NFL Preview - St. Louis (1-1) at Chicago (1-1)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While the St. Louis Rams are gaining a restored positive outlook after a change in leadership and an encouraging beginning to the 2012 NFL season, the Chicago Bears already find themselves engaged in a bit of turmoil just two weeks in.
The expected playoff contenders head back into action after a 10-day layoff and a extremely frustrating loss to their biggest rival when the Bears host the rejuvenated Rams Sunday at Soldier Field, with this Week 3 matchup pitting a pair of teams with identical records but entirely different attitudes at the moment.
Chicago experienced plenty of good vibes after kicking off a 2012 campaign that contained very high hopes with a 41-21 dismantling of the rebuilding Indianapolis Colts, but the mood quickly turned sour after the Bears put forth an ugly and mistake-prone effort in a 23-10 defeat at fellow NFC North inhabitant Green Bay on Sept. 13.
The Bears appeared ill-prepared for their highly-anticipated showdown with the defending division champion Packers, with Green Bay completely shutting down a Chicago offense that piled up 428 points on the Colts the week prior and catching their opponent off guard with a 27-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal attempt in the second quarter that put the Bears in a 10-0 hole they couldn't climb out of.
Chicago mustered a paltry 74 net passing yards and 168 total on the night, with quarterback Jay Cutler having one of the worst games of his seven-year career after throwing four interceptions, completing just 11-of-27 passes and taking seven sacks.
The Bears' frustration was evident, with television cameras catching Cutler in the act of berating and shoving offensive tackle J'Marcus Webb following a stalled drive and later venting over his unit's poor performance in the postgame press conference.
"I care about this," an annoyed Cutler exclaimed afterward. "This isn't a hobby for me; I am not doing this for my health. I am trying to win football games and trying to get first downs. When we are not doing the little things, doing things the right way consistently, I am going to say something. If they want a quarterback that doesn't care, they can find someone else."
St. Louis enters Sunday's test in a far more joyous mood after earning its first win under new head coach Jeff Fisher with an uplifting 31-28 home decision over Washington this past weekend. The Rams, who managed a mere two victories last season, battled back from a 15-point deficit midway through the second quarter to outscore the Redskins by a 25-7 margin the rest of the way.
The improving Rams very nearly could have been among the handful of 2-0 teams heading into the weekend, having taken 2011 playoff participant Detroit to the wire in a tough 27-23 road loss in the opener. The Lions produced the game's go-ahead touchdown with only 10 seconds left to play.
"We are having a lot of fun," Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "Fun is being in competitive games and having a chance to win games, and showing up and knowing that you have a chance to win the game, and showing up and saying no matter what happens -- like we had the fumble on the first play (against Washington) or we got hit for a deep ball, some penalties -- we just kept fighting. In the past, who knows what would have happened, but this team is a little bit more resilient and we play with a little chip on our shoulder, and I like that."
A return to form from quarterback Sam Bradford has also played a big part in St. Louis' progress. The 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, who endured a disappointing and injury-induced sophomore slump last season, has made good on nearly 72 percent (43-of-60) of his throws for 508 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception over the first two games.
Bradford helped spark last week's rally with a pair of second-half scoring strikes and finished with 310 yards and three touchdowns with one interception on a sharp 26-of-35 passing.
The Rams will now attempt to find some elusive success on the road, where the club has dropped 10 of its last 11 assignments and is 5-28 since the start of the 2008 season.
Streak: Bears have won last three meetings Last Meeting: Bears 17, Rams 9 (Dec. 6, 2009 at Chicago)
Rams HC Jeff Fisher vs. Bears: 1-3 overall, 0-0 with St. Louis Bears HC Lovie Smith vs. Rams: 3-0 Fisher vs. Smith Head-to-Head: tied, 1-1
Notes: The Bears also recorded a pair of wins in St. Louis during their current unbeaten run against the Rams, posting a 42-27 decision at the Edward Jones Dome in 2006 and a 27-3 victory the following season. The Rams' last win in the series occurred on Nov. 16, 2003, a 23-21 result at Soldier Field, and they have prevailed in two of their last three visits to Chicago. Fisher's first four encounters with the Bears as a coach took place during his long tenure with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans from 1994-2010, and he played five seasons as a safety with Chicago from 1981-85. Before taking over the Bears, Smith served as St. Louis' defensive coordinator from 2001-03.
