By Jeff Joniak
OFFENSE: BEWARE THE RED ZONE
In winning twice in the last three games the Bears red zone offense has produced only four touchdowns in 12 possessions with one turnover. For the season, the Bears are rated 13th with a 55% touchdown efficiency number.
Improving that number will be a challenge against the St. Louis Rams, in particular throwing the ball. Quarterbacks have the lowest combined red zone rating against the Rams at 45.8. That number includes an NFL best six interceptions, plus, the second lowest completion percentage, and the third fewest total completions. The Rams also have four sacks in the red zone.
The good news is, while the Bears have stumbled a bit in the last few weeks scoring red zone touchdowns, they are tied for the second most passing touchdowns in the NFL with 15, which speaks to the quality targets available to come down with contested throws like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, and Martellus Bennett, who have combined for 12 of those touchdown catches.
As an aside, protecting Josh McCown is a big challenge indoors at the Edward Jones Dome with Robert Quinn coming off the edge. The Rams defense has the number one overall sack percentage in the NFL at 9.4, and Quinn leads the NFL in knockdowns and hurries, and is second in sacks with 12.
Progress continues to be made defensively under coordinator Mel Tucker. Overcoming nearly an injury a week to starters, the “next man up” mantra is gets a workout. Experience is being earned on the fly and dividends being paid with big plays from guys like David Bass, Cheta Ozougwu, Isaiah Frey, and Jonathan Bostic.
Against the Rams, tackling speed will be the challenge. They like to get their receivers and backs into a position to turn a short completion in space into a big play after the catch. The Rams are 4th in the NFL with 54.6% of their passing yards coming after the catch. West Virginia rookie Tavon Austin is 4.28 fast and is coming off an explosive game against the Colts. Receiver Chris Givens runs a 4.35, rookie Steadman Bailey runs a 4.46, running back Isiah Pead a 4.39. On the turf, indoors in the dome, the Rams are fast.
Kellen Clemens has replaced the injured Sam Bradford at quarterback and he’s thrown only 6 passes deeper than 21 yards. Thus far, his accuracy is poor at 53.5%. Rookie running back Zak Stacy is a 5-9, 216-pound bowling ball. In his last three games, Stacy has piled up 17 first downs and 8 runs of better than 10 yards for 333 yards giving the Rams some balance.
SPECIAL TEAMS: SHUT DOWN THE RETURN GAME
Let’s get back to Tavon Austin. He’s an electric player and very dangerous in the return game. He ripped off a 98 yard punt return touchdown against the Colts boosting his overall return average to 8.9. Fellow rookie kick returner Benny Cunningham has returned 12 boots, 11 for better than 20 yards. Coverage was very good against the Baltimore Ravens, and an encore performance will be needed in St. Louis.
Devin Hester enjoyed his “ridiculous” game in St. Louis in 2006, with two return touchdowns. He’s still hunting for his league record 20th return touchdown, and could be ready for one on the fast track. Hester leads the NFL with 26 of his 30 kickoff returns busting at least 20-yards, and overall ranks second in the league in average.
INTANGIBLES: LONG VS LONG
In one of the better subplots of the season, Bears rookie right guard Kyle Long prepares to face his older brother Rams defensive end Chris Long. The sons of Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long have been asked about this matchup for weeks. Both are energetic, lunch-bucket, physical players who play at a high level. There is bound to be a block needed to be made off a stunt or a game up front where the brothers will be engaged. Beyond the family attachment, it’s the rookie vs. the six- year veteran bearing down on 50 career sacks. Each has a big influence in their locker rooms and their individual performances will obviously reach multiple aspects of their teams. It should be fun to watch.