By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (2-5) are on the road to face the Chargers (2-6) on Monday night. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Exploit matchups
Jay Cutler is on a streak of four straight games in which he’s made some big throws with the game on the line and used his mobility to affect the game with his feet. He will have the opportunity to do the same against a Chargers defense that’s reeling. Veteran cornerback Brandon Flowers is 5-foot-9 and getting picked on by quarterbacks, being targeted frequently, particularly on double moves. Second-year corner Jason Verrett is a quick leaper but also only 5-foot-9 and typically assigned to the foe’s No. 1 receiver, in this case Alshon Jeffrey.
The Chargers run a 3-4 base defense and feature undersized but slippery outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu. Ingram had six pressures in 35 pass rushes against the Ravens last week, according to Pro Football Focus. The Chargers have given up the most yards after the catch in the league, and the unit has been under the gun due to field position.
Opponents are starting at their own 32-yard line, which is 31st in the league. The Chargers also have the fewest takeaway points in the league, with seven on seven takeaways. Teams are gaining 6.34 yards per play, 31st in the league. Look for Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase to discover and exploit favorable matchups for Cutler in the passing game and to go to a steady diet of runs beginning with rookie Jeremy Langford, who’s expected to make his first NFL start for the injured Matt Forte.
Defense: Pressure Rivers
Pressuring and hitting Philip Rivers will be essential for the Bears. The banged-up Chargers offensive line has given up the most pressures in the league, so this is an opportunity for the Bears. Rivers calls the game at the line of scrimmage as well as anybody, and his diagnosis of the defense leads to quick decisions and throws.
However, there are times Rivers will hold it long enough for pressure to get home. If the veteran quarterback has time, he will be tough to defend. He completed all 22 of his passes of 10 yards or fewer against the Ravens last week. Yards after the catch is the Chargers’ game right now, ranking No. 1 in the league in that regard.
If tight end Antonio Gates can work through a sore knee, it elevates the threat level of a passing attack ranked first in the league. Rivers has completed 157 passes from 6-to-20 yards, best in the league. He has completed the most passes in the NFL on the second-most attempts. Rivers is on pace to break Peyton Manning’s single-season passing yardage record.
Rookie running back Melvin Gordon was held to three yards a carry last week, but the lineup changes up front due to injury has dinged the Chargers’ ability to create running lanes. Rivers will go deep to receiver Malcom Floyd and tight end Ladarius Green, big guys who are tough to tango with. Top receiver Keenan Allen is excellent but is out for the season with a lacerated kidney. Defending Danny Woodhead out of the backfield as a receiver will be a big job for the Bears linebackers.
Special teams: Find a way
For as much trouble as the Bears are having in terms of continuity and execution on special teams, the Chargers are in a more troubling situation. They’ve moved on from veteran Jacoby Jones, moving first-year receiver Javontee Herndon into the return specialist role.
Anything will improve the one return yard the Chargers have managed on punt returns for the year. The league average total is 150. They have only eight returns and 12 fair catches. The Chargers own the worst field position (19.3-yard line) after kickoffs in the league with a league-worst 11 drives starting inside their own 20. Their average starting position period is their 21, also the worst in the league.
Rivers has started a league-high 31 drives inside his own 20. He still has produced seven touchdowns and three field goals and 58 points in such situations but also five giveaways. San Diego has permitted an alarming 10 returns of 30 to 39 yards, by far the most in the league. The Chargers rank 30th in average, while the Bears are 31st.
Intangibles: Dig deep
Both teams have dealt with significant injury and continuity issues yet have quarterbacks who are keeping them competitive despite a combined 11 losses. Both defenses scrap and claw to compete and get to the fourth quarter, but they have had difficulty at times making the big play when they need it.
Both teams have opponent scoring percentages of just 43.8, and they’ve combined to permit 40 touchdown drives. Who wants it more and which team makes the big plays in the fourth quarter likely will tell the story of this matchup.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.