By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) For the first time in three years, the Oakland Raiders are favorites on the road. The Raiders (2-1) will enter Soldier Field on a two-game winning streak while hoping to hand the Bears (0-3) their fourth straight loss Sunday at noon on CBS.
Chicago coach John Fox faces off against his former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, so there’s a strong familiarity between these two coaching staffs. Oakland has a solid nucleus of young talent on offense and a complementary pair of pass rushers on defense.
Here are a few storylines to focus on during Sunday’s action.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball
Protecting the edge
The Raiders use a 3-4 base defense under coach Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. Their secondary is a vulnerable group, so it’s essential for their rush unit to speed up the decision-making of opposing quarterbacks.
The centerpiece of the Raiders’ pass rush is 2014 first-round draft pick Khalil Mack, who’s emerging as one of the league’s premier young outside linebackers. Mack possesses power to bull rush but also plays with leverage and speed to bend the edge and collapse the pocket.
Opposite Mack is former 49ers standout Aldon Smith. After being waived by San Francisco for a series of off-field transgressions, Smith found a home 40 miles north on the 880. His snap count has been ramped up each week as he gets into game shape and more familiar with the scheme.
Both outside linebackers possess a quick first step and force offensive tackles to quickly kick-slide into their pass protection sets. With Bears left tackle Jermon Bushrod’s status for Sunday up in the air (he missed Wednesday’s practice due to a concussion), Charles Leno could man the blind side. Even if Bushrod plays, he’s struggled with speed rushers all season, which could force the Bears to keep in tight ends and running backs to chip.
Attacking down the field
With Jimmy Clausen under center, the Bears have put no stress over the top of the defense. If he starts this Sunday, offensive coordinator Adam Gase must take the handcuffs off and try to take some shots down the field against a porous Raiders secondary.
In particular, left cornerback and 2013 first-round draft pick D.J. Hayden should be the mark in the passing game. Hayden’s a smaller player who has been susceptible to double moves and is frequently caught guessing in the move area. He’s been beaten twice for touchdowns in three games.
The Bears have maintained a 50/50 run-to-pass ratio but have yet to cash in via the play-action game. Their pass blocking has been an issue all season, so deeper shots in the passing game will need to come off of run fakes. As Oakland starts to cheat toward the line of scrimmage, the Bears must be willing to test and stretch the Raiders vertically in order to generate some offense.
What to watch for when the Raiders have the ball
Sticky coverage from the corners
The Raiders’ pass blocking has been exceptional this season. On top of that, second-year quarterback Derek Carr is more versed in identifying defensive fronts and calling the corrective protection scheme. Carr’s clearly more confident and comfortable in the pocket, and his decision-making has improved.
Oakland’s primarily an 11 personnel team that likes to spread the field and throw the football. The Raiders are throwing it nearly 66 percent of their offensive plays, which ranks sixth in the league.
First-round draft pick Amari Cooper has flashed the talent that made him the No. 4 overall pick past April. Cooper’s a smooth and savvy route runner who loses no speed at the top of the stem. He has top-end speed to take a shorter throw and turn it into a bigger gain, ranking sixth in the league with 106 yards after the catch.
The Bears’ defensive front came alive last week against a shaky Seahawks’ offensive line, but the Raiders pose an entirely different challenge. Thus, it will be crucial for Chicago cornerbacks Alan Ball and Kyle Fuller to play tight man coverage and show more awareness for the ball three to four seconds into the play. Carr can struggle with his accuracy and ball placement at times, so there will be opportunities to make plays on the ball.
Wrapping up Murray
At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, running back Latavius Murray is a load to bring down. He runs with patience, vision and can sink his hips to glide through the hole. Once he makes it to the second level, he’s one of the league’s better contact runners. He has excellent balance and doesn’t go down from arm tackles.
The Bears’ run defense is giving up 135 yards a game. So far, they haven’t given up many chunk runs, but they have been beaten to the perimeter.
Under the guidance of offensive line coach Mike Tice, the Raiders are a physical group up front. They deploy leads, isolation and one-back power runs. Runs are designed for Murray to make one guy miss in the hole, so the Bears must be sound with their tackling, otherwise Murray can break off some explosive runs.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.