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NFL Preview - Washington (3-3) at Chicago (4-2)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Both the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins underwent extensive offseason changes in an attempt to restore themselves back into contenders. Six weeks into this 2010 campaign, and it's still hard to tell just how close each has come towards achieving its goals.
These two unpredictable teams, both of which will be vying to rebound from frustrating home losses, square off this Sunday at Soldier Field in a matchup that should provide a good measuring stick for both.
Although the Bears currently stand atop the challenging NFC North, they've lost two of three games since a very encouraging 3-0 start and had a few trouble areas exposed over that tough stretch. Most of the problems have come on a revamped offense that's displayed a glaring weakness in both running the football and protecting the quarterback.
Chicago has surrendered an NFL-high 27 sacks over the first six games and ranks 26th in the league in rushing, and those two shortcomings have made for an awfully difficult time for quarterback Jay Cutler. The strong-armed field general has been taken to the turf a startling 15 times over his past two starts, with Seattle coming up with six sacks in last Sunday's 23-20 triumph over the Bears.
A shell-shocked Cutler completed just 17-of-39 passes in that game as Chicago had a three-game home winning streak dating back to last season halted.
The Bears were able to pile up 218 rushing yards in a 23-6 win at hapless Carolina in Week 6, a contest in which Cutler sat out due to a concussion, but managed just 61 yards on the ground against the Seahawks. It's the fourth time this season that Chicago has ran for 77 yards or less.
Washington comes in with a 3-3 record that could just as easily be 5-1, or even 0-6 for that matter. All but one of the Redskins' games have been decided by six points or less, and four have had the outcome hanging in the balance until the final play.
The Redskins have been able to be competitive in spite of a shaky defense that's given up a league-worst 432.5 total yards per game thus far. Washington was gashed for 469 yards by the high-powered Indianapolis Colts a week ago, but was able to hang around by forcing three turnovers before eventually falling by a 27-24 score to the reigning AFC champions.
Washington, which has been outgained in every game this year, is still just a half-game back of the New York Giants and Philadelphia in the tightly-bunched NFC East and can match its entire victory total of its forgettable 2009 season with a win on Sunday.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb has played a part in the Redskins' resurgence, with the decorated veteran averaging better than 260 passing yards in his first season with the Burgundy and Gold. The Chicago native sports a 4-1 career record when playing in his home city, and guided the Philadelphia Eagles to a 24-20 win at Soldier Field last November by throwing for 244 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-32 passing.
The Bears lead the all-time regular season series with Washington, which dates back to 1932, by a 20-18-1 count, but the Redskins have won the last three matchups between the storied franchises. The most recent encounter took place during Week 14 of the 2007 season, with Washington claiming a 24-16 home victory behind 224 yards and two touchdowns from backup quarterback and current Bear Todd Collins in relief of injured then-starter Jason Campbell. Chicago last defeated the Redskins in 2003, and last prevailed in the nation's capital in 2001.
The clubs have a storied history against one another in the postseason, with Washington holding a 4-3 playoff edge. The teams met for the NFL Championship four times between 1937 and 1943, with each claiming two crowns. The Bears' 73-0 win in D.C. following the 1940 season has taken on legendary status in NFL annals. Chicago also won a 1984 NFC Divisional Playoff on the road, while Washington came into Soldier Field in 1986 and 1987 and won Divisional Playoff contests.
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan is 1-2 all-time against the Bears, with all of those games coming during his 14-year tenure with Denver from 1995-2008. Chicago's Lovie Smith is 0-3 versus Washington for his career, but won his only head-to-head meeting with Shanahan via a 37-34 overtime verdict over the Broncos at Soldier Field in 2007.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Washington has been more pass-oriented during the early stages of the Shanahan era and enters Sunday's tilt ranked ninth in the league with an average of 244.2 yards per game through the air. Like his team, McNabb (1561 passing yards, 5 TD, 5 INT) has been somewhat up-and-down in directing the offense, with the six-time Pro Bowler having completed a mediocre 58.1 percent of his attempts and throwing just five touchdown passes in six games. He has been able to develop a strong rapport with top receiver Santana Moss (37 receptions, 485 yards, 1 TD), however, as the proven wideout is on pace for a 1,300-yard season, while former practice squad member Anthony Armstrong (12 receptions, 1 TD) and 38-year-old Joey Galloway (8 receptions) are averaging better than 17 yards a catch as the deep threats. Tight end Chris Cooley (28 receptions, 2 TD), the Redskins' second-leading receiver, left last week's loss with a concussion but is expected to be fine for Sunday's test. Running back Clinton Portis won't play for a third straight week as he recovers from a separated groin muscle, but replacement Ryan Torain (256 rushing yards, 3 TD, 5 receptions) showed he can fill the void by establishing career bests with 100 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries against the Colts.
