Brock Osweiler and Peyton Manning have taken attention away from several big storylines this week. John Fox’s reunion with the Broncos was the obvious choice when the schedule initially came out and the hot start by Denver soon downplayed the contest while the Bears stumbled out of the gate at 0-3. Now, as the Bears are ascending the standings, the Broncos have lost two straight; but the real storyline never left.
Containing the Adam Gase-led Bears offense, particularly Jeremy Langford and Matt Forte, will not only help Brock Osweiler immensely in his first start, but will almost guarantee a miserable day for the Chicago faithful at Soldier Field.
Langford, a rookie, and the always versatile Forte have been the life blood of the Bears offense this season. For years the Bears have funneled their offense through Forte, who is possibly the best pass-catching running back in the NFL and, despite the change in coaching staff, that has continued this season.
Forte began the season as the workhorse and through six and a half games he amassed 548 yards rushing at 4.0 yards per carry. On Nov. 1 he sprained his MCL and has had to sit out the last two contests. Fox stated Thursday that they are “trying to get Matt completely healthy,” and he is still questionable for Sunday’s game.
In the wins over the St. Louis Rams and the San Diego Chargers, Langford took Forte’s duties and ran with them to great success. He has 324 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in the victories, including a team-high seven receptions for 109 yards last week.
The injury to Forte could have ruined the Bears’ season, but Jay Cutler stated Wednesday that they knew they had a talented player waiting in the wings for his opportunity.
“We know what we have on [Langford],” Culter said. “He’s a lot like Matt Forte. He’s a real versatile guy, good between the tackles, he can catch the ball well and he’s smart in protection, so we’ve known since training camp what he was about. It was a matter of trying to get him some touches. It just so happened that Matt got hurt and he was able to step up.”
The Bears have used both players, not as time-share backs but as primary workhorses for the offense. In both the run and the pass, Langford and Forte have been devastating to the opposition’s defense early in games while also only accounting for only one of the Bears’ 12 giveaways. Combined, they have 37 receptions which would rank them fifth among NFL running backs in receptions and they have accounted for eight of the Bears’ 20 touchdowns this season.
“Their whole offense gets started by going through their running back and it is always our goal to go out and stop the run, make them one-dimensional and then maybe we can jump ahead,” Broncos nose tackle Sylvester Williams said Wednesday when asked how important stopping either player will be this week.
The two Bears running backs certainly get plenty of carries out of the backfield, averaging 22.3 per game for 3.75 yards apiece, which then sets up the pass. Combined, Langford and Forte also have five 20-plus yard receptions, including Langford’s 83-yard touchdown catch last week. Screen and swing passes to running backs are a tough thing to defend and 12-year veteran defensive end Antonio Smith described Wednesday what needs to be done to prevent such plays week-to-week.
“Run to the ball. You’ve got to,” he declared. “Sometimes, the reason those big plays happen is because you have defensive backs and linebackers dropping in coverage. They have to come run and make open field tackles, so you need the defensive line to come on the inside and make gang tackles to help them on the running backs. If he beats just one person it is a 15- to 20-yard gain. Everybody has to get to the ball.”
According to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Broncos have excelled at holding running backs in check in the passing game.
“We’ve been tremendous against the screen. I think if you look at our stats against the screen – when I run through the first eight games, it was almost a highlight reel of how to play the screens. Nobody ran screens very well on us at all,” Phillips stated Thursday.
The recent success against screens is a tough proposition for the defensive line. Smith stated that you can’t “sell out” in pass rush and must simply wait and “react.” Teammate Derek Wolfe agreed Wednesday and spoke about how to sniff out a screen and make the in-play adjustment before it is too late.
“When it comes to screens you just have to be able to react to that, because if you start guessing, you get caught,” He said. “In the NFL, if you beat somebody and it feels like you beat him too clean, you better plant, retrace and take off the other way.”
Despite the current two-game skid, the Broncos will enter Sunday’s contest with the top overall defense that is ranked seventh against the pass and first against the run. They have reached the top of the league with excellent play on first and second downs and placed teams in tough positions on third down, a fact Smith believes can stop Chicago from getting the ball in their running back’s hands too often.
“If we can get them into a lot of third and longs, we can take that [running back] game out. If we are good on first and second down I think it will minimize some of those quick, rinky-dink plays that keep you off balance.”
All eyes will certainly be on the Broncos offense Sunday as Osweiler begins possibly a new era in team history, but the defense may quietly have the toughest task of the day. The Bears have won four of their last six games and have done so with impressive offensive performances, carried by Forte and Langford. Brandon Marshall, the Broncos’ leading tackler, acknowledged the Bears’ recent success, but believes he and his teammates are more than prepared to step up on the road.
“We have seen that almost every game this year so we are just going to approach it how we do every week. We have to work hard on man coverage and be sound. I know that I am very confident in the linebackers ability to get it done,” he said, but added how vital it is to take away Cutler’s favorite weapon. “It would mean a lot to take away one of his main targets.”
If you take away the Bears most consistent threat, not only will the vaunted Broncos defense have a field day but Osweiler may look like the second coming of, well, Manning.