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Cowboys vs. Bears: Keys to the Game

Don't let his stats from Sunday's game fool you; Jay Cutler was far from perfect against the Detroit Lions.
Don't let his stats from Sunday's game fool you; Jay Cutler was far from perfect against the Detroit Lions.

"[The Chicago Bears] are coming off a thrilling Week 1 victory over the Lions, and should be able to ride that momentum into Dallas. Julius Peppers was a defensive force vs. Detroit, and should be able to exploit Dallas' offensive tackles, while Jay Cutler passed for 372 yards."

-Jason Feller,

I sat through and watched the entire game between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions and if there is only one thing I can convey about that game it's this: that was not a thrilling victory. The game may have come down to the last play of regulation and the Bears may have scored the go-ahead touchdown with less than two minutes remaining, but that game was far from a "thrilling" contest.

I was able to make some determinations from the game and start to determine just what Mike Martz will be trying to do with this offense with Jay Cutler under center. The defense is the same as it's always been under Lovie Smith and looks to be poised to return to near the levels achieved in 2005 and 2006 with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs healthy.

There was certainly a stark contrast between offense and defense in that game, with the defense playing solidly and the offense attempting to just give the game away. Sound familiar?

Before I move into my keys to the game based on these observations, I just wanted to express how great it was to listen to Brian Billick do color commentary. He deserved a much better game than that, however.

I want to start off this post with a disclaimer: One game does not a trend make. While I can certainly get a good idea about the Chicago Bears from their game against Detroit last Sunday, there's still no way to really know what sort of team they will be this season. I've done my best as scouting the Bears for this post but I make no claims about knowing exactly what to expect this Sunday. These are just observations...

Don't be intimidated.

You see that Jay Cutler put up 372 yards passing and you tremble at what he might accomplish at Cowboys Stadium. You see a passing game that under Mike Martz averaged over nine yards per play and you get worried. The Cowboys have a stout defense, no doubt, but with the offense struggling can the Cowboys afford to get into anything resembling a shootout?

Have no fear.

The Bears passing attack was nowhere near as fearful as the numbers might indicate. Mike Martz and his offense rely heavily on timing and precision, something Cutler was having a very hard time with against the Lions. Whether it was the receivers not getting open, not being in the right place, the defensive scheme or Cutler just not reading the plays correctly, very rarely did the offense operate in this "timed" offense successfully.

The best routes run by the receivers were the timed comeback routes along the sideline. Cutler has a tremendously strong arm and these throws are cupcake to him. The Lions' cornerbacks were not playing aggressively and were giving up this play all game long; the offense also showed some success on the short slants and a few shallow crossing routes.

Yet Cutler struggled getting the ball downfield. His big game stats are very deceiving as most of the yards came on throws that were completed with 10 yards of the line of scrimmage; the Bears simply had no true downfield attack. Where the danger lies is in the feet and mobility of Cutler, as well as the pure speed and athleticism of Matt Forte.]

Here's the stat of the week: With two minutes remaining in the game, the Bears had outgained the Lions 435 to 110 on the ground yet still trailed in the game 14-13. The Bears offense was a bit scary at times yet was incredibly pedestrian during most of the game.

Defense must maintain containment and discipline.

Martz' offense generally calls for 3-4 receivers to go on deep routes, either deep comebacks or posts along the sideline or deep posts across the middle. Routinely, against the Lions, this cleared the defense out completely and gave Forte more than adequate room to maneuver after catching a dump off. When faced with any sort of heat, Cutler would immediately bail and use his quick feet to take off down field.

The Cowboys have to be able to contain Forte and the mobility of Cutler. The Bears offensive line looked very weak against Detroit and despite Cutler's mobility still allowed four sacks. Like last week's game against Washington, the Cowboys have to be extremely careful about playing the pass rush too aggressively, as getting caught upfield could be a disaster if Cutler takes off.

The true trick here is to find a way to contain Forte. He was the lone weapon for the bears, with 151 yards receiving on seven catches out of the backfield. Take away the 89 yard touchdown run off a simple screen, you still have nearly 10 yards per reception from a running back.

The Bears will do all they can to get Forte out in space as right now he's their best weapon. Chicago, honestly, just doesn't have the receivers at the moment to truly pull off Martz' offense and he's going to go with Forte as much as possible. The Bears ran a lot of screens, a lot of misdirection plays to get the defense moving the wrong way and then get either a receiver or the running back the ball out in space. They also want to get Cutler moving as much as possible as he's dangerous outside the pocket.

