3TFO: Seahawks @ Bears, Week 13
Chicago’s convincing win over Minnesota was some much needed medicine after a demoralizing defeat against San Francisco the week before. Yet they left the game with some significant injuries to their skill positions, and to an offensive line that could ill-afford it. Depth will be tested this week as they seek to extend their lead in the NFC North — the only division title that looks to still be in play.
Starting the season, the plan for the Seattle Seahawks was to rely on defense and a strong running attack to keep them in games. With a rookie at the helm in quarterback Russell Wilson, the passing game would be conservative, feeding off the run with plenty of play action. The formula worked well, as Seattle got out to their 4-2 start, and since then Wilson has shown he can be relied upon to do much more than just manage games. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, their once stout defense has been crumbling; unable to stop the run and squandering fourth-quarter leads while they’ve lost three of their past five.
Worse yet, possible suspensions (violation of league drug policies) loom for two of their best defenders, cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Time is running short for Seattle to regain their form and this trip to Soldier Field presents a daunting challenge.
Seahawks Defensive Line vs. Bears Right Guard
So where has that formidable Seahawks defense gone? Early on, they were one of the best units in the league, especially against the run, yet their Week 7 loss to San Francisco appears to have been a turning point. On that day, Frank Gore ran all over them to the tune of 131 yards and 8.2 yards per carry, and most of it right up the gut. Since then, other teams have also been finding room to run against the Seahawks. A glance at our grading during this stretch points to the defensive line as showing the biggest drop-off in performance.
At defensive end, Red Bryant usually plays on early downs and historically has been a strong run defender. Recent history hasn’t been so kind, and Bryant even notched a rare missed tackle last week against Miami. Another lineman who’s had his play slip lately has been Brandon Mebane. Mebane still grades out as a Top 10 run defender among defensive tackles, but that’s on the strength of an amazing first six games (+13.6 run defense grade). In the five games since, he has a combined -5.3 grade against the run. Interior linemen are now winning battles against Mebane; preventing penetration or walling him off to open inside running lanes.
The Seahawks should have the advantage this week facing a Bears offensive line scrambling to fill the right guard spot after a season-ending injury to Lance Louis and the recent defection of a disgruntled Chilo Rachal. The Bears were forced to plug in benched tackle Gabe Carimi at the position during the Vikings game and he fared well (zero pressures yielded and +2.6 run blocking grade). It remains to be seen whether the Bears want to risk further eroding the confidence of last year’s first-round pick by forcing him play out of position. Possible alternatives include Edwin Williams who played well during a stretch at left guard last year, or recent pick-up Andre Gurode who has been out of work after a disappointing 2011 season with the Ravens.
Brandon Marshall vs. Seahawks Cornerbacks
After a dismal offensive showing against the 49ers, the Bears returned to a more conservative playbook against the Vikings and were back to putting points on the board. Having Jay Cutler back healthy sure didn’t hurt either. The Bears called more play fakes and designed rollouts, using play action on 26% of Cutlers’ drop-backs after only 7% against the 49ers. They also went back to Brandon Marshall as the centerpiece of the offense, targeting him 15 times after a season-low four targets against the 49ers. Marshall responded by catching 12 for 92 yards.
The Seahawks gain a reprieve as their two star cornerbacks appeal their suspensions. Sherman and Browner have excelled all season (currently fourth and 13th, respectively, on our overall CB grading), and matched up particularly well in Week 8 against another rangy NFC North receiver who’s used to being the centerpiece of the offense. While both cornerbacks had arguably their worst performances of the season against Detroit (Sherman gave up one touchdown, Browner two), they did help limit Calvin Johnson to a mere three catches for 46 yards.
Zach Miller vs. Bears Linebackers
Tight end Zach Miller seems to have put his forgettable first season with the Seahawks firmly behind him. He’s already topped his reception, yardage, and touchdown totals from all of last year and currently leads NFL tight ends with a 93% catch rate and hasn’t logged a drop yet. The Seahawks are connecting with Miller more often on deeper pass plays – primarily post routes and go routes up the seam. In 2011, only 10% of his targets were 20 yards or more downfield and this year that rate has jumped to 18%.
The Bears’ linebackers have long excelled at taking tight ends out of an offense, and this year has been no different. Aside from allowing big games to Vernon Davis, Jason Witten and Colby Fleener, they’ve shut down everyone else they faced. Lance Briggs currently leads all linebackers with both a +9.8 coverage grade and five passes defensed. Brian Urlacher is suffering through a down year, but can still hang his hat on coverage, grading out second only to Patrick Willis among inside linebackers and earning four passes defensed.
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