1. Chicago's quarterback situation will be the key. Bears coach Lovie Smith is calling it "wait-and-see," but I don't buy it. Some things to consider:
• However good Kyle Orton is feeling, it's hard to imagine any athlete going from "gone for four weeks," as sources within Orton's camp reported last Sunday, to game-ready in less than a week.
• The Bears are 5-3 and a game up on Green Bay in the NFC North. Raise your hand if you expected that. (Put your hand down, Lovie.) Losing one game to the undefeated Titans would hardly mean the end of the world, and risking Orton's long-term health for a short-term reward could be disastrous. The Bears' focus should be -- and probably is -- on getting Orton back for Weeks 11 and 13 against Minnesota and Green Bay, respectively.
• Why show your hand when you don't have to, especially if that hand is Rex Grossman? Has Bill Belichick taught us nothing? If you're the Bears, do you really want the Titans to spend all six days leading up to this game licking their chops at the thought of facing Grossman, who has seven interceptions and four fumbles (against just three touchdowns) in his last six complete games? In essence, I'm calling your bluff Lovie, but I like where you're going with this.
OK, maybe Orton does play. I've heard the argument that he wouldn't be hampered terribly by a bad ankle; that he's a pocket passer who doesn't bring much to the table in terms of scrambling anyway. From that point of view, maybe it's not a bad idea to put Orton in the shotgun and let him pick the Titans apart without moving much.
But that argument inaccurately presumes Orton to be a flat-footed stiff. While he's no Michael Vick, Orton has had to use his legs plenty this season. Remember, this Bears line was labeled one of the NFL's worst in the preseason. Orton's actually right in the middle of the pack when it comes to rushing yards and average.
Want an example? Look no further than the run during which he hurt his ankle last Sunday. On that play Orton evaded two sure tackles deep in the pocket to get back to the line of scrimmage. Earlier in the game he recognized some strong pressure coming up the middle and decisively tiptoed to his left, where he found enough open field for an untouched, five-yard rushing touchdown. He had enough time to wave the football in the pursuing defender's face on that score, which makes him at least a mediocre runner in my books.
Now, imagine taking away Orton's legs and placing him in the line of fire of guys like Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth. In case Smith needs reminding, the Titans are third in the AFC with 22 sacks. Last week, the Packers put Aaron Rodgers (whose scrambling ability is about on par with Orton's) in the shotgun on the very first play of the game. The result: Jevon Kearse came untouched off the end and planted Rodgers on his butt while a desperate pass attempt got batted down at the line of scrimmage.
Later in the game Rodgers got creamed by stunting defensive end Jacob Ford on a similar play -- shotgun; pressure right up the middle -- leading to a fumble on the Packers' 17. The Titans sacked Rodgers three more times and grounded him countless others. Just one of those touches could be enough to end Orton's day. Worse, it could affect his return a week later against Green Bay.
2. And then there's Plan B, Rex Grossman. Is there really a Rex Revival? Let us remember that box scores can be deceptive. In leading the Bears back from a 10-point halftime deficit against the Lions last week -- and I use "leading" very loosely -- Grossman produced two touchdown drives. Afterward, guys like ESPN's Trent Dilfer and the Chicago Sun-Times' Matt Bowen leant far too much praise. Here's what Bowen had to say:
"In my eyes, this is a different quarterback, a backup quarterback who is playing with a chip on his shoulder. ...Expect Rex, who already has played meaningful games in this offense, to take the playbook and run with it."
Clearly Bowen and I saw different games. I re-watched every one of Grossman's plays at least twice, and here's how I saw it: Rex is taking the same uncalled for risks and making the same stupid mistakes he always has. Last week he happened to run into a defense against whom it's excusable to make stupid mistakes. It'll be a different story against Tennessee.
In 18 attempts Grossman was intercepted just once, but he also threw three other balls that touched the hands of defenders, including one dropped interception on the Bears' 10. I saw four more throws that shouldn't have been made given the coverage, including the five-yard touchdown pass to Rashied Davis. On that play Grossman crammed in a perfect laser but probably should have checked off of Davis, who had four defenders within two yards at the time of the catch.
I also saw one poorly executed fade to Devin Hester in the far right corner of the end zone. I point this out because Orton, the preferred starter, has become a master of that pass. And I saw three poorly thrown deep balls, all incomplete, including one directed at Hester, who was in tight double coverage. I point this out because the long ball was once considered Grossman's strong suit.
It's not just the stupid throws and the near-interceptions that differentiate Grossman from Orton. Above all on Sunday, I noticed his inability to spread the ball around. Entering Sunday, Orton had completed at least 20 passes to five targets, and that list didn't include Brandon Lloyd, who was leading the team with 15 grabs when he went down in Week 4. Grossman, on the other hand, threw 18 balls last week and 10 of them went towards Hester or Davis. No one else had more than two Grossman passes in his direction.
I imagine Lovie Smith saw through Grossman's misleading two-touchdown day and knows better than to put much faith in him against the Titans, who've picked off 13 passes this year. Just to give you an idea of their ball-hawking skills, that projects to 26 on the season, which would tie for 11th-most of any team this decade.
