This week, Sunday Night’s Veteran’s Day NFL matchup features the two best teams in the league at the midpoint of the season. Some folks will tout it as a possible Super Bowl preview. Of course, there is a lot of football left to play, and the reality of these two teams playing again in February is a long shot. Still, it makes for the most intriguing game of the week, and probably of the year to date. Here’s a look at how the Houston Texans and the Chicago Bears line up head to head for their nationally televised throw down this weekend…
When healthy over the past two seasons, Matt Schaub has been as efficient as they come for the Texans. In his last 18 starts the team is 14-4, and Schaub has completed 62.3% of his passes and averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt. He has thrown 27 touchdowns and just ten interceptions, and he has averaged over 244 yards per game. Schaub has probably been underappreciated during his career, but he’s got a strong throwing arm, he makes good decisions and he takes care of the football.
Jay Cutler is having a pretty good season, completing almost 60% of his throws with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions – four in a Week Two loss to Green Bay. He’s on pace to throw for over 3500 yards and he should be getting wide receiver Alshon Jeffery back soon to help bolster the pass game. Cutler has a cannon for an arm, and ultimate confidence; and while he may be difficult to deal with at times, he is a fiery competitor who badly wants to win. The team is 24-9 over the last three seasons when Cutler has started a game. He does tend to hold the ball too long at times, and that can lead to him forcing a throw into coverage or taking a sack. But when all is said and done, Cutler gives the Bears a chance to win every game.
Arian Foster leads the NFL in rushing attempts (192 through eight games) and total touchdowns (11). In 37 games over the past three seasons, Foster has averaged 132.5 yards from scrimmage per game and 4.5 yards per carry, and has scored 41 total touchdowns. He’s had some issues protecting the ball in the past, but he hasn’t fumbled yet this season. Foster is a talented receiver, and while he hasn’t been used much in that role this year, it’s a wrinkle the Texans have up their sleeves if they need it. Ben Tate has been injured for most of the year and isn’t likely to play. Third stringer Justin Forsett has been used sparingly. It’s Foster or bust for Houston.
Matt Forte has been banged up this season, but in seven games he’s rushed for 539 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and caught 20 passes. In his last 19 games he has averaged 116.1 yards from scrimmage and almost four receptions per game. Forte doesn’t get a ton of scores. He has four touchdowns this season and seven in his last two. Backup Michael Bush hasn’t provided Forte with much relief lately. He has just 13 carries for 21 yards over the past two weeks. Still, he’s a decent option if Forte gets nicked up.
Andre Johnson has been healthy all season and has 42 catches for 562 yards (13.4 yards per catch) and two touchdowns. The Texans next leading wide receiver is Kevin Walter with 21 catches for 307 yards. The rest of the receivers on Houston’s roster have combined for eight catches. There is not a lot of depth on the roster here.
Likewise, Brandon Marshall leads the Bears with 59 catches and Earl Bennett has the second most receptions by a wide receiver with 16. Chicago had hoped that rookie Alshon Jeffery would take some of the coverage away from Marshall, but he is still out with a broken hand. No worries. Marshall has averaged almost 100 yards per game this season, and has scored seven touchdowns. Marshall has averaged nine catches per game over the past four games, and has five TDs in that stretch. Right now it doesn’t matter if three guys are covering him – he’s still making tough grabs in traffic and helping his quarterback.
Owen Daniels is second on the Texans with 37 receptions. He’s off to his best start since his injury shortened 2009 season. However, his status for Sunday’s game is up in the air due to a hip pointer. If Daniels is on the shelf, Houston will turn to James Casey, who has 21 catches on the year and has stepped up to fill in in the past. Daniels’ presence would be ideal, but Casey is at least an adequate backup.
For Chicago, the tight end is an afterthought. Kellen Davis is the top receiving tight end with a whopping ten catches. Matt Spaeth is almost exclusively used to block. The Bears’ tight ends aren’t going to be mistaken for All Pros.
