Playoffs? You're talking PLAYOFFS?? Jim Mora rants aside, let's tap the brakes on playoff talk at least until the Bears get to the .500 mark. That said, they are playing well, and if there ever was a time that a 4-5 team looked poise to beat a 7-2 team, this is it. Not that the Broncos aren't still a good team—they do have that defense—but without Peyton Manning and with the Bears playing at home following two consecutive victories, this game once again is very winnable for the Bears.
Brock Osweiler makes his first career NFL start for the Broncos, so if the Bears can control the running game they should be able to keep the Denver offense in check. But the Bears offense will go up against a Broncos defense that is stifling, even if DeMarcus Ware doesn't play.
This the classic story of two teams seemingly headed in opposite directions, so let's get to the keys and make sure the Bears climb back to the .500 mark.
Osweiler may actually be better suited for Kubiak's offense
Look, I'm not saying that Brock Osweiler is a better QB than Manning, even on two legs, but it's fair to say that, as great as Manning is as a pure pocket passer who calls plays at the line of scrimmage, a guy like Osweiler may be better suited for Denver OC's Gary Kubiak's offensive scheme. Kubiak employs a zone blocking scheme, likes to move the pocket and use play action, all of which were challenging with Manning in the gun.
Point is, Bears can't sleep on the fact that Manning is out, thinking this will be an easy win. They will need to stop the run, and running the ball is something Denver will almost certainly provide a healthy dose of against Chicago. The Broncos running game was nonexistent in the first half last weekend, and main back Ronnie Hillman hasn't been good, but he has speed and can be dangerous.
Meanwhile, Osweiler has played sparingly over the past three seasons, appearing in 13 games, tossing two TDs and one interception.
So, with the unproven Osweiler at QB, word is that Denver views the 25th-ranked Bears run defense (yardage) and is confident they can establish the run. But not so fast you city of a thousand bongs, for the Bears no-name defense seems to be getting better each week and held Rams star rookie Todd Gurley down on Sunday, although St. Louis did him no favors by not giving him more touches.
Osweiler will be more adept at running outside the pocket and taking snaps under center, which will both help the run game and allow for better play action. But the Bears defense should be up to the task. Adam Gase should be able to help, since he worked with Osweiler in Denver.
The strongest part of Denver's offense last season was the rushing attack once C.J. Anderson assumed more of the load. However, he has been firmly behind Hillman on the depth chart, and only ran the ball twice last week. He ran well in weeks 8 & 9, especially week 8 when he ran for 101 yards and a 7.2 yard average, so he is still an option if Hillman continues to falter.
Win One for the Foxxer
I don't care what John Fox says about this being just another game, you know that he will have extra incentive to beat his former team. Fact is, while it was called a mutual parting of the ways, Fox was told by John Elway that the Broncos were going in another direction, so he was basically fired.
While Fox may not fit the "Gipper" profile—despite heart surgery in 2013 he certainly isn't dying—I'm sure the players understand this game has meaning to their head coach, whom they genuinely seem to like and respect.
So, as Ronald Reagan famously once said, go ahead and win one for the Gipper,er, Foxxer. Just make sure he doesn't run for President.
Commit to the Run; Balanced Attack; Move the Pocket
Jay Cutler has played very well since coming back from injury and regardless of whether it's coaching or his own changes, this must keep going for the Bears to win this game. We need more of the Jay who makes better decisions, knowing when to throw the ball away instead of forcing it into tight coverage and reducing mistakes. The Bears commitment to the run has helped, as well. The Bears have averaged almost 30 running plays per game this season, versus 22 last year.
This will be extremely vital versus a Broncos defense that leads the league in sacks (32) and is tied with the Rams for the fewest passing TDs allowed (8). Von Miller is a beast. The Bears will need to run the ball and despite Matt Forte returning to practice, I would expect Jeremy Langford to continue to get the bulk of the carries. I know it's probably a pipe dream, but having both in the backfield at the same time (once Forte is fully healthy) would be a very interesting scenario.
For this game, however, establishing the run and mixing in some play action passes will hopefully keep the Bears in manageable third down situations, because third-and-long is a death knoll against Denver's pass rush. With the recent success of Zach Miller, perhaps more multiple tight end sets might be useful vs Denver. I'd also hope that Adam Gase calls more roll-out plays to take advantage of Cutler's mobility. I've been scratching my head for years, wondering why they haven't done more of this (plus, I have dandruff).
Of course, I'm not going to lie to you, dear readers, no matter what the Bears do it's not going to be easy. Denver's defense is number one in fewest yards allowed, including the fewest passing yards by a pretty wide margin, so Jay will have his hands full on Sunday. However, against the run, they rank all the way down to number six so...well...yes that is still damn good but I'll take number six over number one. Hey, the offense has to do something, right? They rank second in the league, allowing only a 3.5 rushing yard average, but hey, the offense has to do something, right?
The Broncos allow only 35% of third downs to be made by opposing offenses, which is seventh in the NFL, so again, staying out of third-and-10 situations is imperative. Meanwhile, the Bears defense allows a less impressive 44% third down success which ranks 28th in the league, so even with a rookie at QB, the Bears defense needs to do a good job of containment on first and second down. Maybe the key is go for it on fourth down, where Denver ranks tied for 18th, having allowed 5/8 to be successful. Unfortunately, the team they are tied with? Da Bears.
Cutler has completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,045 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions on the season. But the Broncos may have the best pair of corners in the league, including the physical Chris Harris.
Don't Shoot Yourself in the Foot
Prior to their latest winning streak, the Bears were continually being the own worst enemy, committing penalties and turnovers. However, the Bears have committed only foru turnovers each of their last two games. All you need to do is look at how penalties affected the Chargers and Rams, who had TDs nullified by penalties and you'll understand how critical this improvement has been for Chicago and why it needs to continue for the Bears to beat Denver.
Better Special Teams Play
The Bears had two muffs last week that could have cost them dearly and there is no indication that Mark Mariani is going to be replaced, especially since Eddie Royal is not healthy. So, in addition to cleaning that up, the Bears will have their hands full with a very talented group of Denver special teamers coached by ex-Bears and Cowboys Joe DeCamilis on Sunday.
Broncos kicker Brandon McManus has made 19/20 field goal attempts and their return game has been good. Omar Bolden is always a threat returning kicks and punts. Two weeks ago, he scored on an 83 yard punt return against the Colts.
Meanwhile, normally reliable Robbie Gould ended his three kick skid last Sunday
- Denver leads the NFL in net punting average (44.6%)
- Denver's offensive players have been tackled the fewest times in the NFL.
- Denver QBs lead the league, by a wide margin, in interceptions, with 18 (17 by Manning, one by Osweiler), but are tied for the fewest fumbles (2).
- Denver is the only team with a winning record despite being negative in turnover differential (-2).