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NFL Preview - Seattle (2-2) at Chicago (4-1)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Running the football and scoring points could be at a minimum when the Chicago Bears welcome the Seattle Seahawks to Soldier Field Sunday afternoon.
The Seahawks are second in the NFL against the run and are allowing an average of 19.3 points per game, while Chicago is rated third in run defense and fifth in points surrendered.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is expected to return under center this week to put Seattle's dreadful pass defense to the test. The Bears were forced to utilize their ground game in last Sunday's 23-6 win at Carolina, since Cutler was inactive due to a concussion suffered in an ugly road loss against the New York Giants the previous week. Cutler gave way to backup Todd Collins, who was simply awful with just 32 passing yards and four interceptions while completing 6-of-16 attempts.
Cutler has been cleared to practice without restrictions and all signs point to the gunslinger starting under center against Seattle. Cutler missed a start due to injury for the first time in his career last week.
"It feels good," Cutler said of getting back to practice. "It was a long week last week, tough to watch the game. But we got a 'W' and I am back this week."
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz said Cutler looked sharp in practice and the rest of the team is happy to see him back. Cutler has thrived so far under Martz's new system, passing for 912 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions and a 102.2 passer rating that ranks fifth in the NFL. Cutler owns 14 touchdown passes, ranks second in yards per attempt (8.45) and third in passer rating (107.6) since Week 16 of last season.
Bears running back Matt Forte was a part of running attack that produced 218 yards on the ground -- the franchise's most in 20 years -- on 42 attempts compared to just 19 pass plays. The lopsided distribution is unheard of in a Martz offense, but since Collins was brutal the Bears had no choice but to ride Forte. The third-year back rushed for a career-high 166 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries for a Chicago ground game ranked 31st entering the contest.
Chicago, first in the NFC North with a 4-1 record, will host Washington next week before entering its bye. It is off to its best start since opening the 2006 season with a 7-1 mark en route to a 13-3 finish and a Super Bowl appearance.
The Seahawks, one half-game behind Arizona for first in the NFC West, entered their bye with a 2-2 mark under first-year head coach Pete Carroll and have been awfully busy personnel-wise. Seattle traded for Bills running back Marshawn Lynch and sent wide receiver and former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch to New England during its break.
Lynch said he is excited to get a fresh start after being one of three backs in Buffalo. While the coaches are pleased to have him aboard, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck enjoys the acquisition as well.
"He brings something to our team that we didn't have," Hasselbeck said on the team's website. "He's a big, powerful, strong back who loves football, has a good football IQ and complements Justin (Forsett) and what he does well. So it's exciting to have him."
Lynch joins a ground attack rated 29th in the league, averaging 79.5 yards per game, and Hasselbeck leads the team with two rushing touchdowns and is second on the team in rushing yards with 33. Lynch's presence should keep his quarterback healthy and out of site from defenders.
Carroll is counting on young receiver Deon Butler to break free from the defense now that he's been elevated to the starting lineup with Branch out of the picture. Butler has caught just eight passes for 83 yards and a score this season.
John Carlson has been Hasselbeck's top target through the first four games with a team-best 14 receptions for 160 yards and a touchdown, while Branch was second with 13 catches. Rookie Golden Tate, Mike Williams and Brandon Stokley will still battle for playing time for a Seattle team in the midst of playing five of seven games away from the Emerald City.
The Seahawks lead their all-time regular season series with the Bears by a 7-4 count, but were 25-19 home losers when the teams last met, in Week 3 of last season. Seattle won the previous meeting, taking a 30-23 decision at Qwest Field in 2007, and is 0-1 in regular season games played in Chicago since last winning there in 1999
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the playoffs, with the Bears winning a 2006 NFC Divisional Playoff, 27-24 in overtime at Soldier Field.
Chicago head coach Lovie Smith is 3-1 against the Seahawks in his career. Carroll is 1-1 in his career against the Bears, including a loss during his tenure with the Jets (1994) and a win while with the Patriots (1997).
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
The Seahawks will unveil their new toy in Lynch on Sunday against a Bears defense that is allowing 78.6 rushing yards per game. Seattle averages 79.5 yards on the ground and 3.6 per carry this season. Lynch, who had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons after being Buffalo's top pick in 2007, saw his carries shrink last year and even more so this season with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller splitting time. Carroll hopes Lynch can pound the football for those tough yards on second and third down. Forsett (215 rushing yards) is still the featured back and leads the team in yards and carries (51). He had 65 yards on 19 carries in a loss to St. Louis before the break. Rookie tackle Russell Okung should be back at full strength from a high-ankle sprain, while right tackle Sean Locklear is expected to be rested from a knee setback. Guards Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts have been splitting time on the line, with Pitts re-signed earlier this month when Seattle released guard Evan Dietrich-Smith. Another reason to hope for an improved rush attack is the mediocre play of Hasselbeck (814 passing yards, 4 TD, 6 INT), who has thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes. The offense was held to a field goal against the Rams in Week 4 and produced 257 total yards, only 64 of which came on the ground.
