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4 things to watch: Bears-Titans

Posted Nov 26, 2016

Senior writer Larry Mayer identifies four storylines to watch Sunday when the Bears host the Tennessee Titans at Soldier Field.

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

(1) How will quarterback Matt Barkley fare in his first NFL start?

Matt Barkley
Bears quarterback Matt Barkley has appeared in five NFL games over three seasons.

With quarterback Jay Cutler listed as doubtful for Sunday's game with a right shoulder injury he sustained last weekend against the Giants, Barkley is the next man up. The former USC standout has appeared in five NFL games over three seasons—all as a reserve—since being selected by the Eagles in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. Barkley has yet to throw for a touchdown, having completed 36 of 65 passes for 381 yards with six interceptions and a 34.2 passer rating.

The Bears signed Barkley to their practice squad Sept. 5 and elevated him to their active roster Sept. 22 after Cutler sprained his right thumb in a Week 2 loss to the Eagles. Cutler is the team's third quarterback to be injured this year, joining Brian Hoyer (arm) and Connor Shaw (leg). Nonetheless, Bears coach John Fox believes in Barkley.

"He can make all the throws," Fox said. "It's not too big for him. It's not overwhelming; I think that's pretty important at that position. He handles the audibles pretty well. He understands the offense. He's picked that up pretty quickly. I'm confident in the guy."

(2) Can an undermanned Bears defense contain a multi-dimensional Titans offense?

The Bears will face a balanced Tennessee offense without their leading tackler (Jerrell Freeman) and one of their top pass rushers (Leonard Floyd). Freeman begins a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances and will be replaced by rookie fourth-round pick Nick Kwiatkoski, who has only played sparingly on defense this season. Floyd will miss Sunday's game with a concussion he sustained last weekend against the Giants.

The Titans offense is led by second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft. He entered Week 12 ranked fourth in the NFL with 23 touchdown passes and seventh with 2,772 yards and a 100.3 passer rating. Mariota is at his best in the red zone, having thrown 30 TD passes and no interceptions in his two seasons. The Titans lead the NFL in red-zone TD percentage, having reached the end zone on 75 percent of their trips (27 of 36).

The Titans ground game is powered by running back DeMarco Murray, who ranks second in the NFL in rushing with 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns on 212 carries. Murray has also caught 40 passes for 268 yards and three TDs.

(3) Can the Bears control the ball and the clock by establishing a running game?

One way to stop Mariota and the Titans offense is to keep them off the field. The best way to do that is by establishing a successful ground attack. The Bears have been ravaged by injuries at quarterback, receiver, tight end and on their offensive line. But at least running backs Jordan Howard, Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey are healthy.

Howard has enjoyed a breakout year. The fifth-round pick from Indiana entered Week 12 ranked second in the NFL in rushing among rookies with 682 yards and two TDs on 131 carries. Howard has four 100-yard games this season, one shy of the Bears' rookie record. Langford and Carey are also more than capable of subbing in and moving the chains.

A successful running game certainly would provide a boost for the offense. With David Fales expected to back up Barkley Sunday, the Bears will enter the game without a quarterback who has made an NFL start for the first time since Nov. 20, 2011 when Caleb Hanie was backed up by Nathan Enderle in a loss to the Raiders one week after Cutler had sustained a thumb injury.

(4) Will the Bears begin to build some late-season momentum?

The 2-8 Bears are off to their worst 10-game start since they were also 2-8 in 2002. But even though they're out of playoff contention, they can begin to build some momentum down the stretch while also developing young players who will form the core of the team moving forward.

While the Bears' last four first-round picks are all injured (Kyle Long, Kyle Fuller, Kevin White and Floyd), seven players from general manager Ryan Pace's two draft classes are expected to start Sunday: Howard, Kwiatkoski, center Cody Whitehair, nose tackle Eddie Goldman, defensive end Jonathan Bullard and safeties Adrian Amos and Deon Bush. An eighth in Langford likely will see quality reps as well.

Goldman's expected return after aggravating an ankle injury is especially important. The Bears don't have another player on their roster like the 6-4, 320-pounder, who possesses the strength and size to stuff the run and collapse the pocket, giving the team's edge rushers a better chance to get to the quarterback.