Keys to the Game Answered: Chicago

Posted Sep 23, 2012


1. No Pressure from Peppers

THE KEY: Of the many dominant defensive players the Rams will see this season, you might find some as good as Bears end Julius Peppers but you probably won’t find any better.

One of the best athletes for his position in the league, Peppers is off to another strong start in 2012 with two sacks in two games. Since he entered the league in 2002, Peppers has 102 sacks, which rank third among all players in that span, only three behind leader Jared Allen of Minnesota.

The Bears use Peppers in a variety of ways, essentially granting him carte blanche to move all over the field and find opportunities to get after the quarterback.

“It’s everything,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s a great player. He’s got tremendous strength, quickness, explosion, and he’s a technician. To compound with all those, he lines up all over the place. He’ll pick out a guard and rush the guard, he’ll go both sides. He’s really talented, so that’s a big concern of ours from an offensive standpoint.”

It’s helped Peppers’ cause that he has a disruptive tag team partner in the middle in the form of defensive tackle Henry Melton. Melton has three sacks this year and seven in his last nine games. His 10 sacks since the start of last season is the most among defensive tackles.

Making matters more difficult for the Rams is a banged up offensive line that added left tackle Rodger Saffold (knee) to the injury list. Most likely, the Rams will go with Wayne Hunter on the left side though he has been limited by an ankle injury during the week of practice.

Peppers, too, is dealing with a foot injury and has missed some practice this week. But if all goes to plan, it’ll be Hunter’s primary responsibility to keep Peppers away from Rams quarterback Sam Bradford.

THE ANSWER: The Rams offensive line struggled with the Bears front four all day, many times as a product of Peppers’ pressure. In unofficial pressbox statistics, Peppers had three tackles with a half sack but the Bears got to Bradford for six sacks with all but one coming from the front four.

2. Monitoring Marshall

THE KEY: Long in need of a big play wide receiver, the Bears went out and made an aggressive move to get one of the most productive wideouts in the league in Brandon Marshall in a trade with Miami.

Marshall has paid instant dividends for the Bears upon reuniting with quarterback Jay Cutler in Chicago after starting their careers together in Denver. In two games, Marshall has 11 catches for 143 yards with a touchdown.

In seven NFL seasons, Marshall has racked up 505 catches for 6,390 yards and 35 touchdowns on his way to three Pro Bowl berths.

The task of slowing Marshall will fall to all of the Rams corners. Much like Calvin Johnson, the Rams will almost certainly stick to their scheme basics and not have someone shadowing Marshall.

That means there will be times for Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins and Bradley Fletcher to cover Marshall. Cutler has no problems targeting Marshall and he’ll get plenty of looks. It’s up to the Rams to find ways to make sure that Marshall doesn’t make them pay.

“In Marshall and (WR Alshon) Jeffery, they’ve got two big receivers,” Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “Two guys that can really go up. They’re very spatially aware. They can go up, take the ball away from DBs deep.”

THE ANSWER: Marshall made some big plays with five catches for 71 yards but he was targeted 11 times and the Rams kept him out of the end zone.

3. Containing Cutler

THE KEY: Blessed with one of the strongest arms in the league and a confidence that allows him to have unrelenting faith in that right arm, Cutler is among the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the league.

Sometimes, though, that faith works against Cutler and it’s made him something of a polarizing figure in Chicago because of his knack for firing impressive touchdowns and following with devastating interceptions.

The results have been mixed for Cutler in his time in Chicago and even in the first two games.

In the season’s first two games, Cutler has completed 32-of-62 for 459 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions for a rating of 58.5.

Those struggles have been compounded by protection issues that have resulted in Cutler being sacked nine times. His ability to throw the deep ball is perhaps his greatest strength but with protection breakdowns, it’s been hard for Cutler to find that rhythm.

Tackles Gabe Carimi and J’Marcus Webb, in particular, have struggled against opposing edge rushers. Rams ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long have the responsibility of making Cutler’s life difficult.

