Friday, October 27, 2006

Finally, A Sunday With A Bears' Game

The last time we saw the Chicago Bears they were dependent upon two defensive touchdowns, a special teams touchdown, and a missed field goal to beat a vastly inferior Arizona Cardinals club (no offense intended to a certain Deadspin editor). That was two weeks ago on Monday night. We have to go back another week before that for a Sunday Bears' game. This has sucked. There should be a Bears' game on every Sunday. On bye weeks, weeks of night games, and during the off-season, Fox should just be required to replay some game featuring Walter Payton.

Anyway, the Bears return to Sunday this week, with a game against another NFC juggernaut, the San Francisco 49ers. Once again the Bears are the much better team going into the match-up, but we've heard that before. Anything can happen, any given Sunday, etc. But saying that is just giving up. It's much better to analyze the game as best you can, and know that it could all blow up in the blink of an eye. I, for one, have the confidence to go down in flames.

I don't buy that the Cardinals game reflects great character on the part of the Bears. The Bears played like crap and got lucky. But I also don't believe that one crappy game means more than a handful of good games. The Bears remain an excellent team.

Only the Ravens have outplayed the Bears on defense. Even in the Cardinals debacle the defense played well. The Ravens and Bears are one and two against both the run and pass. Chicago's greatest weakness has been against number one receivers, and the 49ers don't have one to really scare the Bears. The Niners are completing fewer than 50% of the passes they direct towards nominal top guy Antonio Bryant. The Bears have shutdown other WRs and RBs. They're not great against TEs, but again, San Fran hasn't figured out how to use Vernon Davis at all yet.

The other unit that bailed the Bears out against the Cards was the special teams. Robbie Gould has been, by far, the best kicker in football. As odd as that sounds, it's even stranger that Gould has been nearly twice as productive as the next closest guy, Buffalo's Rian Lindell. The Bears also lead the league in kick coverage and punt returns. Special teams have allowed the Bears to control field position and consistently score points from short fields, even when drives stall out. Most importantly, Devin Hester gives the Bears one more way to put points on the board in a hurry. Take note, San Fran has a below average punt coverage crew.

The offense, on the other hand, struggled against Arizona. But overall this has been a good unit. If you want to discount the team's remarkable offensive efficiency against Green Bay, Detroit, Seattle, and Buffalo, then you need to equally discount the team's remarkable inefficiency against Arizona -- and that was only one game. The Bears have a top-10 passing attack. It sounds odd, but it's true. As bad as Rex Grossman was against the Cards, he's still in the top half of NFL quarterbacks in terms of productivity and efficiency. His top weapon has actually been Desmond Clark, the league's most productive TE. We all relaxed about the WR position because Bernard Berrian solidified the #2 spot, but it's time for Muhsin Muhammad to start playing like a #1.

The running game, like Muhammad, has been mediocre. Some of that is on the offensive line. Football Outsiders ranks the Bears' o-line 23rd in Adjusted Line Yards, a stat meant to measure the line's contribution to the running game. But Thomas Jones needs to step up as well. He's ranked 14th in overall production among NFL runners, and 17th in Success Rate, which measures how often a RB gets the yards he needs to get (four yards on 1st down, converting a third down, etc.) I've heard a lot of talk on the radio recently about Cedric Benson being a better fit right now for the Bears' running style. The Bears themselves plan to get Benson more early carries this week. So far Benson's numbers look a lot like Jones's, adjusting for the disparity in playing time. It doesn't matter who it is, but it's time for someone to become a consistent productive running back on a team that claims to "get off the bus" running the football.

The Bears' defense should have no problem containing the Niners. And, the Bears are the worst possible to team to be shaky against in punt coverage, which the Niners are. Even the offense should get back on track. The Niners are terrible against the run and the pass, and are especially susceptible to opposing tight ends. I expect to see the Bears have success with a ball control passing attack relying heavily on Clark over the middle. 24-13 or 27-10 sounds about right to me. Of course, on any given Sunday . . .


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