By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) The Bears (5-7) play host to the NFC East leading Redskins (5-7) this Sunday at Soldier Field.READ MORE: COVID-19 In Illinois: Statewide Coronavirus Cases Drop For Second Consecutive Week
The Redskins have won five straight games against the Bears. In their last matchup at Soldier Field, Redskins defensive back DeAngelo Hall picked Jay Cutler off an NFL-record-tying four times.
Here are some aspects on the field to focus on during Sunday’s action.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball
Getting outside in the run game
Over the past two seasons, the Redskins have made a concerted effort to get bigger along their defensive line in free agency. In 2014, their big splash was Jason Hatcher, while this past offseason they signed former Bears Stephen Paea, and Terrance Knighton.
Other than Hatcher’s 11-sack performance in the final year of his contract with Dallas in 2013, none of these players had registered a double-digit sack season over their careers. Thus, the goal of these acquisitions was to get stout, two-gap players for their 3-4 scheme who can anchor at the point of attack in the run game.
So far, that plan hasn’t come to fruition for the Redskins defense, which ranks 29th in the league in rushing yards allowed per attempt (4.6) and 25th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (124.2). During a six-game stretch from Week 5 through Week 11, they gave up 1,048 rushing yards, losing four times.
Over that stretch, rather than trying to take them head on, opponents neutralized the Redskins’ bulk up front with a steady dose of outside zone runs from heavy sets.
This scheme forced the Redskins’ defensive linemen to pursue laterally down the line of scrimmage and chase plays rather than attack straight ahead and stack blockers. Offensive linemen quickly got off combination blocks and flowed up to the second level to seal off linebackers and win the edge for big gains along the perimeter. The Redskins’ inside linebackers — Mason Foster and William Compton — are a below-average combination.
Look for Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase to once again use all three of his running backs on outside zone runs, with defined aiming points on the front side but also back side cutback lanes should the defense overpursue. The Bears will likely use double-tight end sets, lining them up on the same side of the formation to down block on outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy.
Using spread sets in the passing game
The Redskins lack playmakers in their secondary. To be fair, second-year cornerback Bashaud Breeland has started to emerge as a reliable option outside, but this group as a whole has a limited ceiling.READ MORE: Judge Rules Prosecutors Can't Show Kyle Rittenhouse Link To Proud Boys At Trial In Kenosha Shootings
To compensate for Washington’s talent deficiencies, defensive coordinator Joe Barry primarily uses simplified zone coverage schemes with his secondary (Cover-2, Cover-3, Cover-4). Consequently, opponents have had success using spread formations with wide splits to stretch those zones horizontally, then run route combinations that settle in the predictable, widened voids.
The Redskins don’t use much pre-snap deception with safety rotations, so Bears quarterback Jay Cutler should have a clear picture of what post-snap coverage he’ll be working against.
Look for the Bears to heavily utilize ’11’ personnel groupings from trips and double sets with their receivers in plus splits and work deep corner and dig routes from them. The Bears will likely run some up-tempo, no-huddle drives outside of four- and two-minute drills and allow Cutler to orchestrate the offense from the line of scrimmage and dial up plays designed to attack the coverage that’s presented by the defense.
What to watch for when the Redskins have the ball
Turn up the pressure
Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins has never been an anticipatory thrower. Coach Jay Gruden has devised a passing scheme with defined, half-field reads with at most three options in his progression to help mask some of Cousins’ issues and accentuate his strengths.
While he’s only thrown two interceptions over his past six games, Cousins will throw into harm’s way when his primary progression is covered. Rather than scanning the back side of the field, he has a tendency to throw to where his receiver is supposed to be before checking to see if the passing lane is clear.
Opponents have also sped up Cousins’ internal clock by bringing pressure directly up the middle. The Redskins’ offensive line has been solid in pass protection this season, surrendering only 20 sacks, the sixth-fewest in the league. But where they’ve had issues is passing defensive linemen off on interior stunts and with delayed second-level blitzes.
The Bears’ pass rush had a productive outing last week against the 49ers, primarily due to strong individual performances from Eddie Goldman and Willie Young, who has a sack in each of his last three games. However, given that Pernell McPhee isn’t playing at full strength and is now listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will have to utilize the stunt and twist game with his interior linemen and fold in a fifth rusher from the second level to disrupt Cousins’ timing.
Reed in the red zone
Tight end Jordan Reed leads the Redskins with six touchdown receptions, all of which have come in the red zone. Cousins is decisive in the red zone and will work the ball into small windows to Reed, with whom he’s built a strong trust.
Reed has become the Redskins’ go-to option from the No. 1 receiver (closest to the sideline) alignment, frequently used as the single receiver on the back side of three-by-one formations. From this look, the Redskins have thrown fades and quick slants to Reed, who’s athletic enough to win a jump-ball situation and big enough to shield a defender from the ball inside.
The Bears must read their key anytime Reed’s singled up on the back side within the 20-yard line, as that’s an automatic alert that the slant or fade route is in play.MORE NEWS: Hundreds Of Cars Roll Through Downtown For Second Night To Celebrate Mexican Independence Day
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.