As the Bears attempt to stay afloat in the NFC Wild Card race, they could learn a thing or two from their opponents here. The Broncos have set the bar for winning with an inexperienced young quarterback and they’ve done it in a way that’s not impossible for the Bears to emulate. The read-option attack notwithstanding, the Broncos run the ball well, play good defense, and protect the ball very well. Chicago is more than capable of the first two but Caleb Hanie (-4.9) has thrown six interceptions while completing less than half his passes since taking over at quarterback for Jay Cutler. The Bears’ recent AFC West tour has been a disaster. Now without the NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage—Matt Forte (+17.8) could miss up to a month with a MCL sprain—Hanie will need to keep the ball out of the defense’s hands to have any chance.
While the Bears are in danger of fading out of the playoff picture, the Broncos have soared into the AFC West division lead thanks to a 3-2 division record. Their fifth consecutive victory had a different feel than their previous wins. Von Miller’s absence on defense helped create more of a shootout style game than what Denver would have preferred. Tim Tebow earned his first positive passing grade against the Vikings and the Broncos will be all the more dangerous if he improves upon that game as a passer.
Jay Cutler’s regular season return to Denver may have been spoiled but plenty of interesting storylines still remain. Will Tebow continue to build on his passing performances or will he regress against a better secondary? Will the Bears fade further out of the playoff picture or get back on track with a road win against a hot team? This game has the potential to impact playoff races in both conferences, so let’s take a look at three matchups that, on paper, look to play an important role in the outcome.
Bears’ Pass Protection vs. Broncos’ Pass Rush
The Bears’ offensive line has received plenty of media attention for its shortcomings in recent years, but the mainstream media has given them a lot of credit for improvement this season. It’s true that individual players have had strong games here and there, but as a unit, the Bears offensive line hasn’t improved as much as they’re given credit for. Chicago still ranks 29th in our signature Pass Blocking Efficiency rating and has allowed 140 total pressures this year. The Broncos’ defense has collected 197 total pressures—though in some instances multiple players recorded pressure on the same play—and while their cumulative pass rush grade as a team doesn’t imply greatness (-9.0) they have some individual pass rushing menaces. Elvis Dumervil (+5.2) and Von Miller (+51.2) have combined to record 20 sacks, 22 quarterback hits, and 51 additional pressures on the season. When opponents dedicate too much attention to those two, other players are able to cash in against one-on-one blocks. For example, consider DT Ryan McBean’s four sacks despite a -10.1 pass rush grade. So while J’Marcus Webb (-13.6) and Lance Louis (-19.2) will have their hands full on the edges, it’s important that the interior offensive line is also able to hold up, especially when blitzers such as Joe Mays or D.J. Williams try to come free up the middle.
Broncos’ Run Game vs. Bears’ Run Defense
Tebow and the Broncos may have proven they can win without him running the ball, but they haven’t proven they can win without running the ball as a team. That fact seems to be largely overlooked in the wake of Tebow’s 10 for 15 passing performance in a win last week. Tebow may have only ran the ball three times, but Willis McGahee earned a +1.9 grade for his rushing and produced 111 rushing yards, 87 of which came after contact. He also forced six missed tackles. With that kind of rushing performance, it’s not accurate to say we’ve seen the Broncos win by passing. Some big plays through the air were the deciding factor in Denver’s win, but who’s to say those plays could have occurred without McGahee’s strong running. The point is this: until the Broncos’ running game is completely taken away from them and they are forced to go to the air to win the game, we won’t know that they are able to. That’s not to say they can’t, but that they haven’t yet. Will this be the week we find out one way or the other?
Against the Bears’ run defense, it certainly could be. Eleven Bears defenders grade in the green in run defense this season and the Broncos have been one of the poorest run-blocking teams, achieving their success on the ground thanks to misdirection and creating confusion for the defense. Lance Briggs (+11.2) and Brian Urlacher (+8.0) have missed 13 combined tackles this year but their 76 combined defensive stops far outweigh those mistakes. More often than not, these guys are going to make the play and relying on them being out of position to move the ball won’t be a winning formula for Denver.
Replacing Matt Forte
It’s no stretch to argue that Matt Forte was an MVP candidate before the MCL sprain. If the Bears are going to make the playoffs, they’ll have to find a way to replace his production in the short-term and quickly. That’s easier said than done, especially when a struggling and inexperienced quarterback allows defenses to focus on stopping the Bears’ ground game. Forte has forced the second-most missed tackles of all runners with 39 and has pounded out over 500 rushing yards after contact. He has also accumulated the third-highest receiving grade for a running back and has been a dangerous weapon out of the backfield. He’s forced another 11 missed tackles as a receiver and has gained 456 yards after catch on his 52 receptions. Last week, Hanie targeted Forte 10 times before his injury. This resulted in all three of his interceptions, so perhaps not having that reliance on Forte will be good for Hanie’s progression in the passing game.
Forte’s production is nearly impossible to replicate for one man, but how about two? Marion Barber III and Kahlil Bell will split the workload in Forte’s absence. Neither has proven to be a threat in the passing game, but Bell has played only 62 offensive snaps in his career and hasn’t ever really had an opportunity to show what he can do. He should get that chance now as Bell figures to be the more likely third-down option as the role isn’t suited to Barber who is more of a power rusher.