RUNNING LANES OPEN
With the benefit of the bye week, Rams RB Zac Stacy looks frisky. After being slowed by an ankle injury in recent weeks, he wasn’t even listed on the Rams’ injury report this week. Meanwhile, the Bears have been getting gouged on the ground and hit town ranked 31st in run defense (133.9 yards per game allowed). They were ninth against the run (88.7 yards) three weeks into 2013 when Pro Bowl DT Henry Melton was lost for the year because of a knee injury. Overall, they’ve allowed a league-high six 100-yard rushers.
DON’T BE CONFUSED
The Bears are ninth in total offense and 24th in total defense, which seems backwards considering their tradition of elite defense and so-so offense. They appear vulnerable defensively with Pro Bowlers at every level out of the lineup because of injury: DT Henry Melton, LB Lance Briggs, and CB Charles Tillman. But the Bears have a few things going for them, namely 22 takeaways (tied for fourth in the NFL) and five defensive TDs scored. One other thing: DE Julius Peppers still can take over a game.
Maybe he’s an extremely late-bloomer, but at age 34 Bears QB Josh McCown has found the magic touch pinch-hitting for the injured Jay Cutler. McCown had a career passer rating of 71.2 entering 2013. In two starts and two relief appearances this year, it’s an even 100 with nary an INT in 101 attempts. He takes fewer risks than Cutler, has a high understanding of the offense and trusts his playmakers. Mistake-free football is tough to beat. Will the law of averages catch up with him Sunday? Or not?
In 6-foot-6 TE Martelleus Bennett, 6-4 WR Brandon Marshall and 6-3 WR Alshon Jeffery, the Bears are as tall as some basketball backcourts. It’s up to Rams second-year corners Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson to contain Bennett and Jeffery, who have 118 catches, 1,646 yards, and 11 TDs between them. Jeffery is much improved this season, to the point that opposing defenses can’t tilt their coverages to Marshall. Keep an eye on Jeffery on end-arounds; the Bears try one or two with him just about every game.
WHAT’S UP FRONT
Offensive line play has been a Bears bugaboo in recent years, but not this season. A massive rebuilding job has new starters on the left side in free-agent pickups Jermon Bushrod (LT) and Matt Slauson (LG), and rookies starting on the right side in Jordan Mills (LT) and Chris Long’s brother Kyle (RG). That makes C Roberto Garza the only returning starter up front. The Bears have allowed only 16 sacks all season, the third-lowest total in the league. And they’re averaging 4.5 yards on the ground.
DEVIN THE GREAT
Rams coverage units are among the best in the league, ranking second in punt coverage and 12th in kickoff coverage. They will be put to the test against Devin Hester, one of the greatest return men in NFL history. His 18 overall return TDs (on punts and kickoffs), and 13 punt-return TDs , are NFL career records. No longer playing WR at age 31, he’s still going strong on returns. Hester had an 81-yard punt return TD vs. Washington and set a franchise mark with 249 yards on five kickoff returns vs. Minnesota.
This marks the 12th Bears-Rams get together since the move to St. Louis. As such, Chicago matches Washington for most contests by a non-divisional foe against the Rams since 1995. Chicago has won six of those previous 11 contests, all but suffocating the Rams in a 23-6 victory in Game 3 last season. Chicago DBs were all but Velcro-ed to Rams wideouts in that one; St. Louis managed only 160 yards that day at Soldier Field, making it the seventh-lowest offensive yardage total for the Rams since the move from Los Angeles.