In Part 1 published Thanksgiving Night I looked at how the glass is half full for the Cowboys next game at Chicago's Soldier Field on December 9. The Bears defense is reeling from injuries that have robbed them of their usually good pass rush and the consequent ability to turn pressure into turnovers and points. The Bears are still good at generating turnovers but they've struggled to stop the run and those woes
are expected to continued this weekend at the run-happy Minnesota Vikings.
The Bears are expecting starting defensive tackle Stephen Paea back and could get some help from former Cowboy Jay Ratliff. Mr. Ratliff won't lack any motivation headed into the Monday Night Football contest against his former team in what the long term forecast shows will be a frigid Soldier Field. Temperatures are projected to dip into the upper teens Fahrenheit if Monday December 9 is anything like the forecast for Sunday, December 8. That looks like the kind of weather where dropped balls could happen even without precipitation. [UPDATE: The forecast now calls for a daytime high of 30 F and a low of 6 F on Monday].
WHEN THE BEARS ARE ON OFFENSE...
In this edition, we look at the glass half empty view, and why I'm not certain Dallas can leave the frozen tundra near Lake Michigan with a win: the Bears improved offense. While it''s true the Bears are missing their starter in Jay Cutler, Josh McCown has played very well for head coach Marc Trestman in Cutler's absence. So well in fact that ESPN reports the Bears front office is contemplating just sticking Cutler with the franchise tag of around $16 million next season and letting him walk in 2015 after drafting a cheaper signal caller who can thrive in Trestman's system (My guess is the Bears scouts are looking closely in their back yard at Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garopollo, whose rising draft stock is due in no small part to the success of a certain EIU signal caller in Dallas).
Jacksonville, Texas native Josh McCown is 34 after reviving his NFL career, but he's given the Bears the solid veteran backup that they didn't have last year in former Washington Redskins starter Jason Campbell or with Caleb Hanie from 2010 to 2011. Both before and after the Bears foolishly allowed Cutler to rush back from a groin injury in Week 10, McCown has been above average, throwing only one interception to 7 touchdowns and 1,106 yards.
McCown's career passer rating at 74.7 is the definition of journeyman -- but he's at the century mark thus far in 2013. With McCown playing well and Cutler only removing the cast protecting his high ankle sprain this week, it seems unlikely Jay will risk longer term injury to play against Dallas on December 9. Thus the Cowboys may get Aaron Rodgers this season but I don't think they'll be taking on Cutler.
For a lanky, 6"4 guy in his mid-thirties, McCown is adept at avoiding sacks, though he won't take off like Cutler to scramble for ten yards. McCown's success this season is in large part due to Marc Trestman's excellent play-calling, and the quality of his targets in veteran receivers Brandon Marshall and 2nd year man Alshon Jeffrey. While Marshall has been Cutler's preferred target since being acquired from the Miami Dolphins in a trade, it is Jeffrey's emergence and the Bears acquisition of former Cowboy Martellus Bennett that has prevented opponents from concentrating solely on Marshall.
Both Marshall and Jeffrey check in at over 6"4 and 225 pounds, while the Bennett is a size mismatch who has finally matured enough to reach the potential the Cowboys scouts saw that made him a 2nd round pick. Bennett is joined occasionally in two tight end sets by another former Cowboy, Dante Rosario. I doubt Dante was unhappy with the trade that sent him to the Windy City given that it probably gave the aspiring film director and movie buff more opportunities for extra or cameo roles on Chicago Fire and other TV shows. The Bears third receiver/slot guy who rarely gets touches now in Trestman's system is Earl Bennett. The team also has made veteran return man Devin Hester a fulltime returner after the failed experiment at receiver. Like Julius Peppers, Hester is likely to become a cap casualty in 2014.
While Marshall has lost some speed he's lost none of his superb route running ability to box out defenders that he showed in Denver or Miami. Jeffrey is like a younger, faster version of Marshall [see these highlight reel catches against the Vikings man coverage]. Together they are a mismatch for Orlando Scandrick due to their size, just as Andre Holmes was in the Raiders game. Expect them to run crossing and comeback routes while Matt Forte slips out to the short and side flats. To Trestman's credit, he also finds ways to get Marshall immediate wins off the line by placing him in the slot or in motion -- something Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan have finally started to do with Dez Bryant.
Stopping the Run/Screen Game
As mentioned above Matt Forte is a superb safety valve for McCown and good at chipping then breaking off for short passes. The 6"2 Forte remains underrated and less appreciated due to his injury history, but when healthy is capable of gashing defenses. Michael Bush, the former Oakland Raider the Bears acquired to be their short yardage back who filled in ably for Forte last season, gets very few carries now. He's likely to be cut next season as he doesn't fit in Trestman's attack which like Garrett's offense places a premium on pass catching out of the backfield.
While the Cowboys are notoriously left handed in their running game, rushing behind Tyron Smith, this year's Bears prefer to run behind their right side of rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills. Long was a Dallas day attendee the Cowboys could've drafted in the first round if they didn't accept the Niners offer to trade back, while Mills is a 4th round pick who started the season hot but has given up more pressure lately. Trestman loves to use Long's superb athleticism to pull on toss sweeps and to set up screens for Forte. On the left side the Bears start free agent guard Matt Slauson and former New Orleans Saint Jermon Bushrod. Aging veteran Roberto Garza anchors the Bears line at center. Garza isn't a liability but also isn't a strong point either. Slauson and Bushrod have had trouble getting push for Forte in goal line situations -- the Rams DTs pushed them back into Forte's face on multiple occasions. Therefore I expect Dallas to be able to keep the Bears offensive line from overpowering them, although Dallas will badly need Sean Lee back and healthy to shut down Chicago's screen game.
As mentioned the temperatures are likely to be cold, which could lead to a few drops for both teams star receivers. Both the Cowboys and Bears pass rushes have struggled to get to the quarterback of late. Taken together, that means this game, which I expect to be close, will be decided by turnovers and which team can run the ball better in the 4th quarter. If Dallas prevails, I expect they'll need to score at least 27 points, with drops and first half miscues likely keeping both teams under 30 points.
My prediction: 27-24 Dallas wins again on a clock killing drive and Dan 'Split Em' Bailey field goal!