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4 things to watch: Bears-Browns

Posted Dec 23, 2017

Senior writer Larry Mayer identifies four storylines to watch Sunday when the Bears host the Cleveland Browns, including the continued development of rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

The Bears will look to rebound from last Saturday's loss to the Lions when they host the Browns Sunday at Soldier Field. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:

(1) Will rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky continue to improve while eliminating the turnovers he committed last weekend in Detroit?

The first-round draft pick had what coach John Fox called "arguably his best game" against the Lions in terms of mechanics and decision-making, setting Bears rookie passing records with 31 completions, 46 attempts and 314 yards. But Trubisky threw three interceptions—all in the second half—after being picked off only four times in his first nine starts.

The Ohio native must do a better job of protecting the ball Sunday against a winless Browns team that boasts an aggressive defense that's coordinated by veteran coach Gregg Williams.

"He's going to create a lot of challenges and it's the first time Mitchell's seen anything like this," said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. "Gregg was a high school quarterback; he knows how to affect quarterbacks and that's how his defense plays. He does a really good job of protecting his weaknesses. You see it on tape, and the blitzing. They blitz as much as anybody in the NFL and they're trying to get the ball out as fast as they can. You can tell they feel the strength of their team is up front."

(2) Will the Bears defense continue to excel despite being decimated by injuries?

The Bears enter Week 16 ranked eighth in total defense, a far cry from the unit that finished 30th in each of Marc Trestman's two seasons as head coach in 2013-14. What makes that feat even more impressive is that key players Quintin Demps, Leonard Floyd, Jerrell Freeman, Pernell McPhee, Mitch Unrein and Willie Young are all on injured reserve.

"They were bad for two consecutive years and we've got it back to being respectable—in some cases good, in some cases not good enough," said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "Overall, I think the defense is in a lot better shape moving forward than it was those two years."

"We've done a tremendous job in reworking the defense," added Fox. "I believe we were [30th] in the league the year prior to us getting here and over this period of time, almost a complete three seasons, we're in the top-10 range."

The Bears have increased their takeaways from an all-time franchise low 11 last year to 19 this season. Interestingly, they lead the NFL with 13 fumble recoveries but have only six interceptions. "We just have to be where we're supposed to be," Fangio said, "and if there's a chance to get an interception, we need to take full advantage of it."

(3) Will the defense be able to contain Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer?

Kizer has potential, but he has struggled as a rookie. The second-round draft pick from Notre Dame ranks last in the NFL among 35 qualifiers with a 59.4 passer rating. Kizer has completed 53.9 percent of his passes for 2,398 yards with nine touchdowns and 19 interceptions. He has also lost six fumbles, meaning that he has accounted for 26 turnovers.

"I see a talented guy," Fangio said. "He's very athletic. He's a good scrambler. He does a good job of running the ball, both when he's scrambling out of the pocket, and in their zone-read game when he can pull it and has. He's a very athletic guy with a big arm."

"One thing about him is we've got to be conscious as far as rushing the passer goes and making sure we maintain a good pocket because he is looking to take off and when he takes off he's not sliding," said defensive end Akiem Hicks. "He's actually taking hits and stuff like that, which may not be the best thing for a quarterback. He's not afraid to go out there and lay it on the line and that's something we respect from a quarterback, especially with a team that's struggling."

Facing a quarterback in Kizer who leads the NFL with 19 interceptions should provide a chance for the Bears to pad their meager total of six picks on the season. "We've had our opportunities to have more," Fangio said. "We haven't made the plays, finished them off in some instances. We need to come up with more. Some of our guys historically haven't gotten many in their careers. That's part of it. But we need to get more."

(4) Will Hicks and running back Jordan Howard play with extra chips on their shoulders after getting snubbed in Pro Bowl voting?

Hicks compared finding out he hadn't been voted to the Pro Bowl to "telling a kid he ain't getting no presents for Christmas." The veteran defensive end, who has set career highs and leads the Bears with eight sacks and 15 tackles-for-loss, was named a fourth alternate.

"It's always motivation when somebody tells you that you're not good enough," Hicks said. "I wasn't even a first, second or third alternate. When people tell you that you're not good enough to do something, it just makes you want to be that much better."

Howard, meanwhile, was named a first alternate behind the Rams' Todd Gurley and the Saints' Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Howard ranks second in the NFC behind Gurley and fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,069 yards and seven touchdowns on 245 carries.