By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (4-5) host the Broncos (7-2) on Sunday at noon. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Pressure busters
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s poised and will attack the pressure dialed up by one of the premier coordinators in the game in the Broncos’ Wade Phillips. Denver’s Von Miller has a skill set that every defense is envious of, given his speed, power and athleticism. While 21 of his career sacks have come on third down, he’s also had 17 on first down and 14 on second down. In other words, the protection of Cutler must be a full-time, three-down job.
Staying out of third-and-long is imperative for the Bears. The Broncos have a dozen players with at least a half-a-sack, led by the ailing DeMarcus Ware out with a back injury. As a group, some might say the Broncos have the most talented corners in the NFL. Chris Harris is tough and physical. Aqib Talib is a ball hawk. Brandon Roby is a talented nickel.
Bears receiver Alshon Jeffrey remains a question mark with a groin injury, and Eddie Royal (knee) is out again, so who steps into those voids will be key for Chicago’s offense. Tight ends Martellus Bennett and Zach Miller still present matchup advantages.
Malik Jackson headlines the Broncos’ defensive line, ideal in a 3-4 system as a five- and three-technique. He gets his hands up in passing lanes and has four breakups in the last four weeks. He’s part of a strong rotation of defensive linemen.
Once again, the Bears’ running game will have a big say in the outcome of this game, but Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey should be prepared to take some punishment. The Broncos have thumpers all over the unit and play with a swagger. They’re skilled and physical. The Broncos defense is also making big plays in the fourth quarter of games. They’re also No. 1 in rushing defense on first down, yards per play, fewest big plays allowed and sack percentage.
Defense: Make a young QB play like a young QB
Broncos starting quarterback Peyton Manning will be sidelined with a foot injury. That doesn’t mean the Bears defense can relax.
Brock Osweiler will start his first NFL game on his 25th birthday and — while a complete unknown — appears to have traits that fit coach Gary Kubiak’s West Coast roots. He has a strong arm, is mobile and can run the play-action game. His offensive line is far from dominant, but it’s a cut-blocking group that challenges defenders to keep their feet.
At running back, speedster Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson present a one-two punch that has struggled to gain traction but remains dangerous. The Bears will need to be on the tight end watch with the quarterback switch. Chicago-area native Owen Daniels and newcomer Vernon Davis may see the ball more with Osweiler. On the outside, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are as productive a one-two punch as there is in the league. Denver throws it 64 percent of the time, but that could shrink with Osweiler replacing Manning.
Special teams: Brace for their best
A talented Broncos special teams unit coached by Joe DeCamillis awaits the Bears and coordinator Jeff Rodgers. Denver is talented in the return game behind the hard-charging Omar Bolden, who went 83 yards on a punt against Kansas City earlier this season for a touchdown. Nasty coverage guys like David Bruton, Shaquil Barrett and Bolden have to be accounted for. Kicker Brandon McManus is having a quality season, making 19 of his 20 field goals, including going 5-of-6 beyond 50 yards. The Bears’ coverage units continue to improve, but the overall unit still needs to clean up some blemishes.
Intangibles: It’s personal
Coaches always feed the fire burning in players cut, waived or undrafted. Not being wanted creates a powerful emotion for the league’s premier competitors. The same holds true for coaches. The wounds are fresh a season after a departure.
Bears coach John Fox maintains Sunday’s meeting with the Broncos is just another game after he coached them for the previous four seasons. His Bears will likely have a different take on it. It’s always personal. And the same holds true for those Broncos who loved playing for Fox. It’s only human to want to play well in front of the coach who believed in you and vice-versa.
It will make for an interesting game of emotions. Denver is a confident, brash team. Chicago can’t back down.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.