“There’s nobody’s that’s ever played nor coached the game that has been perfect every game they’ve ever played or coached,” McGinnis said. “Jay Cutler is a quarterback that deserves a lot of respect from any defense that goes against him, I promise you.”

THE ANSWER: All told, the Rams made life difficult for Cutler as Long broke through with a pair of sacks. They would liked to have had more pressure on him but Cutler didn’t do much damage in total: throwing for 183 yards on 17-of-31 passing with no touchdowns and an interception for a rating of 58.9.

4. On the Outside

THE KEY: After two weeks, receiver Danny Amendola sits at the top of the NFL in receptions with 20. He’s coming off a 15-catch effort last week against Washington in which he regularly created separation and carved up the Redskins secondary.

But after Amendola’s astounding first half performance in which he racked up 12 grabs, Washington did all they could to take him away in the second half. So, Bradford responded by finding the likes of Brandon Gibson, Steve Smith, Lance Kendricks and open check downs to the backs to continue the passing game’s momentum.

If Amendola was one of the league’s best kept secrets before, that’s probably no longer the case, meaning the receivers outside the hashes will have to win individual matchups against a solid crew of cornerbacks.

That means guys like Gibson, Smith, Chris Givens and even the returning Austin Pettis will have to find ways to make plays against Chicago defensive backs such as Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.

Tillman has been a thorn in the Rams’ side in past meetings, compiling 32 tackles and three interceptions in four games. Jennings has never played the Rams but is off to a strong start in 2012 with three picks in the first two games.

Keep an eye on the matchups on the outside because it stands to reason the Rams will get plenty of one on one opportunities as Chicago tries to take away Amendola.

“I am sure that at some point, he will start to receive a little bit of extra attention whether they put a safety over him and double him in the slot,” Bradford said.

THE ANSWER: The Rams struggled to get any plays outside the hashes and when they had opportunities, they didn’t capitalize. Gibson dropped one deep ball early that would’ve put the Rams in prime scoring position. The longest connection of the game went to Amendola for 30 yards but that was down the middle.

5. Holding Hester

THE KEY: In an illustrious and dynamic career, Bears returner extraordinaire has wreaked havoc on nearly every team in the league. He’s only played against the Rams twice in his career but in that time, he’s done an incredible amount of damage.

Within those two games, Hester has returned four kicks for 225 yards, an average of 56.3 yards per attempt, taking two of them to the house for touchdowns. While he hasn’t been as dominant on punt returns (six for 44 yards with a long of 21), he remains one of the most feared returners in league history.

Entering Sunday’s game, Hester holds the NFL record for regular season return touchdowns with 17, 12 on punt returns and five on kick returns.

That means there will be plenty of pressure on the Rams special teams to ensure Hester doesn’t break loose or, perhaps more to the point, doesn’t get a chance to break loose.

The task of slowing Hester falls to a pair of rookies in kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker. The Rams sit fifth in the NFL in average opponent starting field position on kickoffs with opponents starting at their 19.4 yard line.

On the punting side, Hekker has been solid in both distance and direction, averaging 50.5 yards per punt with a 41.8 net. It’s up to them and their coverage units to limit Hester’s yards and his opportunities.

“Oh yeah, and he’s a guy that really sets up his blockers well,” special teams captain Brit Miller said. “Those guys are the most dangerous guys. You love it when a returner just does his own thing and you can get him out of return schemes and things like that but it seems like Hester just stays with everything and he knows when has a chance to break it and when he gets that opportunity, he normally does a pretty good job.”

THE ANSWER: Hester made everyone hold their breath a number of times Sunday but was never able to quite wiggle free for the long one that resulted in a touchdown. Still, the Rams would have liked to limit him more than they did as he had three punt returns for 39 yards and three kick returns for 85 yards. When Hekker did get it out of bounds, he had some great ones, including a 56-yarder that went out of bounds.