Thursday, November 21, 2013
Double Coverage: Bears at Rams
By Nick Wagoner and Michael C. Wright
Julius Peppers' Bears and Tavon Austin's Rams will add another chapter to an old rivalry.
The St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears have been playing each other seemingly forever. The series dates to 1937, when the Rams franchise was based in Cleveland.
Much has changed over the years, with the Rams moving around before settling about 4 1/2 hours south on I-55.
Sunday's game between the teams will be the 89th in their history, but it represents much more for each.
At 6-4, the Bears are still in the hunt for the NFC North Division and, failing that, a potential NFC wild-card berth. The Rams are clinging to their playoff lives at 4-6 and probably need to win out to reach the postseason.
ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright take a closer look at Sunday's matchup.
Wagoner: There's been lots of talk about the quarterback situation up there, something that we can relate to in St. Louis. Josh McCown seems like he's done a good job filling in for Jay Cutler. What does he bring to the table that allows him to have success, and how do teammates view him?
Wright: Aside from the immense physical gifts such as athleticism and his ability to make up for whatever limitations he may have in terms of arm strength with anticipatory skills, McCown possesses an engaging personality that makes his teammates play hard for him. Bears general manager Phil Emery in the past has called McCown "a glue guy." Having played for several teams where he gained experience as a starter and worked behind quarterbacks such as Kurt Warner and Jon Kitna, McCown has taken what he's learned and applied it to his own play while relaying some of those experiences to Chicago's younger players. That's part of the reason McCown is widely considered a fatherly figure in the locker room. McCown's teammates respect him immensely because the veteran knows his role and works just as hard as starter Jay Cutler to be prepared to assume that role when the situation calls for it.
Speaking of backup quarterbacks, this game is certainly going to be a Backup Bowl and Kellen Clemens seems to be settling in as the replacement for Sam Bradford. What does he bring to the table and how confident is the team in his ability to get it done down the stretch?
Wagoner: After reading your response about McCown, I was tempted to just copy and paste it and simply sub in Clemens' name where appropriate. Clemens' numbers are about what you'd expect from a backup and fall in line with his career totals. He had pretty much the ideal game you'd want him to have against Indianapolis. He didn't have to throw much, but when he did, he made no mistakes and took advantage of big-play opportunities. What's more, he's completely unafraid to step up in the pocket and take a hit to deliver the ball or pull it down and try to make something happen with his legs. His teammates respect him and it shows in the way they battle for him week to week. To be sure, Clemens is no Bradford, but he has already given the Rams all they want on the field and has been a key mentor in the locker room for his many young teammates.
Switching gears a bit, Chicago's defense has taken an obvious step backward this year. How much of that do you attribute to the change in coaching staff and how much is a product of aging core players on the defense at large?
Wright: There's a little bit of all of that going on, but the biggest blow to the defense by far has been injuries. The Bears lost starting nickel corner Kelvin Hayden for the year before the season even started, then lost franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton with a torn ACL only to see his replacement, Nate Collins, lost for the season with the same injury. Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman landed on the injured-reserve list due to a torn triceps suffered Nov. 10, and seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs has been out the past three games with a small fracture in a shoulder. Oh, did I mention the Bears also lost starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, starting defensive tackle Stephen Paea has been in and out of the lineup -- and there's a chance he could miss Sunday -- with a nagging turf toe injury and defensive end Shea McClellin missed the past two games due to a strained hamstring? So injuries have destroyed chemistry for the Bears. Considering all the defense has gone through, it's somewhat a surprise it hasn't performed more poorly.
With the Rams coming off a bye, what areas needed the most work during the time away, and is the team confident it was able to sufficiently address them?
Wagoner: I suppose the simple answer to this question is they needed to work on everything during the bye week, but it's more detailed than that. The Rams are again the youngest team in the league and the thing they struggle with most is consistency. They simply haven't been able to string together good performances. So the mission over the bye was to get healthy, get their young guys extra reps in practice and try to position themselves to follow up a dominant win against Indianapolis with another strong performance this week against the Bears. Most notably, they must find a way to be better week to week on defense. They've had some thoroughly dominant performances surrounded by clunkers. Without Bradford, the margin for error is even smaller, so it falls on the defense to pick up the slack by putting up strong performances every time out. The Rams were riding high after the win against the Colts. They believe they can win every week. We'll see if the bye served them well or killed whatever momentum they might have built in Indy.
On the subject of that defense, the Rams clearly have a tall order coming Sunday. With Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte and the emergence of Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett, this seems like as good a group of skill position players as the Bears have had in a long time. Do you view it that way and what does that mean for the team moving forward?
Wright: Absolutely, it's probably the best they've had collectively in the past 20 years and signifies a shift in philosophy for the organization. Prior to the addition of coach Marc Trestman; the Bears always spent their money to build elite defenses while sacrificing quality on offense. But Emery has made it clear the Bears want to start fielding more explosive offenses while continuing the tradition of strong play on defense. So the Bears have invested heavily on offense in free agency and the draft, and it appears they'll be able to keep the group together for a long time, especially if they can secure Marshall for the long term because his contract is set to expire after next season. So while it appears the Bears are set on offense, they've got to immediately turn the attention back to the defense, which is aging and has several players coming up on the end of their contracts at season's end. Tillman's deal is about to expire and the team must decide if it wants to continue to invest huge cap dollars in defensive end Julius Peppers. I'd expect an interesting offseason for the Bears this spring, and a radically changed defense in terms of personnel in 2014.
Last spring, it seemed that a good portion of the Chicago fan base really hoped that somehow Tavon Austin would fall to the Bears. He's obviously made plenty of noise recently for the Rams and seems to be ascending. How much is there that we haven't yet seen from this guy?
Wagoner: Austin is still just scratching the surface of his big-play potential. His breakthrough performance against the Colts was nice, but now it's up to him and the Rams to find a way for him to duplicate it on a more regular basis. Responsibility for Austin's early-season struggles was shared by all parties -- some of it was his struggles to catch the ball and run good routes consistently, some was a product of an offense unsure how to deploy him best -- but it seems things are opening up for him a bit. The Rams have made a more concerted effort to get him the ball down the field in recent weeks as opposed to throwing the short screens and hitches that went nowhere in the first half of the season. That doesn't even include his home run ability as a returner. Austin still has plenty of room to get better, but in the meantime, his breakout game should not only bolster his confidence but open some other things up for the offense.