A big reason for Chicago's 4-1 start and first-place tag in the NFC North has been its ability to stop the run and keep teams from racking up yards and points. The Bears' defense could use some improvement in defending the pass, though, and Seattle hopes to do that successfully on Sunday. Bringing in All- Pro defensive end Julius Peppers has turned out to be an excellent move, because he's made such an impact on the front line. Peppers had an emotional return to Carolina last week, and the former Panther celebrated his homecoming with an interception and a handful of hurries on rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The addition of Peppers has opened lanes for opposite end Israel Idonije (15 tackles, 4 sacks), who leads the Bears in sacks. Idonije posted three of Chicago's five sacks last Sunday, shattering his previous career high of 1 1/2 sacks in a win over Jacksonville in 2008. He became the first Bears player to record three sacks in a game since end Adewale Ogunleye did it back in November of the 2007 campaign. One of the main reasons for Peppers signing in Chicago was to play with linebackers Brian Urlacher (35 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Lance Briggs (33 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT). Briggs left Sunday's win in the second half with a left ankle injury and was replaced by Brian Iwuh (5 tackles). He should be ready for Sunday, however.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Cutler (912 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) got the go-ahead to start this weekend and hopes to put an awful performance from his last time out behind him. He was bruised and battered by a swarming Giants defense to the tune of nine sacks and a concussion and had a streak of 57 consecutive starts dating back to 2006 snapped, including 20 in a row with the Bears. Chicago is aware of Cutler's current condition and feel he is ready to move forward after taking a week off. Chicago will have another starting combination on the offensive line Sunday, as guard Roberto Garza -- who has made 69 straight starts -- will miss the game to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery and left tackle Chris Williams is back from a hamstring injury suffered back in Week 2 against Dallas. In Sunday's win at Carolina, the Bears had Frank Omiyale at left tackle, Olin Kreutz at center, Edwin Williams at right guard and J'Marcus Webb playing right tackle. Collins (68 passing yards, 5 INT) was sacked three times and had trouble connecting with his own teammates, throwing four picks. While Forte (300 rushing yards, 2 TD) has been a force on the ground, he owns a team-best 18 catches for 231 yards and three scores as well. Wideout Johnny Knox (13 receptions) leads the Bears with 272 receiving yards.
Seattle's defense played poorly in the loss to Rams and gave up 349 yards of offense to a team with a running back with a sore groin and a rookie quarterback. The Seahawks were able to register four sacks on the day, two by defensive end Chris Clemons (15 tackles, 4 sacks), and St. Louis' Steven Jackson was able to run for only 70 yards against Seattle's tough rush defense spearheaded by big tackles Colin Cole (15 tackles) and Brandon Mebane (8 tackles, 1 sack). The push up front opens holes for linebackers Lofa Tatupu (25 tackles) and Aaron Curry (14 tackles) to track down ball carriers in coordinator Gus Bradley's scheme. Tatupu and Curry have the luxury of stopping a red-hot Forte, who will be running behind a determined offensive line coming off a huge performance against the Panthers. Rookie safety Earl Thomas (23 tackles, 3 INT) is aiming for his third game in a row with an interception and is making Carroll appear as a genius for picking him 14th overall and over former USC standout Taylor Mays. With Cutler back under center, Seahawks defensive backs Lawyer Milloy (29 tackles, 1 sack) and Marcus Trufant (19 tackles, 1 INT) have to play better than they did against St. Louis. Bradford was able to throw for 289 yards and a score, but did have a pass picked off by Thomas.
Neither team is expected to have success running the football Sunday, but that shouldn't stop fantasy owners from using either Forte, Lynch or Forsett. Cutler is back under center and should be in most leagues, while Knox and Chicago's defense deserve a look. The Seattle defense is just as tough on running backs as that of the Bears, but may get burned in pass defense. Hasselbeck is losing trust around the fantasy world, but give him a few more weeks.
The Bears can get back to their usual offense under Martz now that Cutler has dusted off the cobwebs from a concussion sustained a few weeks ago. But that doesn't mean they'll stray away from Forte, who's been a double threat running between the tackles and catching passes out of the backfield. A stingy Chicago defense will make it tough on Seattle, which is 0-2 on the road this season and has dropped nine of its last 10 contests outside of Qwest Field.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 17, Seahawks 13
10/14 17:01:56 ET