NFC North: Time to See What the Bears Are Made Of
By Tom Pollin
The CHFF's Black & Blue Division Reporter (@tjpollin)
The Bears have played three prime time games, one on Thursday and two on Monday, of the eight they have played so far in 2012. This week they bring their ball hawking defense to Sunday Night Football to host the current AFC top seed, the Houston Texans.
The Bears are riding a six game winning streak after making quick work of the over-matched Tennessee Titans last Sunday. Their current streak is the fourth time with Lovie Smith as head coach that the Bears have won as many as six in a row. Their two longest winning streaks was eight games in 2005 and seven games to start the 2006 season.
The Bears are the second of the four NFC North teams that the Texans face this season and the second one they’ll face in prime time on Sunday Night Football. Four weeks ago they were dominated by the Green Bay Packers 42-24 at the beginning of a three games in four weeks home stretch of their schedule.
In the only other division game this week, the Detroit Lions travel to Minneapolis to face the Vikings in a battle for third place. The Vikings have lost their last three out of four after starting the season 4-1 and tied for first place. A loss to the Lions Sunday afternoon will finish their drop back into the division basement.
While the Green Bay Packers use their bye week to relax and try to deal with a growing list of injured starters, here are five things you need to know for Week 10 in the NFC North.
1. Defense drives both the Bears and the Texans.
The Bears are No. 4 in the Quality Stats Power Rankings heading into their Week 10 game Sunday night against the No. 1 Texans. A week from Monday night the Bears will play the on the road against the San Francisco 49ers, currently No. 2 in the Power Rankings. A win over either team would give the Bears a signature they can point to at playoff time this season.
Both teams are at or near the top across the board in the Quality Stats defensive rankings. The Texans are slightly better in Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt and are five spots ahead of the Bears in the Defensive Hog Index.
The Bears are No. 1 in the league in Defensive Quarterback Rating, Defensive Passer Rating and two spots ahead of the Texans in Passer Rating Differential.
Where the Bears have gained their notoriety this season is in creating turnovers and the number of times they’ve scored off of those turnovers. After only eight games this season the Bears are only two away from tying the 1961 San Diego Chargers with 9 INT’s returned for touchdowns in a season.
The Bears are tied with the New York Giants with an NFL leading 17 interceptions this season. They’re No. 1 in the NFL with 16 forced fumbles, mostly due to the deadly ball punching ability of cornerback, and Defensive Player of the Month in October, Charles “Peanut” Tillman.
Because of their takeaway abilities and the touchdowns they scored from them the Bears are No. 1 in the league in Scoreability. Taking their total yardage divided by their points scored, the Bears score one point for every 11-yards gained (or 77-yards to score seven points). This is the main reason for what the Bears have accomplished this season with their under performing offense.
Compare the Bears’ achievement to the Texans, No. 2 in Scoreability in 2012. They average 12.55-yards per point scored (or 87.85 yards to score seven points), Close to 11 more yards per point than the Bears.
As impressive as the Bears’ defensive turnover creation and scoring ability is though, they need their offense to progress to the point where they’re scoring off the superior field position that’s being created instead of needing to count on their defense to add to their point total.
2. The Bears’ defense will be facing their biggest challenge of the season.
In the Quality Stats offensive rankings the Texans don’t drop lower than No. 8 which demonstrates a better team balance than the Bears have been able to show this season. The highest ranking the Bears can boast on offense is No. 16 in Offensive Passer Rating, giving them nowhere to go but up if they want to put themselves in the Super Bowl conversation.
The Titans’ running back Chris Johnson is No. 5 in Yards from Scrimmage in 2012 but except for an 80-yard touchdown run in garbage time, the Bears shut him down last week. This week they get to face Arian Foster, the No. 6 ranked running back in Yards from Scrimmage.
The Bears will have their work cut out for them in causing turnovers from the Texans’ offense. Quarterback Matt Schaub has only thrown four interceptions in eight games so far this season. Schaub is also well protected by the Texans’ offensive line. He’s only been sacked 10 times all year.
The Texans’ ball carriers also do an excellent job taking care of the football. Neither Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson nor tight end Owen Daniels has fumbled so far this season.
3. Where’s the Bears’ high-power offense?
With the additions of wide receiver Brandon Marshall, power running back Michael Bush, No. 2 draft pick Alshon Jeffery and the signing of Matt Forte to a contract extension, new offensive coordinator Mike Tice and quarterback Jay Cutler were going to have the pieces to take pressure off the defense in 2012.
The Bears have already played eight games this season and while the dream of a unit capable of looking like an NFL quality offense still exists, the nightmare vision of the Rex Grossman, Cade McNown, Shane Matthews, and etc. eras is becoming harder to avoid.
