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NFL Preview - St. Louis (1-10) at Chicago (4-7)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Chicago Bears, who have seen their once-promising 2009 season fall apart amid a stretch of 1-6 football, are in major need of a win.
The St. Louis Rams, who will bring a dismal 1-10 mark into Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon, could use something more akin to a life raft.
If Bears fans think their favorite organization is stuck in a hopeless situation, they should take a long look at a St. Louis Rams team that fell to 6-37 since the start of the 2007 season with last week's 27-17 home loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
A St. Louis club that has been riddled with injuries this season received some more bad news in that department, as rookie offensive tackle and No. 2 overall draft choice Jason Smith was lost with a concussion that has him out indefinitely.
Center Jason Brown (knee) and guard Richie Incognito (foot) are also questionable for Sunday, complicating matters significantly for the man they would be protecting - quarterback Kyle Boller.
Boller was back in the starting lineup last Sunday after Marc Bulger was lost, perhaps for the year, with a broken tibia suffered in the team's Week 11 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Bulger is unlikely to be back with St. Louis next season, making Boller's time in the lineup something close to an audition for 2010 and beyond.
The ex-Baltimore Raven completed 28-of-46 passes for 282 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions last week against Seattle, and in his fourth start of the year will be attempting to shed a dubious personal history in unfriendly confines.
Boller has lost the last 14 road games in which he has thrown a pass, with the last such win coming in a 20-17 overtime affair for the Baltimore Ravens at the New York Jets on Nov. 14, 2004.
The quarterback he will be opposing on Sunday knows a little something about discouraging losses too.
Bears QB Jay Cutler has been a magnet for criticism of late, throwing 15 interceptions versus just eight touchdowns during the team's 1-6 stretch. Cutler, who is just 319 yards shy of becoming only the fifth 3,000-yard single-season passer in team history, has also thrown the most interceptions in the league (20) in 2009.
Cutler hasn't been helped to a great degree by the NFL's worst rushing attack (85.1 yards per game), nor has he been assisted by a defense that has given up 400 or more yards three times in its last six games, including in last week's 36-10 loss at the Minnesota Vikings, who racked up a whopping 537 yards in the game.
A battered "D" that could be without linebacker Lance Briggs (sprained knee) and cornerback Charles Tillman (concussion) this week, and placed LB Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) on season-ending injured reserve earlier this week, made one roster addition with the signing of ex-Colts and Buccaneers linebacker Cato June. June had been waived-injured by the Houston Texans during the preseason.
The Bears lead the all-time regular season series with the Rams, 49-34-3, and have picked up road victories in each of their last two meetings with St, Louis. Chicago was a 27-3 winner when it traveled to St. Louis in Week 12 of last season, and also took a 42-27 road victory when the teams met in 2006. St. Louis won the previous meeting, a 23-21 affair at Soldier Field in 2003, and is 2-0 in Chicago since last losing there in 1996.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met twice in the postseason, with the then-Los Angeles Rams winning a 1950 NFL Conference Playoff and the Bears routing the Rams, 24-0, in the 1985 NFC Championship.
The Bears' Lovie Smith is 2-0 in his head coaching career against the Rams, for whom he served as defensive coordinator from 2001 through 2003. The Rams' Steve Spagnuolo will be meeting both Smith and the Bears for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Though his hard work hasn't paid off in terms of wins and losses, St. Louis running back Steven Jackson (1120 rushing yards, 4 TD, 40 receptions) is having a marvelous year, especially given the lack of a supporting cast he goes to work with each week. Jackson had 89 hard-earned yards on 23 carries against the Seahawks last Sunday, snapping a four-game streak of 100-yard games but also finding the end zone for the fourth consecutive contest. Jackson's continued efforts can only take the pressure off of Boller (763 passing yards, 3 TD, 5 INT), who must stay out of turnovers even in the face of what could be a barrage of pressure on Sunday. The Rams' most reliable targets of late have been former second-round pick Donnie Avery (34 receptions, 5 TD), who scored his third touchdown in as many weeks last Sunday, and fellow wideout Danny Amendola (26 receptions), who served as a safety valve with seven catches for 55 yards against Seattle. Ex-Packer Ruvell Martin (3 receptions) logged grabs of 33 and 27 yards in the loss. The less-than-mobile Boller was sacked four times last week, and the St. Louis line has allowed 25 sacks on the season.
