There’s been a lot of ink (gigabytes, whatever) spent this week on the Bears’ passing game, its lethal receivers and its multipurpose running back that I think there’s been one key component lost in the hype: Chicago’s defense is terrible. The Bears’ run defense is last in the NFL and it’s been justly earned. LeSean McCoy will not be neglected this week. He will get more than eight carries, and if he doesn’t Chip Kelly should jump to the head of the pass-happy coaches line, just in front of Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg.
I don’t think there’s any chance Kelly will forget his franchise tailback, though. He generally prefers a balanced offense and the Bears run defense will be just too appetizing. Chicago has allowed a 100-yard rusher in 9 of 14 games. Some of the names you would expect: Adrian Peterson and Reggie Bush (twice), DeMarco Murry, Ray Rice, Eddie Lacy. Some you may not – Brandon Jacobs, Benny Cunningham. The Bears are allowing 152.4 yards a game on the ground.
Defensive end Shea McClellan is vulnerable against the run, as is strong-side linebacker James Anderson. Tight end Brent Celek will be a key blocking cog in the run game. If there is a silver lining for the Bears it is the expected return of weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs (fractured shoulder).
The Bears pass defense is 11th in the league in total yards allowed, but 25th in passing net yards per play. The interception has often saved the secondary. The Bears are tied for sixth in the NFL with 17 picks. But they will be without veteran cornerback Charles Tillman, whose play slipped this season, but still managed to keep the defensive backfield competitive. Zach Bowman has taken Tillman’s place. Tim Jennings is at the other corner and is solid. The 5-foot-8 corner could be tasked with mirroring DeSean Jackson, who had a career day (10 catches for 195 yards and a touchdown) against the Vikings.
Kelly’s offense put up 475 yards last week, 428 through the air, but it never seemed to click. Nick Foles wasn’t the same quarterback when asked to carry the team on his shoulders. Sprinkling in more of McCoy and the other running backs should get Foles back on track.
Now to the Bears offense and the challenge that awaits the Eagles. Marc Trestman’s scheme is explosive. The Chicago head coach uses all sorts of concepts to free up his dangerous receivers, much as Kelly does with the Eagles. The personnel is different, but he is innovative, using packaged plays, high-low combination routes and vertical passing concepts to get the ball into the hands of Brandon Marshall (90 catches for 1,195 yards and 10 touchdowns) nd Alshon Jeffery (80 catches for 1,265 yards and seven touchdowns).
Both are big (Marshall is 6-4, 230; Jeffrey is 6-3, 216) and both are quick. The Eagles don’t really have an answer for either in their secondary. It will be interesting to see what kind of zones defensive coordinator Bill Davis concocts in an attempt to at least slow the combo. The Eagles are expected to get Earl Wolff back at safety, so that means Patrick Chung will head back to the bench. Wolff has missed the last four games with a knee surgery, but anyone expecting the rookie to be the savior for this group is kidding himself. Backups Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson aren’t expected to play Sunday, so the Eagles signed Keelen Johnson off the practice squad. There was more good news on the injury front. Brandon Boykin was cleared to return to practice on Thursday after suffering a concussion and should man his usual spot in the slot.
If the Bears had just Marshall and Jeffery and quarterback Jay Cutler throwing to them, then stopping that offense may not seem as daunting. But Chicago has additional weapons. Running back Matt Forte is third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,722). McCoy is first with 1,850 yards. The Eagles run defense has been stout most of the season, but Forte will present problems catching the ball out of the backfield for linebackers Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans. Tight end Martellus Bennett (59 catches for 659 yards) presents a different challenge for the linebackers.
The Bears offensive line is much improved over the unit that couldn’t consistently protect Cutler for several years. Free agent signings Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson make up the left side and rookies Jordan Mills and guard Kyle Long are on the right. The Eagles need to generate more pressure than they did in Minnesota to offset the deficiencies in the secondary.
Finally, you can’t write about the Bears without mentioning returner Devin Hester. The Eagles avoided Vikings kick returner Cordarelle Patterson at all costs, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them kick away from Hester both on kickoffs (28.6 yards) and on punts (12.2 yards).
Ultimately, I see the Eagles winning in a shootout. I’m not sure we’ll see Davis’ defense return to holding opposing offenses to 21 points or less, as it did during the nine games before last Sunday’s disaster. But I expect to see enough big plays – a turnover here, a red zone stop there – to keep the Bears from running up and down the field and Kelly’s offense atop the scoreboard.
Prediction: Eagles 40, Bears 31.
What goes right: McCoy rushes for over 175 yards and breaks Wilbert Montgomery’s single-season Eagles record of 1,512 yards.
What goes wrong: Marshall and Jeffery each go over 100-yards receiving.
I’ve spent all week vacillating over this game. Watching both the Eagles and the Bears during the past few days, it’s easy to be impressed with them and find issues with them. The matchup reminds me of the Cardinals game in so many ways.
Ultimately, I expect the same result – a one-score game that comes down to the final drive, and ends with an Eagles win.But the score I predicted below could easily be switched to the other, and I wouldn't be surprised.
There are two obvious mismatches – the Eagles rushing against the Bears rush defense, and the Bears passing against the Eagles pass defense.
LeSean McCoy will get more than eight carries on Sunday, and I expect him to be a major difference maker. Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is a good coach and the return of Lance Briggs will help Chicago, but not enough to stop McCoy. Pay attention to Jay Ratliff, who has played well since entering the line. The interior of the Eagles’ offensive line must run block well to spring McCoy.
I also expect Nick Foles to have a strong performance. The Bears did a nice job limiting Dallas receiver Dez Bryant and Cleveland receiver Josh Gordon during the past two weeks. DeSean Jackson is different than both of those players, and I’d expect to see Jackson used similarly to last week, when the Eagles moved him around often to free him up in coverage. Zach Ertz will have another strong game – I can see 4-6 catches from the rookie on Sunday night. The Bears have allowed the fourth most receptions to tight ends this season.
Field position is going to be critical for the Eagles defense. The Bears can move the ball – Marc Trestman was an outstanding hire, and those two receivers are outstanding – but what served the Eagles well during their winning streak was giving up first downs, but not touchdowns. That needs to be formula on Sunday. They’re not going to stop Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and Matt Forte will get his yards running and receiving. But if the Eagles pin the Bears back and play well in the red zone, they can turn sevens into threes. That’s what needs to happen -- field positions and red-zone defense could dictate the game.
As much attention as the receivers and Forte deserve, tight end Martellus Bennett is having an impressive season. The Eagles must key in on Bennett throughout the game. They're the best defense in the NFL against tight ends, but they haven't faced many like Bennett. Earl Wolff’s return will help the Eagles, and he cannot show rust.
Jay Cutler has a quick release and strong arm and has been improved under Marc Trestman, although the 10 interceptions in nine games stand out. The Eagles must force turnovers to win this game – it was their formula during the winning streak, and it must continue on Sunday.
One area that will be important to watch is special teams. The Eagles allowed two touchdowns in the snow two weeks ago, and they would not kick to Cordarrelle Patterson last week. Chicago has strong special teams – especially in the second half of the season – and Devin Hester is one of the most dangerous return men in NFL history.
The results of the earlier games could been an intangible on Sunday that’s difficult to predict, but I see the Eagles getting their ninth victory – and potentially clinching the NFC East depending upon what the Cowboys do.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Bears 27
What goes right: McCoy rushes for more than 100 yards and gets within reach of Wilbert Montgomery’s team-rushing record. The Eagles win the turnover battle.
What goes wrong: The Bears top 300 passing yards. The Cowboys win, setting the stage of a memorable Week 17.