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Four Downs: Will Texans expose Bears?

11/8/2012
Texans defensive tackle J.J. Watt leads the NFL with 10.5 sacks this season. AP Photos/David Drapkin

The 7-1 Houston Texans come to town for a Sunday night showdown in prime time, giving the Chicago Bears a chance to notch by far their most impressive win so far.

The combined record of their opponents through eight games is 24-33, and they have faced just one team (Cowboys at 2-1) with a better than .500 record when they played them.

The Texans game begins a tough stretch that consists of games against the San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, Vikings again and the Green Bay Packers. Will the Bears be exposed on Sunday night or will their 7-1 start be validated?

Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: The Texans will expose the Bears as a team that got fat against lesser foes.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Spare me the nonsense about the Bears beating up on weak teams. An NFL team doesn't rank No. 3 in points scored (29.5), No. 1 in turnover ratio (plus-16) and boast a top-10 defense if they stink. The Bears did exactly what they needed to do in their first eight games and shouldn't have to apologize for it. Now, the Texans are talented enough to win at Soldier Field. That is fairly obvious. But even if the Bears get blown off the field it doesn't mean they're not a serious contender in the NFC. How many great teams are there really in the NFL? So far, the Bears look like a team with a great shot to make the postseason. I don't see that changing much regardless of Sunday's outcome.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. The likelihood of that taking place is definitely there, but it's also legitimate to question whether the Texans are the real deal. Given Chicago's home-field advantage, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the opposite actually took place. The teams seem pretty evenly matched, with both suffering their only loss to the Green Bay Packers. It's also impressive that Houston defeated the Denver Broncos on the road, and destroyed a 6-2 Baltimore Ravens team. If the Texans do manage to leave Soldier Field with a victory, they won't necessarily be exposing the Bears. They will have simply been better than a pretty good Bears team. I do see this game as being one in which Chicago's problems on offense could finally sink the team, the way it did in Week 2 at Green Bay.

Scott Powers: Fiction. I'm not convinced the Texans haven't done the same. They were roughed up by the Packers and have respectable wins over the Broncos and Ravens, but their victories over the Jets, Jaguars, Bills, Dolphins and Titans aren't overly impressive. This is a game for both teams to prove themselves as elite.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. If the Bears lose, it won't expose them as frauds. In fact, I'd argue we know exactly what kind of team the Bears are right now, from their strengths to their flaws. The Bears' defense was good against Green Bay and Detroit, two strong offenses, so it's not like they've only beaten the dregs of the AFC South. The offense has had its problems against all kinds of defenses so far. The Bears should be amped for this game, because it's a nationally-televised showdown against a potential Super Bowl team. But I think we can agree that we know what kind of team the Bears are after half the season, and it's a very good team with a few legitimate weaknesses.


Second Down

Fact or Fiction: J.J. Watt should be the Bears' biggest concern on Sunday night.

Jeff Dickerson:Fact. Watt is a game-changer of the highest order. He is a freakishly gifted athlete who leads the NFL with 10.5 sacks, has 18 tackles for a loss, 21 quarterback hits and 10 pass breakups and can line up at a variety of spots along the Texans' defensive line. Even if the Bears send an extra blocker Watt's way the entire night, which I imagine they will, he can still cause problems. But I'll take my chances against Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus before I let Watt beat me. If Watt isn't the definition of a concern, then I need to buy a new dictionary.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Absolutely, Watt should be the concern because if the Bears neutralize him, they've got a chance to hit some big throws on Houston's secondary, which (unwisely) plans to play man to man against receiver Brandon Marshall. If Chicago can't block Watt, there's a chance this game could snowball into a rout because of turnovers and keeping the defense on the field too long due to three-and-out possessions. Watt has played a major role in Houston's defense allowing just three touchdowns in eight games, while leading the NFL in opponent time of possession (24:47), third-down efficiency (26.47 percent), pass breakups (58) and opponent completion percentage (54.4). But there's no way offensive coordinator Mike Tice doesn't put something together specifically designed to handle Watt. One concern stemming from that, however, is how much Tice's plan affects the rest of the offense. It's almost a certainty the Bears will take running backs and tight ends out of pass routes to help out on Watt. But that gives Cutler fewer options in the passing game, which might not prove beneficial with the Texans expected to blitz heavily and play man to man on the back end.

