The Ravens have a chance to end their season series against the NFC North at .500 by beating the Chicago Bears this week at M&T Bank Stadium. More importantly, they will hold onto their tenuous as-of-this-writing hold on the final wild card spot in the AFC (by virtue of Jacksonville’s loss to Indy last night).
The Bears came into 2009 with big hopes. After barely missing the Playoffs at 9-7 last year, they made a huge splash in the offseason by bringing in the big arm of quarterback Jay Cutler, who was supposed to put them over the top. However, the first season under Jay has been quite a disappointment, as instead of lighting up the Windy City sky with touchdown passes, he leads the league with his 22 interceptions.
Cutler’s penchant for turning the ball over is good news for a Ravens secondary that is likely to be without Ed Reed for the third consecutive game. Second year safety Tom Zbikowski has stepped up in Reed’s absence, picking up an interception in each of his two starts and Ravens cornerbacks Lardarius Webb, Chris Carr, and Dominique Foxworth played well last week against Detroit…but that isn’t really saying much. On the bright side, the Bears don’t have a weapon that resembles anything close to that of the Lions’ Calvin Johnson. Their leading receivers are former kick-returner extraordinaire turned wideout Devin Hester, and sophomore Earl Bennett. Tight end Greg Olsen leads da Bears with 6 receiving touchdowns, and could provide match-up problems for the Ravens’ linebackers, who have struggled in coverage all season.
On the ground, da Bears don’t do much, as many a Matt Forte fantasy football owner will attest. People want to slap the “sophomore slump” label on B’More’s Joe Flacco, but a guy that is exemplifying the term is the Bears’ running back. Forte averaged 3.9 yards per carry in his rookie year, on his way to a 1,200 yard, 8 touchdown campaign (he also scored 4 receiving touchdowns). This year has been a different story, as he has been held to just 3.4 yards per carry and 4 total scores. It will be weakness against strength, as the Ravens lead the league in yards-per-carry allowed on defense.
Speaking of defense, da Bears, much like the Ravens, are not quite what they used to be. Team leader and linebacker Brian Urlacher managed just three tackles in the 2009 opener, before suffering a season-ending wrist injury. Chicago is 16th against the pass and just 25th against the run. Cam Cameron would be wise to once again unleash the 3-headed monster running back, as he did last week against Detroit, when Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and Le’Ron McClain all had at least six carries.
One area in which da Bears have excelled in is causing fumbles. They have forced 19, 2nd in the league just behind San Francisco. Their secondary gang-tackles, holding up ballcarriers, while other defenders, entering the play late, go for the strip. With Ray Rice suddenly catching a case of fumble-itis over the last two games, it is cause for concern for us purple faithful this week. Let’s hope ball security was a point of emphasis this week at practice in Owings Mills.
Those practices, by the way, have been disconcertingly ill-attended. Reed, Jared Gaither, S K.J. Gerard, Jarret Johnson, Brandon McKinney, Terrell Suggs, Kelley Washington, and Mark Clayton all missed Thursday’s session, according to Glenn Clark at WNST.net. Also limited were Matt Birk, Derrick Mason, Haloti Ngata, and (shock!) L.J. Smith.
All teams are beat up this time of year, but…yikes. Will we even recognize the guys running around out there in black jerseys (and, ugh, white pants…John Harbaugh, your taste is nearly as bad as your clock management skills are) on Sunday?
Harbaugh, by the by, will have the chance to match mis-wits with another guy who never met a challenge flag or poorly used timeout he didn’t like, Bears’ head coach Lovie Smith. Sunday is likely to be a textbook example of “How not to manage the clock” with those two going at it.
All kidding aside, this game sets up very well for the Ravens. Many of those listed on the injury report are likely to play, and da Bears’ inability to stop the run plays right into the Ravens’ hands. The game plan should be to run, run, and run some more. They should have success, which will help take the pressure off Joe Flacco. Last week was nearly a bye for Natty Joe. With the game was never in question, he was an efficient 13/20 for 230 yards, and his line kept him on his feet for just the second time all season. Hopefully the easy day against the awful Lions helped restore some confidence in Flacco, after his terrible night in Green Bay.
The Ravens need this win to finish the year a respectable 6-2 at home. I don’t have the numbers, but it doesn’t seem likely that teams who go 5-3 on their home turf make the post-season very often. They should be able to make Forte a non-factor, force Cutler into some mistakes, and impose their will with the running game.
For crying out loud, two weeks ago Chicago struggled to get past St. Louis, squeaking by the Rams 17-9.
The Ravens close M&T Bank Stadium for 2009 in style.
Ravens 27 da Bears 17