BY THE NUMBERS
Offensive Team Rankings
St. Louis: 17th overall (351.0 ypg), 13th rushing (117.0 ypg), tied 18th passing (237.0 ypg), 11th scoring (27.0 ppg)
Chicago: 27th overall (298.0 ypg), tied 18th rushing (104.0 ypg), 26th passing (194.0 ypg), 14th scoring (25.5 ppg)
Defensive Team Rankings
St. Louis: 24th overall (401.0 ypg), 21st rushing (129.5 ypg), 24th passing (271.5 ypg), tied 22nd scoring (27.5 ppg)
Chicago: 14th overall (338.5 ypg), 9th rushing (84.0 ypg), 21st passing (254.0 ypg), tied 13th scoring (22.0 ppg)
St. Louis: +1 (4 takeaways, 3 giveaways) Chicago: +2 (7 takeaways, 5 giveaways)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
St. Louis: 28.6 percent (7 possessions, 2 TD, 4 FG) -- tied 28th overall Chicago: 66.7 percent (6 possessions, 4 TD, 2 FG) -- tied 6th overall
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
St. Louis: 71.4 percent (7 possessions, 5 TD, 0 FG) -- 26th overall Chicago: 42.9 percent (7 possessions, 3 TD, 1 FG) -- 10th overall
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
St. Louis aims to build off a very effective offensive display in the Washington win, in which the Rams amassed a healthy 452 total yards and converted 7-of-12 third-down opportunities, and figure to employ generally the same strategy that worked well a week ago. That plan involves Bradford (508 passing yards, 4 TD, 1 INT) mixing in a host of short-range passes to shifty slot receiver Danny Amendola (20 receptions, 230 yards, 1 TD) and veteran Steve Smith (4 receptions) with run plays to Steven Jackson (111 rushing yards, 4 receptions), though the steady back is dealing with a mild groin strain and could be forced into a timeshare with rookie Daryl Richardson (103 rushing yards), a faster outside threat who earned an increase in duties after netting 83 yards on 15 attempts upon replacing a hobbled Jackson midway through last week's game. Amendola will be the player the Bears will have to key on the most after Bradford's favorite target hauled in a prolific 15 catches totaling 160 yards against the Redskins, with 12 of those grabs coming before halftime. Injuries along a front line that's presently without center Scott Wells (foot), left tackle Rodger Saffold (knee) and rookie left guard Rokevious Watkins (ankle) have prompted coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to take a more conservative tone with the passing game, which suits Bradford's strengths. The Rams will still take the occasional shot downfield to wide receiver Brandon Gibson (6 receptions, 2 TD), the team's best deep threat who's hauled in a touchdown pass of 23 or more yards in each of the first two weeks.