Scott Powers: Fact. Even as the Bears have put together six consecutive victories, it's not as if their offensive line has taken huge steps. The line is still having trouble with its protection, and Jay Cutler is still getting knocked around in the pocket. Watt could have a field day if the Bears' line continues to struggle on Sunday. Watt already leads the NFL with 10.5 sacks, and that number will likely grow this week.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Watt is the boogeyman for this Bears offense, a pass rusher who can force turnovers with his inimitable physical skills. Not only does he have 10.5 sacks, but he's also batted down 10 passes, four of which have turned into touchdowns for the Texans. I really hope we don't see too many empty-backfield formations or too many with fewer than two tight ends, because you'd be crazy not to double him, or chip him every play. The Bears need to recognize where Watt is lined up every play and avoid him, while focusing on using Matt Forte and Michael Bush, even against the best rushing defense in the league (second in yards per game and the only one not to give up a rushing touchdown), and quick-hitting pass plays.


Third Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears need Charles Tillman to play to beat Andre Johnson and the Texans.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Of course the Bears need Tillman, he's only the NFC Defensive Player of the Month. Johnson has lost a step over the years, but he's still an upper echelon receiver who leads Houston with 42 catches for 562 yards. In the event Tillman's family obligations force him to miss the game, the Bears can turn to respected veteran Kelvin Hayden, who has plenty of experience covering Johnson when Hayden played for AFC South rival Indianapolis. Hayden would no doubt do a respectable job on Johnson, but the Bears need Tillman, not just for his coverage skills, but also for his ball-punching prowess against a Texans' offense that is known for protecting the football.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Johnson is big (6-3, 230 pounds) -- nearly the same size as Brandon Marshall (6-4, 230) but runs faster. So the Bears need a favorable matchup on Johnson, and Tillman presents the best choice. Tillman shut down Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson on Oct. 22, and with the corner on somewhat of a roll, he could possibly do the same to Andre Johnson. If Tillman is forced to miss because of the birth of his child, the club's options would be to either put Tim Jennings, who is 5-feet-8, on Johnson, or the 6-foot Kelvin Hayden. So Tillman, at 6-2, is by far the best candidate to defend Johnson, and they'll definitely need the corner against Houston's pinpoint passing attack. Since Gary Kubiak took over as Houston's head coach in 2006, the Texans have fielded the league's second-most accurate passing offense, with their quarterbacks combining to hit 65.3 percent of their throws. Andre Johnson, meanwhile, has caught 25 passes over the past three games, with at least eight grabs in each outing. So it's safe to say Johnson is on a hot streak. There's no better option to cool him off than Tillman.

Scott Powers: Fiction. What makes the Texans such a difficult matchup is they have a number of high-powered offensive pieces. Johnson is certainly one of them, but they also possess one of the game's top running backs in Arian Foster, an above-average quarterback in Matt Schaub and a dangerous tight end in Owen Daniels. Tillman's play is important, but so is nearly everyone else on defense.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Tillman is having a defensive player of the year-type season and even though Johnson's numbers are a little down (two touchdowns), he's still the kind of elite receiver Tillman is paid to cover. Tillman's wife is pregnant, and he's sort of a game-time decision. There's no argument that the Bears can simply do without Tillman. He is integral to their success.


Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: This Bears' defense is better than the 1985 version.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Win a Super Bowl and then we'll talk. No disrespect to what the Bears' defense has accomplished this year in eight games, but the 1985 Bears went 15-1 and won a Super Bowl. Ask me this question in February. I might have a better answer for you then.

Michael C. Wright:Fiction. This one isn't even debatable given how the 1985 defense revolutionized football in many ways. Until the current incarnation of the Bears defense hoists a Lombardi Trophy, my vote goes to the 1985 Bears. They may have been the best defense of all time.

Scott Powers: Fiction. That can't be determined into the season's end. The 1985 defense led the Bears to a Super Bowl win. While this year's defense is off to an amazing start, let's see where it takes the Bears before we begin evaluating where it compares to 1985. It certainly has that potential, though.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. I argued this in our weekly Hot Button segment, and while it's too early to really rank this defense against the Super Bowl Shufflers, the 2012 version stacks up in most categories and is far better at scoring touchdowns and somewhat better at not giving them up. All the stars have seemingly aligned for the 2012 group -- the veterans have experience and athleticism, the line is deep, the ball is bouncing their way, literally and figuratively. And while this team will never be able to match the star power and nostalgia of the 1985 Bears, if they can match that team in Super Bowl rings, we have a new winner.