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Rams-Bears: Matchup breakdown

11/23/2013

ST. LOUIS – A look at three individual matchups to watch in Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears.

Rams left tackle Jake Long vs. Bears defensive end Julius Peppers

A couple years ago this might have been one of the premiere individual battles you could find anywhere in the NFL. Make no mistake, Long and Peppers are still very good players but they might not be at the level they once were.

Still, this is one of the most important matchups in this game. Peppers’ combination of speed and athleticism remains even if the numbers aren’t jumping off the page as they once did.

“He’s a great player, day in and day out,” Long said. “He’s got such long arms, he’s got power, he’s got speed to take down the edge, so it’s a good battle to go up against him. I’m excited. It’s going to be fun.”

Through the first 10 games, Peppers has posted 29 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception returned for a touchdown.

Long has struggled against elite rushers this year, particularly with Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware, a player not unlike Peppers in terms of size and skill set. But Long has also been much better in the past month or so since the Rams switched to a more run-heavy attack.

If the Rams can get the run game going – an area Long can help jump start – it should allow for the Rams to keep Peppers off balance and Long to dictate the matchup.

Rams cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson vs. Bears receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall

There’s no receiver combination in the league more physically imposing than Jeffery and Marshall. That duo has caused nightmares for opposing defenses with its ability to outjump and outmuscle opposing corners for the ball.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall has 64 catches for 828 yards and eight touchdowns this season while the 6-3, 216-pound Jeffery has 54 catches for 818 yards and three touchdowns.

There isn’t a cornerback duo in the league equipped to match Marshall and Jeffery in terms of sheer size.

“It’s a matchup issue,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “They’re very, very talented. Both quarterbacks Jay [Cutler], obviously was playing well before he went down, but Josh [McCown] does a really good job putting the ball up to them. They’ve got confidence. These guys can outjump and outreach. We’ve got a battle on our hands, but our corners … ‘Jenks’ is a leaper and ‘Tru’s' got length, so we’ll just see how it goes.”

At 5-10, 198 pounds, Jenkins is the smaller of the Rams’ options and must be on top of his game in terms of timing his leap. He’s had mixed success in those situations this year but hasn’t faced a challenge of this size just yet.

Johnson has improved in 2013 and at 6-2, 208 pounds is more suited to take on players like Marshall and Jeffery.

The Rams have been more aggressive in coverage in recent weeks, playing more press coverage at the line of scrimmage. That may be the best way to keep the Bears duo from winning jump balls. A good jam at the line of scrimmage can throw off timing and allow the Rams defensive line to get after McCown before he can get the ball down the field.

Rams punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein vs. Bears returner Devin Hester

Rams fans still have nightmares about Hester’s game in St. Louis in 2006 when he returned two kicks for touchdowns.

Much has changed in terms of Hester’s role since then as he no longer contributes much to the offense and has even been in the mix as a cornerback. But he remains Chicago’s primary returner with a strong kick return average of 28.23 yards and 13.25 yards per punt return to go with a touchdown.

“He’s not playing any offense, but he’s still very, very dangerous,” Fisher said. “I think, considering the fact that his role on offense has been reduced or limited, he’s going to be more inclined to bringing the ball out and has that desire to make plays. So, it makes him very dangerous and they’ve always had great confidence in him.”

The onus falls on Hekker and Zuerlein to help neutralize the player who is probably the most dangerous returner in league history.

Hekker has been as good as any punter in the league so far in 2013, leading the league in net punting with an average of 43.51 yards.

Zuerlein hasn’t yielded much in the way of returns, either, averaging 65.88 yards per kickoff, fifth most in the league. The coverage units have been good in this regard, too, as Rams opponents have started an average of 80.4 yards from the end zone on their drives, second furthest away in the league.