In Texans-Bears, offenses will make difference
Spotlight will shine on D's, but team that figures it out on O will win
When the Bears and Texans meet on Sunday Night Football in one of the top matchups so far this season — both teams are 7-1 — the defenses for each team will be spotlighted on the national stage.
But the better offense will likely determine the winner.
Each team has a top 10 defense, with the Texans ranked third in yards allowed, and the Bears second in scoring defense.
Each team relies on its rushing attack — Houston is eighth, Chicago 11th — but is middling through the air.
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub ranks seventh in the league with a 96.8 rating and has found a high level of comfort in the play- and boot-action scheme used by coach Gary Kubiak.
But Schaub lacks in weapons at his disposal, especially with tight end Owen Daniels questionable with a back injury. Daniels leads the team with five touchdowns, and is second with 37 receptions behind receiver Andre Johnson (42). Receiver Kevin Walter and fullback James Casey, who each have 21 catches, are the only other Texans with more than 12 receptions.
The Bears are similar. Quarterback Jay Cutler has a rating of 85.3 throwing predominantly to receiver Brandon Marshall. His 59 receptions account for 41 percent of the team’s total, and the nearest non-running back is Earl Bennett (16). Rookie Alshon Jeffery, who is fourth on the team with 14 catches, is doubtful with a hand injury.
Each standout defense is going to look to shut down the opponent’s main weapon, which is easy to figure out – Marshall for the Bears and Johnson for the Texans.
Whichever team runs the ball better and finds other contributors in the passing game will likely emerge with a victory on Sunday night.
A look at the three keys for each team:
Stop Matt Forte: The Bears’ starting running back is one of the league’s top talents both on the ground (5.0 average) and in the air (20 receptions). Chicago has serious offensive line issues protecting quarterback Jay Cutler, so Houston has to expect that the Bears will try to stay balanced with Forte. If the Texans can neutralize the Bears’ running game, that will force them to drop Cutler back to pass more than they want to. That would play right into the Texans’ hands. Inside linebackers Tim Dobbins and Bradie James will be key to filling the run gaps properly.
- Shut down Brandon Marshall: Marshall is the Bears’ passing offense, and it’s easy to see why with his 6-4, 230-pound frame. The Texans have one of the league’s better cornerbacks in Johnathan Joseph, but at 5-11 and 190 pounds, he can’t handle Marshall by himself. Expect the Texans to double Marshall every chance they get, especially if tight end Owen Daniels isn’t able to play.
- Handle the onslaught: The Bears have one of the deepest defensive lines in the league – ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije and tackle Henry Melton are the stars, but there are eight really good players in the group — and they generate a lot of movement up front, which has contributed to the 17 interceptions the Bears have produced. The Texans can counter with a very good offensive line, specifically left tackle Duane Brown and center Chris Myers. Bears linebackers Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Nick Roach do not possess the swiftest of feet, so the Texans should find some success with their stretch runs in the zone-blocking scheme if the line can handle the point of attack. Running the ball at least moderately well will keep Schaub from feeling that he has to carry the attack, which he has not shown the capability of doing. The last time the Texans had a showdown against a top team from the NFC North, the Packers in Week 6, Schaub completed just 60 percent of his passes and had season highs with two interceptions and three sacks. The Bears have the best ball-hawking defense in the league. The Texans can’t afford to give up big plays.
Find the protection/balance: The Bears have allowed 28 sacks this season, and Jay Cutler has been dropped 14 times in the past three games. Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is one of the best at designing pressure packages, and between sensational end J.J. Watt and linebackers Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus, the Bears’ porous line is going to be under siege. Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Tice has to know this, so he will likely try to keep as many blockers in as possible. Will the Bears be able to make enough plays with the run and pass to move the ball? That will be a huge question.
- Stop Arian Foster: The Texans aren’t running the ball quite as well as they did last season, but they’re still in the top 10 in every meaningful category, and the offense is predicated on the run game. Most of the passes are based off some sort of play action. If the running game isn’t a threat, then the defense will no longer respect the fakes. The left side of the Bears line — Idonije at end and Melton at tackle — are standouts against the run. But Stephen Paea and Julius Peppers on the other side are not as good. That side will have to be better, as will weakside backer Nick Roach. The Bears could also use a huge game from middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and strong tackling from the cornerbacks.
- Find another option besides Marshall: Phillips has already said that the Texans are going to double Marshall on every snap. While that could be a bluff, Phillips doesn’t usually play games like that. And he should double Marshall — he’s the only real receiving threat the Bears have. That means that receivers Devin Hester and Earl Bennett, and tight end Kellen Davis are going to have to find ways to make plays. If the Texans are successful at slowing down Forte and Marshall, it’s hard to see how the Bears move the ball. Somebody is going to have to play big. Who will it be?
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