WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Chicago’s offense was already centered around the skills of running back Matt Forte (926 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 4 total TD), who’s accounted for more than 40 percent of the team’s overall yardage total, and the versatile playmaker figures to be relied upon even more heavily with the relatively- inexperienced Caleb Hanie now at the controls. The NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage (1,391) is averaging a solid 5.0 yards per carry in his featured role and is an outstanding receiver to boot, having amassed an additional 465 yards on a team-best 46 catches. Hanie should also be able to count on reliable slot man Earl Bennett (17 receptions, 1 TD), who’s averaged 83.7 receiving yards in three games since returning from a chest injury, while enigmatic wideout Roy Williams (21 receptions, 1 TD) has been more of factor as of late and is coming off a season-best five-catch, 62-yard output in the San Diego win. The big-play threat of the receiving corps is Johnny Knox (24 receptions, 1 TD), with the speedster averaging nearly 20 yards per catch, while reserve running back Marion Barber (174 rushing yards, 5 TD) has scored four touchdowns over the Bears’ five-game win streak as a short-yardage specialist. A reworked offensive line has improved greatly in protection over the course of the year, with Cutler having been sacked only twice in the last three games.
Hanie may not have the easiest of assignments in his first start, as the Raiders have held opposing quarterbacks to only a 52.5 percent completion rate on the year, the second-lowest mark of any team. Fleet-footed cornerback Stanford Routt (33 tackles, 2 INT, 9 PD) has put together a fine season as the top player in a secondary that’s been able to withstand several injuries, while middle linebacker Rolando McClain (51 tackles, 1 sack) has been credited with 10 passes defensed in showing himself to be an asset in coverage as well. As last week’s performance showed, Oakland is also adept at pressuring the passer, with outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (41 tackles, 6 sacks) just two games removed from a four-sack outburst against the Chargers and tackles Tommy Kelly (30 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Desmond Bryant (21 tackles, 3 sacks) combining for four takedowns of Ponder last Sunday. The Raiders have been less consistent in stopping the run, having permitted a concerning 5.2 yards per attempt and an average of 131.6 rushing yards per game (26th overall).
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
A lingering foot sprain to primary running back Darren McFadden has done little to slow down an Oakland ground attack that’s third in the NFL in rushing yards (156.8 ypg), as capable fill-in Michael Bush (599 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 6 TD) has flourished in his counterpart’s absence. The 245-pound bruiser backed up a 30-carry, 157-yard explosion against the Chargers in Week 10 by racking up 109 yards on another 30 totes in last Sunday’s win, and displayed excellent pass-catching skills as well by compiling 85 yards on three catches in the San Diego game. He’s in line for another heavy workload this week, with McFadden set to miss a fourth straight contest. Quarterback Carson Palmer (911 passing yards, 6 TD, 7 INT) has done his part as well lately, with the midseason pickup hitting on a sharp 72.1 percent of his passes and tossing just one interception over the past two victories after a rough start to his Raiders tenure. The veteran triggerman may have to deal with a makeshift group of receivers this week, though, with the speedy Jacoby Ford likely out for a second straight week due to a sprained foot of his own and promising rookie Denarius Moore (24 receptions, 4 TD) considered a game-time decision with an ankle sprain. The team did get good news on leading receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (31 receptions, 1 TD), however, as the 2009 first-round pick was medically cleared on Friday after sustaining a concussion and strained neck following a nasty collision against the Vikings.
Oakland’s potent ground game will be put to the test by a resurgent Chicago defense that’s been stifling against the run during its current tear. The Bears have limited foes to 80 rushing yards or fewer in four of their last five games, with San Diego managing just 52 yards on 17 carries against a veteran unit that’s once again led by the accomplished linebacker combo of seven-time Pro Bowl honoree Brian Urlacher (65 tackles, 3 INT) in the middle and the rangy Lance Briggs (74 tackles, 1 INT) on the weak side. Chicago has also been incredibly opportunistic in recent weeks, having come up with 11 interceptions and 15 total takeaways over its last four wins. Strong safety Major Wright (30 tackles, 3 INT) has a pick in three consecutive games and has emerged as a stabilizing presence to a secondary that also possesses a top-notch cornerback in Charles Tillman (66 tackles, 1 INT, 9 PD), while All-Pro end Julius Peppers (22 tackles, 6 sacks) spearheads a pass rush that has been disappointingly spotty throughout the year. The Bears have just 20 sacks as a team and have surrendered an average of 270.7 passing yards per game, the third-most in the league.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Bears would greatly aid Hanie’s cause in his first career start if they’re able to establish an effective running game, and doing so would enhance the team’s chance of leaving the Coliseum with a victory as well. Oakland has held its opponents under 125 rushing yards six times this year, and won on every occasion. On the other hand, the Raiders have given up a whopping 211 yards on the ground on average in their four 2011 losses. Chicago is 3-1 this season when Forte eclipses 100 rushing yards in a game.
Turnovers. Oakland’s tough to beat when it’s not beating itself, owning a 6-0 record when finishing either even or on the positive side of the turnover battle this season. Doing so this week may not be easy, however, as the Bears own a plus-11 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio on the year and have been forcing mistakes at a prodigious clip during their winning streak. With a backup quarterback under center, Chicago’s going to need its defense to continue to come up with game-changing plays.
The Hester factor. Chicago’s boast the best return man in the business in the incomparable Devin Hester, who’s averaging an astounding 21.2 yards and scored two touchdowns on punt returns this year. The Raiders have not been good in punt coverage, having allowed an average of 14.5 yards per runback and two scores, and it would be in their best interest to kick away and not tempt fate.
Prediction – The Bears were dealt a big blow Sunday when QB Jay Cutler broke his thumb, and now it’s up to Caleb Hannie, who tried to lead the Bears back in last January’s NFC Title game. The Raiders are in control in the AFC West, and will face a tough test as it will be on the Bears D to try to get to Carson Palmer and slow down the Raiders O. Just like the Texans, the Bears will be a bit shell shocked in their first game without Cutler. Oakland 16 Chicago 10
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