Given the state of the Rams offensive line and the presence of Boller, a Bears defense that has been inconsistent in the area of pressure should be pinning its ears back to get to the quarterback. Ends Adewale Ogunleye (32 tackles, 5 sacks) and Alex Brown (35 tackles, 4 sacks), who are 1-2 on the team in sacks, are both in line for productive outings. They'll need to be especially effective if Tillman (53 tackles, 2 INT) is unavailable, a situation that would likely have Corey Graham (25 tackles) or Nathan Vasher (12 tackles, 1 INT) opposing Zackary Bowman (47 tackles, 4 INT) at cornerback. Struggling safeties Al Afalava (41 tackles, 2 INT) and Danieal Manning (77 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) will have to help guard against the big play. The Bears are a disappointing 24th in NFL rushing defense (125.6 yards per game), and that number could take a further hit with Briggs (83 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) out of the lineup. Middle man Hunter Hillenmeyer (50 tackles) has been among Chicago's most active run-stoppers, but tackles Tommie Harris (16 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Anthony Adams (24 tackles, 1 sack) have been generally disappointing. Harris and Adams combined for just five stops last week despite the fact that the defense was on the field for more than 40 of the game's 60 minutes.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Cutler (2671 passing yards, 16 TD) and the Bears offense has been in major need of a bounce-back effort for weeks, and the attack will likely feel even more urgency in that regard after last week's embarrassing display against Minnesota. The Bears had just 169 total yards, eight first downs, and held the football for just 19:05 in the blowout loss. Cutler was 18-of-23 for 147 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in the setback, but only one of his completions - a 24-yard touchdown pass to Johnny Knox (33 receptions, 4 TD) in the second quarter - went for longer than 20 yards. Knox, fellow receivers Devin Hester (53 receptions, 3 TD) and Earl Bennett (43 receptions), as well as tight end Greg Olsen (47 receptions, 6 TD), will look to achieve more of an impact on Sunday. Olsen, who had a team-high seven catches for 45 yards in Minnesota, has totaled 20 grabs in his last three games combined. Running back Matt Forte' (543 rushing yards, 3 TD, 46 receptions) has been among the chief symbols of the Bears' offensive failures this season, failing to cross the 50- yard plateau in each of the team's last six losses. A poor offensive line that could be without ex-Rams tackle Orlando Pace (concussion) on the left side this week, has allowed 24 sacks on the season including four last Sunday.
The Rams' defense has not been terrible of late, generally preventing the high- octane passing attacks of the Cardinals, Saints, and Seahawks from throwing the ball up and down the field. Last week, Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck threw for just 102 yards on 14-of-25 passing, as a secondary led by safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (71 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) and cornerback Ronald Bartell (46 tackles) held the Seahawks without a completion of longer than 17 yards. While the secondary works, a Rams pass rush led by Leonard Little (20 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Chris Long (30 tackles, 3 sacks) will seek to bully the beleaguered Chicago offensive line. Long had a streak of three consecutive games with a sack snapped last week. After being run over for 130 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries by the Seahawks last Sunday, a St. Louis run-stopping force that ranks 28th in the league (148.5 yards per game) will be glad to see the Bears' sputtering run game. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (85 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) has received mostly strong reviews for his work against the run this year, but the interior d-line of Clifton Ryan (26 tackles, 1 sack) and LaJuan Ramsey (14 tackles) hasn't made much of a difference in the trenches. The Rams are last in the league in opponents' third-down efficiency (49.3 percent).
Though the use of running backs playing for bad teams is not often a recommended fantasy practice, Jackson has defied that brand of logic with a strong, consistent season. He deserves to be in lineups, though there's not much to recommend any other Rams. Take a flier on Avery if you're desperate.
On the Chicago side, Cutler would seem to be in line for a big day, but his turnover problems make him a risky play. The Bears targets, with the exception of the reliable Olsen, are also high-risk. Forte' could have a rare strong game against a Rams team that struggles against the run, and Chicago kicker Robbie Gould is a decent choice as well.
The Bears have proven in recent weeks that they are incapable of beating good teams, but as blowout wins of the Browns (30-6) and Lions (48-24) earlier in the season showed, they can pound bad ones. Despite the incremental strides that St. Louis has made in its first season under Spagnuolo, this is not a team that is ready to go into a hostile environment and beat a team with the amount of talent that Chicago - even for all of its struggles - possesses. Look for the Bears to get well on multiple fronts here, and to come away with a sizeable victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 35, Rams 16
12/03 14:52:25 ET