LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears' rankings on offense (1st) and defense (2nd) dominated the talk and headlines this week, while the obstacle holding the club back received nary a whisper.
The club ranks sixth in the NFL in penalties, with officials flagging it nine times for 100 yards in the season opener. Bears coach Lovie Smith wants to see the Bears make strides toward improving the situation today against the Dallas Cowboys.
“You can’t have it,” Smith said. “But a lot of times [in] first games, those things do pop up. That’s more than we normally have. We’re on top of it. We realize that we can’t have it.”
If it continues, Smith knows a penchant for penalties kills drives for the offense and keeps them alive for opponents’ offenses.
The Bears offensive line generated four holding penalties coming from Roberto Garza, Brandon Manumaleuna, Chris Williams and Olin Kreutz. Garza was also called for false start. Three Bears -- Julius Peppers, Rashied Davis, and Brian Urlacher -- received 15-yard personal-foul penalties, and Garrett Wolfe was called for an illegal block.
In the first quarter against Detroit last week, a Peppers roughing-the-passer penalty on third-and-8 -- in which Matthew Stafford completed a pass for six yards -- gave the Lions a fresh set of downs. Four plays later, the Lions scored to go up 7-3.
Then, in the second quarter officials flagged Urlacher for a personal foul after a fumble recovery by Tommie Harris. Had the Bears not been called for the penalty, the offense would’ve taken possession at the Detroit 22.
Instead, the unit took over at the 37, and settled for a field goal after gaining 24 yards in three plays. The lost real estate potentially cost the Bears a touchdown, when considering the club would’ve needed to gain just 22 yards instead of 37 for a score.
“We had great field position during the day, but some of [the penalties] really hurt our field position, and just in general. Normally, there’s a big improvement from Game 1 to Game 2 in all areas. That’s definitely one we need to improve on this week.”
Three keys for the Bears
Go deep: It’s pointless to possess speed on the outside if it’s never put to use. So it’s worth it to take a shot or two deep with Devin Aromashodu, Johnny Knox, Devin Hester or Greg Olsen. Chicago’s receivers own a speed advantage over the Cowboys secondary. Dallas corner Terence Newman is aging, and Mike Jenkins struggles to against taller receivers. Cowboys’ safety Gerald Sensabaugh lacks ball skills.
Take advantage of Dallas' struggling offensive line: Right tackle Marc Colombo and left guard Kyle Kosier return to the lineup for the Cowboys, after missing time with injury and left tackle Doug Free is inexperienced. So take advantage of the returners’ not-so-good playing shape and Free’s lack of experience by lining up Julius Peppers in a variety of spots along the defensive line. Peppers should consistently win his matchups against both Cowboys tackles.
Take the halftime lead: The Bears typically don’t thrive in come-from-behind situations, so it’s important for the club to put points on the board early. Opponents outscored the Bears 96-36 in the first quarter of games last year, which needs to change for the club to achieve any level of consistency. The Bears are 36-6 since 2004 when they lead at halftime and 10-33 when they trail.
Three keys for the Cowboys
Blitz the linebackers: Because of Jay Ratliff’s ability to generate pressure up the middle, the Bears will devote plenty of manpower to firming up the interior of the line with double teams. And on the outside, shaky Bears tackles Chris Williams and Frank Omiayle will struggle to neutralize Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. That should leave plenty of rush lanes for Dallas’ interior linebackers.
Hit Jay Cutler: Even if the Cowboys aren’t ringing up sacks, they need to hit Cutler often and get into his face nearly every play. Cutler receives praise for his durability and toughness. But like most quarterbacks, he’s shown a penchant for becoming antsy in the pocket when he’s hit often, which leads to him not stepping into throws; thus interceptions and errant attempts.
Stop Peppers at all costs: Neutralizing Peppers won’t be easy, but it’s the best way to keep Tony Romo comfortable in the pocket. Besides that, the Bears haven’t displayed any consistent ability to win one-on-one matchups with any of the other pass rushers. So make the Bears beat you with manufactured pressure -- which exposes the secondary -- or guys such as Mark Anderson and Israel Idonije instead of Peppers.
D.J. Moore doesn’t lack in confidence, but that might not be enough to overcome inexperience, or the challenge of lining up against Cowboys slot receiver Miles Austin.
The starting nickel corner, Moore said he expected to line up across from Austin on most third downs when the Cowboys go to three-wideout formations.
“It’s football, man,” Moore said. “They run routes and I cover them.”
How well, however, could make the difference in whether the Bears win. When the Bears pressure Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo on third down, they can expect him to look Austin’s direction, according to research conducted by ESPN Stats and Information. Romo has completed 70.9 passes to Austin over the past two years when defenses pressure with five or more rushers, with the receiver averaging 13.2 yards per catch in such situations.
“I feel like if teams do go at him, he’ll have opportunities to make plays,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said of Moore. “He has great hands. They’re going to try to match D.J. up a little bit. Again, I feel like he’s one of our starters, and he can hold his own even if someone tries to [attack him].
The Cowboys have won two in a row over the Bears, and four of the last six meetings in the series.
Cutler has posted passer ratings of 100 or better in three consecutive outings. Interestingly, Cutler is 16-0 as a starter when his passer rating is 100 or better.
Linebacker Brian Urlacher tied his career high for sacks (2) in his last game against the Cowboys
The Bears have won 14 of their last 17 when Charles Tillman intercepts a pass.
Peppers has posted seven sacks, in addition to two interceptions and two forced fumbles in six career games against the Cowboys.
Austin has averaged 95.3 yards per catch in his last seven home games, in addition to scoring six touchdowns.
Bears by the numbers
1: Player in the NFL (Matt Forte) since to 2008 to gain 2,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving.
23: Career interceptions for Tillman, which ties him for No. 9 on the franchise’s all-time list.
23: Players on the roster with at least five years of NFL experience.
.400: Chicago’s winning percentage over the past 10 years on the road. The club has compiled a 32-48 record in road games from 2000-2009.