The Redskins figure to be tested by a stout and opportunistic Chicago defense that has yielded the third-fewest points in the NFL (16.2 ppg) and produced three takeaways in four of the team's six outings. The Bears have been especially tough against the run, holding the opposition to a mere 80 rushing yards per game (3rd overall) and 3.5 yards per attempt, and are led by two of the league's premier linebackers in middle man Brian Urlacher (41 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) and weakside starter Lance Briggs (33 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT). Briggs missed last Sunday's loss due to a sprained ankle, but returned to practice this week and appears on track to play. End Julius Peppers (13 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), Chicago's prized free-agent pickup during the spring, has made an impact in both stopping the run and pressuring the passer, as his ability to draw double teams has enabled counterpart Israel Idonije (17 tackles) to register a team-best 3 1/2 sacks over the past three weeks. The Bears stand fourth overall in pass efficiency defense, with a secondary headed by veteran cornerback Charles Tillman (33 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) and strong safety Danieal Manning (33 tackles, 4 PD) having permitted only three touchdown passes thus far.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
The installation of passing guru Mike Martz as coordinator has yet to pay big dividends for a Chicago offense that's put up the fourth-fewest yards in the league (285.0 ypg) and converted an awful 17.6 percent of third-down attempts. The absence of a consistent running game has put the team into plenty of long down and distance situations, and Cutler (1202 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) has almost gotten killed as a result. The former Bronco also hasn't gotten much help from a suspect cast of wide receivers, though sophomore Johnny Knox (18 receptions, 392 yards) is coming off a five-catch, 120-yard performance against the Seahawks, as running back Matt Forte (311 rushing yards, 21 receptions, 6 total TD) and tight end Greg Olsen (15 receptions, 2 TD) have been the most reliable targets. A shaky front line that's already had four different starting combinations has struggled in both pass protection and opening holes for Forte, who mustered a paltry 11 rushing yards on eight attempts in the Seattle game after going off for 166 yards and a pair of scores in the previous week's win at Carolina. Left guard Roberto Garza will sit out a second straight game while recovering from a knee procedure, with disappointing former first-round pick Chris Williams again taking his place.
The Redskins have been extremely aggressive on defense under new coordinator Jim Haslett, and expect the team to be coming after Cutler from all angles to exploit Chicago's protection issues. Washington possesses a pair of dangerous edge rushers in outside linebackers Brian Orakpo (19 tackles, 5 sacks) and Andre Carter (17 tackles, 1 sack), and two-time All-Pro lineman Albert Haynesworth (6 tackles) is capable of bringing additional heat in his anticipated return from a two-game absence to deal with a family death. Inside linebacker Rocky McIntosh (46 tackles, 1 sacks) is also expected back from a concussion that rendered him inactive last week, which should help tighten a leaky run defense that's given up 327 yards over the past two games. He'll line up alongside veteran ironman London Fletcher (60 tackles, 1.5 sacks), who's coming off a 14-tackle display against the Colts, with leading stopper LaRon Landry (63 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) lending further support from his strong safety spot. The Redskins will need to get to Cutler on Sunday, as a secondary that's allowed 298.2 passing yards per game (31st overall) can be susceptible to the big play.
Chicago's reliance on the pass and Washington's vulnerability to defending it makes Cutler an appealing option at quarterback this week. McNabb's not a bad choice either, as the Redskins could be forced to air it out as well due to the Bears' strength in stopping the run. Moss and Cooley are every-week starters as McNabb's clear-cut top two targets, but the rest of Washington's receiving corps is too inconsistent to count on. It would be difficult to sit Torain after such a good last game, but don't expect a repeat of his Week 6 numbers. Forte should be entrenched in weekly lineups after reaching elite fantasy status in Martz's offense, and Bears kicker Robbie Gould (12-for-14 on FG's) is a solid play as well. As for the Chicago receivers, Knox is a high risk/high reward alternative and special-teams whiz Devin Hester (13 receptions, 1 TD) should only be used in leagues that reward return yardage. You can make a case for either defense here, as the Bears have been stingy all year long and the Redskins will have an opportunity to rack up some sacks.
While it's hard to know what to expect from these two fickle teams, count on this game being close as they're pretty evenly matched. The amount of yards the Redskins have surrendered in recent weeks is a concern, but keep in mind that they've faced some very potent offenses over that time frame. Washington seems to get a bit of a reprieve this time around, as the Bears have had major difficulties in running the ball, moving the chains and keeping their quarterbacks upright. Chicago has been able to overcome those problems due to a defense that has a knack for forcing turnovers, but the Redskins don't usually beat themselves with mistakes.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Redskins 20, Bears 16
10/22 10:50:12 ET