3TFO: Texans @ Bears, Week 10
When the Houston Texans meet the Chicago Bears this Sunday night, we’ll be treated to a possible Super Bowl preview and Defensive Player of the Year debate (child birth pending), all wrapped into one. At 7-1, both of these teams would have a first-round bye in the playoffs if the season ended today. And if you asked sportswriters to cast their vote for the best defender of the season so far, it would likely be a very tight race between J.J. Watt and Charles Tillman.
The Texans have had one of the best records in the NFL during the past two seasons, but they have yet to shine on the national stage. They fell to the 1-13 Indianapolis Colts on a Thursday night last season, and have had a closer-than-expected win over the New York Jets and a blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers in primetime this year. The Bears regularly dominate their opponents, but only one of their victories has been against a team that currently has a winning record. Thankfully the NFL doesn’t have any coaches’ polls to worry about, but a win on Sunday Night Football would legitimize one of these teams in the eyes of many fans.
Will the Texans continue their march toward the top seed in the AFC? Or will the Bears win their seventh game in a row? Here are three matchups that may provide the answer.
Brandon Marshall vs. Johnathan Joseph
For years, I scratched my head as Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo filled his underachieving wide receiver corps with retreads, journeymen, and middle-round draft projects. By trading for Brandon Marshall, new GM Phil Emery may have made the upgrade of the season. Marshall’s 797 receiving yards is second in the league and puts him on pace to smash the single-season franchise record. The Bears have survived Alshon Jeffery’s injury because Marshall has been so dominant, with six touchdowns in his past five games. His 2.93 Yards Per Route Run is by far the best mark in the NFL. And perhaps as a sign of his renewed focus, he’s cut his notorious drop rate from 14.74 last year to 7.81 this season. Marshall has been everything the Bears could have hoped for, and more.
Marshall will face a cornerback who knows something about turning around a hopeless position group. The Texan defense allowed a league-worst 4,280 passing yards in 2010, but the arrival of prized free agent Johnathan Joseph helped cut that number down to just 3,035 last year. But in 2012, Joseph has struggled to maintain the strong impact he had in his first year in Houston. After posting the 10th-highest grade among CBs in 2011, he actually has a -0.8 mark this season. And he’s already surrendered 34 receptions for 441 yards in coverage, after allowing just 22 catches for 263 yards at this point last year. NFL sack leader Watt will undoubtedly find his way to Jay Cutler, but it may not matter if Joseph and the other Texans corners can’t stick with Marshall.
Texans Rushing Attack vs. Bears Front Seven
Few offenses are as founded upon the running game as the Texans’. No team ran the ball more than they did last season, and their 153 rushing yards per game trailed only the Denver Broncos. This year, they’re once again ranked in the Top 10 in rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns. Arian Foster may be curiously struggling in the passing game — with a 84.3 Pass Blocking Efficiency and 0.51 YPRR that ranks at the bottom of all RBs — but he’s still the perfect one-cut back for the Texans’ zone-blocking scheme, and is on pace for 1,540 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. The Houston offensive line works exceptionally well as a unit to open holes for Foster, but left tackle Duane Brown and center Chris Myers have particularly shined with their respective +8.4 and +6.4 run block grades. Houston picks up 4.3 yards per carry on rushes to the left versus 3.9 when running to the right, a discrepancy that may increase against Chicago’s unbalanced front seven.
The Bears have surrendered the sixth-fewest rushing yards in the league, but their run defense is a bit two-faced. On the left side, Henry Melton’s 13.5 Run Stop percentage is the best of any defensive tackle with more than 50 run snaps, while Israel Idonije’s 8.2 Run Stop also ranks near the top of 4-3 DEs. Stephen Paea and Julius Peppers are struggling on the right side, however, with a 5.3 and 3.8 Run Stop, respectively. Move to the second level, and it’s much of the same. Perennial Pro Bowler Lance Briggs has a predictably stout 8.8 Run Stop, while Nick Roach’s 2.8 mark leaves much to be desired. Factor in Houston’s strength on the left side of their O-line, and Foster may be running behind Brown more than usual.
Bears Secondary vs. Matt Schaub
It’s rare that you can use the word “explosive” to describe a defense. Chicago’s ‘D’ has scored nearly as many touchdowns this season (seven) as it has allowed (10), and much of that has to do with its opportunistic secondary. The Bears defensive backs have not been shutdown-like by any means. Tillman’s 10.8 Coverage Snaps Per Reception is about average, and only 10 cornerbacks have surrendered more than the 459 yards that Tim Jennings has allowed. And yet because of their ball-hawking ways, opposing QBs have a 49.6 passer rating when targeting this tandem. Throw in safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte, and the Bears’ starting secondary has grabbed 12 interceptions while allowing just two touchdowns.
If the Bears are counting on their usual turnover bonanza, however, they may be disappointed against Matt Schaub. Few have protected the ball as well as the Texans’ QB this season. He’s thrown only four interceptions and his one fumble was recovered by his own team. He’s taken just 10 sacks, tied for the second-fewest in the NFL behind Eli Manning. He’s particularly effective when using play-action, where he’s had five touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 128.2 passer rating that ranks second among all QBs. He doesn’t take a lot of chances deep, throwing 20 or more yards downfield on just 9.6 percent of his passes. Schaub is 11-1 in his last 12 starts thanks to his smart play, and he’ll need to be extra cautious if he wants to escape the Bears defense intact.
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