Larry Mayer and Eli Kaberon of ChicagoBears.com discuss the Bears players they'll be watching on both sides of the ball in Sunday's road game against the Detroit Lions:
Offense: Running back Jordan Howard
Howard's emergence has been the most pleasant surprise for the Bears this season. The fifth-round draft pick from Indiana has become one of the team's top players after beginning the season third on the depth chart. Howard has tied a Bears rookie record by rushing for at least 100 yards in five games, a streak that began in a Week 4 win over the Lions. With Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey both injured that day, Howard rushed for 111 yards on 23 carries.
The Bears no doubt will lean on Howard in the rematch against Detroit Sunday at Ford Field. Their offense has been decimated by injuries at virtually every other position, and Howard has proven that he can shoulder the load. In rushing for 117 yards in last Sunday's win over the 49ers, Howard had 32 carries, the most by a Bears running back since Dec. 21, 2003 when Anthony Thomas also had 32 rushes in a win over the Redskins.
Establishing a productive running game with Howard would enable the Bears to quiet the Detroit crowd, control the clock and make quarterback Matt Barkley's play-action fakes more effective.
Defense: Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd
Howard hasn't been the only Bears rookie to develop into a playmaker this season. Floyd leads all NFL rookies with seven sacks despite missing three games with injuries. The ninth overall pick in this year's draft returned with a vengeance last Sunday after missing one contest with a concussion to record two sacks against the 49ers, including one that resulted in a safety. Floyd failed to capitalize on a couple of early opportunities in the game, but he showed maturity and determination in rebounding to produce impact plays later in the contest.
Floyd, who has recorded 6.5 sacks in his last five games, possesses speed, quickness and athleticism, which should enable him to excel on the fast artificial surface in Detroit. The Bears will need Floyd and his teammates to generate a pass rush against Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has thrown 14 touchdown passes and just one interception in leading Detroit to seven wins in its last eight games. Floyd, of course, won't be able to do it alone; he'll need some assistance from fellow outside linebackers Willie Young, Pernell McPhee and Sam Acho.
Offense: Receiver Cameron Meredith
Since Alshon Jeffery began his suspension following the Week 10 game versus Tampa Bay, the Bears have looked for other receivers to fill the void as a primary downfield threat. In Week 11, it was tight end Zach Miller, who had 61 yards versus the Giants but ultimately had to leave the game after suffering a season-ending broken foot. The following Sunday against Tennessee, receiver Marquess Wilson stepped up, hauling in eight catches for a career-high 125 yards and a touchdown. And last week, in the win against San Francisco, wideout Josh Bellamy had the best game of his career, gaining 93 yards on four catches.
This Sunday in Detroit, look for Meredith to fill the role as Chicago's go-to receiver. When the Bears and Lions met in Week 4, Meredith was still near the bottom of the team's depth chart, as he was targeted just five times in that game. He has since emerged as a reliable downfield target for Chicago's passers, and he should be able to do some damage against an up-and-down Detroit secondary. The Lions allow 7.18 passing yards per play, which ranks in the bottom-third of the NFL. Meredith, who averages 13.6 yards per reception this season, should be able to rack up some major yardage if the ball comes his way.
Defense: Nose tackle Eddie Goldman
When the Bears defense has played its best in 2016, it has been in large part because of the pressure they have put on opposing quarterbacks. Chicago is tied for seventh in the NFL with 30 sacks entering Week 14. The sacks have come in bunches; the Bears had six last week but zero in each of the team's two previous games. If one defender is beating his blocker and attacking the pocket, it seems like lots of players are. But all too often, nobody is doing that, and the pass rush suffers.
When Goldman is in the lineup and able to play at or near full strength, the number of sacks tends to rise. Goldman suffered an ankle injury early in the year and missed Weeks 3-9 of the season. As he has regained his form, the defense has improved. Goldman has 2.5 sacks on the year, but his main job playing in the middle of the defense is to occupy blockers so that other defenders can rush the pocket without any obstruction. The Lions rank in the middle of the league in sacks allowed, as quarterback Matthew Stafford is taken down on 6.2 percent of his passing attempts. If Goldman is able to cause havoc up the middle Sunday and allow his teammates to sack Stafford or force him into bad throws, it could be another big day for the Chicago defense.