game even begins.
Helping Dallas this week will be the fact that they'll be playing on 11 days' rest. Traveling to Chicago in December is never an easy chore, especially on Monday night. The 'Boys will need all of the prep time they can get.
You'd think the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler would hurt the Bears, but Josh McCown has been sensational in his absence. McCown has completed 65.2 percent of his passes, throwing nine touchdowns to only one pick in the process. Rotoworld is reporting that it looks like McCown will get the start against Dallas.
To help the 'Boys win their third straight game to get to 8-5, here are seven tips for use on Monday night.
Don't Blitz Quarterback Josh McCown Much
McCown has been excellent in the face of pressure this year, recording a 111.1 passer rating when hurried, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That's higher than when he has a clean pocket.
The Cowboys might feel tempted to blitz since they haven't been able to generate much pressure of late, but they should conservatively to force McCown to beat them again and again. Only if they get down in the game should Dallas ramp up the level of aggression.
Play Lots of Cover 2
In playing Cover 2 with two deep safeties, the Cowboys can keep everything in front of them. The key will of course be defensive pressure, but even if Dallas rushes five defenders, it should keep two safeties deep.
When you think about the Bears offense, consider who can immediately beat Dallas: wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Incredibly, both Marshall and Jeffery rank in the top 10 in receptions and yards this year. In my opinion, they could cause Dallas major problems because of their size. Marshall stands at 6'4" and 230 pounds, and Jeffery is 6'3", 216 pounds.
You used to be able to play Cover 1 against Chicago, keeping a safety over Marshall and using an extra defender to control running back Matt Forte. Those days are long gone. With second-year wide receiver Alshon Jeffery thriving outside, the 'Boys need to effectively double-team both wide receivers whenever they can. Make Forte and tight end Martellus Bennett beat you.
Cover 2 helps to do that.
Focus on Stopping the Passing Game
Yet another reason to play Cover 2 is because it will dare Chicago to run the ball. That's generally a sub-optimal strategy anyway, especially on early downs, but there's some good evidence that Chicago isn't quite as good of a rushing team as most stats indicate. I wrote about it at ABC:
So who is the better rushing team: the Cowboys or the Bears?
Well, Chicago ranks in the top 10 in YPC and has 1,318 rushing yards on the year. Dallas ranks well in the bottom half in YPC and 27th with 1,021 yards.
Pretty clear, right?
Not so fast. Once you account for game situations, you realize the Cowboys have been better than the Bears on the ground. Chicago has just a 36.4 percent rushing success rate, ranking them 28th in the NFL. The ‘Boys rank 14th.
When you analyze teams in terms of yards-per-carry, it can be very misleading because offenses run the ball in different situations. The teams that run the ball a lot on first down will naturally have a higher YPC than those that don't, but that doesn't mean one is better than the other.
That's why analyzing rushing offenses in terms of success rate, the percentage of plays that increase expected points, is the best way to go. And when we do that, we see the Bears aren't all that great on the ground.
Attack the Perimeter of Chicago's Offensive Line
If there's one shocking graph I could create regarding the Bears, it's this one...
The Bears offensive tackles have given up all kinds of pressure this year, ranking last and fourth-last, according to Pro Football Focus. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod has been really bad, but right tackle Jordan Mills has been just atrocious.
Even if the Cowboys don't blitz much, they can throw some different looks at the Chicago offensive tackles to create pressure with only four rushers.
By the way, Mills' struggles are the primary reason I'm projecting defensive end George Selvie to have a monster game.
Don't Double-Team Defensive End Julius Peppers
Peppers is still one heck of a player, but he's not the dominating pass-rusher he used to be.
You can see that both Shea McClellin and Corey Wootton have pressured the quarterback at nearly the same rate as Peppers.
Plus, Peppers has rushed the passer from the right side of the Bears defense on 88.3 percent of his pass-rush snaps. That means he'll be matched up primarily on left tackle Tyron Smith. I wouldn't give Smith much help unless he shows that he needs it.
Target Cornerbacks Zackary Bowman and Isaiah Frey
With cornerback Charles Tillman out, it looks like Zackary Bowman will again start for Chicago opposite Tim Jennings. That means the Bears will have their third and fourth cornerbacks on the field when they're in a nickel look.
While Jennings hasn't been so incredible that the Cowboys can't target him, he's allowed around 50 percent fewer yards on a per-route basis as compared to Bowman.
In reality, the rule for Dallas should be as follows: target the open man when Jennings is on wide receiver Dez Bryant with a safety over the top, but otherwise throw it to Bryant.
Get the Bears' "Will" Linebacker Isolated in Coverage
There's an outside chance that Bears' weak-side "Will" linebacker Lance Briggs will be back for this game. While Briggs can still be a force against the run, only two outside linebackers in the league have given up more yards per route, according to PFF.
The Bears use Briggs in coverage only 17 times per game, on average. Even if he doesn't play, backup linebacker Khaseem Greene has also been poor in coverage.
Look for running back DeMarco Murray to have a big game as a receiver.