New-look Bears D looks to prove itself vs. Vick; 10 things to watch
The temptation is to look at the Bears' third-ranked defense through 10 games and attribute its rise from the league's 17th-best unit in 2009 to the arrival of Julius Peppers. And Peppers has played a large role, occupying blockers against the run and providing decent pass-rush pressure.
But what's forgotten is that Brian Urlacher missed all but the first half of the first game of 2009, so he's a new addition, too. And it's the combination of the two players -- Peppers' aggressiveness playing the run, Urlacher's sideline-to-sideline playmaking -- that has keyed Chicago's rise in the playoff race. The Bears lead the NFC Central with a 7-3 record, and though some brilliant media people (like me) still rank the Packers ahead of them, the Bears still have the tiebreaker edge over Green Bay by virtue of a head-to-head win in week three and a 3-0 division record.
"We've actually added two dominant players we didn't have a year ago,'' defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli told me this week. "Don't forget Brian. Julius has given us the guy who plays the run as hard as anyone you'll see, and Brian has been such a great player and leader. You forget what a playmaker he is, but he's come back and been everything he ever was.''
The Bears will need that against Philadelphia in a showdown of division leaders at Soldier Field. This isn't a one-dimensional offense the Eagles bring to town; LeSean McCoy is averaging 5.0 yards per rush and, in the great Philly tradition of Brian Westbrook, has added 51 receptions. When you're throwing five completions a game to your ace back, and making the screen game as dangerous as the deep game on some Sundays, it's a part of the game the front seven has to respect. And so Peppers' run play will be vital to get the Eagles' offense off the field, and Urlacher picking him up in the screen game will be important, too.
The Bears' approach this game much the way the Giants did last week -- which worked for 50 minutes. New York led 17-16 midway through the fourth quarter, and the Eagles were frustrated by all the different rushes the Giants gave them. Look for the same thing with Peppers, Lance Briggs and defensive end Israel Idonije Sunday. "The Giants didn't do a really good job on Mike,'' Urlacher told me. "Now, we know he's going to want to run. But the more you hit him, the less he's going to want to get out and get hit. The difference between him now and earlier in his career is he can stay in the pocket and be accurate and be more of a pocket quarterback when he wants to be. He's going to be a dangerous guy for us, but we'll be ready.''
For the second week in a row. The Eagles are playing a game you've got to watch. Lucky for 70 percent of the country, it's the Fox doubleheader game at 4:15 Eastern time.
With his ace runner fumbling and his two key receivers out with injuries, Manning's going to have to be productive without the turnovers (16 picks, one back of NFL leader Brett Favre). Tall order, especially with Jacksonville likely to try to take his only reliable wideout, Mario Manningham, away on Sunday at the Meadowlands.
Though he's kicked only nine field goals in 10 games, here's how I see Buffalo's Rian Lindell faring this weekend against the Steelers:
Actually, you should have known Idonije before now, but as the bookend to Julius Peppers, he's getting more chances to impact games. When Peppers and Brian Urlacher are forcing the action, guys like Idonije benefit, and he's had six sacks this year as a starting end. Against Michael Vick Sunday in Chicago, he'll be charged with making sure Vick doesn't get outside Idonije's edge, hemming him in the pocket so he'll feel the kind of pressure he felt against the Giants last week. He's a great story -- a Nigerian kid raised on the Canadian prairie and footballed at the University of Manitoba. Amazing how he's been able to make a career -- and a valuable one now with the Bears -- coming from Manitoba.