The key for the Cowboys is to maintain discipline. The Bears are not a power running team and will not gash this team up the middle (witness the inability of the Bears to score after recovering a fumble on the Lions' 1-yard line), yet this is a very dangerous team one they get the ball out in space. The outside linebackers for the Cowboys will have to be careful to not play too aggressive and bite on the screens, rollouts and waggles while also having to find ways to keep Cutler in the pocket.

The Lions were able to do this, for the most part, and almost walked away with the win.

Go for the ball.

The Bears turned the ball over four times and fumbled a total of four times in the game. The Bears, and especially Cutler, are susceptible to coughing up the ball and the Cowboys must take advantage. Matt Forte is extremely quick and difficult to hit but if he is laid into he'll produce some turnovers.

For the Cowboys, they'll get their shots against Cutler. This is a quarterback who isn't that accurate and who is playing in a timing offense that doesn't have the timing down quite yet. He'll play it safe as much as he can with Forte but he'll force balls into spaces he shouldn't. He also had two instances where he blindly launched the ball downfield while facing heavy pressure.

The Cowboys defense played great against Washington yet could have changed the game completely with just one forced turnover. They'll get their chances to redeem themselves on Sunday but they'll have to pick their spots; the Cowboys can't get caught being too aggressive or they'll get burned. While this Bears offense wasn't clicking you could see the signs were there for big numbers in the future if everyone could get on the same page.

The Cowboys offense must be sharp this time, no excuses.

The last time the Cowboys played the Bears was in 2007 when the Cowboys started slowly before exploding in the second half on their way to a 34-10 win. In that game, just the third game since Chicago's appearance in the Super Bowl, Tony Romo showed us all what an incredible escape artist he was as he escaped several defenders in the pocket all game long.

Expect the same again on Sunday.

The Chicago Bears will be aggressive, especially with their linebackers. Julius Peppers is a true threat from the outside but the Bears love to use Briggs and Urlacher on inside stunts and blitzes to give the offense all sorts of fits. Both linebackers are healthy and both were flying all over the field on Sunday and with the Cowboys historically having issues with delayed inside blitzes, we could be in for another long day.

The problem is that it's nearly impossible to truly determine how good the Bears defense was on Sunday as the Lions' offense completely fell apart after Matthew Stafford's injury. The Lions completely abandoned the running game and the Bears were able to get backup quarterback Shaun Hill on the run nearly every passing play. The result was a Lions offense that gained just one first down before the final drive of the second half, giving the Bears the time and the confidence to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback game after game.

The good news is that the Cowboys offense is a completely different animal than what the Lions put on the field on Sunday. The Bears employ a traditional 4-3 and while Briggs and Urlacher tend to blitz regularly the Chicago defense is fairly straight forward. Historically, if the Cowboys are able to maintain decent pass protection, the Cowboys eat this sort of defense for lunch.

The trick is to not allow any mistakes to hurt this offense more. No horrible penalties, no bad decisions. Just execute the offensive gamplan the Cowboys have worked on all week and the Bears defense should prove to be more than mortal. While Briggs and Urlacher look good and healthy now, this still isn't the same defense that dominated the NFL four and five years back.

The Cowboys have a balanced offensive attack and they must utilize it. The Bears were able to be so successful against Detroit because with offense became so predictable. Jason Garrett must keep the defense off guard while not allowing his tendency to "get cute" interfere with basic execution. The Bears have a fast defense but not as fast the one we saw in Washington; get Miles Austin and Felix Jones the ball in space and just watch them work their magic.

Be smart, be confident and put the past behind you.

This is the home opener for the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys have been away for a long time and while they've been practicing in Dallas for the last several weeks, this is the moment they feel they are truly back home.

In Washington the Cowboys looked like a team that was scared to screw up, one that was pressured into being great and one that tried to live up to the hype. This isn't a team that has a big collective head all of a sudden, yet these Cowboys know how important this season is. If there was ever a time for this team to harness the energy brought forth by the fans at Cowboys Stadium this is it.

The loss in Washington was tough but it's all in the past now. There is tremendous pressure to win this game and avoid the disastrous 0-2 hole but the Cowboys must take that field and just go have fun. The Cowboys' success of last season came from riding the wave of fun football that was generated by the win in Kansas City.

The environment in D.C. was tough for a team hoping to regain that magic, now the team knows it must create that magic all over again.

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