One problem, contrary to widely accepted, but completely unfounded, opinion by Bears’ fans that the installment of Mike Tice as offensive coordinator would eliminate seven step drop-backs from Jay Cutler’s repertoire and keep him from getting hit as much is a myth that should be exposed by now.
Without an addition to the offensive line in the offseason Jay Cutler is one behind Aaron Rodgers for most sacked quarterback in the league going into this weekend. Cutler tops all quarterbacks in sack yardage with 207.
With all the problems the Bears have had in their passing game Brandon Marshall is one of the top wide receivers statistically so far in 2012. Marshall is second only to Victor Cruz in targets with 90 in eight games and is second with 59-receptions. Marshall leads the NFL with 99.6-Yards per Game, which shouldn’t be surprising considering how many times the ball is thrown his way.
The player who seems to suffer the most from the attention Marshall has been getting this season is Matt Forte. Before missing the last six games of the season due to a knee injury Forte was the No. 2 running back in the NFL in Yards from Scrimmage. Even after missing as many games as he did he still finished No. 10.
After eight games in 2012, Forte is averaging 5.0-yards per carry, the best of his career, but is averaging close to two fewer carries per game than last season. In the passing game, in 2011 Forte was making an impact with screen passes, which gave him more open field to take advantage of his elusiveness and as a check-down receiver for Cutler.
In 2012, Forte is averaging 2.5 fewer targets per game as a receiver and he’s dropped slightly over 15-yards per game from where he was in 2011. While Marshall has produced and added big play ability to the Bears’ offense, Forte’s targets in the pass game were high percentage plays that, considering Forte’s numbers, were very productive and added to the Bears’ ability to move the football.
Forte is currently No. 18 in the NFL with 718-Yards from Scrimmage. Add that 15-yards per game back into his statistics and the two carries per game that he’s lost (even at last years’ average of 4.9-yards per carry) and Forte has nearly 200 more yards of production in the offense and he shoots up to over 900-yards from scrimmage for the year, good enough for No. 4 in the NFL.
If the Bears are looking for where the offense got off track, they may want to start there.
4. The Lions and Vikings battle for third place in the division.
This weekend marks the start, for both teams, of a heavy schedule of division games in the final half of the season. The team that loses enters this run at a major disadvantage.
The last two out of three games are ones that Christian Ponder hopes he can look back and laugh at long after his career is over. After showing veteran poise in the first five games of 2012 he's put together two games where he recorded an Offensive Passer Rating below 40. He's also thrown 8 INT's since being turnover free the first four games of 2012.
While the Lions have begun to show competitiveness and begin a climb into the playoff conversation their injured list is growing longer by the week.
On offense, Matthew Stafford faces the possibility of being without wide receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel Leshoure, one week after rushing for three touchdowns. He'll also be dealing with a slowed Calving Johnson, who's dealing with knee problems but is Probable for Sunday.
Three out of the four starters in their secondary, Louis Delmas, Amari Spievey and Erik Coleman, are currently Questionable for Sunday's game. Also Questionable are linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch plus lineman Cliff Avril and Corey Williams. Whoever's left draws the assignment of trying to stop the Vikings' "Bionic Back" Adrian Peterson.
In nine games this season Peterson has rushed for an NFL best 957-yards for a 5.7-yards per carry average. He's also No. 1 in the NFL in Yards from Scrimmage with 1,107.
While the Vikings have been faltering and the Lions surging lately one statistic to look at for this game is, since the formation of the NFC North Division in 2002, the Lions are 1-9 in Minnesota. That one win though was last season in a game the Lions came back from 20-points behind at the half to win.
5. Week 10 NFC North Division power rankings.
Chicago Bears - The Bears maintain their hold at the top of the division after embarrassing the Titans last Sunday. The next two weeks will tell whether they're Super Bowl contenders after they finish this two game stretch against the Texans and 49ers.
Green Bay Packers - The Packers have shown a tendency to let inferior teams stay in games until well into the fourth quarter. They're also dealing with a problem with injured starters that, depending on how long Clay Matthews, Bryan Bulaga, Jordy Nelson and others are sidelined, could leave them a more difficult playoff run from a wild card slot.
Minnesota Vikings - Just based on the virtue of their 4-1 start. They'll be holding up the rest of the division though if Christian Ponder can't find the touch that he used to lead the Vikings to such a hot start to the season.
Detroit Lions - Would have advanced to No. 3 in the rankings this week if it weren't for so many starters having the potential to be sidelined for Sunday's game. Every time it looks like they rediscovered their running game an injury sets them back to square one, this time to Mikel Leshoure.
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