By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) From coaches to players, the ties between the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys run deep. These two teams squared off at the same venue nearly a year ago, but the circumstances are different this time through. While the Bears (5-7) are pretenders in the playoff hunt, the Cowboys (8-4) are in the mix for their first playoff berth since 2009.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Spotty Showers Sunday Night, Monday
Here are five matchups to focus on during Thursday night’s action at Soldier Field.
Bears right defensive end Jared Allen vs. Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith — Over the past three games, Allen has had more effective pass rushes, but this week he faces a much stiffer challenge against Smith. Allen has lost a step and typically wins with technique, but Smith blends technique with leverage, length and strength. If Allen is unable to get blindside pressure and not force the Cowboys to chip or slide their protection, it will allow Dallas receivers to get vertical off of play-action.
Bears defensive tackles vs. Cowboys left guard Ronald Leary — If Jeremiah Ratliff is healthy enough to go against his former team, he will surely be motivated. Stephen Paea has also been motivated by his pending free agency, turning in the best stretch of his career. If there’s a weak link on the Cowboys’ offensive line, it’s Leary, who has struggled in pass protection. The Bears have been keeping opposing protection schemes guessing by frequently running interior twists and stunts, so look for more with the nose tackle as the “poster” attacking Leary.READ MORE: Phase 2 Opens Monday In Illinois Outside Chicago For Anyone 16 And Over To Get COVID-19 Vaccine, But Teens Under 18 Face Challenge
Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller vs. Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant — Last week against the Lions, the Bears’ choice to match rookie cornerback Fuller up against Calvin Johnson didn’t work out so well. However, with four games left, the Bears must continue to put Fuller in these situations as a learning experience. The film may not be easy to watch, but it will be valuable for Fuller to get more familiar with how opponents attack him and what he can do to improve his technique. Bryant was limited to 12 yards on two receptions last year in these teams’ matchup, but his strength, speed and running ability after the catch will be a test for Fuller’s open-field tackling.
Bears right guard Kyle Long vs. Cowboys defensive tackle Henry Melton — Long has developed into the Bears’ best offensive lineman, and Melton leads the Cowboys with five sacks. The Cowboys have struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, but Melton is still collapsing the pocket from the inside. Long must be ready to attack off the snap as Melton’s first-step quickness is what makes him successful. If Long allows Melton to shoot the gap clean, it will move Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler off his spot, which has led to poor decisions so far this season. To assist with that, the Bears would be smart to incorporate more movement passes and roll the pocket to avoid the interior rush.
Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall vs. Cowboys defensive back Brandon Carr — These two have lined up across from each other a lot throughout their careers. While they’re both underachieving this season, it’s still going to be a physical battle. Alshon Jeffery is questionable with a hamstring injury, but chances are, the Cowboys will match up Carr on Marshall and then play a bracketed coverage against Jeffery. Marshall got the best of Carr in last season’s matchup and should see several targets if he’s singled up in coverage Thursday night.MORE NEWS: On One-Year Anniversary Of Botched Smokestack Demolition, Little Village Community Leaders Call For Jobs, Better Environmental Protection
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.