Last week's loss to the Packers can't be pinned on a Chicago defense that sacked Aaron Rodgers five times and kept the 2011 league MVP largely in check throughout the night, with Green Bay putting together only one drive of over 45 yards. Cornerbacks Charles Tillman (7 tackles) and Tim Jennings (9 tackles, 3 INT, 6 PD) were able to blanket the Packers' outside receivers consistently, enabling pass-rushing terror Julius Peppers (5 tackles, 2 sacks) to record two sacks and rookie first-round pick Shea McClellin (4 tackles, 1.5 sacks) to notch 1 1/2 in an impressive second game at the opposite end. Along with quick tackle Henry Melton (10 tackles, 3 sacks), those two will provide a stiff test for the Rams' rebuilt offensive line this weekend. Chicago also possesses a solid nickel back in D.J. Moore (5 tackles, 2 PT), who'll be put on the spot on Sunday when lined up against the slippery Amendola in the slot, though the fourth-year pro should have some assistance from the accomplished linebacker duo of Brian Urlacher (10 tackles) in the middle and Lance Briggs (12 tackles) on the weakside, as both veterans are very adept in coverage. With help from rotational end Israel Idonije (4 tackles) and strong safety Major Wright (13 tackles), the Pro Bowl pairing will also key a run-stopping effort that was decent but unspectacular against the Packers, with former Bear Cedric Benson grinding out a serviceable 81 yards on 20 carries.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
With Cutler (459 passing yards, 3 TD, 5 INT) coming off a wretched game and main running back Matt Forte doubtful to participate after spraining his knee in the Week 2 loss, offseason addition Michael Bush (96 rushing yards, 2 TD) may become the focal point of a Chicago offense seeking a major upgrade from its most recent outing. The ex-Raiders running back is certainly capable of handling a large workload, having had five games with at least 23 carries during a career-best 977-yard season in Oakland last year, and his physicality could be a challenge for a St. Louis squad that doesn't have much depth up front. Better decision-making out of Cutler, who paid dearly for attempting to force the football to top receiver Brandon Marshall (11 receptions, 143 yards, 1 TD) and slot man Earl Bennett (5 receptions) against the Packers, as well as obvious improvement in pass protection will also be critical to Chicago's chances for success. Webb and left guard Chris Spencer were powerless to prevent Green Bay outside linebacker Clay Matthews from tallying 3 1/2 sacks, causing Spencer to be benched in favor of onetime San Francisco starter Chilo Rachal for this game, while second-year right tackle Gabe Carimi should have his hands full against the energetic Long this weekend. Getting matchup problem Marshall heavily involved is important as well. The 6-foot-4, 230- pound three-time Pro Bowler abused the Colts for 119 yards and a touchdown on nine catches in the opener, but was held to a harmless 24 yards on two grabs last week by a Packers' secondary intent on stopping him.
Bush could be primed for a big day against a St. Louis defense that's permitted an average of 5.5 yards per rush attempt over the first two weeks and has missed the presence of massive rookie tackle Michael Brockers, the team's first-round pick in April's draft who's likely to sit out a third straight contest with an ankle sprain. With the line lacking a true plugger, standout middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (19 tackles) and weakside counterpart Jo-Lonn Dunbar (13 tackles, 1 INT) will need to be on their game to prevent a repeat of the group's most recent outcome, when the Redskins amassed a total of 176 rushing yards that was boosted by the playmaking legs of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. The backfield does sport a top-tier cornerback in free-agent addition Cortland Finnegan (15 tackles, 2 INT, 3 PD), with the feisty ex-Titan already making a mark by registering an interception in both games thus far and taking one back for a touchdown against Detroit, but the play of talented rookie Janoris Jenkins (11 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD) on the other side has been mostly uneven. The second-round draft choice was beaten for a 68-yard touchdown by Washington's Leonard Hankerson last week, and expect the Bears to try to have him isolated on Marshall as much as possible Sunday. Chicago must account for the formidable edge-rushing tandem of Long (3 tackles) and 2011 first-rounder Robert Quinn (6 tackles) to get its passing attack back on track, however. Quinn has notched a sack in each of the first two weeks, while Long compiled 13 quarterback takedowns last season and continually pestered Griffin in last Sunday's tilt.
On paper, this appears to be a game in which a motivated Chicago team shouldn't encounter too many problems. The Rams don't have as strong a pass rush as the one Green Bay pummeled Cutler into a litany of errors last week or the cornerbacks capable of minimizing Marshall's impact like the Packers were able to do, and the Bears' running game doesn't figure to experience a steep drop-off with Bush handling the duties instead of Forte. St. Louis also doesn't possess a great deal of playmaking ability at the offensive skill positions, so Fisher's crew is going to have to force some mistakes to have a chance to win. Fortunately for the Rams, Cutler can be prone to obliging in the turnover department, and the Bears' issues in pass protection could very well come back to haunt them once again. Expect St. Louis to deliver another competitive performance that will further boost its public profile, but knocking off a more skilled and experienced Chicago team on the road still seems to be a fairly daunting task.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 24, Rams 20
09/20 15:26:48 ET