By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (5-7) host the Redskins (5-7) on Sunday at noon at Soldier Field. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Crack a tough defense
To get their sixth victory, the Bears offense will need to crack a tough Washington 3-4 defense. An extremely physical Redskins secondary poses a significant challenge. Safety Dashon Goldson — a Pro Bowl performer under Bears secondary coach Ed Donatell in San Francisco — is the Redskins’ leading tackler, and he sets the tone.
Second-year cornerback Bashaud Breeland is a rising defender, third in tackles and first on the team with 13 passes defended. Bears receivers will mentally need to prepare for a physical confrontation with the Redskins’ defensive backs. The Redskins’ pass defense ranks 10th in the league. Washington’s top pass rusher is outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who has 6.5 of the team’s 20 total sacks. Left defensive end Chris Baker has five sacks.
Despite the presence of one of the biggest and best nose tackles in the game in Terrance Knighton, the Redskins haven’t consistently stopped the run. They are 29th in yards per carry at 4.64 and 25th in rushing yards at 124.2 per game. Given the Bears’ desire to run the ball and now with a three-pronged attack with Matt Forte, Jeremy Langford, and Ka’Deem Carey, this should be the scab the Bears will pick at in a manner of speaking against the Redskins.
Defense: Time for turnovers
Simply from a numbers standpoint, this game could become a time-of-possession battle. The Bears rank fifth in that regard, and the Redskins sixth.
Kirk Cousins runs a ball-control offense for the Redskins with a quick, passing game. His completion percentage of 68.8 is accentuated by his 7.1 yards per pass attempt. Cousins likes throwing to his tight end Jordan Reed, who has six touchdown catches and is the best of all Redskin receivers in yards after the catch, ranking 24th in the league. The unit ranks 17th on third down, but half of Cousins’ 10 interceptions have come on third down.
DeSean Jackson remains a dangerous weapon due to his speed, but he missed several games due to injury and has just 18 catches, three for touchdowns. Seven different receivers have catches of at least 30 yards from Cousins, but his overall rating on deep throws is just 62.5 with a 23.5 percent completion. Running back Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones split the carries, but they average only 3.5 yards per rush as a duo. Morris has no touchdown runs, while Jones has three. The Bears could be without outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and several players are questionable, including nickel defender Bryce Callahan.
Special teams: Assignment discipline
On just five returns in two weeks, the Bears’ Deonte Thompson is the NFL leader in return average at 36.6. His 74-yard return against San Francisco gives you an example of what the speedster can do. Washington is on alert for Thompson.
The Bears are on alert for several reasons. Redskins kick returner Rashad Ross is third in returns of 20 yards-plus, with 16. His average of 26 yards is boosted by a 101-yard touchdown against the New York Giants in Week 3. On punt returns, DeSean Jackson has four career touchdowns and is an ever present danger, though limited this season. Bears punter Patrick O’Donnell must be careful with Jackson.
Assignment discipline and sure tackling will be critical for the Bears.
In the kicking game, Washington’s Dustin Hopkins is pinning opponents deep with good hang time married with a good coverage unit, as the Redskins rank eighth in field position and third in kick return average at 18.8.
Intangibles: Test of character
Until the Bears reach the .500 mark, they don’t have a launching point to a better record. Veteran defensive lineman Jarvis Jenkins said it best this week: With four games to go, this will be a team-wide test of character. A former Redskin, Jenkins is motivated to haunt his first NFL team, and the Bears as a whole have to play with that same inspiration after the kick in the stomach from the 49ers.
The strictest of evaluations comes now for a roster of players who have demonstrated exemplary resiliency and fight. Now they must carry that through the season. The Redskins are still in playoff contention in a bad NFC East. Washington arrives in Chicago winless on the road after five games. Like the Bears, the Redskins are coming off a heartbreaking loss, theirs to the Cowboys on Monday night.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.