By Jeff Joniak-
(CBS) The Bears (5-7) host the Cowboys (8-4) on Thursday night at Soldier Field. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Tug of war
These teams will play tug of war with the clock. Possession time is prized. A year ago in December, the Bears owned 36 minutes of the clock, scored on eight possessions and put up 45 points. That’s the template, even though some of the names have changed.
Dallas is fifth in time of possession, while Chicago is 10th this season. More snaps dedicated to running the ball is the theme of the week for the Bears. The Cowboys are 29th in the league in giving up 4.9 yards per carry on first down. In addition, the Cowboys have permitted the third most 20-plus-yard runs with 11, so they have given up some chunk yardage. Last season, Matt Forte rushed 20 times for 102 yards and caught seven passes for 73 yards.
The Dallas defense will get after the quarterback with a dozen different players earning at least a half sack, topped by Henry Melton’s five from his defensive tackle spot. On the edge, Jeremy Mincey leads the Cowboys in pressures, with defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford right behind him. From the strong safety position, Barry Church is the Cowboys’ leading tackler, and Rolando McClain is a physical, downhill middle linebacker with quickness and burst. When Jay Cutler puts the ball in the air, he will likely face more zone coverage from a Cowboys secondary that only dabbles in man-to-man defense. Cornerback Brandon Carr is allowing completions at a 60 percent clip and four touchdowns.
Defense: Control the line of scrimmage
Universally throughout the locker room, the Bears feel the Cowboys own the best offensive line they have faced this season. That front five had a hiccup in a loss against the Eagles last Thursday but has been solid-to-excellent all season.
DeMarco Murray leads the NFL in carries and rushing yards. He’s a great runner with 4.37 speed who is far and away the league’s top back in yards after contact. Murray excels in the screen game and is also a good blocker, so the Bears’ front seven has its hands full. It will need sure tackling and gap integrity to contain Murray and his backup, Joseph Randle, who is averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
Which brings us to Tony Romo, who is throwing it less, as his 335 pass attempts rank 29th in the league. Romo’s throwing with accuracy and averages 8.4 yards per attempt with a +14 TD-INT ratio. He’s been one of the best this season against the blitz, with a quarterback rating of 125-plus. His big target is receiver Dez Bryant, who will be tough to stop if the Cowboys’ run game gets cranked up. Tight ends Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar have combined for seven touchdowns.
Special teams: Stop the big play
Dallas return man Dwayne Harris has the third most 20-plus yard kickoff returns this season and is averaging 10.2 yards on his punt returns with a long of 38, one of three of more than 20 yards. So he can do some damage and owns a pair of punt return touchdowns in his career.
Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey is having a good season booting field goals, and their kick coverage unit ranks fifth in the NFL, allowing 21 yards on average. The Bears’ kick coverage has pulled together to rank second in the league, allowing just more than 18 yards. Any big play on special teams will play well at home for the Bears, who are getting some quality late-season punting from Patrick O’Donnell and new production from new return man Marc Mariani.
Intangibles: Own it
The Bears are gunning for their third straight home win. To get it, they have to play an error-free, consistent football for 60 minutes like they did a season ago against the visiting Cowboys. They didn’t turn it over in that game, nor did they force a turnover.
This season, Romo has thrown just eight interceptions, but an area the Bears should focus on is forcing fumbles. Dallas has coughed it up 18 times, losing 12, including five by Murray. It’s where the Bears should focus their attention to create field position and more possessions.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.