By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) This Sunday’s matchup between the Bears (4-5) and Broncos (7-2) at Soldier Field isn’t short on storylines. Bears coach John Fox faces his former team, while quarterback Jay Cutler for the first time in the regular season, faces the team that drafted him into the NFL.READ MORE: 'We Get Spit On. We Get Things Thrown At Us': A Look At CPD's Rising Retirement Numbers
Both teams are on a two-game streak, the Bears the winning variety and the Broncos the losing kind.
Here are some aspects on the field to focus on during Sunday’s action.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball
Rams game plan 2.0
Just last Sunday, Chicago faced a similarly structured defense in St. Louis and executed a conservative-yet-effective game plan that led to a 37-13 victory. Undoubtedly, the Broncos are more talented than the Rams, but several aspects of Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s game plan can be re-purposed against the Broncos — controlled, quick passes underneath mixed with well-timed screens and a steady dose of inside runs.
Much of the Broncos’ recent struggles has to do with the depleted skills of quarterback Peyton Manning, who tossed a total of six interceptions against the Colts and Chiefs. But after reviewing the film from those games, both teams won the time of possession battle by chipping away at the Broncos defense. The Colts and Chiefs used power and lead runs in between the tackles to negate the Broncos’ speed and neutralized the rush by getting the ball out quickly on tunnels, bubbles, curls, mesh and rub routes.
Against the Rams, 15 of Cutler’s 19 completions went to running backs and tight ends. Only one of those 19 completions traveled 10 yards in the air. The Broncos thrive on making a quarterback get rid of the ball earlier than expected, and their secondary is adept at jumping hot routes.
If the Bears can strike a 60-40 run-to-pass ratio while moving the chains against the Broncos, they’ll have a chance to keep this game close into the fourth quarter, which is Fox’s modus operandi.
Fresh legs in the run game
Jeremy Langford has proved he’s capable of being the centerpiece of a game plan. Over the past two games, he’s touched the ball on 38 percent of the Bears’ offensive plays (48 touches out of 126 total offensive plays). Ka’Deem Carey has 21 carries over the past two games and is averaging four yards per run. While it was inconsequential, Carey’s late fumble against the Rams certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the coaching staff. It will be interesting to see what that ball security miscue does to his workload moving forward.
Starter Matt Forte (knee) practiced in a limited fashion Wednesday, which is a positive sign about where he’s at in his recovery. If all three are able to suit up Sunday, it will be an ideal scenario and opportunity for Gase to utilize all three to keep fresh legs in what should be a run-heavy game plan.
One constant this season has been Gase’s creativity with the run game. Each week he’s added a new wrinkle, be it a type of run (the Bears ran more zone-read last week) or the personnel package he’s running from.READ MORE: Family Sues After They Say Chicago Police Burst Into Their Home, Pointed Guns at Kids in 2019
Other than the Carolina Panthers, the Bears are the only team in the league that’s had at least 25 rushing attempts in every game this season. They’ll need each running back to contribute against Denver and physically finish their runs against a speedy-yet-undersized Broncos defensive front.
What to watch for when the Broncos have the ball
Preparing for the run
Yes, the Broncos rank 29th in the league in rushing (86 yards per game) and have only six rushing touchdowns, but it’s highly unlikely they’re going to have a pass-oriented game plan in Brock Osweiler’s first NFL start.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but Manning isn’t the prototypical quarterback for Denver coach Gary Kubiak’s offense, which is predicated on zone-blocked runs and deep play-action passes. Manning’s a surefire first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback and potentially the best of his generation. What made him great was his ability to orchestrate at the line of scrimmage and get the defense to tip it’s hand, then have the perfect counter play dialed up to attack the weakness.
With Osweiler under center, the Broncos will look to establish the running game off of outside zone and stretch plays with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. As a team, the Broncos have rushed for fewer than 70 yards in six games this season. Nevertheless, they will likely come out in heavy (three-tight end) personnel and run their zone scheme to try and get movement along the defensive front to set up play-action shots later in the game.
The Bears run defense has been strong of late. While they cumulatively rank 26th in the league, allowing 118.6 yards per game, only one running back has surpassed 58 yards in their past six games — Adrian Peterson with 103 yards in Week 8.
Turning up the pressure
Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has picked his spots to bring pressure this year, sending delayed inside linebacker blitzes. He’s relied more on interior twists, stunts and line games with his front four (or five). However, with Osweiler making his first NFL start, Fangio needs to make him uncomfortable early on.
This doesn’t mean Fangio needs to send a steady stream of five- and six-man pressures. Rather, he can show pre-snap pressure looks to see how well Osweiler can identify the Mike linebacker and get the proper protection communicated to the offensive line.
Last week against the Chiefs, Osweiler was sacked three times, which averaged out to once every nine dropbacks. Granted, the Broncos were in pass-only mode at that point in the game, but the Chiefs threw different looks at Osweiler, which disrupted his timing and reads and led to negative plays.
Osweiler is mobile for his size, but look for Fangio to send pressure from the inside — linebacker Christian Jones has been frequently used as a blitzer — to try and force him off his launch point.MORE NEWS: Lake County School Districts Say They Will Obey Mask Mandate Announced By Gov. Pritzker, But Some Express Concerns
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.