By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) Bruce Arians was a finalist for the Bears’ head coaching vacancy in 2013 but was passed up in favor of Marc Trestman. Arians has since led the Cardinals to back-to-back double-digit win seasons, a playoff berth and earned Coach of the Year honors this past January. Trestman, well, you know that story all too well.
Arians leads his Cardinals (1-0) into Soldier Field this Sunday at noon against the Bears (0-1), who are hoping not to fall to 0-2 after starting the season with two home games.
Here are a few storylines to focus on during Sunday’s action.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball
The Cardinals’ defense is proof that offenses aren’t the only side of the ball allowed to run multiple personnel groupings for different down-and-distance situations. Former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles may have left the desert for the New York Jets, but his creativity and aggressive ways stayed put.
James Bettcher spent the previous two years coaching the Cardinals’ outside linebackers before taking over as defensive coordinator this year. Judging by his first game plan against the New Orleans Saints, he mixes and matches personnel in an attempt to dictate the tempo rather than being dictated to by the opposition.
The Cardinals have a group of talented playmakers in their secondary, namely cornerback Patrick Peterson, hybrid defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and hybrid linebacker/strong safety Deone Bucannon. Bettcher utilizes the unique playmaking skills of this group in five-, six- and even seven-defensive back packages. From these various looks, the Cardinals frequently bring pressure from the second and third level to make up for their pass rushing deficiencies along the defensive line.
Peterson in particular helps make the scheme work. He frequently travels with and mans up against the opponent’s top receiver, which allows for mixed coverages and various pressure packages with the rest of the unit.
The Bears’ offensive line is still learning how to work together as a group, so look for Bettcher to throw a variety of fronts and pressures at them to see how well they communicate and hold up. Look for the Bears to utilize Matt Forte in the screen game to capitalize on the Cardinals’ aggressiveness and man coverages.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase made a concerted effort to run outside-zone last week against the Packers, and the Bears had great success with that scheme. They were able to out-flank and reach the edge of the Packers’ defense for big gains out on the perimeter.
Having put that on tape, the Bears have now set themselves up for more play-action opportunities and bootlegs for quarterback Jay Cutler.
Given the Cardinals’ aggressiveness on defense, it can be used against them. Teams occasionally overpursue and sell out to stop the run, losing lose backside contain in the process. Once the backside defender starts to crash down, a well-disguised play fake can allow Cutler to step out the back door for a big play in the passing game.
Look for the Bears to get their receivers — particularly tight end Martellus Bennett — involved on delayed crossing routes in their play-action game for potential high-percentage, explosive passes.
What to watch for when the Cardinals have the ball
McPhee’s time to shine
Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee was the first big signing made by the new Bears regime. He was emblematic of the new profile of versatile, violent and transcendent defenders that the team is seeking for their new scheme and identity.
McPhee had a quiet opening act as a Bear last week against the Packers. This week, he will frequently be lined up across from Cardinals right tackle Earl Watford and has an opportunity to dominate that matchup.
Watford has a tendency to stop his feet when engaged with a pass rusher, as well as get off balance by bending at the waist instead of his knees. McPhee converts speed to power off the edge and should be able to win with some touch-and-go inside moves to get quarterback Carson Palmer off his launch point.
Palmer has never been mobile, but he reads defenses quickly and feels pressure well. He also has a tendency to drift to his right in the pocket, which could inadvertently shorten McPhee’s path to the quarterback.
Cornerback depth will be tested
The Cardinals are fond of 10 personnel — one running back, no tight ends and four wide receivers — in empty-set formations. This forces a team to play dime coverage, in which their fourth cornerback is on the field. For the Bears, that player is likely Demontre Hurst.
Given Arians’ willingness to use any of his receivers from the slot, these situations favor players like Larry Fitzgerald and speedster John Brown. Arians also uses reduced splits and bunched formations with his receivers, which gives them the ability to run any route in the route tree and gets them a free release off the line of scrimmage.
Running back Andre Ellington is typically the back the Cardinals use in their 10 personnel package, but he’s dealing with a knee injury and unlikely to play. Look for rookie David Johnson to be used often in his place. Last week, Johnson took his first NFL touch to the house on a 55-yard screen pass and has plenty of speed for his size (6-foot-1, 224 pounds).
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.