3TFO: Bears @ Cardinals, Week 16

| December 21, 2012

Chicago handed back the division title to Green Bay despite leading the NFC North for nearly the entire season. That has left Bears fans, media and players in a rather lousy mood, which has led to players bickering, sniping and calling each other names. Embattled head coach Lovie Smith finds himself doing damage control when he’d rather be focusing on the team’s still very realistic playoff chances. They’ll need some help from the Vikings and the Giants, but their clash on Sunday against the Cardinals could be the first step in a road to recovery, and to the postseason.

The Cardinals last week managed a victory for the first time in months, gaining at least a temporary reprieve from the waves of discontent pouring in from the Cardinals’ faithful. Even with last week’s victory over Detroit, no one is harboring any allusions about the state of this offense. Their only hope appears to be a tight defensive battle, and with the way the Bears’ offense has played of late, they could get just that.

Nick Roach vs. Cardinals Running Backs

Chicago middle linebacker Brian Urlacher’s comments earlier this week expressing frustration (and some apparent disdain) for Bears fans has reignited a debate which began during last week’s Twitter war with Packers tight end Jermichael Finley about whether Urlacher’s skills are in decline. Urlacher will likely miss another week with a hamstring injury, but that won’t stop us from weighing in on the subject. Heck, grading player performance is what we do here at PFF. So, has Urlacher’s performance been down this year? Our analysis suggests so. He currently ranks 42nd among inside linebackers in grading, down considerably from 12th in 2011 and 8th in 2010.

Playing the pass hasn’t been the problem, as Urlacher still holds his perennial spot among the Top 5 ILBs in pass coverage, but it’s his tackling against the run that has really bottomed out. Our Tackling Efficiency Rating puts missed tackles into the context of tackling opportunities, and the numbers don’t look good for Urlacher who has one missed tackle for every five attempts. Only Bart Scott of the Jets has a worse rating (4.9) among ILBs. Nick Roach will likely get the start in place of Urlacher once again on Sunday. He has missed just one tackle in his 11 attempts at that position over the past two weeks.

Instability and injury has plagued all positions of the Cardinals’ offense this season, but one spot where they are finally getting healthy is running back. Beanie Wells and William Powell have returned and are splitting the lion’s share of snaps in the backfield. Powell has been more productive with his carries (+1.9 run grade, 3.8 yards per carry) than Wells (-3.2, 2.8 yards per carry). He’s also been more adept at gaining extra yards regardless of the blocking provided by the offensive line. Our Elusive Rating provides a measure of this by combining yards after contact and missed tackles forced. With a few more attempts, Powell’s rating would be good for Top 20 among NFL backs, while Wells’ mark barely makes the Top 50.

Patchwork Lines

Both offenses have different stories behind their recent struggles, but the common thread comes down to two of the NFL’s poorest performing offensive lines. As a group, the Arizona line ranks 30th in our Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) rating, while Chicago ranks 27th. The Cardinals lead the league in sacks allowed via their offensive line (41), while the Bears’ unit isn’t all that far behind them (27).

While both teams have been moving guys in and out lately in an attempt to counter injury and poor performance, it’s the Cardinals who have seen some improved play due to that shuffling. Adam Snyder has turned things around over the past six games (+3.2) playing at both center and left guard after an awful first six games (-21.6). Nate Potter initially offered only a marginal upgrade replacing D’Anthony Batiste at left tackle, before slowing the turnstile and stemming the pressures. He even pitched his first shutout last week against Detroit.

The Bears, on the other hand, have seen the play of their line sink further as they’ve had to trot out new faces from the depth of the roster. LG James Brown got his first NFL start last week and promptly made our ‘Had A Bad Day’ Team (-7.4). At right tackle, Jonathan Scott hasn’t done much better than Gabe Carimi in pass protection (90.1 PBE vs. 90.0) and has been a significant downgrade in the running game (-1.6 vs. +11.4).

Special Teams “Ace” vs. Special Teams “Last Place”

If this game does turn into a defensive slugfest, then field position and special teams play will be at a premium. The Bears have one of the better coverage units in the league, and their ace is Zackary Bowman. Bowman’s +4.5 special teams grade ranks third in the NFL. In six games played he has eight special teams tackles to only one missed tackle. Bowman has a knack for beating blockers and downing punts near the goal line (two). He also has a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Cardinals’ Michael Adams, whose special teams grade (-10.0) in 12 games played, is the lowest in the NFL. Much of that comes from a league-leading nine missed tackles. Adams is a gunner on coverage units and actually does a good job of out-running blockers downfield. All that speed often has him charging out of control however, diving and coming up empty as the returner makes his first cut. On a positive note, Adams has six special teams tackles and did recover a muffed punt last week against Detroit.

 

Follow Bryan on Twitter: @PFF_BryanHall

 

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