If Orton can't go, I expect a steady diet of Matt Forte, who was the real hero against Detroit last week. In the Bears' two second-half scoring drives in that game the rookie accounted for 60 of the offense's 103 yards. He finished the half with 101 yards on the ground while Grossman had 59 in the air.
Still, it'll be tough running against a monstrous Titans front so I expect that when Grossman does throw he'll be aiming deep. In Hester, Grossman has a burner who can run under his deep heaves, much like Bernard Berrian did in 2006. At the very least, he should stretch the defense out a bit.
3. So how worried should Chicago be about these undefeated Titans? Grossman and Orton should be pee-your-pants scared. Whoever goes under center has a long day ahead of him. But what about Tennessee's offense?
Kerry Collins averages a mere 167 yards per game and still hasn't posted a multi-touchdown game. No Titans wide receiver has more than 19 catches, and only two of them have touchdowns -- one each. All of that has put a ton of pressure on LenDale White and rookie Chris Johnson. Clearly, they've handled it remarkably, but against whom? The Titans averaged 178 rushing yards in six games against defenses that currently rank 20th or worse against the run. But facing the Ravens and Vikings, who rank first and second against the run, they went 61.5 yards per game. That's some difference.
Looking at the bigger picture, Tennessee has gone undefeated against eight teams with a combined record of 25-40. The only opponent among those with a winning record is 5-3 Baltimore, and the Ravens were in a position to win in Week 5 when Joe Flacco threw a late interception.
4. Let's concede that the Titans' running game is legit. How will their backs fare against the Bears' sixth-ranked run defense? In the last five years I can only recall one team that looked as primed as the Titans do to exploit the Bears' defensive weakness, which I see as its interior. That team was the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers. In that game the eventual Super Bowl champs rushed 46 times -- versus 20 passes -- and gouged Chicago for 190 yards plus two touchdowns using a two-prong attack: Jerome Bettis up the middle (101 yards) and Willie Parker on the edges (68 yards). Since 2005 only the Vikings ('07) have hit the Bears with more running yards. (As an aside: Bears fans will remember that game as Orton's last start before a year-and-a-half long experiment with Grossman.)
My comparison goes beyond the Steelers' and Titans' similar thunder-and-lightning assaults. On that afternoon Pittsburgh's Heinz Field was snow-swept, leaving very little footing for the Bears' mushers. Early reports call for cold rain or snow Sunday in Chicago. That should be compounded by Soldier Field's turf, which is looking about as beat-up as ever.
Last week the grass was coming up in chunks and contributed to a missed extra point, a Dan Orlovsky sack, a dropped Greg Olsen touchdown (he was only open because the defender slipped) and had plenty to do with Matt Forte's bountiful afternoon. On days like this, knowing the snap count can be enough to give a lineman the upper hand. Once a defender is engaged it's tough for him to plant and fight out of it, which is why you see linemen and linebackers getting driven far into the defensive backfield.
Here's where I'd like to see Jeff Fisher adapt. So far I've seen Tennessee's biggest gains to the outside on off-tackle runs, screens and swing passes. Up the middle they average just 3.2 yards per carry, which is 20th in the NFL. But given these conditions -- the weather, the field and Chicago's interior vulnerability -- I'd like to see the focus shift between the tackles. If Fisher does that, I see big gains for the Titans.
Every week, we ask an NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what one assistant from a 2008 Titans opponent had to say about game-planning the league's seventh-ranked defense:
"They're stout up front, with Haynesworth, and [Kyle] Vanden Bosch, and because of their front it helps the back end. Haynesworth is a big man and he plays hard. A lot of times there are big guys who might give a good burst every three plays. But he's playing hard all the time. He's tough for guards to handle, or a center to handle by himself. And Vanden Bosch's tenacity is unbelievable. He doesn't take one play off. He spins, he crawls on the ground, he's all over the place. He may get knocked down inside but he comes out on the other side and still rushes the quarterback. He's like a Tasmanian Devil in there.
"That helps their rush defense, but it helps their pass defense as much as anything. When you're getting pressure with a four-man rush, opponents start doing things to add people in protection to help with Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch, which is taking one extra guy out of your passing routes. You add more people to block, then you're putting fewer guys out on the routes to have success. Against us the ends were an issue, so we had to put some extra help on both sides."
Three separate picks. If Orton comes back healthy I like Chicago, 24-17. Orton has a true breakout game and the Bears' defense, which has been banged up of late, finally shows up. But that seems the least likely scenario. If Orton plays hurt and is immobile, I take Tennessee, 24-10, with the extra points coming from sacks turned into fumbles turned into great field position for the Titans. You just can't give Johnson and White a short field, especially in the field conditions I described. And if Rex the Wonder Dog comes out of the tunnel with the first team offense, my call is Titans 34, Bears 6. I'll set the over-under for "Tennessee sacks plus Grossman turnovers" in this last scenario at 12, even if Vanden Bosch ends up missing the game with an injury.