By Jeff Joniak
OFFENSE: CLEAR AND PROTECT
Baltimore is the fifth team running a version of the 34 defense the Bears are playing in the first 10 games. Clearing running lanes and protecting the quarterback will be the two keys, offensively, to beating Baltimore. Teams are averaging only 3.7 yards per carry against the Ravens’ defense and have rushed for only one touchdown in nine games. While it is a defense in transition in terms of personnel, that front seven still swarms to the ball and makes it difficult to get movement in the run game. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees typically stops the run with seven in the box. Protecting Josh McCown from Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will be a significant task. Suggs plays with a nasty edge, and the tandem has combined for 17 of the team’s 32 sacks, which rank in the league’s top four. Eleven different Ravens have recorded at least a share of a sack. Dominant defensive tackle Haloti Ngata remains a two-gap controlling force who sets the tone for their scheme. He is a pocket pusher, sets up sacks, and holds the point of attack in a way few do. Ngata did sprain his left knee against the Bengals last week, and is questionable.
DEFENSE: TAKE IT AWAY
Baltimore’s Joe Flacco is a Super Bowl-winning pocket passer. His completion percentage is under 60 percent, he’s been sacked 30 times, and he’s thrown 11 interceptions in nine games. Last week, Cincinnati nearly picked him four times. There could be opportunities for the Bears’ defense to snag some takeaways. Flacco is a deep ball passer with a receiver with an extra gear in Torrey Smith. He’s averaging better than 18 yards a catch for a team-best 753 yards, but only two touchdowns. With Charles Tillman out, Zach Bowman and Tim Jennings and the safeties will be challenged deep at some point in the game by the Flacco-Smith combination. The normally productive Baltimore running game has stalled so far, averaging only 2.8 yards-per carry a good duo in Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. They have combined for five touchdowns. If the Bears can continue to stop the handful of big runs that have hurt them this season, they can keep the Ravens one-dimensional.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PLAY SMART
A year ago Baltimore’s special teams unit was ranked second-best in the NFL, thanks in large part to an explosive return game with Jacoby Jones. This season, Tandon Doss is also a factor. Playing smart and assignment sound will factor in how this phase of the game turns out. Second-year kicker Justin Tucker beat the Bengals with an overtime field goal last week. He’s an outstanding kicker with very good accuracy. Punter Sam Koch is more than capable of changing field position. The Bears hope to jump on any mistakes made by the Ravens, who have had some breakdowns this season, but nothing that can be called a weakness. It’s a very good and solid unit that will demand the best from the Bears.
INTANGIBLES: HANG IN THERE
Eleven weeks into the season, this Bears defense is completely different in terms of personnel. Injured starters Henry Melton(ACL), Nate Collins(ACL), D.J. Williams(hamstring), Charles Tillman(triceps), Kelvin HaydenI(ACL) are off the depth chart. Lance Briggs(shoulder) and Shea McClellin (hamstring) are not back yet. Seven significant pieces to the puzzle makes the Bears younger and razor thin. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker played five rookies at times against the Lions and now loses Tillman for the rest of the season, turning to veteran Zach Bowman. It’s more of a continuity challenge for a defense trying to find ways to keep plugging the holes that seem to keep opening up in personnel.