By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (3-9) are on the road to face the Bengals (5-7) on Sunday at noon. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Awaken the giant
Gaining four yards or more on runs this season against the Bengals has been gold for teams committed to doing so. Cincinnati has given up the second most carries of four-plus yards in the league with 170. The Bears have gained four or more yards on runs 141 times, tied for 15th in the league. To mute the outstanding and aggressive pass rush of the Bengals, the Bears would do well to run Jordan Howard as much as possible Sunday. After two quiet games on the ground, the Bears have the potential to get it going on the ground once again. In order to make that happen, the number of negative runs must decrease. Howard and Tarik Cohen have combined for 50 negative runs this season, which has repeatedly left the Bears and rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky working out of a hole and playing the game behind the chains.
Defense: Crank up the rush
Andy Dalton is an accurate passer who doesn’t always handle a pass rush with ease. He’s been sacked 19 times on third down, an area the Bears struggled at mightily last week against Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers. The Bears are still tied for the league lead in third-down sacks with 17, which makes up more than half of their total number of 32 sacks for the season. Vic Fangio’s defense has sacks in every game this season but only three combined in the last two games. Getting after Dalton is critical. Blitzed on 85 pass attempts this season, Dalton has thrown seven touchdowns and one interception but also been sacked seven times, completing 56 percent of his passes in such situations. The Bengals’ weakest link up front is left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, who has given up six sacks.
Special teams: ‘Human Joystick’
Cohen is talented enough to be an elite returner, but consistency will be his key. His extraordinary punt return touchdown against the 49ers is an appetizer. The Bears’ personnel department believes the best is yet to come in the return game from Cohen. The Bengals have permitted four returns of 20 or more yards, including one touchdown, this season. They rank 27th in return average allowed at 10.7 yards. Kevin Huber has punted 63 times, and 27 have landed inside the 20-yard line, which is third-best in the league. Smart returns and decisions by Cohen will be critical in terms of field position for the Bears.
Intangibles: Who wants what?
After a run of five consecutive playoff appearances, the Bengals are in danger of missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season under 15-year head coach Marvin Lewis. How the Bengals finish in the final four games could necessitate a change in leadership. It will be interesting to watch how the Bengals play the Bears after a violent game against the Steelers on Monday night. There’s a chance they could be flat. If so, the Bears should pounce on the opportunity and prove they are still playing for pride and the future.
Numbers: Fuller findings
Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller will find himself matched up at times with Bengals star receiver A.J. Green, who’s one of the few receivers in the league targeted more than 100 times this season. Green’s eight touchdowns rank him among the league leaders, with six of those in the red zone. Fuller has been outstanding for much of the season. He’s third in tackles for the Bears, with 13 pass breakups while allowing quarterbacks to complete only 49 percent of their throws to receivers targeting him. Only two of the 83 targets at Fuller have turned into touchdowns for the third-most targeted defender in the league this season. Fuller against Green is one of the best subplots Sunday.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.