Joniak’s Keys To The Game: Bears Vs. Cowboys
OFFENSE: SCORE MORE POINTS
It’s a three-phase game, but right now the Bears offense is equipped to make the biggest impact. The league’s fifth highest-scoring team overall, is eighth in most offensive points per game, at 23.5. Another touchdown a game would make a huge difference. With Jay Cutler or Josh McCown, the Bears are moving the ball. In three of his four starts, McCown has guided the offense to 442-, 424-, and 480-yard games, but only nine touchdowns and an average of 21 offensive points in those four games. Converting more of those yards into points is the next step in what has been a poised and efficient relief role. Dallas expects the healthy return of linebacker Sean Lee, but the defense statistically is giving up the most yards in the league at 421.6. Included in that number are the second most passing yards. However, the unit has one of the best turnover ratios in the league, thanks in part to 25 takeaways, which is fourth-best in the league. They’ve turned that into 89 points, which also ranks fourth in the league. The Cowboys are 26th in sacks, with 26. Like the Bears, the Cowboys have six return touchdowns, including five defensive touchdowns. Valuing the ball will be big Monday night.
DEFENSE: MAKE THE KEY STOP
Teams are moving the ball on the Bears defense, but there have been a mountain of opportunities to make the key stop based on the time, score, or down and distance in the game, and those key stops have been infrequent. Teams have run it 192 times against the Bears, third-highest in the NFL and the second-fewest passing attempts at 202. It has limited opportunities for interceptions, and the Bears have not forced a fumble in eight games. Dallas is a passing team, but depending on the conditions, that could change. They’ve thrown in 65.3 percent of the time, third-highest in the league. They have the second fewest rush plays in the league, with 249. This figures to be a game demanding precise coverage. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo completed 65 percent or more of his passes in blank games and owns the second-lowest interception percentage in the NFL. His 24-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio is terrific, and he’s engineered nine quick strike touchdowns, which is third-best in the NFL and is defined by drives of four plays or less. What the Bears can do is focus on third down defense. Romo’s weakness is third down passing this season. His completion rate dips to 49 percent with only four touchdowns, four interceptions and 12 sacks. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten have combined to catch only 25 of their 47 third down targets, four for touchdowns.
SPECIAL TEAMS: WIN THE FIELD POSITION BATTLE
The Bears have started 18 drives inside their 20 after receiving a kickoff on an NFL-high 48 returns. That’s the second most inside the 20 drives in the league. Devin Hester does take a lot of kicks out of the end zone, so the reward for a big return is greater than the risk of starting inside your 20. However, the Cowboys have a very strong special teams unit, and have allowed only five returns longer than 30 yards. The Bears are equally impressive in kick coverage, leading the NFL with seven returns of less than 10 yards. Overall, both units are Top 8 in the league. In the punt game, Dallas has forced a league-best 25 fair catches, and the Bears have allowed a league low 12 returns for 109 yards. Each team has an explosive return man. The Bears have Hester, and the Cowboys have Dwayne Harris, who is second in the league at 14.0 on punts, including a touchdown, and second in the NFL on kick returns at 31.3 with a long of 90 yards. However, Harris is battling a hamstring and could miss the game.
INTANGIBLES: PLAY WITH EMOTION
On the night another chapter of Bears history is honored with the retirement of Mike Ditka’s number 89 jersey; a hard-nosed performance against the Cowboys would suit the tone of the evening. There are Bears-Cowboys subplots galore, with Rod Marinelli coaching the Cowboys defensive line to Jeremiah Ratliff playing against his old team, to the friendship of Cowboys offensive play caller Bill Callahan and Bears head coach Marc Trestman, to former Cowboys and current Bears special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillas and Bears TE Martellus Bennett, who was drafted by the Cowboys. It promises to be a game of high emotion. The Cowboys are fighting for the NFC East title, the Bears fighting for their playoff lives with a shrinking schedule. The Bears have to start fast, because Dallas does. They have scored 10 touchdowns and 82 points on first- and second-half first possessions this season. The Bears have to do the same.