The Chicago Bears hit the road as they try to extend their win streak to six games and maintain their two-game cushion atop the NFC North. They'll head to Music City for a game against the Titans, who are coming off three straight nailbiters in the month of October. The Titans fell to the Colts in overtime last week, snapping a two-game winning streak, but they've been relatively tough at home, upsetting favored teams who come in feeling comfortable. It was expected that Jake Locker would return this week, but it looks like Tennessee will once again go with the veteran Matt Hasselbeck
While the Bears are sitting pretty at 6-1, there has been much angst about the recent struggles of their offense. Chicago has sputtered in their last two games, relying on their defense against lesser teams in the friendly confines of Soldier Field. Now they head out on the road for the first time in a month, and they'll need Jay Cutler firing on all cylinders in order to avoid a midseason upset. On paper, It's one of their easier games in a tough November stretch.
Meet the Titans
Tennessee squandered a fourth-quarter lead last week and their attempt to pull to .500 was dashed by Andrew Luck and Vick Ballard in overtime. They've had some success at LP Field so far this season, knocking off the Steelers and Lions as home underdogs. Hasselbeck has taken the reins from an injured Locker and provided a nice boost on the offensive side of the ball. He's managed Mike Munchak's offense, keeping the Titans close and then working to convert in key situations in the fourth quarter. That resulted in late wins down the stretch in two of their past three games.
Lining up behind Hasselbeck is the speedy Chris Johnson, who may be getting on track after a disastrous start to the season. Johnson has been productive in four of his past five games, averaging over 4.5 yards per carry against defenses both good and bad. The Bears, however, will present the toughest challenge of the season for CJ2K. Chicago has the top-ranked rush defense in the league, yielding fewer than 80 yards per game and giving opposing backs almost no room to run. Tennessee will have to hope Johnson can break off one of the long runs that made him one of the highest paid rushers in the league. Expect the Titans to try and spring him outside with misdirections and then rely on his speed in space against one of the elite defenses in the NFL.
Tennessee has struggled to stop opponents on the other side of the ball, ranking in the bottom five in the league in both rush and pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks have consistently found plenty of open room to work and hit receivers deep down the field. The key for the Titans will be capitalizing on their chances to make quarterback Jay Cutler uncomfortable.
The offensive line protecting Cutler certainly has its holes, and the Bears QB is known for forcing balls and throwing interceptions. Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan will be the two primary rushers off the edge. It's likely the Titans will need to win the turnover battle to have a shot against the favored Bears, and it starts with the defense's ability to get to Cutler.
Meet the Bears
The Chicago Bears are 6-1 and have the second-best record in the NFL, but it hasn't always come easy. They have stars all over the field on both sides of the ball, but they've needed their top ranked defense to hold off the Lions and Panthers over the past two weeks. Cutler has perhaps the best arm in the league, but he's leading the 30th ranked passing offense at the midpoint of the 2012 season.
The Bears offensive line has consistently let opposing pass rushes get to Cutler. The lack of time for the Bears QB has resulted in mediocre completion percentages and pedestrian numbers relative to the high expectations with Brandon Marshall now in the fold. Cutler is known for taking risks, but save for Chicago's one loss this season, he's managed to avoid the catastrophic carelessness with the ball --- keeping the Bears in it and allowing the defense to pull out wins. This game may provide a reprieve, however, as the Titans have a weak pass rush, notching just 11 sacks so far this season. As he's done all fall, Cutler will likely target Marshall (on pace for 100 catches) throughout the game.
The Bears will undoubtedly try to get Matt Forte going early. Forte has broken the 100-yard barrier just one time this season, but he has gained some traction in the offense the past three weeks. He scored his second touchdown of the season in Week 8, ending a five-week drought. The Titans rush defense has yielded big games recently, so expect Mike Tice to pound it on the ground with Forte.
Chicago is historically known for their stout defenses and this year is no different. Brian Urlacher stated before the season started that he would never be at 100 percent due to chronic injuries suffered in recent seasons, but he and longtime running mate Lance Briggs are once again leading one of the most feared units in the league. Behind Briggs and Urlacher are Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, and Chris Conte -- three defensive backs who are tackling machines and rarely allow runners, like Johnson, to shake free for long runs. The rush defense is the best in the NFL, and Hasselbeck is not exactly a threat to leave the pocket. It's likely that Chicago will key on Chris Johnson, punishing the speedy but diminutive rusher. Even if the offense can't get going again, it's likely that Bears defense will, at the very least, have them in the game down the stretch.
Local Takes: Titans
Daniel R. of Music City Miracles takes stock of the Titans' offense at the midpoint of the season:
The passing game has been fairly consistent. They've seen a slight drop with Hasselbeck (225y/g in the last four), but it is hard to judge how much of that decrease is simply because we are having more success on the ground and don't have to pass as much. If Chris Palmer and Chris Johnson can keep the running game on this track, then this would have to be considered a successful year for the offense.
Local Takes: Bears
Steven Schweickert of Windy City Gridiron highlights the importance of Forte against the Titans:
Things start with Matt Forte, and this game, that absolutely has to hold true. The normal running game is a good start, as the Titans have allowed at least 140 rushing yards in six of their eight games this year, but if there ever was a time to unleash the screen game, this is it. Also, Brandon Marshall should get open frequently against the defensive backs of the Titans. Though, if the Bears try again to empty the backfield and develop a route that takes more than five seconds to throw... Yeah.
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Week 9: Predictions From The Contributors and Titans_Firefighter sbn.to/Tzm8P7— TitansMCM (@TitansMCM) November 2, 2012
@JWyattSports -- Titans beat reporter
@vxmcclure23 -- Bears beat reporter
The Titans are making a bit of a comeback after starting the season horribly. They've won two of their last three -- the one loss came in overtime -- but they're coming up against the best defense in the NFL. Jay Cutler worries me at times, but the Bears defense does not. Chicago's impressive start to the season continues.
The pick: 20-9, Bears
The Bears opened as 4.5-point favorites on the road but, per OddsShark, that's come down across the board.