Houston’s offensive line of Duane Brown, Wade Smith, Chris Meyers, Antoine Caldwell and Derek Newton have kept Schaub clean, allowing only ten sacks in eight games. Brown, the team’s left tackle, is one of the best in the business at protecting his QB’s blind side. The line has also paved the way for a rushing attack that averages 138 yards per game – eighth most in the league.
No quarterback has lost more yardage on sacks this season than Cutler. Chicago’s line of J’Marcus Webb, Chilo Rachal, Roberto Garza, Lance Louis and Gabe Carimi have allowed 28 sacks this season (though, to be fair, Cutler has been responsible for a handful of those) and a number of other hits. On the plus side, the Bears are in the top half of the league in rushing yards and yards per carry. Still, the offensive line continues to be Chicago’s Achilles heel.
J.J. Watt has been a monster. He has a league-leading 10.5 sacks, and has batted down ten passes. He’s one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year. Antonio Smith has been solid and had a terrific game against Baltimore a few weeks ago. Shaun Cody is adequate.
Julius Peppers is the biggest name on Chicago’s defense. He has five sacks on the season and demands constant attention. Henry Melton and Israel Idonije provide additional pressure and have combined for nine sacks. Reserve Corey Wootton has added four sacks in relief. Like Houston, the Bears are fairly stout against the run.
Brian Cushing is out for the season, so Tim Dobbins starts in the middle alongside Bradie James. Neither player is much more than a placeholder at this point in their careers. Outside ‘backers Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed do a good job getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks even though they don’t have gaudy sack totals. Rookie Whitney Mercilus has had a sack in each of his last two games.
Chicago’s duo of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs is ageless. The pair has combined to force three fumbles, break up 12 passes and return three interceptions for touchdowns. They are providing elite playmaking at the ages of 34 and 32 respectively and it has to be fun to watch for Bears’ fans.
Houston’s pass defense has held up well as long as they haven’t been facing Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers. While much of the credit goes to the front seven for creating pressure, the defensive backs have done their share. Cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson have combined for five interceptions and 12 pass break ups. Safeties Danieal Manning and Glover Quin have been solid, if unspectacular. The Texans have held opponents to a 54.5% completion percentage, but they haven’t faced a murderer’s row of quarterbacks. Cutler will have his chances, and will have to take advantage of them.
Chicago’s Charles Tillman is probably Watt’s biggest competition for Defensive Player of the Year. The ten-year veteran is having perhaps his best season with two interceptions (both returned for touchdowns), six pass break ups, and seven forced fumbles. On the other side is Tim Jennings, who has picked off six passes and broken up 15 others. Safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte can be out of position at times, but they are improving on a seemingly weekly basis. Nickel corner D.J. Moore has added a pair of interceptions. Thanks in large part to this secondary, the Bears have limited opposing quarterbacks to a 62.9 QB rating.
Texans kicker Shayne Graham has made 13 of the 15 field goals he’s attempted but he doesn’t have a big leg. His personal best is 53 yards and he is just 10 for 20 from 50 or more yards away in his career. Punter Donnie Jones has been solid with a net average of 40.8 yards and 13 punts downed inside the 20 yard line. Houston’s return game has been pitiful. Trindon Holliday started the season as the primary return man and he has since been cut. Rookie Keshawn Martin has stepped in and hasn’t improved the situation.
Chicago’s Robbie Gould has a stronger leg than Graham. He has a personal best of 54 yards and is seven for seven from 50 or more yards over the past two seasons. He’s 12 for 14 over the past four seasons. Punter Adam Podlesh is average at best. Return man Devin Hester hasn’t scored yet this season but he is always a threat to break a long return. He had a 44 yard punt return earlier this season and has returned 17 kicks for touchdowns over the course of his career. The Texans will likely try to play “keep away” from him all day.
The two teams are very evenly matched on offense, though the Texans’ pass rushers will likely give Chicago’s offensive line fits. Cutler will have to stay poised and get the ball out quickly. The Bears have the overall advantage on defense with a unit that tends to make up for any offensive shortcomings. The Bears also have an edge in the kicking game if it comes down to a late field goal attempt. In the end defense will rule the day and the home team will eke out a close win.
Prediction: Bears 23 Texans 20