By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (3-10) host the Packers (7-6) on Sunday at noon. Here are my observations leading into the game.
Entering the Week 7 matchup against the Packers, I wrote about Bears quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer excelling on first-down throwing the ball. At the time, they were completing 82.4 percent and 74 percent of such passes, respectively. Their combined yardage at the time ranked only behind Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
The Bears’ passing offense on first down hasn’t been as successful with Matt Barkley, who’s completing only 51.1 percent of such passes. However, the combined first-down passing yardage of 1,748 for the trio of quarterbacks would rank only behind Ryan and Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Those combined numbers say a lot about how the Bears have been able to move the ball despite all the changes, injuries and suspensions.
In terms of running the ball, the Bears have dropped to fifth (4.98) in the league from fourth (5.48) in yards per carry on first down, but that’s still excellent production. Winning on first down is big, even bigger if it results in more touchdown drives. Entering the first meeting with the Packers, the Bears had scored only nine touchdowns in 55 possessions. In the seven games since, the Bears have scored only 13 touchdowns on 84 possessions, a lower percentage than they had in the first six games. They’re still looking for the payoff plays.
I’m really hoping the Bears call running back Jordan Howard’s number early and often in the bitter cold Sunday at Soldier Field. Green Bay’s rush defense isn’t as stingy as it was prior to the first meeting but it’s still top 10 in yardage allowed and 11th in yards per carry at just under 4.0. Howard should go past 1,000 yards rushing at some point Sunday, and my hope he gets at least 25 carries. Throw in another 10-15 for Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey and call it a day. Howard has 30 carries of 10 or more yards this season, tied for fourth in the league. That’s the exact total the Packers defense has allowed this season.
Closing games and learning how to finish has been a season-long theme from Bears coach John Fox after losses. They’ve lost four fourth-quarter leads and are 1-5 in games decided by six points or fewer. Turn that around and 3-10 could quickly become 8-5. It’s not that cut and dry, of course.
The closers are the quarterbacks and the pass rushers who make the play with the game on the line. I also believe to get to the playoffs and be a factor, you need at least one outstanding, Pro Bowl-caliber safety to control the middle of the field. The sooner the Bears develop all three of those positions, the better. The front seven is coming together nicely. Quarterback is up in the air for 2017 and beyond. Safety is still a work in progress.
Rookie cornerback Cre’von LeBlanc has been targeted 38 times in more than 600 defensive snaps, allowing only a 50-percent completion percentage and two touchdowns to go with eight pass breakups, according to Stats, Inc. He has also been flagged three times.
LeBlanc was initially supposed to be an option as the inside nickel defender but has been a starting outside cornerback for several weeks in a row. His big pick-six of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford could’ve been the game-winner for the Bears on Sunday. He’s developing but not without growing pains. He’s learning on the fly and giving the defense a young player to watch one way or another. At best moving forward, he competes as a starter. At worst, he’s a candidate to play the inside nickel and be a part of the special teams as a solid young talent.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.