By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) The Bears (2-5) are on the road to face the San Diego Chargers (2-6) on Monday Night Football.
There are a lot of parallels between the struggles of these two teams that have been decimated by injuries and a lack roster depth.
Here are some storylines to focus on during Monday night’s matchup.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball
All season, the Chargers have struggled to defend the running backs in pass coverage, both on check releases and in particular the screen game.
San Diego plays a lot of man coverage, and its linebackers have been slow to read their keys — high hats of offensive linemen and the running back’s footwork — and react accordingly. Consequently, opponents have schemed against them by running vertical clear-outs to occupy cornerbacks and safeties, then slip running backs into the flat with a few blockers to lead the way.
There’s never a good time for the Bears offense to lose Matt Forte, but it’s unfortunate he won’t be active Monday night, as he would’ve posed a huge challenge for the Chargers defense. However, this is a great opportunity for the Bears to get a long look at rookie Jeremy Langford, who flashed in the preseason when given extended duty.
Despite his crucial drop last week against the Vikings, Langford has good hands. He was a wideout and a cornerback at Michigan State before settling in at running back. He’s a sharp route runner and will be targeted against a generous Chargers defense.
Getting Martellus Bennett involved
Bennett was targeted only five times last week against the Vikings. He needs to be in double-digits against a Chargers team that has struggled to defend tight ends up the seam and in the flats.
Opposing tight ends have scored touchdowns in five of the eight games the Chargers have played this season. With Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery back to full health, he’s influencing coverage, and teams are dedicating safety help over the top to his side of the formation. That trend will continue this week and create single-coverage opportunities for Bennett against Chargers linebackers and safeties.
Chargers All-Pro safety Eric Weddle is dealing with a groin injury, and his status is uncertain for Monday night. Either way, the Bears must get the ball into Bennett’s hands over the middle of the field and into the boundary where he can win individual matchups and gain extra yards after the catch.
What to watch for when the Chargers have the ball
Philip Rivers is masterful at getting the proper protection scheme set up, but the Chargers’ front five is suffering physical breakdowns. They’re allowing a sack every 19 pass attempts.
Injuries along the offensive line have certainly played a part, as has the sheer volume of passes the Chargers need to throw to move the football. But another factor that has helped opposing rush units to get home is challenging receivers’ releases off the line of scrimmage.
Teams that have played tight man coverage (both two-man and man-free) have been able to disrupt the overall timing and rhythm of the Chargers’ passing scheme and prevent Rivers from locating his hot route.
The Chargers’ receiving corps isn’t fast, but they’re big and physical. Even so, Vic Fangio should have his cornerbacks in press-man technique jamming receivers to give the defensive front extra time to get home against a shaky offensive line.
Losing go-to receiver Keenan Allen (kidney) for the season is a big blow to the Chargers offense. He was a threat at all three levels and a red zone favorite for Rivers. Another favorite of Rivers is running back Danny Woodhead.
Given Melvin Gordon’s struggles this season and the Chargers’ propensity to throw the football — their 66 percent pass ratio ranks fourth in the league — Woodhead is on the field for a large portion of snaps. This is because he’s a reliable pass protector and also an excellent pass catcher. He leads the team in yards after the catch (445) and is second in receptions (39), targets (49) and receiving yards (443).
Bears inside linebackers, particularly Christian Jones and nickel linebacker Jonathan Anderson — must be locked in on Woodhead both early and late in the down. The Chargers use Woodhead to chip, but they also use him on designed slip blocks to get him into the flats untouched, where he’s able to pick up extra yardage and move the chains. Of his 39 receptions, 18 have gone for a first down.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.