Sunday, December 15, 2013
Five things to watch: Bears at Browns
By Michael C. Wright
Here are five things to watch when the Chicago Bears face the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium:
Jay Cutler: Cutler will start his first game in a month Sunday at Cleveland, and he's sure to be at least a little rusty after all the inactivity. After all, Cutler has played in just four quarters over the last seven weeks. So his level of conditioning also has to be at least a passing concern. If Cutler struggles early on, Bears coach Marc Trestman isn't likely to go back to backup Josh McCown, who played well in the starter's absence.
"I wouldn't be prepared for any of those hypotheticals. We plan on him playing and playing well and those situations come up game by game with anybody," Trestman said. "But I wouldn't go near that one other than the fact that I expect Jay to play efficiently and play well. That's why he's going to be up."
Cutler, meanwhile, understands there's a good chance he'll be rusty against the Browns. But the quarterback also said the team can't afford to experience such a scenario.
"Rust, we're kind of knocking it off as we go in practice. We really have a lot of room for me to be rusty out there," Cutler said. "So we've got to hit in running. We've got to play well. Cleveland's a really good defense."
Tim Jennings: Considering Cleveland's rushing attack ranks 28th, the Bears aren't as likely to get gashed in that area as they are trying to defend Browns receiver Josh Gordon, who has racked up 774 yards over his last four games. It's likely that Jennings will draw the responsibility of covering Gordon (6-3, 225 pounds) who definitely holds a size advantage over the diminutive corner, who stands at 5-8. That's not to say Jennings can't get the job done. He certainly handled his own against Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant (6-2, 222 pounds), limiting him to two catches for 12 yards and a touchdown.
"[Gordon has] big-play ability," Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "He has a large catch radius. He's fast. He can take a 5-yard slant and turn it into a 60-yard touchdown. He's playing with a lot of confidence. The quarterbacks have confidence in him to go up and make plays. He can catch the ball in a crowd and win the contested one-on-one battle."
That's why Jennings will need help over the top from safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright.
The pass rush: The best way to neutralize Gordon's impact is to affect his timing with quarterback Jason Campbell through the pass rush. If the Bears can force Campbell to throw it before he's ready, that can result in errant passes, which become easy interceptions for the secondary. Throughout the game, the front needs to make Campbell consistently leery of its presence.
Look for Jeremiah Ratliff, playing in his third game with the Bears, to provide more of a presence with his inside rush ability, which should benefit Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton on the outside.
How the Bears handle hostile environment: Cleveland's initial surge could turn the tide of the entire game, especially when considering the rust factor for Cutler, who has turned the ball over carelessly in the past. If you look at the series between the teams, you'll see the home team is 11-3, including victories in the last seven meetings. So despite Cleveland's 5-9 record, don't underestimate the potential potency of a hostile road environment and a rocking home crowd.
Early on, the Bears need to protect Cutler well to allow the quarterback to find a rhythm. They also need to establish the run early to get Cleveland on its heels, which will help the Bears do damage off playaction.
Matt Forte: Bears general manager Phil Emery once called McCown a "glue guy," but this label also applies to Forte because he's the player who makes the entire offense go with his ability to run, pass protect, and pose a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. Forte has quietly reeled of 1,073 yard rushing (still think he's not worth the money?), in addition to catching 65 passes for 518 yards and two touchdowns. If the Bears can't get Forte going against Cleveland's seventh-ranked defense, you can count on them experiencing a long, difficult day.
"I think Forte's doing everything well: blocking, running the ball, catching the ball out of the backfield. He's kind of making it all go for us," Cutler said.
That needs to continue at Cleveland because this team's postseason fate likely depends on it.